Missing The Monarchs

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I received so much response to the column I wrote about the monarch butterfly several months ago that I thought I’d give you a bit of an update, then ramble on to a few other topics.

The news so far isn’t good. From the Mississippi River to the East Coast, those who have become butterfly spotters and those who have planted for butterflies have pretty much the same story. No monarchs. We started with bad news in that the overwintering population in Mexico was one of the lowest in the past decade and then cold and wet weather on the migration up the East Coast seem to have hampered things as well.

They are not entirely gone, though, and here and there I’ve seen reports of one or two monarchs being spotted and even one report of caterpillars and eggs being found, but in very, very low numbers. It’ll be interesting to see what late August and September bring in terms of the reverse migration, so keep your eyes peeled and if you see larger numbers than in the past two summers, by all means let me know. I know that many of you have planted milkweed and butterfly weed plants and please don’t stop that effort.

It’s not just monarchs, though. I saw plenty of yellow swallowtail butterflies in June, but where I was seeing several dozen a day it dwindled to just a handful a day. I’m hoping they are following a blooming route up into New England and Canada, but in late July when my purple coneflower plot is in full bloom, the flowers are usually covered with all kinds of flutterers, while this year they have been rare indeed.

Looking back a few years, though, I remember one very cold and wet summer when there were virtually no butterflies of any kind, not even the ubiquitous cabbage butterfly—and maybe there hasn’t been a recovery yet. There are plenty of the white and yellow cabbage butterflies, though, and even a few meadow fritillaries and purple admirals. I sure hope we haven’t done some permanent damage.

But early one late July morning, I was driving east on Sunrise Highway and I noticed the butterfly weeds blooming in the center median in Shinnecock Hills. I also saw State Department of Transportation mowing crews not far away, and I was wondering if anyone had had the foresight to mention to the guys on these behemoth mowers how important it is to save these weeds and not cut them down. Then, on the way back at the end of the day, it struck me. Here we have dozens of miles of prime space from Southampton to Shirley where tens of thousands, no, millions of butterfly weeds could be planted or seeded straight down the median.

Imagine, if we could only plant a 5- or 10-foot strip of Asclepias tuberosa for 20 or 30 miles (and not have it mowed), how many thousands or millions of monarch butterflies could we attract and support on their northern and southern migrations? Sure, some of them would be hit by cars whizzing by, but then again if we add thousands of adult butterflies to the dwindling population maybe we could make a difference.

Of course, such a project would require the cooperation of the DOT and some pretty fast-thinking local folks from garden clubs and conservation organizations and maybe even a few environmentally conscious, deep-pocketed philanthropist supporters from south of the railroad tracks … but wow … any takers? I can see the headlines now, “Wealthy Hamptons Saves the Monarch!”

Another item that I mentioned early in the summer was the usefulness of having toads in your garden and how to provide a habitat that would encourage them to move in and feed on your insects, slugs and snails. The toad that I mentioned was the Bufo americanus or the American toad. It requires a moist, damp, nearly hidden environment to survive. But for those in the pine barrens and the barrier beaches, there’s another toad that can be just as helpful. This is the Fowler’s toad. I don’t recall ever seeing one until I was walking to the beach at the 700 block of Meadow Lane and there, sitting on the last step to the dune just feet from the beach, was a Fowler’s toad.

This species has the ability to burrow down into the sand to survive on hot days and could be present in beach-side gardens as well as the dunes where insecticides aren’t used. I’ve been trying to figure out how these toads survive at the beach because they need fresh water areas to lay their eggs and for the tadpoles to mature, But it sure was a treat to see this one, and it gave me some hope for the ecology of the Hamptons as I contemplate the red death of ponds and lakes like Lake Agawam.

I was out pulling an invasive weed known as the black swallow wort in an area upstate where I’m a steward for the Department of Environmental Conservation in a small and somewhat isolated preserve called the Shandaken Wild Forest. I work up there on weekends collecting data on amphibians, fish, birds, pulling invasive weeds and enjoying some peace, and while I was pulling these weeds I managed to get a branch or twig in my eye and did major damage to my cornea.

So while I’d like to write more about garden and outdoor emergencies this all circles back to my lawn, because for two weeks I’ve been unable to mow the grass and it’s gotten very, very tall. So what do you do when the lawn gets out of control and it still has to be mowed? It’s a slow process, but you need to raise the blade on your mower as high as it can go and make a slow pass. If there’s too much grass and you end up with windrows like a hay field, you can rake up the rows or use a leaf blower to get the grass into piles.

All this grass needs to be removed before it mats down, but the stuff makes great compost fodder if you can mix some brown material (carbon) in with it. Then wait a day or two, lower the blade to its usual summer height (which should be 2.5 to 3 inches), and cut again. After the second cut there shouldn’t be any cuttings left behind and then you can go back to your weekly cutting regime. It won’t look great for a few weeks, but it will recover.

For those of you who have decided to cut back on lawn fertilizer, and if you’re trying to reduce your input to two or three applications of organic fertilizer a year, now is the time to do that second application. The weather is beginning to cool and grass roots will be in their growing mode shortly. This is prime feeding time. An application of organic lawn food in mid-August will last for six to eight weeks, leaving your lawn in great shape to make it through winter.

This is also prime time for dividing iris and peonies. If you’ve got established beds of either that are five to 10 years old they can always benefit from some dividing. This encourages new growth on the older plants and roots while also giving you new plant material to move to other places on the property … or to gift. Look online for instructions and remember the biggest mistake with these plants is planting them too deep. Never add fertilizer when dividing these plants, but do water them in well when you’re done. Keep growing.

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