Wednesday, October 17, 2018

Wednesday Vignette: Coleus ColorBlaze® Torchlight™

This is my first time participating in the Wednesday Vignette meme, hosted by Anna at Flutter & Hum. I've watched my friend, Loree Bohl (Danger Garden), participate for a long time, and I always enjoy it.

When I walked around the corner of the pool house last week and saw this trial plant from Proven Winners® cozying up to my small cat statue, I knew I had to jump in myself.

Coleus ColorBlaze® Torchlight™

When I received Coleus ColorBlaze® Torchlight™ (Solenostemon scutellarioides) as a small plant this spring, I placed it on the north side of our pool house. That little flower bed spends most of the summer as shades of green and often is neglected, both in terms of care and observation. I thought by placing this colorful coleus there, it might add a little spark to an otherwise ho-hum scenario.

Mission accomplished.

Coleus ColorBlaze® Torchlight™
Solenostemon scutellarioides

Zones: 10-11
Light: Sun or Shade
Mature Size: 24-36 inches
Water Needs: Average

This new coleus will be available in garden centers in Spring of 2019.

My end-of-season evaluation

I'm a lazy gardener. When trialing plants, I usually don't give them any special treatment and in most cases, I "set it and forget it." I try to make sure new plants get the water they need, but that's about it. This coleus was planted in spring and to be honest, I completely ignored it, not even watering it as much as I should have. It also wasn't planted in the best soil - unamended heavy clay. (Shame on me.)

It has never bloomed, which I consider to be an asset for a coleus, as I remove their flowers anyway.  It still looks good, this late in the season, but if I grow it again I'll pinch out the growth tips to encourage additional branching. I would also be sure to underplant it with a low grower like the Heuchera shown here, to hide its skinny ankles. Amended soil would be a good thing, too.

It'a beautiful coleus that adds color to monochromatic spaces with little to no effort required on the part of the gardener. And that' why it's a "proven winner" in my Zone 5b Northwest Ohio garden.

I was provided with this plant free of charge to trial in my garden. Though it's not a requirement to participate in the trialing program, I'm sharing my experience and honest thoughts on growing it.

Tuesday, October 2, 2018

Tithonia Baby Steps

As any die hard monarch mama knows, monarch butterflies love Tithonia, a.k.a. Mexican sunflower. And anyone who is serious about attracting them will have this growing tall and proud in their garden.

Photo by TJ Gehling/CC license 2.0

I was no exception. When offered some free seeds from a wonderful seed company* a couple of years ago, I immediately chose Tithonia rotundifolia 'Torch', and I had visions of a glorious photo shoot in the latter half of summer. The monarchs were going to flock to them by the numbers. Bees and hummingbirds, too!

I couldn't wait.

Year One

So, I planted those seeds that spring. "They're easy!" everyone told me. "You're going to love them!" they said.

Photo by F.D. Richards/CC license 2.0

It was true, the packet and the website (and every other website on the vast world of the internet), claimed they didn't have any special needs, would grow in poor soil, and tolerated drought and neglect. Since they are native to Mexico and I know what harsh growing conditions there can be in much of the landscape there, I just knew that success was a sure thing.

But summer came and went, and nary a Tithonia appeared.

This is not the first time that I've had bad luck with seeds. I've made many mistakes over the years, such as planting seeds too early. And being The Queen of Procrastination, I've planted them too late. I suppose that's not bad luck, that's just bad gardening. In any case, I was no stranger to failure.

The next time I spoke with the seed company's owner at a trade show, I related my experience to her. She was puzzled and repeated what I'd heard over and over, "But those are so easy. I wonder what happened. Here, take another packet and try again."

Year Two

The next year just happened to be one in which I exercised my queenly duties and I got the seeds in the ground late. Not too late, I didn't think, but perhaps I thought wrongly. I kept waiting to see little green seedlings popping up from that "poor" soil, but summer was half over before I even saw them. I got three. And they didn't grow very fast.

My tithonias gave the term "slow flowers"
a whole new meaning.

Before I knew it, frost reared its ugly head and I only had plants barely a foot tall, if that. No blooms, of course. But, HEY! This time I got PLANTS! And I'm pretty sure they weren't weeds. Things were looking up.

Year Three

They say the third time's a charm, and I'm a believer. This year, I got those seeds in the ground at the perfect time. I was determined to make my monarchs happy campers. Though it did take a little while before I saw little green sprouts start peeking out of the ground, things looked very promising.

While others were showing their four-feet tall Mexican sunflowers loaded with blooms (and monarch butterflies perched atop, of course) on Facebook, my half a dozen plants were doing the best they could, which was the best I'd ever seen here at Our Little Acre. By the first of September, they were over three feet tall, and I saw flower buds!!!

By September 13th, I had one glorious vibrant bloom that nearly made me weep. FINALLY, I had grown a Tithonia from seed and it actually bloomed. I can't tell you how happy this made me.


