Sunday, August 7, 2011

Oh My It's August Already?!

August is upon us, summer is halfway gone. My college workers leave this week to get packed and move to school. Sad, for me summer is almost over but with the arrival of August comes the height of butterfly season. From now until early September you should see more of the little beauties. I have been steadily releasing butterflies all week 13 monarchs in one day and today, 13 black swallowtails. The total as of this afternoon is 72 butterflies. Definitely not the numbers I had last year but I am happy I could add the black swallowtail butterflies to my repertoire. They really are not that difficult. I am having an easier time this year because I am actually growing the plants the cats need. So instead of putting stems of dill in vases I put pots of carrot and dill plants in the cat house and let the cats eat right off the live plants. So much easier than putting tiny stems of dill into tiny vases.
My garden is not only butterfly friendly, I grow many plants to attract butterflies to lay eggs. The obvious being milkweed for monarchs. I grow four specie of MW. With the addition of tropical MW I have a decent variety. I moved a couple of large pots of tropical MW to the driveway from the side of the house. I did find more eggs after that. The monarchs still prefer laying eggs on the big common MW. I also decided to grow carrots in pots this summer, just to see if it would work. Because how do you know if will work if you don't try? That was great for the black swallowtails! I have grown a Duthman's pipe vine for 7 years now, mostly in vane. I haven't seen any pipe vine butterflies or cats. However this summer I found evidence of chewing on my vine. So next summer I will be much more aware earlier. I assume it will be just as easy to raise those cats indoors as the others. I added one Lindera benzoin spice bush to the garden this year. it is a nice native shrub, basic look, green leaves etc etc, it has beautiful bright yellow fall color! I have been told that if you plant it, they will come. So hopefully next year I will see those incredible cats of the spice bush swallowtail. I also planted rue this spring and to my delight I found one of the plants all chewed up! Rue is another host plant for black swallowtail cats. Other butterflies spotted in my garden this year? Skippers and lots of them, red admiral, cabbage white, question mark, Eastern tiger swallowtail and of course monarchs and black swallowtails. Just not as many as in years past.
More later!

Thursday, July 28, 2011

Wow! Egg Laying has Really Picked Up!

Well, things have really picked up! I was so forlorn, depressed even melancholy because all winter I had planned and prepared and grew plants ....and no monarchs, no eggs until this week. I lamented to my buddy Bob who is my caterpillar guru and he said Patience is what I need and a few "starter cats" So I raised up 22 that he gave me. They are in the pupa stage now. Since I have found a few cats at work I have had a steady stream of onesies and twosies to release. Anytime I get to release a butterfly I am happy! Now that I have released a few females (and males) I have visitors! In the last 3 days I have collected 79 eggs!!! So exciting!
The really big news is about the black swallowtail caterpillars. I have collected 74 caterpillars and eggs in the last 10 days! All from three pots of carrot plants and dill plants. I will definitely grow both of those next year. Anyway, As they were growing bigger and bigger I took Lee's (DH) suggestion of putting them into the cat house because there were more of them than monarchs. So I placed a small window box of carrots in the house and they destroyed it in 72 hours! There are many cats in all sizes in the cat house. A really cool thing to observe with these cats is the variety of color of their skin as they grow. They go through 5 moltings to get to the chrysalis stage, each stage is a little different than the previous. Now the largest cats are doing their "walk abouts" and preparing to make their chrysalis'. There are 6 chrysalis' now. One of the interesting things I found was that when they do this walk about they are not afraid of taking several free falls from the sides and ceiling of the cat house. A totally different behavior than monarchs. Believe me, I spent many hours watching cats last summer, monarchs don't free fall. They lock on and don't let go. Black swallowtail cats have a defense mechanism a little different than other cats. If they feel threatened or you apply a little pressure on them they shoot out it's osmeterium, or scent gland. It smells like sulfur- oh ick! It does not really wash away either. Very interesting caterpillar. I think all these things make this cat ideal to raise for observing with kids. It is as simple as a few pots of carrot plants and dill. Curley parsley is also popular with the cats. Make sure you have necter plants for the butterflies to feed on. Butterfly bush is very popular with the swallowtails. If you choose to do this, time your plantings so you have mature plants when the eggs really start coming (usually early July on. in the Chicagoland area) then plan on making a second planting and possibly a third of dill. I am on my second and going to plant a third this weekend.
If you want more info on raising black swallowtails click here:
As always, contact me if you have questions! I will reply as soon as I can.

