Monday, June 19, 2017

In a Vase on Monday: A Milkweed Bouquet

I didn't intend to put together a bouquet today, although there are plenty of flowers in bloom out in the garden. All I was doing was feeding my monarchs.

Monarch egg on swamp milkweed.

Right now, I've got a dozen monarchs that I'm raising in the house. I found 11 eggs on various types of milkweed in my garden, and one teeny tiny caterpillar that had just hatched out that day. I don't usually raise them this early in the season, but when I saw the eggs and thought about all that could go wrong if I didn't, I just couldn't leave them out there.

Newly hatched!

We're well past that infant stage now, in fact, two of them are now chrysalides, as of Sunday afternoon. That means that the ten remaining caterpillars are eating voraciously and I'd better keep up with supplying milkweed, or else.

So that's what I was doing, going through my garden and cutting milkweed to bring in for them to eat. I decided I would cut four different kinds: common, swamp, butterfly weed, and whorled. The eggs were found on common, swamp and yet another kind I'm growing - poke milkweed. But hey, they'll eat any of it.

When I put the milkweed in water, in a little vase, and was ready to put it in the terrarium I use for raising them, I thought, "Wow, that's kind of a cool little arrangement." That's why you're looking at a photo of my monarchs' breakfast, lunch, and dinner.

The wispy one is whorled milkweed (Asclepias verticillata), the yellow-flowering one is butterfly weed (Asclepias tuberosa 'Hello Yellow'), and the other narrow-leaved one is swamp milkweed (Asclepias incarnata).  In this photo, it's difficult to tell the difference between the foliage of the latter two, but in real life, butterfly weed has rather hairy or fuzzy leaves, whereas swamp milkweed's leaves are smooth.

Butterfly weed (Asclepias tuberosa) has been named Perennial Plant of the Year
for 2017 by the Perennial Plant Association. It's usually seen with orange blooms.
This one is 'Hello Yellow'.

All three milkweeds are native to Ohio and many other parts of the country. It's highly recommended that you grow what's native to your area and I give you all the information you need to make those good choices in my book, THE MONARCH: Saving Our Most-Loved Butterfly.

It's appropriate that my bouquet is made of milkweed this week especially, since it's National Pollinator Week. And tomorrow, Tuesday, June 20th, I'll be a guest on Twitter's #plantchat, talking about monarchs and my new book. It starts at 2:00 Eastern, so be sure to join in!


* "In a Vase on Monday " is a blogging meme hosted by Cathy at Rambling in the Garden.

Saturday, June 10, 2017

Attracting Beneficial Bugs to Your Garden: A Book Review

If you follow me on Facebook, you know that I'm sort of a bug nerd. I wear that moniker proudly, because insects are some of the most fascinating things ever to roam the earth. Once you start looking at them - really looking at them - you'll see what I mean.

They're bizarre, some of them. Endearing, others. They all have a reason for being here, and it's not to annoy you either. In fact, most of them are doing good things for us and you'd do well to give them the respect they deserve.
Attracting Beneficial Bugs to Your Garden won an
American Horticulture Society Award in 2015.

A good place to start to learn more about them and the role they play in our world, and specifically our gardens, is with Jessica Walliser's book, Attracting Beneficial Bugs to Your Garden: A Natural Approach to Pest Control. I know Jessica personally, a result of being a fellow garden writer and being with her at various gardening events. This girl knows her stuff.

I'm the sort of person who likes knowing all about something, right down to the obscure. Jessica's book satisfies that curiosity in me.

One of my favorite photos in the book is this one, of a lacewing egg.

So you think it's strange to want to attract bugs to your garden? While nature has some gruesome aspects to it, for the most part, it's a wonderful plan and Jessica shows us how we can help make it all work together for good.

Integrated pest management involves organic methods of controlling the insect population in our gardens by encouraging beneficial insects to take up residence there and keep the less desirable ones under control. Will it give you perfect plants with no insect damage? No, but there are ways to put nature to work for you.

Jessica gives us 19 beneficial insect profiles, 39 plant profiles for attracting them, and insectary garden plans to help get you started. She provides a couple of citizen science opportunities for you to participate in as well.

If you've been gardening for any length of time, you realize what a futile effort it is to try to keep them away, so why not try and attract the ones that will work for you? If you can't beat 'em, join 'em. It's really the best way.