Then it got cold, like in the low 40s at night cold, and the other blooms stayed closed up tight.

It has gotten warm again in the last few days, so I'm waiting for some more blooms to open. But if I only get that one Tithonia bloom, I have done better than my past efforts. As every gardener knows, there's always next year, and I'm on a roll.

*I'm not naming the seed company to protect the innocent. It wasn't the seeds' fault. It was the gardener's. I can't grow Johnny jump-ups either.

Thursday, September 27, 2018

Fall Clean-Up? It's Not What You Think

It's that time of year again. The garden is winding down, things are turning brown, and it's really tempting to just get rid of things that are looking less than pretty. I feel it, too. But in the last several years, I've gotten a different perspective on this fall clean-up thing, from hearing other people share their views on it, but also from being observant in my own garden.

First, I heard, "Leave your grasses and perennials for winter interest." No problem with the grasses, because yeah, they do look beautiful when they catch the snow and it's more fun to look out there and see something taller than my knees.

I heard them mention how seed heads, like those on coneflowers, feed birds and other wildlife, so I started to leave those kinds of things, because winters can be cruel. Heavy snows and frigid temperatures make it difficult for birds and animals to find food, which can be in short supply in the first place.

And then there are the leaves. We've got 100+ trees on Our Little Acre, with several of them being over 200 years old. That means we have a lot of leaves on the ground every fall and even into winter, since the largest trees are oaks. As anyone who has oaks knows, they lose leaves all winter long.

Even though we can't leave all those leaves all winter long, we started leaving a layer of them for both plant insulation and for the insects and other critters that use the leaf litter for winter protection.

These are all good reasons to not do a "scorched earth" method of fall clean-up. I do understand that it means more work in the spring, but from a human standpoint, it's a do it now or do it later kind of thing, not really adding any work to the grand scheme of things. We choose to do it later in an effort to help wildlife.

But the purpose of my post today is to focus on insects, specifically those that we love to see in our gardens in the summer. Did you know that a large number of them spend their winters right here and need the very things that gardeners may remove in the fall?


Planting to attract butterflies and pollinators to our gardens is a thing. It's a really hot trend that I hope becomes commonplace, not just for environmentalists.

But it isn't enough to plant what they need during their breeding season. That's commendable, but what about the off season?  

Is it fair to attract them to our gardens and then sabotage our efforts - and their lives - by destroying what they need to complete their life cycle?

Not every insect or arthropod migrates. Many have the ability to lower the freezing point of their bodies and go into a state of diapause. Some can't survive, but they lay eggs that can. Some spend the winter in a pupal stage.

Let's look at these:

  • Lady beetles (ladybugs) - We have elevated ladybugs to their rightful place in the world of environmental sustainability. These small beetles overwinter as adults clustered together under leaf litter. I personally have encountered large numbers of them in spring. In fact, I try not to clear leaves away until I see them moving around and emerging on their own.

  • Swallowtails - These butterflies overwinter in their chrysalides and just because you've never seen them doesn't mean they aren't there. Camouflage is an important factor in their survival. Do you think the Eastern black swallowtails you've attracted to your garden in summer all leave your garden in winter?

    They lay their eggs on your dill, fennel, parsley, rue, and carrot tops. They eat those until they form their chrysalides nearby - in your garden, likely on stiff stems of plants.

  • Leafcutter bees - I personally love these guys. They're the ones that make the round circles in the leaves of some of your garden plants. I smile when I see that, because I know that my garden is helping a native pollinator. They take those leaf rounds back to line their nests, which are often in the hollow stems of plants. They often return to those nests to spend the winter.

Remember too, that even some of the insects that might be undesirable to you are food for those you do want. The food chain is real. The more you clean your gardens of healthy dead material, the more you're disrupting the natural life cycle of the ecosystem.

I'm not discouraging the removal of diseased plants and excessive leaf cover. I just want you to be aware of how many insects and other living things that are loved and important to us in summer, need your garden in winter, too.

Tuesday, September 18, 2018

Monarch Watch Speaks Out About Raising Monarchs at Home
The discussion regarding raising monarchs in the home continues, with Monarch Watch weighing in today about their position on the practice. Dr. Orley "Chip" Taylor, founder of Monarch Watch, and one of the most knowledgeable people on the planet in regard to monarchs, felt compelled to release this statement, which should be of comfort to those who choose to raise monarchs:

Date: Tue, 18 Sep 2018 16:51:02
From: "Taylor Jr, Orley R"
Subject: Rethinking captive rearing

Greetings: I wasn't going to comment publicly on the captive rearing issue. However, since some of you rear monarchs, and Emma Pelton has chosen to post the Xerces [Society] position on our Monarch Watch discussion list, I feel compelled to articulate our position at Monarch Watch along with the reasoning we use to justify our position. For those of you that don't know, the position adopted by Xerces and MJV [Monarch Joint Venture] has created quite a stir on various Facebook sites and more than one Blog.

