Night Beauties: 4 Ways to Help Moths in the Garden

Image of brown hooded owlet moth caterpillar on heath aster

For every documented butterfly species in North America, about 15 times more moth species inhabit our gardens and natural areas. Yet they’re far less known to us than their charismatic day-flying counterparts, perhaps because most moths are active long after we’ve hit the sack.

Though they often escape the notice of humans, moths are essential to many other species, including plants that depend on them for pollination and animals who eat them for nourishment.  As caterpillars, they’re a mainstay of the diets of baby birds. As adults, they feed everyone from bats to bears; in fact, researchers have found that grizzly bears at Yellowstone National Park eat up to 40,000 miller moths (adults of the army cutworm caterpillar) each day.

Our judgment of an animal’s worth should not be measured only by their potential to be prey for other species, though. Like all our wild neighbors, moths have intrinsic value of their own and deserve just as much respect, appreciation, and freedom from harm as butterflies do. Here are a few ways you can help these unassuming creatures in your garden and neighborhood.

1. Put down the spray bottle

Image of grape leaf folder moth
As caterpillars, larvae of the beautiful grape leaf folder moths do exactly what their name implies, spinning silk to tie leaves around themselves and nibble without being seen.

Much of the easily accessible information about moth caterpillars is confined to academic and agricultural sites that refer to these animals as “pests” because they dare to chew holes in leaves. All sorts of chemical potions are recommended for destroying the supposed enemy. But everyone has to eat, and I rather appreciate nature’s vegetarians. The grape leaf folder moth pictured above has likely taken up residence in our yard because this year we have an abundance of wild grapevines, their larvae’s favorite food.

image of tiger milkweed moths
Tiger milkweed moths like to hang out in packs on butterflyweed and other milkweed species.

Tiger milkweed moths also set up shop at this time of year, though the caterpillars are more gregarious than the adults. Sometimes gardeners are upset by the voracious appetites of these fuzzy creatures, worried there’ll be no food left for the monarch butterfly larvae, who also depend on milkweed. But these two winged species tend to have different palates. Tiger milkweed caterpillars join the buffet when plants have aged a bit, while monarch caterpillars prefer young, fresh milkweed leaves.

2. Plant native species they recognize

Image of brown-hooded owlet caterpillar
A brown-hooded owlet caterpillar munches on a heath aster, a white-flowering native that volunteered in my garden a few years ago and has since spread.

Plant names are sometimes embedded in the common names of some moth species or their caterpillars. There’s a good reason for that; like butterfly larvae, moths in the teenage phase often nibble only on vegetation they coevolved with. Common oak moth larvae eat oaks, locust underwing moth larvae munch on locust trees, and caterpillars of the hickory horned devil—whose more appealing adult name is “royal walnut moth”—dine on hickories and walnuts.

Image of bicolored pyrausta
A bicolored pyrausta (we think) visited a cutleaf coneflower by my patio last weekend.

But many moth names seem to bear no relationship to the plants the animals depend on: Brown-hooded owlet moths eat asters and goldenrod, and Pandora sphinx moths eats Virginia creeper and grapes. The larval host plants of some species aren’t even yet known; after moth expert Dr. David Adamski helped me tentatively identify a small orange moth in my garden as a bicolored pylautus, I searched references for her preferred foods only to learn that scientists haven’t yet figured it out. The lesson for me? Plant even more native plant species! You never know who might need them.

Yuccas and yucca moths provide an exquisite example of the fascinating mutualistic relationship between animals and plants. The yuccas receive the benefit of pollination from the moths, and the moths lay their eggs in the flowers, where larvae hatch and eat the abundant seeds. Wondering why I’d never witnessed moths among the many yuccas scattered around our gardens, I finally ventured outside around 10 p.m. earlier this summer and found more action than I’d ever imagined. It really gets going at the 27-second mark in this video taken by my husband:

3. Let there be dark

Image of giant silk moth
A polyphemus moth in our neighborhood appeared to be on her last legs – or wings – when my husband scooped her up from the road and placed her in the grass.
image of polyphemus moth caterpillar
A polyphemus moth caterpillar, brought to a presentation at City Wildlife in Washington, D.C., rests on an oak leaf.

