Milkweeds Sacrifice; Monarchs Take Flight

As we were walking the propagation beds a few weeks back, Pandra and I approached a patch of about 8-10 milkweed plants (Asclepias tuberosa) and she said “Oh no!”  Only one was still green, and all that remained of the others were brown dried out stems with a few dead leaves still clinging to the ends.  It looked a little like this:

We started to discuss what could have caused all these plants to die off and whether or not it was the same beetles that took out nearly all of our Coreopsis last spring.  I said that I’d seen a Monarch butterfly caterpillar feeding on one of those plants the week before, and maybe they were the cause?  We took a look at another patch of milkweed plants and saw essentially the same thing, dead crowns on all the plants except one.  The one remaining green plant in this patch had three monarch caterpillars feasting on the leaves.  I didn’t get a picture, but they had obviously come from the plants with the dead crowns, as this last green plant was the farthest down the line.  We both said “well, that’s why we grow milkweed” and hoped that the crowns would re-sprout in the spring.

Fast forward two weeks and I’m out at the front beds again checking to see if seeds had ripened on some of the sunflowers.  A Monarch butterfly floated by on the breeze.  Then another one caught my eye flying down to the other end of the bed.  Fortunately I had my camera.

This is a newly hatched Monarch feeding on the nectar of a Georgia Aster flower.  This is also a good example of why you need butterfly host plants AND flowering nectar plants to support a healthy population of butterflies in your garden.  If this butterfly had hatched and there was no food in the area she might have perished, but there were multiple species of plants flowering within 30 yards of the milkweed so she had plenty to eat.  Hopefully it provided a good first meal for the incredible journey to Mexico or South Florida that this lady is about to embark upon. 

    That’s fine and well for the butterflies, but what about our poor milkweed plants?  I went to check on their roots and to my surprise I found this:

Already sprouting new growth!  All of the plants with dead crowns were putting up some form of new growth, and most of it looked larger and greener than the growth that the monarchs devoured.  The milkweeds abandoned their crowns as a result of the siege, and then after the caterpillars left and pupated they simply sprouted new stems.  Host plant/insect relationships are so complex and fascinating.  Almost as fascinating as how successive generations of butterflies know how and when to migrate thousands of miles to a place they’ve never been, but that’s another post.  Until then……

Happy Trails!

04.06.12 Down in the valley

We will use this geranium population as parent stock for both seed and cuttings to develop locally sourced geranium plants that are nursery propagated.

Geranium maculatum in the valley near the beeches.


10.26.11 Zounds! The sounder!

USDA called, they caught 15 out of 17 hogs in the wild sounder.  The carcasses were left on top of Turkey Hill, in part because it is the furthest away from the neighbors’ houses, in part because it is easily accessible from the ring road, and in part because the stench may help to dissuade some of the trespassers that have been coming in from the backside of the property.

09.24.11 Salvia azurea

¾ inches of rain.

Took pictures of Salvia azurea This is in the east propagation field.  The plant is amazing, grown to 12 or 13 feet tall, a leafy spire covered in sky blue flowers an inch across.   These tall wands of blue flowers do a wonderful bow and dance in any passing breeze.  Skippers seem to be visiting the flower, didn’t notice a lot of other pollinator activity.  Will keep my eyes on it. Like many salvias, this member of the mint family is a “clumper” not a “thug” or a “runner.”

Just look at this flower, it’s got a wonderful bright sky blue color.


08.19.11 Feral Hogs

No rain.
Hogs are tearing up the bottomland and ravaging the pinewoods at the back boundary of the property.  Everywhere that they have rooted is torn up as if a roto-tiller had gone through.
I search around and find a contact at the USDA Wildlife services.
The Wildlife services personnel are out of town, but will be back on August 29th, They tell me they will set up a sour mash station to draw the animals into one area and accustom them to being fed.   This station will be monitored with a camera to assess the number of hogs.  A large trap with a remote trip gate will be set if there are enough animals to capture.   The hogs will be euthanized, samples of their tissue taken to check for diseases such as brucellosis, hepatitis, and rabies.  They will be buried on the back side of the property.
The best time to trap hogs is June, July and August- before fruits and nuts have set or fallen.  When mast hits the forest floor in late September, the hogs will not pay attention to the bait station.  Again, in December through early March, the mast is gone, traps can be set again.
·      Feral hogs can have two litters a year, each litter can have 8-12 piglets.
·      They are not native to North America, our ecosystems did not evolve to withstand their very rough and vigorous foraging.
·      Their foraging activities endanger populations of ground nesting birds such as Wild Turkey and Northern Bobwhite, destroying nests and eating their eggs.   Feral hogs are thought to be a major reason for the decline of the Northern Bobwhite populations.  
·      They destroy the native plant layer that supports all other indigenous wildlife.
·      Feral hogs have no natural predators in North America.