Our position at Monarch Watch is that we neither encourage or discourage rearing. As I will try to make clear, this is a low priority issue. Further, the concerns are exaggerated and unsupported by data. 

Facts, Observations, Questions, Tagging and Priorities

Monarch numbers have been declining since the mid 2000s coincident with the adoption of herbicide tolerant crop lines that facilitated the use of glyphosate that all but eliminated milkweed from these row crops.

Habitat loss has been invoked, and supported by data, as the most likely cause of the decline. The alternative hypothesis that the decline is due to an increase in mortality during the migration is unsupported by data.

Habitat loss continues. Estimates are that we are losing 1 million acres of grassland each year and are likely losing at least another million acres due to development and other forms of land conversion.

There is no credible data suggesting that we are restoring habitat for monarchs and pollinators at a rate that matches these losses. In other words, monarchs are losing habitat as we argue about the merits of one detail or another.

Cerro Pelón monarch sanctuary in the state of Mexico, in Central Mexico
February 20, 2018
If my predictions come true, the overwintering population in Mexico will be approximately 5 hectares - maybe more. That translates to at least 60 million monarchs. This will be the largest population since 2008 and may be the last big population for another decade and maybe ever due to changing spring conditions in Texas and higher temperature in May and early June. If you remember the conditions during 2012, those are in our future and it's those conditions that were the precursor to the low monarch return in the spring of 2013 and the alarmingly low population (.67 hectares) that winter.

Monarch larval monitoring and other studies show that 98% of all eggs and larvae succumb to predators or other conditions. 


Most of those advocating the reduction and even the cessation of all rearing are not engaged in monarch rearing. Those doing the rearing are being told that what they are doing will have negative consequences for the population. These admonitions are supported by strongly worded opinions and references to conditions that do not apply to the average person rearing monarchs, e.g. the argument about inbreeding and genetic declines. 

While there are lots of data that show that LONG TERM cultures of various species often lose fitness, this argument DOES NOT apply to those who simply collect eggs and caterpillars in their gardens or along roadsides or even those who breed monarchs for 1-2 generations. In fact, it's not even clear that it applies to monarchs. 

How many breeders maintain long term inbreed cultures? We don't know. 
How often do breeders refresh their stocks? We don't know but have been told that "refreshing" stocks is common, mostly from northern states. 
How many breeders rear more than two of three generations per year? We don't know. 

 What does any of that have to do with those who harvest monarch eggs and larvae in their gardens and natural areas for rearing and release? Zero. While many are dismayed by commercial releases of monarchs, it's not prohibited. These "do not rear" directives will not impact commercial releases but they have raised concerns by many lay persons who enjoy rearing monarchs.

Under magnification, Oe spores can be seen as tiny football-
shaped particles among the larger monarch scales that
cover a monarch's body.

The fact that 98% of the monarch immatures are consumed by predators and parasites inspires people to engage in "monarch rescue," that is, harvesting monarch eggs and larvae and rearing them both indoors and outdoors to "save" them from their usual fate. So, is it really a bad thing to do this? What are the risks? 

Yes, the spread of O.e. (Ophryocystis elektroscirrha) could be a risk but that is easy to avoid if the foliage is sanitized before being fed to the larvae. Monarchs to be released could also be checked for O.e. spores and some people do that. Interestingly, we have found that, if you collect all the 5th instar larvae and rear them through indoors, you can suppress the tachinid fly population.

As to whether monarchs should be reared with the goal of increasing the population, the reality is that such efforts are likely to have little or no impact on the overall population. To have a real impact on population growth, monarchs would have to be released in the RIGHT places at the RIGHT times early in the season rather than during the migration.


How many monarchs are reared and released by amateurs relative to the total monarchs in the migration - 40,000 or maybe 60,000? 

We don't know.

Where and when are these monarchs released? Does it make a difference?

I don't have time to elaborate, but the tagging data, as well as the seasonal dynamics, show that the impact associated with the when and where of releases varies greatly across the continent. In short, the outcomes of a thousand monarchs released at three widely (MN, ME, FL) different locations on the same day during the migration are likely to be very different. There are seasonal differences in outcomes as well. 

What happens if O.e. infested adult monarchs are released into the population?

The dangers of O.e. are reasonably clear and infested monarchs should NOT be released at any time. Most of the heavily infested monarchs have a reduced fitness and a low probability of getting to Mexico, let alone returning in the spring. Given that scenario, it's likely that most of the O.e. spores that persist in the population through the winter have been acquired by healthy monarchs through horizontal transfer - that is, the proximity of healthy monarchs to those infested with spores while clustered during the winter or even through contact at roosts through the fall migration. The clear message in these directives is that rearing needs to be conducted in a way that eliminates the release of O.e. infested butterflies.         

Do tagged monarchs have a reduced chance of making it to Mexico?

Tagging may or may not have an impact on whether monarchs get to Mexico. There has never been a fair test. If tagged and wild monarchs of the same age, sex and size distributions were released at the same date and same place, we could determine whether tagging impacted the ability to get to Mexico. (Assuming also that the monarchs were tagged according to our instructions).