Recently while researching a magazine column about gardening for bats, I was alarmed to find that some experts support leaving lights on to unnaturally attract moths for an easy food supply. Light pollution negatively affects giant silk moths and has led to the decline of other large species, including the royal walnut moth. “The preponderance of lights where there used to be forest is taking a heavy toll on these wonderful animals throughout their range,” writes entomologist Doug Tallamy in Bringing Nature Home. “Royal walnut moths have already disappeared entirely from New England.”

image of hickory horned devil
We felt lucky that our garden was home last year to the royal walnut moth’s caterpillar, called the hickory horned devil, a species threatened by light pollution.

As adults, these moths live for only a few days and don’t eat; lacking mouth parts, they survive only on the energy they stored up as caterpillars. Their primary function is to breed, but if they spend their nights circling the security lights in someone’s front yard, they run out of energy to mate and lay eggs.

Though bats are declining in number and face many threats themselves, it doesn’t make sense to harm one type of animal to help another–not to mention the fact that hurting species that serve as bats’ main food supply will only exacerbate the plights of bats, too. To save these moths from further decline, turn off outdoor lights at dusk, or install motion-detecting lights that don’t burn throughout the night.

4. Don’t equate tidiness with godliness.

Image of hummingbird moth
When not flying among our flowers, hummingbird moths rely on the garden’s leafy layer as caterpillars, taking shelter there in the winter.

We’re used to seeing hummingbird moths enjoying the wildflowers in our gardens, but they’d never reach this beautiful adult phase if we raked out too many leaves from the understory. These creatures overwinter as pupae in the natural ground layers, emerging in spring and summer as adults.

In fact, many species of butterflies and moths take shelter there, along with toads, queen bees, and countless other creatures who need to wait out the winter storms in decaying plant material we too often blow and rake away. This fall, leave the leaves and other natural material in place, and watch how many more species begin to take up permanent residence in your humane garden.

Photos by Nancy Lawson. Video by Will Heinz. Featured image: A Datana moth rests on a spicebush leaf.




Peekaboo! Who’s Hiding in the Plants?

Image of baby rabbits in golden ragwort
This spring, we grew bunnies in our garden! Though its leaves are said to be toxic to mammals, golden ragwort (Packera aurea) provides wonderful cover for nesting animals.

Last year, a friend emailed to say she thought my proposed title for an upcoming presentation—”Creating a Wildlife Garden”—was a little silly.  “If a vegetable garden grows vegetables, then a wildlife garden grows wildlife,” she wrote. “It sounds like you’re planting the seeds of baby rabbits!”

She was a marketing director with expertise in areas I hadn’t even thought about, so I certainly wasn’t going to question her. Besides, she had an interesting point.

In some sense, though, we do “grow” animals when we garden for wildlife. By adding plants and other habitat elements where they can eat, take shelter and raise their young, we are nurturing entire life cycles of species who may otherwise have nowhere else to go in the surrounding grass-dominated landscapes of suburbia. It’s just sometimes hard to see them. More often than not, my camera picks up on treasures I’ve failed to notice with my own eyes, serving up wonderful surprises in magnified images on my computer screen.

Often it feels like a game of hide-and-seek, adding to the joy of discovery in my own backyard. “Peekaboo!” I like to whisper when I do catch them diving into the flowers and taking cover under the brush. “I see you!” But mostly I keep my distance, grateful for a camera that allows me to watch them without disturbance. As these photos show, simply observing native plants provides a wonderful glimpse into the quiet worlds of animals who make their homes among the leaves and flowers.