Sunday, July 10, 2011

July 10 Update

So much to update you on concerning the cats! I have released 12 monarch butterflies and 8 black swallowtail butterflies. Four of these butterflies turned out to be my wandering cats. They ended up making their chrysalis' on my dried hydrangea arrangement on the kitchen table! I sort of thought that would happen. Needless to say I learned my lesson to keep the lid on the aquarium from now on. Presently I have 11 cats in the aquarium of various sizes. My first batch of butterflies are almost all hatched and it may be a little while before I have more hatching.

When I change the old milkweed stems for new ones, I usually check them very carefully for small cats that may be hiding. Lately I have been dropping the leaves and stems into a bowl for the compost pile. Today when I went to go dump it, there was a small but healthy caterpillar sitting there on the wilted leaves. So into the aquarium it went. Whew, dodged that. This happened last summer a couple of times too.

I have been trying a little experiment this summer. I have a theory that if I take each female butterfly and place her directly on a swamp milkweed plant or carrot (black swallowtails) that she may return knowing that there is a host plant in my garden. Without tagging the little lovelies I cannot be sure it works. I can hope. Today I was pleasantly surprised that a female black swallowtail spent a while in my garden laying eggs! I can't be sure she is one of my releases but I hope she is. I collected 24 eggs from my dill and carrot plants. Now keeping the carrot and dill stems alive until the cats hatch is going to be a challenge. I may have to employ the hubby to check the vases when I can't. Dill stems are definitely not as hardy as milkweed.

A few days ago I saw two male monarchs tussling in the garden vying for territory. I does look strange two butterflies behaving like birds! I just hopes that this means that I will see more eggs soon!

Wednesday, June 22, 2011

Caterpillar Update!

Well yesterday was the first day of summer and that officially starts my caterpillar collecting. So I have collected 22 cats now (11 came from my friend Bob). I have been feeding them in an aquarium because of all the stormy weather around here. I don't want to put them outside in the cat house until the weather calms down. So, having trouble with the whole wrap the stem of the milkweed with wet paper towel and foil thing. I got the bright idea to bring in a swamp milkweed plant for the cats to chomp on. Oh it's just a small one! So I left the top off of the aquarium... and now there are five cats wandering my kitchen. Lee said he found one on the dried hydrangea arrangement on the kitchen table. He rescued it back to the milkweed plant. Hopefully I will see butterflies soon. In the mean time I continue to feed the ones that are still in the aquarium. Oh and the top is back on it too.

Sunday, May 29, 2011

What's New in Gardening at the Oak Lawn Parks...

Photos by Nicole Walsh

Some of you you may know me, but if you don't... My name is Dolly Foster and I am the Horticulturist at the Oak Lawn Park District. I have been working here for four years. In that time I have worked toward making the landscapes and parks more beautiful and more sustainable. Sustainable, seems to be the buzz word in Landscaping and Hort for this decade. Everyone wants to know what it is and how to create it. The definition of a Sustainable Landscape is one that reduces or prevents pollution, conserves natural resources, maximizes ecological function and looks attractive.