Tropical milkweed
Asclepias curassavica
What we do know is that lots of reared and tagged monarchs make it to Mexico some having fed on non-native milkweeds such as Calotropis procera and C. gigantea (both species of giant milkweed) and the much maligned Asclepias curassavica (tropical milkweed).

Irrespective of the potential impact of tagging, the data from reared monarchs is quite valuable. Like the data from wild tagged monarchs, it tells us a great deal about the migration - the timing, the pace and the probability of reaching Mexico based on sex, geographic origins and date of tagging.

Further, the recovery of reared monarchs can be used as a control for isotope studies.

Given the habitat losses due to agricultural practices and the continuing loss of habitat, what should our priorities be if our goal is to sustain the monarch migration?

Habitat restoration has to be the number 1 priority. The "All hands on Deck" analysis indicated that we need to re-establish at least 1 BILLION milkweed stems mostly in the Upper Midwest to return the monarch numbers to an average of close to 6 hectares at the overwintering sites. That figure is based on an extinction analysis - that is, the probability of losing the migration due to a series of catastrophic events such as the winter storm of 2002 and 2004. That analysis was conservative in that the projections could only be made using past data and inferences based on those conditions. 

Unfortunately, conditions are changing and if the projections based on climate models come true, and that seems likely, the need to restore habitat is even greater than estimated. 

We have work to do and we need all hands on deck and that means that we need everyone who can to pitch in in any way they can. 

We need people to pass on their enthusiasm for monarchs and their concern for maintaining the migration.         

Should rearing be conducted with the goal of increasing the wild population?

Again, to be clear, at Monarch Watch we neither encourage nor discourage monarch rearing. Looking a the monarch population holistically - and from the standpoint of the year-to-year dynamics of a population that is governed largely by both temperatures, and other weather-related phenomena, as well as habitat limitations, rearing is a minor issue. 


Orley R. "Chip" Taylor []
Founder and Director of Monarch Watch; Professor Department of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology, University of Kansas, Lawrence, KS.
Trained as an insect ecologist, Chip Taylor has published papers on species assemblages, hybridization, reproductive biology, population dynamics and plant demographics and pollination. Starting in 1974, Chip Taylor established research sites and directed students studying Neotropical African honey bees (killer bees) in French Guiana, Venezuela, and Mexico.

In 1992, Taylor founded Monarch Watch, an outreach program focused on education, research and conservation relative to monarch butterflies. Since then, Monarch Watch has enlisted the help of volunteers to tag monarchs during the fall migration. This program has produced many new insights into the dynamics of the monarch migration. 

In 2005 Monarch Watch created the Monarch Waystation program, in recognition that habitats for monarchs are declining at a rate of 6,000 acres a day in the United States. The goal of this program is to inspire the public, schools and others to create habitats for monarch butterflies and to assist Monarch Watch in educating the public about the decline in resources for monarchs, pollinators and all wildlife that share the same habitats.

***I have formatted the information provided by Monarch Watch to make it easier to read and have provided some emphasis to some words and phrases. The text provided here is accurate, and is what Monarch Watch issued, with no other changes.

Saturday, September 15, 2018

To Be or Not to Be? A Monarch Raiser, That Is.

Nothing like a good controversy to get your butt in gear and finally start blogging again. I never intended to stop, but life just kept getting in the way, and Facebook has made it easy to microblog. But now something has caused such an uproar in the monarch community and beyond, that... well... here we are.

A recent blog post written by someone from The Xerces Society has been making the rounds in the last few days. It's one that has a lot of people really upset and threatens to divide those of us who love the monarch and are doing our darnedest to help them have the population explosion they need.

Lots of people raise monarch butterflies in their homes, and teachers do it in their classrooms. This practice has gone on for decades, but never more than the present, in an effort to bolster the monarch population. But now, in light of this article published just four days ago, lots of people have vowed that they will quit raising monarchs.

Take a deep breath, friends.

Whenever an alarmist article like this appears, I'm skeptical until I can find other information supporting it. I don't care who writes it - scientist or not. If there's one thing I've discovered in the 12 years I've been studying the monarch, even the major players in the scientific community can't agree on some things. The fact is, there are a LOT of things we all have yet to learn about this iconic butterfly we love.

I could probably add another chapter to my book, THE MONARCH: Saving Our Most-Loved Butterfly, on this subject, and certainly more than you want to read in a blog post. But here are some thoughts of mine to consider. It would be best if you read the Xerces Society blog post first, so that you understand what all the hubbub is about and why I say what I do here.

  • First of all, we can't "save" the monarch by raising them inside our homes. There are good reasons to do so, but that alone should not be the rationale behind doing it. It's not sustainable over the long run, not at the levels we're collectively doing it now, and it's not natural. We haven't really saved anything if this is how we have to do it.
  • Secondly, one of the biologists who co-authored the paper cited in the Xerces Society blog post, has come forth with a rebuttal and clarification of the talking points that have monarch lovers so upset. PLEASE read what Christopher Kline has to say about this. I can't stress this enough. Just read it.

