Hibernating the gardens

Here in Ohio, cooling weather usually starts around the first part of October.  We may have an extended warm period just before, but most of the time the night temperatures start dropping into the 40’s (maybe even cooler) about then.  It isn’t long then, that the leaves start to change color, flowers begin to really fade and die, and the hustle and bustle of the squirrels gathering their winter snacks and nesting supplies begin.  It is at this time that I put my gardens – flowering ones and veggie one – into hibernation.  How do I do that, you ask?

First, I pull up the annuals that have stopped flowering and are turning yellow.  They aren’t going to flower anymore so why keep them around?  I shake off the dirt and throw the stems into my compost pile.  Next, I am sure to cut back my perennials that have stopped blooming and may be looking kind of ugly – such as Irises, daylilies, foxgloves, roses, hosta’s, milkweed, trumpet vine, clematis, etc.  – because it just makes the garden space neater and helps the plant grow those healthy root systems instead of wasting its energy trying to keep what’s above ground alive and well.  Now that this part is done, I will wait until the leaves start to fall so that I can use them to put a nice blanket over and around my plants to protect them from the heaving that happens over the winter.  Heaving is a killer on the plants!

In the veggie garden, I just make sure that I have pulled up all of the tomato plants, cucumber vines, pepper plants, etc and lay them on the garden space, and covered the whole space with straw; then will cover that with leaves when I have extra.  All this does is provide extra material to decompose over the winter and provide extra nutrients to the soil that I will plant in in the spring.  Goodnight, gardens!  Sleep well!!

Raising Monarchs – the Bad and the Ugly

Good Afternoon everyone!  Before too much time has gone by, I thought I would fill you in the on the bad and the ugly sides of raising Monarchs.  When raising Monarchs there are several things to consider, each of which are extremely important to the health and safety of the caterpillars (aka “cat”) and butterflies.  Monarchs are subject to diseases, parasites, and predators.  Those are the reasons why, if you’re going to raise them indoors, it’s a good idea to get them when they’re eggs.  When you bring in cats larger than in their first or second instar, you could be bringing in any or all of their killers with you.  I will only list a few diseases, parasites and caterpillar killers, just in case your interested.  If your not….feel free to read our other posts.  🙂

  1.  Tachnid Flies – these are hard to distinguish from other flies unless you see them when their still.  They are hairy and have red eyes.  They will lay their eggs on the Monarch cats, then the hatching maggots will burrow into the caterpillar eating them from the inside out.  You can typically tell your caterpillar’s been compromised when it starts to grow smaller and skinnier. Often, it will appear small if it attempts to pupate. The caterpillar often dies while forming its chrysalis. Soon after, white tachinid maggots or dark-red pupae will exit the caterpillar and fall to the ground, leaving long white strands of evidence hanging from the monarch cat or chrysalis.
  2. Ophryocystis elektroscirrha (OE)  OE is a protozoan parasite that caterpillars ingest on milkweed. It’s spread through microscopic spores coming off the wings and bodies of adult butterflies. These protozoa multiply inside the
    Caterpillar with OE

    caterpillar and can cause weakness, disfigurement, and an untimely death.

  3. NPV (Nuclear Polyhedrosis Virus)  Commonly referred to as black death, your caterpillars will deflate, turn black, then liquify like something out of a horror movie! This virus can also affect chrysalides as the entire monarch chrysalis turns black.
  4. Pseudomonas (Bacterial Disease) This bacteria can be found in soil and on plants. This bacterium thrives in warm, moist conditions which is why it’s important to have a habitat with good air flow where excess moisture can evaporate. Pseudomonas typically affect caterpillars that are already weakened by other diseases. Similar to NPV, monarch caterpillars and chrysalides will slowly fade to black death.

Tainted Milkweed  It’s hard to imagine that anyone selling milkweed would treat it with pesticides, since the vast majority of milkweed customers are buying it to support monarch caterpillars and butterflies. Unfortunately, this is not always the case…In the world of raising butterflies, tainted milkweed often rears its ugly leaves when people run out of milkweed for their caterpillars and are forced to make a milkweed emergency run to the nearest store/nursery.  If your caterpillar has ingested pesticides it will often expel green vomit. If this happens, rinse the caterpillar off under a faucet, then place it on a new milkweed source immediately! If the current milkweed has been treated with systemic pesticides, the chemicals are inside the plant and can’t be rinsed off.