What does this mean to the Oak Lawn Park District? It means that we strive to follow all of these tenets within the means of our budget. We try to use alternative methods that are less harmful to the ecology around us. My part is landscaping and weed abatement. One of the programs I run is the Adopt-a-Flowerbed program. When I started at the OLPD, there were 25 beds that could be adopted. I have increased this number to 33. What is it? People who adopt a flowerbed are usually condo residents, community organizations, scout troops (mostly Daisys), school groups, families and not-for-profits. I think of it as a really sweet deal for anyone who wants to participate. I prepare the flowerbeds in the spring, we supply the annuals and perennials, you plant, we water, you weed, we clean it all up in fall. After their planting is finished, I take back all the pots and trays so the volunteers don't have to deal with disposing or recycling them. I reuse everything in the greenhouse.
This spring I really wanted try something different with the soil amendments. In the past I would amend each bed with peat moss, perlite and fertilizer. Rototilling it all in to the soil. Peat moss is not a sustainable product, it forms at a rate of about 1 mm a year. It is also expensive and hydrophobic, meaning once it drys out it takes a lot of water to make it wet again. Perlite has its problems too. It is volcanic rock granules that hold water and aid in drainage. The problem is the application process, it is very dusty and you don't want to breathe in that dust. It also rises too the surface of soil and floats away.
So in the spirit of my job being part experiment, (I like to change things up and try new methods) and after speaking to a number of my suppliers I decided that the soil in these flower gardens need more organic matter to grow large, healthy garden plants that might not need as much water in the summer as in the past. I settled on COIR. Coir is shredded coconut fiber. A completely renewable resource because coconuts are processed all over the world. It holds 6x it's weight in water, a real plus for gardens out in the parks and along roads where there may be a lot of wind.
I also needed a product that was going to add the organic matter the beds need to attract worms and add some long needed natural fertilizer, if you know what I mean. I was told about a person who could help me obtain a lot of coffee grounds from a local coffee company. At first I was skeptical until I realized that by adding the coffee grounds to the garden beds I would be loosening tough soil and attracting beneficial soil organisms. She was nice enough to supply me with as much coffee grounds and chaff as my truck could hold. And since this is waste product for the company, this is all free. Recycling at its best. Thanks!
Ok well that's all good but what does it really mean? It means that by adding organic matter in the soil, worms will come to process it and with worms comes a whole host of microorganisms. These tiny soil inhabitants keep soil healthy and balanced. When a plant is growing in such an environment, they can put out more roots and deeper roots, a critical part of being drought tolerant. Healthy plants can also fight off disease and insect infestations (more widely seen in trees but garden plants can do it on a smaller scale). So if you are out enjoying our parks and you smell the sweet scent of coffee..... stop and smell the flowers too!
WEEDS in the parks. The past two years we have had a particularly rampant inundation of thistle in a few places in the landscaping. Particularly near our buildings. I have tried a few different ways to try to beat back this terrible weed but I have had no luck. I recently spoke with one of my volunteers who heard from another gardener... well you know where this is going. Word of mouth seems to be one of the best ways to learn new gardening practices because someone else tried it first! This weed prevention method reminded me of Lasagna Gardening, an old method of layering newspaper and organic matter to make a new flowerbed. Well I plan on using just the newspaper part to help smother these weeds. It is a simple concept, save a big stack of just black and white newsprint, no slick paper, please. Weed your garden, lay out the paper around your existing plants in layers of 7-10 sheets of news print and overlap them a little. Get your garden hose out and wet the paper down and mulch heavy. If your bed has many plants close together, this may not be the best choice for you. You may want to gradually transform your garden to a "Know Maintenance" garden. This method follows the theory that more plants and less exposed soil along with plants that are suited to grow together equals minimal weed growth. I wish I had before pictures of this landscape, it was full of thistle! I have attached a few pictures of the process. I you have any questions you can email me at the park district. All I can say is I will try it and if it doesn't work, I will try something else. Anything to keep me from spraying herbicides and anything to keep my crew from having to weed.

Happy Plantings! Dolly

Mid Spring 2011 Update

Hello Friends! Mid Spring is upon us. I love this time in my garden. It is one of the only times in the year when you can be outside without mosquitoes! They are around but they are not too hungry yet. I also love all the plants blooming right now. My Oriental poppies are beginning to bloom now, at the same time as the allium and columbine. I have located all of my milkweed too, I have 18 swamp milkweed plants and the common mw has spread in places I would never had expected. In one case it is about 20 feet from the original plant. This is the reason why I discourage common mw in the home garden. Out around your neighborhoods in ditches or vacant lots, that's ok. My theory is, the more mw around to attract the monarchs to your area, the better chance you have of them finding your garden. So my plan last year was to take a few seed pods of the common mw and make seed bombs for those spots around my neighborhood that can grow mw. Alas, not all of my time is my own and I did not get it done. I will try again this summer. If you want to make seed bombs and learn a little about guerrilla gardening, follow this link.