This monarch caterpillar fell victim to
a spined soldier bug - a type of stink bug.
We raise monarchs in our homes mainly to protect them from predators. If you've observed monarchs for any length of time, you know firsthand how dismal their mortality rate is. That's not uncommon in the "eat or be eaten" world of insects. But monarch numbers are drastically down compared to just 20 years ago, for many reasons, mainly irresponsible behaviors by us humans.

So there may be something positive in humans taking it upon themselves to attempt to right a wrong that they committed in the first place. Is it natural or ideal to raise monarchs inside? No, but neither are pesticides, herbicides, urbanization, logging, mowing, and other practices that humans have done that have contributed to the monarch's decline.

An important thing to note when reading articles like the one from The Xerces Society

The Xerces Society raises some important points and things to think about. But their blog post is, for the most part, an opinion piece. So is mine.

Remember too, that The Xerces Society is one of the original writers of the petition to have the monarch added to the Threatened Species List under the Endangered Species Act. That decision is due to be announced in 2019, and the raising of monarchs will be greatly changed and curtailed if they are listed. The society certainly has a vested interest in the topic and this article may be speaking with that bias. 

Also, keep in mind that raising monarchs and breeding monarchs are two very distinctively different things. I have never bred monarchs and I don't advocate doing so. There are businesses that do this - some responsibly and some not - and I'm not talking about them here.

I also don't advocate raising huge numbers of them. Doing that requires an extraordinary amount of time, energy, space, and dedication. Not many of us are willing to do this in a way that avoids inherent problems.

Bottom line . . .

Please don't let yourself have a knee-jerk reaction to what the writer of The Xerces Society blog post has said. It might make sense to you right from the get-go, or it might cast doubts on what you've been doing in an effort to help the monarchs. In an ideal world, we wouldn't be in this predicament in the first place. But people smarter than a lot of us (me included) have made some grave mistakes in the past and our wildlife has suffered and is suffering for it.

Personally, I'm of the same mind as Chris Kline, who is qualified to speak on the situation, and I'm perfectly comfortable in continuing to raise small numbers of monarchs in my home. You may not be, and I respect that.

If you save just one female who has the potential to lay
400+ eggs, you may or may not be making a positive difference.
Think about that exponentially for just a little bit

Lastly, thank you to those of you who are doing your part to help the monarchs and other pollinators, whether it be by growing a little milkweed (or a lot), growing more nectar plants, using fewer pesticides and herbicides, contributing financially to those who are working on the monarch's behalf, or even by just keeping the conversation going.

The monarchs have had a banner year here in the Midwest (yay!), which may or may not have had anything to do with our efforts, but keep up the good work. Maybe 20 years from now, we can look back and see that we're making a difference. I believe that we are.

Kylee Baumle is the author of two books, the latest of which is THE MONARCH: Saving Our Most-Loved Butterfly. She is a speaker and writer, who won a 2018 Gold Award for her writings on the monarch.

She will be leading her third tour to the monarch sanctuaries in Mexico in February 2019. For more information on joining the tour, click here


***Photo of female monarch laying egg is courtesy of Holli Webb Hearn, creator of The Beautiful Monarch Facebook group, which at last count, has 23,396 members.

Monday, April 2, 2018

Maple Syrup Season 2018 and a Taste Test

We didn't do maple syrup last year because Romie and I both went to Mexico to see the monarch butterflies as they overwintered there. That trip hit right smack in the middle of sap collecting, so we decided to just not do it. Oh, how we missed that wonderful homemade maple syrup!

I went to Mexico again this year, once again in the middle of sap collecting, but Romie was home, so he gathered it while I climbed a few mountains. I have to thank our daughter, Kara, for her help after I got home, because after one day to recover and repack, Romie and I both went to Florida for a week to visit my aunt and uncle. It truly takes a family to make this stuff.

This year, though we didn't keep track of how many gallons of sap we collected from our silver maple trees, we ended up with about three quarts of syrup. We would have had a little bit more (maybe a cup or so), had I not burned one small batch to a crisp. I blame Romie for this a teeny tiny bit, because we only had a small amount of sap, and he talked me into boiling it against my better judgement.

When you boil sap, it's always better to do a large batch at one time, because when it gets right down to the last few minutes of boiling, the sap can either turn to sugar or burn. Just. Like. That. With a larger batch, you have more play with it. I'm not sure why that is, but it just is. I didn't forget it, I just needed to check it in a few minutes rather than ten. Lesson learned!

This year, I used a hydrometer part of the time, for testing when the sap was of the right consistency for syrup. You pour the sap into a cylinder and then float the hydrometer in it. It's marked with red lines, and you want your sap to be thick enough for the surface of the sap to fall between the red lines. After a few seasons of doing this, I think it's just as easy to eyeball it.