I have had personal experience (if you remember) with #5, having to make that emergency run to the nursery for more milkweed.  That trip was a good one!  I did, however, have to make a second trip.  I went to a different, more local greenhouse (Dill’s Greenhouse) that time.  As we began losing our cats, it took me a minute to figure out what was making them die.  The second batch of milkweed had been sprayed with a pesticide!!  My heart broke, and then I got angry.  I had even asked one of the growers if they used or sprayed any pesticides or herbicides on the milkweed.  She assured me they had not……  The final death toll is 8.

Going to the Dogs

Sara and Cassie

Kris and I share our home with 3 dogs – Cassie, age 13, a beagle;  Scarlett,  age 5, a beagle; and, Sara, age 11, a black lab/border collie mix.  They are all rescues, and much loved.  We often try to stay rather organized with the feeding of our dogs.  We have them on a feeding schedule, and they all eat the same dog food.  Their personality’s however, have caused us to create an eating place for each of them so that they do not have to see the other eating their food.  Recently, we learned that the “powers that be” have stopped making their dog food.  Our dogs love having a bit of gravy on their food, so it was just so easy to buy a “gravy” dog food and just add water.  We were trying to avoid buying the expensive Gravy Train brand dog food, so we decided to try an inexpensive brand and make our own gravy to add to it.  Well…..the two oldest dogs protested, and were rather loud about it too!!  They were not going to eat.  Good girl, Scarlett, didn’t care whether she had gravy or not, she was going to eat!!  As a rescue, it is often hard to tell what their puppyhood was like, but from they way she gets excited at dinner time I’d say she didn’t get to eat very much as a puppy, so she is not going to miss a meal now!

We let it go for a couple of weeks, thinking they would get used to the new food, but ohhhhh nooooo, not going to happen.  So the experiments began.  Buy a little of this kind and mix with the current food;  buy some chicken, turkey or beef broth and mix with it;  NOTHING was working.  Here comes the Gravy Train!!  Bingo – it’s working with Sara!  Poor Cassie still won’t eat.  Let’s try some canned food….BAM!  She loves it!

It certainly brings a smile and even a little giggle when I see these girls watching our every move as they anticipate dinner each night.  We are certainly going to the dogs….we love ’em so much!

Coming Down to the End…..maybe

We are finally coming down to the end of Monarch season….maybe.  This year there appears to be huge increase in the Monarch migration, something we are very excited about!  What that means is that all of the efforts of Monarch raisers across the United States and Canada are truly making a difference!  Of course what THAT means is, if all of our butterflies make it to Mexico to over winter, next spring could be a truly spectacular sight for sore eyes with all of the beautiful Monarch butterflies fluttering around.  Do you remember seeing them all when you were a child??  The weather has been cooperating, the warm air holding on, and beautiful sunny days, it seems that the Monarchs just want to hang around for a bit longer this year.  Fortunately, their built-in biological clock will usually let them know when it’s time to head south.  Some DO get caught by an early cold snap, which Monarch’s do not like.

Before I forget to tell you, here is an update on our caterpillar counts:  We have released a total of 31 butterflies to date,  most of which have been females.  We have 28 Chrysalides (plural for Chrysalis), 9 caterpillars in various instars, and 1 egg that was just found this afternoon.  I’m sure there are more, but it sounded as if it was going to rain, so I stopped looking.  There are still female Monarch’s fluttering around, so I’m sure there will be more eggs.  Because it takes about a month to get from egg to butterfly, I’m almost certain that what we rescue this week, will be the finale’ of our Monarch season.  These emerging butterflies will have to get to Mexico for the winter!!  Who knows – I learned to recognize Monarch eggs this season, perhaps I will learn how to over-winter a Monarch?  I’m not sure I’m ready for that, but……let’s just wait and see.

Another Week of the Monarch

He wants out!!

Well folks, just when we thought we had a handle on things, the caterpillars changed up on us.  The teenies are growing by leaps and bounds – called instars.  The chrysalis are bursting open with emerging GORGEOUS Monarch butterflies, and we get to release them – these really are exciting moments!  So far this week (8/26 to 8/31) we have released 8 butterflies: 5 females and 3 males (I will explain in another post how to tell the difference!).  We currently have 17 chrysalis, and a lost count on toddlers and juniors, I’m thinking around twenty-something.  AND we found 4 eggs on some milkweed leaves we brought in for the hungry guys.  Thank goodness the caterpillars aren’t carnivores!!