07.09.11 Using paper mulch to kill weeds and set up planting areas.

Paper mulch weed block.

1 ½ inches of rain.  Installed paper in front beds.  8 ½ feet wide by 167 feet long.

This post describes a passive method of killing weeds or invasive plants and setting up a planting area.  It works pretty well as long as you do not till the ground after setting up the paper and mulch.

This year we have moved to using heavy brown paper with 4-6 inches of mulch or compost layered on top.   As we are not tilling the beds, the weed-seed bank should stay mostly undisturbed.  Dead woody debris is being used to hold the paper in place until the mulch can be layered on top.  The wood will be left behind to serve as moisture and mycology “reservoir” as well as serving the gradual enrichment of the soil.

Topping off the paper mulch with compost.

Although you can plant immediately after situating the paper and finished compost with this method, I prefer to let the paper and compost smother the weeds first, about 8 weeks to make certain.  That way, when setting out the plants, weeds aren’t poking through the holes that are made by planting actvities.  This method works well on forbes, plants that do not have perennial wooden stems or trunks.  It has worked very well to control Lespedizia in the beds.

Please note:  you don’t need a tractor to do this.  You can use any uncoated paper to use as a weed block, newspaper is great, rolls of kraft paper work, as well as rolls of specialty paper made for this purpose sold by organic garden vendors.

The finished bed is about 170 feet long.

The previous year we used plastic to solarize the beds to rid them of weeds.  The plastic became a problem.  Not only is it expensive, but during the process of solarizing of course it has to stay exposed to massive amounts of UV during the hottest part of the year when the sun is it’s most intense.  At the end of the solarization period, not surprisingly, the plastic was so brittle that it was virtually impossible to pick all of it up – it kept breaking apart in our hands.   It was hours of additional work trying to get these tiny shreds picked  out of the beds.  The Lespedezia and sweet gum saplings were not completely eradicated by this method.  I think their roots may have been too deep to have been fully cooked.

It takes about 2 months for the beds to be ready to prep for planting with the solarization method.  

11.10.10 Why the logs?

2 ½ inches rain. 

Mike and I finished lining the down hill side of each of the propagation beds in the East Field with coarse woody debris (CWD).  Placing dead logs on the downhill side of each bed to helps keep compost and mulch from washing downhill, but also has many beneficial qualities to lend to your garden soil. 

Three important reasons to use coarse dead wood:
1.  The decayed wood serves as a reservoir for moisture.  Larger pieces of dead wood have a more significant moisture retaining capacity than smaller pieces, and release this moisture to the soil slowly throughout dry spells.  Large woody debris improves the overall moisture retention and structure of soil.  

2.  This moisture retaining capacity of dead wood also creates an important refuge for beneficial organisms like mycorhizzae, allowing them to retreat into the moist wood and survive dry spells; these organisms will more effectively recolonize soils when conditions improve.   

3.   As fungi and decomposer species of mushrooms break down the log, the decomposition activity can actually increase the amount of nitrogen, potassium and phosphorus that the deadwood holds.  Insects and other wood-eating arthropods digest (with the help of micro-organisms) the complex organic molecules that make up wood, and return this more accessible, simplified nutrient matter back to the soil as droppings (or frass).

Eventually the logs will become soil themselves.

Work cited:  
“The Ecological Role of Coarse Woody Debris.” EcoForestry, the Art and Science of Sustainable Forest Use.  Ed.  Drengson, Alan Rike and MacDonald Taylor, Duncan.  Gabriola Island, New Society Publishers. 1997.  91, 92.

There is also a good article on Coarse Woody Debris and it’s importance on Wikipedia.


10.10.10 Elmer’s Lost Well

Removed lespedezia in front of hunter’s shed.  Mike mowed lespedeia at top of ridge before it could go to seed.

Elmer's lost well.

When we first were considering the property, my husband Mike and Elmer (one of the fellas we eventually bought this property from) walked all over looking for this well.  For the past year, every time we took a hike, we kept our eyes open, hoping to catch a glimpse of the fabled hole in the ground.  Kinda gave up hope of finding it after several months went by.  Today we finally found the lost well.  It is a beautiful hand dug construction, maybe 35-40 feet deep, lined in small, carefully stacked granite boulders.  It would be a bitch to fall into, however.

10.03.10 Tracks along the Ring Road

I love walking the ring road after a rain to see who has been about.

Some Turkey tracks along the north side of the property.  There is a large flock of about 20 Wild Turkeys in the back there.  They are very skittish and cautious birds, we don’t see them often, but we have caught glimpses of them over the past year.

The second photo down, squirrel tracks? such tiny and delicate digits.  Third photo, below left, perhaps the hind paw of a skunk? The toes are very short.  This was a fair sized hind paw, about 2.5 inches long.  The fourth photo below right is one of our gray foxes.