Jessica Walliser co-hosts The Organic Gardeners on KDKA radio in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, and has written four other gardening books, including her newest, which will be released later this year. Learn more about Jessica and her work at


Container Gardening Complete: Creative Projects for Growing Vegetables and Flowers in Small Spaces(October 1, 2017)

Good Bug, Bad Bug: Who's Who, What They Do, and How to Manage Them Organically

A Gardener's Notebook: Life With My Garden
(co-authored with Doug Oster)

Grow Organic: Over 250 Tips and Ideas for Growing Flowers, Veggies,  Lawns and More
(co-authored with Doug Oster)

Saturday, June 3, 2017

Pussytoes and American Ladies in the Butterfly Garden

You might think it's all about the monarchs here at Our Little Acre, and it is, for the most part, but monarchs aren't the only butterflies that call our yard home. For several years now, we've monitored the reproduction of both Eastern black swallowtails and American ladies.

I raised this Eastern black swallowtail butterfly from a caterpillar in my house.

The Eastern black swallowtails are all over the bronze fennel we grow, for most of the summer, laying eggs, chowing down, and becoming adult butterflies. I've also found them on my carrot tops and when I grow parsley and dill, they make use of those plants, too.

The other butterfly that we see lay eggs here is the American lady (Vanessa cardui). It's often confused with the painted lady (Vanessa virginiensis) and it can be difficult to distinguish one from the other, especially when they're in flight.

If you can get close enough to see them with their wings open, the easiest way to tell the difference is to look for the presence of a tiny white spot on the upper wings. If it's there, you're looking at an American lady. If it's not, it's probably a painted lady. (I say probably, because apparently, now and then, American ladies are missing the dot, too.)  I've only ever seen American ladies here, although painted ladies are probably are probably present here as well.

In late April, I was doing some weeding in the garden and was witness to an American lady ovipositing (laying eggs) on my Antennaria plantaginifolia, more commonly known as pussytoes. I've grown this plant for years and unlike milkweed, I didn't plant it for the purpose of providing a host plant for butterflies. I just liked the name and the looks of the plant.

Antennaria is a bluish groundcover that throws up six-inch stems with small
clusters of flowers at the top. The flowers can be white or pink.

A female American lady butterfly laid eggs in the centers of two of the
fuzzy Antennaria leaves.

After the female lays an egg, a few days later, the tiny caterpillar will hatch out. It will use its spinneret to wrap itself up in a leaf with silk for protection when it isn't out and about, eating its host plant. This is usually the way you can know if there are caterpillars present, as they tend to only feed on cloudy days or at night.

Soon, you'll see larger caterpillars moving around on the leaves, still eating and preparing to pupate. I've never found a chrysalis in the garden, but they're masters at camouflaging them. Colors can vary from brown to green, according to their surroundings, and like the monarchs, they crawl away from their host plant to find a place to pupate.

Last year, I had Helichrysum petiolare 'Lemon Licorice' in my front flower boxes. American lady butterflies made use of that as a host plant too. Other plants they use include pearly everlasting (Anaphalis margaritacea), and some everlasting plants that are also known as cudweed (Gamochaeta spp.)

Friday, June 2, 2017

Thank You, Daniel — We Will Miss You

Yesterday, one of my garden writer friends lost a hard-fought battle with pancreatic cancer. Daniel Gasteiger was a book author, a newspaper columnist, a blogger, a social media marketing consultant, and more than all that, he was an incredible human being. So many of us are mourning his passing right now and I wanted to share my own Daniel story. It's long, so be forewarned. It's actually done Daniel-style: he could never use ten words when twenty would do...

Every once in a while, someone comes along who stands out and makes a difference in your life. I met Daniel Gasteiger in person for the first time, at the Philadelphia Flower Show, six years ago.

Me, Daniel, and Shawna, at the Philadelphia Flower Show in 2011.

First of all, I couldn't believe I was actually at the show. Shawna Coronado and I had been sent there courtesy of the Plastics Make It Possible group and we had an incredibly good time, while highlighting how plastics can have a place in the gardening world in a good way. Meeting Daniel was just icing on the cake.

Over the years, Daniel and I had some wonderful, serious, funny, fabulous conversations, mostly online, because he lived in Pennsylvania (on the east side) and I live in Ohio (on the west side). But now and then, we'd see each other at a garden event and you know how it is - it was like we had just seen each other yesterday.

Daniel took this photo of Shawna, Jenny, and me, when we were in
Tucson, AZ, for the Garden Writers Association annual meeting in 2012.