Every year I make this, there are always a few who say to me, "Please keep some back for me." I cringe when I hear that, because there's no way we could do that for everyone who asks.  We can't even do it for a few, since it takes about 40 gallons of sap to make a gallon of syrup. With that ratio, you can see how much sap it takes to make a small amount and just how time consuming making syrup is. There's a reason it costs so much when you buy it in the store.

I'm kind of like fellow blogger Karen Bertelsen (The Art of Doing Stuff) when it comes to this. When someone asks her for some of her maple syrup when she's done making it, she answers, "Sure!" and then promptly forgets. She does put a couple of small bottles back just in case she needs to reward someone for doing her an extraordinary favor. And I'm not entirely selfish. A few of our bottles make their way to new homes, too.

This year I splurged and purchased special bottles for our maple syrup.
You can buy them here.

Back to this year's syrup making. The season always takes me by surprise. It starts just about the time I've had it with winter and am dreaming of crocus and daffodils and spring peepers. But I don't think I've ever gotten the spiles put into the maples early enough to get absolutely all the sap we could get.

When the maple buds look like this, maple syrup is drawing to a close.

The sap starts running towards the end of winter, when the temperatures are below freezing at night and above freezing during the day.  There are a lot of days like that between the end of January and when the maple trees start budding out. That's when the sap stops flowing, or at least stops being clear (instead of cloudy or dark). This year, we began collecting sap on February 9th and collected the last of it on March 21st.

A taste test

I haven't purchased real maple syrup since we started making our own, but this year, I heard about a brand that has gotten rave reviews and came to light as a result of being on Shark Tank. Parker's Maple Syrup didn't get the deal on the show, but it still helped the company just by being on the show. I bought some because I wanted to see how ours tasted in comparison.

The tin of Parker's arrived last week and when I tasted it, I sort of cringed. It wasn't cheap and I didn't like it. I bought the Grade A Robust, which is essentially the same grade as ours. But ours had a pure and strong maple syrup taste, without the smoky, somewhat burnt taste to it. Parker's had somewhat the same taste as Kirkland brand maple syrup I purchased from Costco a few years ago. I just don't like that scorched taste.

Our maple syrup is on the left.

I may have mentioned before that I'm a supertaster. This means, among other things, that I detect bitterness more than the average person. My tastebuds have receptors that many people's don't. My husband didn't think it tasted burnt at all. Okay, good, honey. You can have the Parker's then, and I'll just stick with ours, if you don't mind.

We also did a taste test with maple syrup made by the brother of our son-in-law. The semi-blind taste test involved five different syrups: Mrs. Butterworth's Syrup (not real maple syrup), ours, the brother's, a local commercial producer's,  and Parker's. Seven people tasted the five syrups and the results were incredibly varied. Three of the seven preferred our syrup over the others, and more than half rated Parker's the worst, even worse than Mrs. Butterworth's.

Do you have a favorite maple syrup brand? I've not found any that I like as much as ours. ❤

Wednesday, March 14, 2018

Celebrating National Learn About Butterflies Day - A Giveaway!

Although any day is a good day to eat pie (I'll take Dutch apple, please!), March 14th is designated National Pie Day. Actually, it's "Pi" day – the day we honor the ratio of a circle's circumference to its diameter. This unique number in math never ends.

So far, it's been calculated to 22.4 trillion digits with no pattern repeats, and named for the Greek letter π. We usually say pi equals 3.14, so that's why March 14th has been chosen as the day to celebrate this imaginary number. (This might help you understand imaginary numbers. Or not.)

Now you understand why we are all eating pie today.

Today is also National Learn About Butterflies Day. That, I can get into, even more than pie. These days, I'm spending a good deal of time sharing information about butterflies, specifically, the monarch butterfly.

Monarchs are unique among their kind. They do things that no other butterflies do. You know, like travel up to 3000 miles to a place they've never been before – a very specific place – the same place their ancestors have gone for thousands of years.

Cerro Pelon monarch sanctuary, February 22, 2018

I just returned from visiting three of the monarch sanctuaries in Central Mexico, where these beautiful butterflies go to wait out the winter until it's time for them to make the return trip north. (They're heading north now!) As I stood high on the mountains in the sanctuaries (around 10,000 feet above sea level), I considered this insect and its story. I thought about just what it took for each of those thousands and thousands of monarchs to get to where they were at that very moment.

El Rosario monarch sanctuary, February 21, 2018

If you don't know about the unique life cycle (including the migration) of the monarch, you're missing one of nature's most fascinating phenomenons. I suggest that you pick up a copy of my book, THE MONARCH: Saving Our Most-Loved Butterfly, to learn about it. At a current price of $12.88 on Amazon, this 160-page hardcover book is a bargain, packed with facts, anecdotal stories, projects, plant and predator information, and resources for learning even more.

