I've been gardening and writing about gardening for more than 20 years, yet I find I'm always learning new things about the plants, insects and other critters that call my backyard home. That's the great thing about gardening — it's never boring! I've worked as a landscaper, on an organic farm, as a research technician in a plant pathology lab and ran a small cut-flower business, all of which inform my garden writing. Someone once asked me when I'll be finished with my gardens, to which I replied, "Never!" For me, gardening is a process, not a goal.
A monarch butterfly gets nectar from a Mexican sunflower. Photo by Suzanne DeJohn
A monarch caterpillar and chrysalis on milkweed plant.
INCREDIBLE. That's the word that comes to mind when I think about the monarch butterfly. An insect with a body the size and weight of a paper clip can migrate 1,500 miles or more. Not once, but twice in its lifetime. First in autumn, when it flies to a specific overwintering site in Mexico — a trip it has never taken before. And again in spring, when it returns north to reproduce. Just incredible.
These miraculous creatures are in trouble. Though monarch populations have been declining during the past decade, they've seen sharp declines in the last few years. Scientists now believe this is a long-term trend, rather than a short-term phenomenon caused by specific weather events, such as drought or hurricanes.
Like other gardeners nationwide, I mourned the absence of monarchs last fall. Not a single one on my aster plants, which are normally swarming with them. What can gardeners do to help?
Common milkweed (Asclepias syriaca) Photo: AmericanMeadows.com
Swamp milkweed (Asclepias incarnata) Photo: AmericanMeadows.com
Butterfly milkweed (Asclepias tuberosa) Photo: AmericanMeadows.com
Though you can't single-handedly bring back the monarchs, you can make your landscape friendly to monarchs throughout their lifecycle by creating an inviting place to lay eggs, sip nectar, or find shelter on a chilly evening.
Yellow grains of pollen cling to a monarch as it sips nectar from a zinnia flower. Photo: Suzanne DeJohn
The pristine lawns and landscapes that many have come to associate with a well-tended home have come at a cost: A surprising amount of pesticides are used to maintain them. As a nation, we need to reconsider our definition of a well-maintained yard and allow a few (nectar-rich) dandelions and other "imperfections." Here are some ways you can minimize the use of pesticides.
A monarch butterfly on sunflower. Photo: Suzanne DeJohn
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