Daniel started this crazy thing where he'd say online how he sure wished he could meet me someday. Those who would read it would think we'd never met in real life. I had some people say to me, "You've never met Daniel in person before?" I'd explain the ruse, telling them that we'd actually met several times, and they'd look at me funny, like they didn't think it was really funny at all. But they just didn't get it and that didn't matter anyway. Daniel and I did.

Then the day came when I got a contract to write a book with Jenny Peterson. Neither Jenny nor I had ever written a book before and this was definitely uncharted territory for us. Daniel and I were both waiting for a flight in an airport somewhere I can't remember right now, and he congratulated me on the contract and we had a lengthy conversation about book writing.

I reviewed Daniel's book for Horticulture
magazine here.
Daniel had just published his fantastic book, Yes, You Can! And Freeze and Dry It, Too: The Modern Step-by-Step Guide to Preserving Food, the year before, and he had some sage words of advice about writing. Of all the things he said, the one thing that really stuck with me was this: "I wrote that book in three weeks."


Now seriously, people. If you've ever written a book, you'll know how insane that is. I know now that he was probably referring to the actual sitting down and putting it all together, using bits and pieces from his blog and newspaper articles and filling in whatever he needed to in order to produce a cohesive, proper tome, but dang. Three weeks.

Jenny and I wrote our book and while it took longer than three weeks, we were under a tight schedule and it was Daniel's inspiration that kept us motivated, giving us the confidence that we could do it. And we did. Indoor Plant Decor: The Design Stylebook For Houseplants was released on April 15, 2013.

Time went on and Daniel kept right on wishing he could meet me and I wished right back that I could meet him. Somewhere in there, he made plans to stop off at our house on the way home from Chicago and share supper with us. We were out of bread and though I don't remember now what it was we were having, we needed bread.

Since we live in the middle of nowhere and going to the store to buy some bread involves more than a quick car trip to the store and back, I texted Daniel, who was on his way, and asked if he could stop somewhere and get a loaf of bread. It just so happened, he had a loaf in his car. Doesn't everyone carry a loaf of bread in their car in case there's a bread emergency?

Daniel often camped out on his cross-country trips, so of course he had some bread, and he supplied it for our meal. And when he left, somehow the loaf of bread didn't go with him. So a loaf of bread got added to our, "I hope I can meet you someday" tete-a-tete of sorts: "And if I ever get to meet you, I'll bring a loaf of bread."
A few years went by and last year, I got another book contract - for The Monarch: Saving Our Most-Loved Butterfly - this time writing solo. Once again, I was on a fairly tight schedule. It's a pretty well-known fact that I'm The Queen of Procrastination, but I was determined to set aside my title in order to get this book done without the stress and drama that goes along with procrastination. But you know what happened, don't you?

When I got home from the GWA meeting in Atlanta last September, I knew I really had to put my nose to the grindstone and crank that baby out. And Daniel once again came to mind. I had three weeks until my deadline and the bulk of the book had yet to be written. If Daniel could do it, so could I. So I shut myself up in an upstairs bedroom, looked at my husband and said, "See you in three weeks," and closed the door.

My bedroom office.

There's something to be said for shutting out the rest of the world and concentrating on a single task. I've always done my best work when I'm down to the wire and I'm forced to just do it. It isn't always that I don't like what I'm doing - I loved writing this book - it's just that a lot of the writing process for me happens in my head first. If things aren't organized a certain way in my head, I simply can't put it on paper.

The book got finished and yes, the bulk of it was written in those three-weeks-that-turned-into-four. I only left the house twice in that time. I was on a roll and woe be it to anyone who interrupted the flow of things. My husband was nothing short of awesome. A saint, really.

But I don't think I could have accomplished what I did had it not been for Daniel being there in the back of my mind, urging and encouraging me, though he didn't really know at the time. He truly was a huge driving force, especially as I battled bronchitis during that time and wanted to do nothing but sleep. He kept me focused.

I wanted to let Daniel know how much I appreciated him, so in the acknowledgements at the back of The Monarch, you'll see this:

When I got my copies of the book, I sent one to Daniel, telling him to be sure to see page 158. About a week later, I got this heartfelt note from him, which I will always treasure...

Click on image to make it larger and easier to read.

Daniel was an inspiration to many and it was pure joy to be in his presence. He had an energy that was compelling and you wanted to be a part of it. The best thing was - he let you. I hoped I would get to "meet" him again before this awful disease took him from us. But in the end, I'm grateful that our paths crossed at all, and that I was privileged to have him in my life, even if it was for such a short time. 

Rest well, Daniel.

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