You may be asking yourself, “what do these people do with all of these caterpillars?”  Well, let me tell you….lol  We have 3, ten gallon fish tanks, and 1 cricket carrier.  The 3 tanks are designated for toddlers, juniors, and seniors.  The carrier is our nursery.  The Monarch caterpillar will shed it’s skin 5 times (called instars) during its growth cycle.  The nursery is for the eggs to hatch in (first instar).  The teenies will stay in there for about a week to ten days,  then they will be moved to the toddler tank.  The teenies will be in about their second or third instar by then.  The toddlers will move to the junior tank, about their fourth instar.  When the juniors get moved to the senior tank, they should be about to their fifth instar.


The first instar is birth.  The emerging caterpillar is about 2/16″ long and is barely visible.  By the end of the first week of its life, it will measure about 1/4″ long and will have its stripes.  In just a few more days it will molt and be in 2nd instar.  It is ravenously hungry and needs more milkweed leaves!  By the time a caterpillar reaches its 5th instar it will have grown from about 2/16″ to anywhere from 2 to 3 inches and be as big around as a pencil or pinky finger.  Now that’s a lot of growing, which means that’s a lot of eating, which means that’s a lot of milkweed!  Now multiply that by however many caterpillars you might have……….

We thought we were ready for this year’s season of Monarch’s.  Mother Nature had other plans.  We have seen multiple butterflies, flitting around the gardens (certainly laying eggs everywhere).  With the growing caterpillars, we realized we were not going to have enough milkweed, so off to the garden center we go to buy more Milkweed plants – 19 to be exact.  I just finished getting them all planted yesterday.  I also decided to get the harvested milkweed seeds ready for early winter planting.  I’ll be posting about that pretty soon!

These really are milkweed plants!!!

Our Monarch backstory.

Some of you may be asking, “Why do you want to raise butterflies?”  Well this is the reason:  A little over a year ago, Kris and I went to a conservation seminar.  During the seminar the speaker talked about butterfly gardens, and other gardens in residential landscapes to help prevent water run off into storm drains, as well as the loss of soil by way of such run off.  It was a lightbulb moment for us as we were wanting to make changes to our own yard with the planting of new flowers and such.  So this became my summer project – to create a butterfly garden.  Being the type of person that I am, I just couldn’t wait and jumped right in.  I found the right space to put it and began digging away.  In about a week, I had my butterfly garden completed.  But what kind of butterflies did I want to visit my garden?  During my down time, I had read about how the Monarch butterflies were basically endangered. To save them we would need to raise them….and so it began!

Over the past 20 years or so, the Monarch butterfly population has diminished over 90% due to the loss of their habitat and food source – Milkweed.  Milkweed is just that – a weed.  Farmers were killing it, developers were removing it to put in parking lots, warehouses, subdivisions, etc.  With the loss of milkweed, migrating Monarchs to the north from Mexico had less habitat to lay their tiny eggs and those emerging caterpillars then had little or nothing to eat.  The survival of the Monarch butterfly was dependent upon the planting of milkweed.

Needless to say, our butterfly garden included 2 different varieties of Milkweed – Swamp weed and butterfly weed.  Thinking ahead, I also managed to plant flower varieties that adult Monarchs like to feast on for nourishment during flights to and from Mexico.  Because this was so late in the year (July) for gardens we did not think we would see any Monarch butterflies or caterpillars.  One day while I was out deadheading plants and watering in new ones, I saw the most beautiful black, yellow, and white striped caterpillar munching away on my milkweed.  I got very excited, took a picture of it, then ran inside to make a home for it.  Over the course of the summer of 2017 we managed to raise from caterpillar to butterfly, 6 Monarchs!  That might not sound like a lot (in the scheme of things what difference does 6 make?) but those six lay between 300 and 600 eggs, if they are female.  So I’ll take those 6!!  I thought to myself, “I know how to do this now, I’m prepared for next year!”   Suuuuure, I am.  🙂

Monarch Bonanza!!

Monarch eggs

This week (8/16 to 8/25) has been a Monarch bonanza!  We have had 8 Chrysalis formed; 2 eggs hatched; found and retrieved 27 eggs on Saturday; then 25 more eggs on Sunday.  We were lulled into a false sense of security because on Tuesday, fifteen of the eggs hatched!   You kind of lose count after a minute because those little “teenies” (as I like to call them when they are freshly hatched) like to scamper off in search of fresh leaves to eat.   We put them in the “nursery” until time to go to the toddler tank.  It got a little crowded in the nursery pretty quickly, but thank goodness they grow quickly!!

The greatest joy of the week was when we released a lady Monarch on the following Saturday.

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