I have noticed that this year in my garden plants just seem bigger. I suppose having a unnatural amount of rain makes plants more lush but I could do with a few more bright days. Other than preparing for the monarchs I have started cutting new edges in the garden and I finally started on replanting the front border of the house. I got a hold of 6 'Vanilla Strawberry' Hydrangeas and I bought some Hakonechloa macra aureola grass to round out the update of the front border. I don't just mean that I bought these grasses, it was fate. I rarely buy plants from the big box stores, I have worked in independent garden centers and I know how tough it is for them to be successful so I am pretty loyal. But yesterday HD was calling me. I NEEDED those grasses and I hadn't seen any in my regular haunts. As I drove up in the parking lot, a man was wheeling one entire rack of Hakonachloa macra aureola off a truck. It was fate.

I can't wait to see these new hydrangeas bloom too. Last year I was so excited about the new trend in pink smooth hydrangea (H. aborescens) that I tore out my beloved white 'Annabelle' hydrangeas that have faithfully bloomed big for me for six years. I thought the pink blooms against my yellow house would look charming. So I got on the pink ribbon bandwagon and bought six 'Invincebelle Spirit' hydrangeas. Well maybe I was just impatiens (get it??) but they just sat there and did nothing all last summer. Oh I know what you are saying to yourself, "Dolly shame on you! You know you never see the true potential of a plant until year three!" Actually, I felt like the lady in the Best Buy comerrcial that says "What the...." when she sees the new cell phone she bought is obsolete! hahahaha! I was lucky enough to be at a lecture last summer at the Bonk/ Bailey Nursery facility in Onarga, Il. I met the man who was directly responsible for bringing the 'Vanilla Strawberry' hydrangea to the US from France. He even tested that hydrangea in Minnesota for 5 or 6 years! Once I saw it I was in love and I lusted after that hydrangea all winter. When I got them, I have my ways- oh yes, I have ways of getting plants before official release, I came home one terrible cold Friday night and ripped out the old 'Invinceabelle' hydrangeas. I was in a foul mood because of lack of sunshine, I think so it did not take long. Now I await my beloved 'Vanilla Strawberry' blooms. I hope, not in vain. They are all in bud so I will update you later.

I have not seen any monarchs in my neighborhood yet, This has happened in years past also. Last year I didn't see any until the last week of June and I started finding eggs right away. So I am not worried. I almost have everything ready for the caterpillars.

Good Bye for Now! Happy Plantings! Dolly

Saturday, May 21, 2011

The Monarchs are Here!

Monarchs arrived in the area about the 12th of May. Almost the same week as last year. My friend Bob has already collected almost 100 eggs. Since I work full time I am a little limited in my time. I will start collecting this coming week.
I have been preparing the garden all month. I have 18 swamp milkweed plants in the garden now. I planted 6 this spring. I have been purging the garden of over abundant plants and replacing with more butterfly-friendly plants, i.e. milkweed, coneflower, liatris, salvia... The images above are a group of planters all filled with milkweed, just for the caterpillars. I paired them up with tidal wave petunias to feed the hummingbirds. Two planters are filled with dill and parsley. I also planted bronze fennel to the garden. These three plants all attract eastern swallowtail b-fly attractors.
I have 7 swamp milkweed in pots for the cat. house for the caterpillars to munch on. I will put them in and they will get eaten and then I will pull it out and put a new one in. The mw plants will re-leaf and then I can put them back in. So the mw will be rotating. Now I just need to clean the cat. house and the 2 aquariums that were passed on to me by a couple of friends. If you choose to use an aquarium instead of a cat. house or plastic storage container, you will want to put in a piece of 2" foam to cover the bottom. When the cats. make their chrysalis' they will , on occasion fall down. This protects them from being damaged.