Today, in honor of National Learn About Butterflies day, I'm giving away one signed copy of my book. All you need to do is leave a comment on at least one of these places:

On this coming Sunday night, March 18, 2018, at midnight EDT, a random winner will be chosen from all the entries. You can enter on all three locations, which will increase your chances of winning, but only three total entries are permitted per person.
If you don't want to take your chances on this giveaway, signed copies of THE MONARCH are also available for purchase in my Etsy shop, Folio and Focus Co. Signed copies of my first book, Indoor Plant Decor: The Design Stylebook For Houseplants, are also available, as well as a unique handmade butterfly bracelet (only one left!).

Enter to win now, and then go have a piece of pie.


CONGRATULATIONS to Gail for winning the signed copy of my book! And thank you to all who entered here and on Facebook.


Wednesday, February 14, 2018

Niki Jabbour's VEGGIE GARDEN REMIX - Win One!

One of the best things about gardening is that there is an unlimited choice of things to grow. We tend to grow those things that we love, year after year, but it's always fun to try something new, too.

In 2008, I grew a lot of purple veggies. This
is Phaseolus vulgaris 'Purple Queen'.
One year, I decided to grow purple veggies. Researching what vegetables came in purple, I was surprised to find out how many there were. I already knew about eggplant and cabbage, of course, but there was also sweet corn, okra, potatoes, “green” beans, carrots, kohlrabi, lettuce, and several others.

Seeds were purchased and planted, and my purple vegetable garden was born.

When I would talk about my purple veggie garden, the number one question I got was, “Do the purple ones taste the same as the regular colored ones?” And the answer was yes. There was no discernible difference, other than slight variations you would expect from one cultivar to another, independent of color.

Besides being fun to do, I learned something along the way. Those purple beans magically turned green when they were cooked! We called them our magic beans.

For all of you adventurous gardeners, there's a new book that will have you salivating at all the wonderful and quirky choices available for growing. Niki Jabbour, star of growing year round, even though she lives in Nova Scotia, and author of bestselling The Year Round Vegetable Gardener, has written a fun new book – Niki Jabbour's Veggie Garden Remix.

This book is like looking at a catalog of 224 choices of a wide variety of edibles that you may not have thought about growing or may not have even known existed! But better than a plant catalog, Niki shares growing tips, plant origins, how and when to plant and harvest, different ways to use them, and a host of other information.

If your vegetable garden has become a little ho-hum, or you've lost a little enthusiasm for gardening in general, Niki's book can jump start it all again. How can you get bored growing things with names like 'Poona Kheera' (cucumber) and 'Orange Jelly' (turnip). I'm not a turnip fan, but ORANGE JELLY!

A carrot in parentheses!

I can think of no better way to begin this year's garden than flipping through this book and making a list of seeds that will elevate my veggie-growing space to stellar star status. It's like how I used to go through the Sears Christmas catalog the day it came and I made a list of all the toys I wanted. That was such fun, too.

We've been doing the Blue Apron thing for over a year now, and we've been introduced to some foods that we might otherwise not have known about. We found new foods to love, including some you'll find in Niki's book.

Win a copy of Veggie Garden Remix!

I was sent a complimentary copy of Niki's book and you could win a copy of your own! 

Just comment on this blog post by midnight, EST, on Sunday, February 25, 2018. One random commentor will get a copy of Niki Jabbour's Veggie Garden Remix sent to them from her publisher, Storey Books. Be sure to indicate how you'd like for me to contact you, in case you're the winner.

Good luck!


Niki Jabbour is the award-winning author of Niki Jabbours Veggie Garden Remix, The Year-Round Vegetable Gardener, and Groundbreaking Food Gardens. Her work is found in Fine Gardening, Garden Making, Birds & Blooms, Horticulture, and other publications, and she speaks widely on food gardening at events and shows across North America. She is the host and creator of The Weekend Gardener radio show. She lives in Halifax, Nova Scotia, and is online at

Monday, January 22, 2018

Listen to the Sounds of Monarch Butterfly Wings in the Cerro Pelon Reserve in Mexico!

I just learned of a project that allows you to hear sounds in various locations around the world. Called Locus Sonus, it is a French-based research network that focuses on the relationship between sound and space. It had its beginnings in 2005, and works in cooperation with several research labs throughout the world, including the School of the Art Institute (SAIC) in Chicago.

While I don't entirely understand their goal or purpose, what I do know is that they set up listening devices using open mics in places in order to capture their soundscape. Mainly an artistic endeavor, it relies on technology and science to operate.

Why am I interested in this? Because one of the locations where a microphone is located is in the Cerro Pelon monarch butterfly sanctuary in Michoacán, Mexico. By tuning in to this particular channel, you can hear the sounds of monarch butterfly wings, birds chirping, and wind through the trees in the location where the monarch butterflies were first found in their wintering location in 1975.

Click on graphic to enlarge soundmap. To go to the site, click here.

The listening map is located here and you can find the Cerro Pelon mic in Mexico and click on it. You'll want to have your sound turned up to its maximum level in order to hear the low level sounds.