The next time I check in, I hope to have caterpillars!
Let me know what you are doing and if you need help or advice. I am coaching anyone who wants to raise cats this summer! Later!

Sunday, April 17, 2011

Starting Seeds

Before transplanting... After transplanting...

Starting seeds at home is really easy. All you need is some potting soil, seeds, and containers to grow your seeds in and a clean spray bottle for water. A grow light is helpful. A table at a sunny window with a clip light and grow light bulb will work. I put my seed trays in my utility room in front of the window, once I added the clip light the seeds started popping right away!

Here's how you start, choose the seeds you'd like to start. Oh by the way if you are going on vacation between now and, well frankly when you garden you don't travel that much. LOL! Someone needs to be around to water! So, choose your seeds...I am starting some seeds this spring that are attractive to butterflies. I have dill, parsley, milkweed and Tithonia. I am also growing some edibles.

Choose your containers, you can strart seeds in recycled flower containers and trays or collect yougurt cups. Make sure to put a couple of holes in the bottom of the cups. You need to allow water to drain. Or you can even make your own containers out of newspaper. Basically you just fill your containers with soil, and read the seed package to seed how deep the seeds should be planted in the soil or should they be on top of the soil? After the seeds are planted I sprinkle the top of the potting soil with a little "seed starting mix". New seedlings are susseceptible to a fungus called "Damping Off", the fine ground peat moss in the seed starting mix keeps this in check. This is also where the spray bottle comes in. When starting seeds you don't pour water over the containers. After all if the seeds require being on the top of the soil to germinate, the drench of water will surely wash the seeds off the soil. Use the spray bottle to saturate the soil once or twice a day. I do not usually pour water over the top until the plant is in its permanant spot. You can water from underneath by pouring a little water into a tray with no holes and let the soil wick it up. You don't need to do that until the seeds are growing.

After the seeds have sprouted and have grown about a week the seedlings need to be transplanted. Mostly this is necessary if the seedlings are very crowded. So you can either transplant or "thin" the plants out by cutting off some of the seedlings to make room for a few strong plants. I will continue to use the spray bottle until the plants are bigger and very strong. Most plants that I start from seed are not put out in the garden or a planter until after Mother's Day to be sure it is warm enough for the new tender plants. So you see? It is pretty easy! Leave me message if you have any questions. Happy Planting!

Monday, April 4, 2011

Happy Spring!!!

Well hello everyone! Happy Spring! I am beginning to start my summer butterfly flower plans. I thought I would share those plans with you and inspire you to do the same. First I got my paperwork today and my yard sign from Monarch Watch. My garden at home now officially a Monarch Waystation. This means that I have full filled the requirements of to have a monarch friendly and sustainable garden. I am really excited about this. If you are interested got to So what am I doing for the summer? Well late in the season last year I learned that not only does milkweed have sap in it that has a chemical makeup that makes them taste bad to birds, but there is some evidence that some milkweed plants have more of this chemical than others. Not only that, the chemical is a protectant from diseases that monarch caterpillars are sussespable to. So those two species are swamp milkweed and tropical (or red) milkweed. Right now I am starting seeds for both milkweed. I will be filling my big ceramic pots around the house with tropical milkweed (*sniff* I will miss my geraniums) and petunias for hummingbirds. I am really excited about doing this. I have a really large blue ceramic pot that I moved to a more prominat position in the garden and that will the new focal point of the garden. The swamp milkweed I am growing will go in various open spots in the garden. The point of all of this milkweed is that I want to collect monarch eggs more close to home. I will also be growing a few pots of dill and parsley (which is a biennuial). I want to attract swallowtail butterflies too. So I really hope this works. Last summer I had about six secret spots that I visited every couple of days for eggs. I exhausted myself running around collecting eggs. So I have a different plan this summer. More soon!