The listening equipment is solar powered, so there will be times when no sound is being transmitted (at night, for example, which will be indicated by the darkened areas on the map) and the volume may vary. It's very new, so there will be times when equipment adjustments are being made. During those times, the microphone may not appear on the map. Check back later. It will be worth it!

Taking it all in at Sierra Chincua sanctuary, March 3rd, 2017.

Having been in a couple of the monarch sanctuaries myself, I can confirm that yes, it's very subtle, very quiet, which is the beauty in it, especially when you're in its midst. Just as in the actual location, you will not hear loud anything streaming through the microphone and you might be underwhelmed by what you hear. But make no mistake, you can hear those delicate wing flutters.

When the sun is out, the monarchs can be seen fluttering about, like
these, in El Rosario sanctuary on March 2nd, 2017.

Because the monarchs are much more active on sunny days, this will affect what you hear when listening in. If it's cloudy or rainy, you won't hear the sounds of butterfly wings, because the monarchs will be clustered together on the trees with very few, if any, flying around. So if you don't hear them at first try, go back and give it a listen on different days at different times. I got lucky and heard the wing flutters the first time I tuned in. 🦋


Saturday, January 20, 2018

How the Lifesaver Plant Got Its Name

Winter is a time when most of my houseplants get the most love they're ever going to get. That's because if I want to keep these plants - mostly tropicals - they have to live in the house with us during the winter and I generally pay more attention to those things that share my living space. We're in Zone 5b here and it gets way too cold for them to stay outside year round.

These begonias do well in the bright shade of the pergola, but need to
go inside for the winter.

One day, in the summer of 2016, I went nursery hopping with my good friend, Shelley, and while I showed some restraint as we visited various places, only buying what I needed for a photo shoot for a trade industry magazine article I was doing, I found something I couldn't live without. It only cost a few dollars, but we all know that when it comes to plants, cost often has little to do with our buying decisions.

I'd heard about the lifesaver plant many years ago and had seen photos of it - such a cactus-y looking thing with surreal candy blooms. I wondered if those flowers (I felt funny even calling them that) really looked as plasticky in real life.

But now here it was, right in front of me, and oh boy, yeah. It really did look like its photos. So I bought it. In the time since that day, it has taken turns growing in the house, in the conservatory, and outside during the summer. It seems to be a happy camper no matter where it is. You've got to love a plant like that.

Here are the growing stats:

Common name: Lifesaver plant
Botanical name: Huernia zebrina
Plant type: Succulent
Zone: 10
Light: Full sun
Water: Let dry thoroughly between watering, then soak. Tolerates neglectful watering.
Height: Under 6 inches 
Bloom time: Intermittent

FUN FACT: Huernia zebrina belongs to the same family as milkweed -  Apocynaceae. But no, monarch butterflies don't use it as a host plant. 😉

For ideas on how to use houseplants that coordinate with your personal style and decor, see my first book, co-authored with Jenny Peterson: Indoor Plant Decor: The Design Stylebook For Houseplants. (2013, St. Lynn's Press)

Friday, January 19, 2018

Return to Mexico and the Monarchs

I haven't yet blogged in detail about my visit to the monarch sanctuaries in Mexico last March, and I promise I will, VERY soon. That was a trip I will never ever forget, and not just because of what I saw, but because of what I felt. Seldom in my life have I been moved to tears by the very sight of something so  magnificent.

Clusters of monarchs in the El Rosario sanctuary, on March 2, 2017

When I left Mexico, I knew I wanted to return sometime, but I didn't know if that would be a reality or not. And then I got a message a few days before Christmas from Jim West, owner of Craftours, the world's largest touring company in the craft industry. He asked me this:

"...we are working with the SAVE THE MONARCHS FOUNDATION and we are interested in knowing if you would like to be our special guest for a tour in Mexico when we actually go to a monarch sanctuary and see hundreds and thousands of these beautiful monarchs."

Well...ummm...let me think about that. FOR TWO SECONDS!

To make a long story short, yes, I will be returning to Mexico to see the monarchs, along with 18 other people. I will be their go-to person for questions and information about the monarchs. I'm really glad that I've been there before, because that gives me background experience along with the information I've learned over the years, in order to help make the trip more interesting and enjoyable.

The Sun Man in the Cosmovitral

I'll be there February 19-26 and will be visiting three sanctuaries this time. El Rosario and Sierra Chincua, which I visited last March, and a third, Piedra Herrada, which I've not yet seen. We'll be going to the Cosmovitral in Toluca, which I've also seen, and is one of the most unique botanical gardens in the world. But we'll be traveling in and out of Mexico City this time, so visiting that city will be a new experience for me.

With just one month to go before I head out, I'm starting to get pretty excited about it all, and I can't wait to share my enthusiasm with my fellow travelers. I'll be sure to keep you posted when I go, with photos and updates via Facebook.

You can read more about the trip here.

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