Image of silver-spotted skipper on wild bergamot
Wild bergamot (Monarda fistulosa) obscures this silver-spotted skipper, one of many visitors to the nectar-rich plant.
Image of pink turtlehead and bee
A tiny metallic bee exits the all-you-can-eat buffet of a turtlehead (Chelone lyonii).
Image of earwig in coral honeysuckle flower
An earwig becomes much more intimate with this coral honeysuckle (Lonicera sempervirens) than my zoom lens ever could.
Image of bee in Virginia bluebells
A bee commandeers the Virginia bluebells (Mertensia virginica), an important nectar source early in the season.
Image of swallowtail on ironweed
A female Eastern tiger swallowtail isn’t exactly hidden by this New York ironweed (Vernonia noveboracensis). But a closer look finds someone much smaller–a skipper–sharing the flowers beneath her.
Image of swallowtail butterfly on hibiscus
A male Eastern tiger swallowtail has better luck being a wallflower behind the giant bloom  of Hibiscus ‘Lord Baltimore,’ a hybrid of native hibiscus species.
Image of katydid on common evening primrose
Katydids are hard to distinguish from the leaves of common evening primrose (Oenothera biennis).
Image of northern pearly eye on garage door handle
A northern pearly eye spends a long time extracting something (minerals? rain drops?) from the screws of the garage door opener before traveling to the keyhole to find more treats.
Image of hummingbird moth on verbena
A hummingbird moth samples the menu in a pot of verbena on my deck. (Once I realized why this nonnative is so attractive to pollinators with long proboscises–because of its accessible corolla–I planted more varieties of native phlox that would bloom throughout the season in the garden.)
Image of slug on swamp milkweed
A slug is more than welcome to show up on the swamp milkweed (Asclepias incarnata). Sure, he’ll ooze a little, but who am I to judge? Our species leaves much slimier, less natural, and more harmful substances in our wake all over the planet.
Image of baby bluebird in house
Young bluebirds try to stay invisible until their hungry bellies get the best of them.
Image of monarch on sassafras
A monarch butterfly enjoys basking for a while on a sassafras leaf and doesn’t seem to be  in any hurry to get to the milkweed. Perhaps he has just hatched and needs to dry his wings–or maybe he’s as curious about me as I am about him.

Growing a Cruelty-Free Garden

Image of red fox
Don’t believe the hype: Predator urine isn’t sourced from animals in the wild like this one; it comes from foxes and other species cruelly confined on fur farms. (Top photo by Jennifer Howard/Nature Works Photography; above photo by John Harrison)

The products and potions lining the shelves of local nurseries and big box centers used to mesmerize me so much that it was as if I’d thrown the rational part of my brain onto the compost pile with the rotting squash rinds. Overpowered by the sights and smells of floral abundance nearby, I didn’t even think to question what was really in those packaged promises of gardening nirvana.

I can’t remember what finally activated my B.S. detector, but once it went on, many things smelled rotten, and it wasn’t just the contents of the bags of festering cow poo from industrial feedlots. Plenty of products billed as eco-friendly have negative impacts on our fellow species, either directly or indirectly. Some come from cruel operations that confine animals in cages and pollute the broader environment, while others contain ingredients harvested from fragile ecosystems that provide critical habitat for wildlife.

Rather than supporting exploitive industries or robbing distant ecosystems to improve our own, we can purchase more humanely manufactured items or, better yet, rely on materials we already have in our backyards. Here are just a few of the strange products of 20th century commodification that we’d do well to avoid in the 21st, along with tips for finding humane alternatives.

1. Predator Urine: Cruelty in a Bottle

Marketed by one company as “the all natural, organic and humane way” to defend garden borders from wild nibblers, bottled urine is anything but humane. The product comes from fur farms, says Mary Beth Sweetland, senior director of investigations and research at The Humane Society of the United States. Produced also for hunters as a way to hide human scent, the urine is collected from coyotes, foxes and other animals raised in wire cages. Earlier in her career, Sweetland was part of a 1990s investigation that captured sickening images of the animals’ pitiful lives, including a particularly haunting one of a fox with his right front leg bone exposed. To feed the animals, the company ground up live hens in wood chippers. “Nothing has changed insofar as how urine is collected,” says Sweetland. “It’s all from caged animals on fur farms.”

Image of Will
This is my go-to for “predator” urine. He’s locally sourced and free-range, unlike the bottled products made from wild animals kept in cruel confinement. (Photo by Nancy Lawson)

The best alternative? Adopt a dog and enlist her help in marking your territory, or make your project even more DIY. Every couple of weeks in the summer, I ask my husband to go on pee patrol—an effective way to protect Joe Pye weed and other plants from nibbling so they grow tall enough for the butterflies to enjoy. It may sound ridiculous, but isn’t it so much more sane than imprisoning wild animals and bottling up their waste products for interstate transport to unsuspecting consumers?

2. Mail-Order Ladybugs: A Not-So-Special Delivery

Those ladybugs billed as natural biocontrols for the home garden are vacuumed up from where they congregate in the Sierra Nevada mountains of California. “If you’re an organic gardener, this goes against everything organics is about,” says entomologist Suzanne Wainwright-Evans, owner of Buglady Consulting, “because organics is about being good to the environment, being sustainable, being ecological.”

Image of Asian ladybug
Asian ladybugs get a bad rap, but they are voracious feeders, says Wainwright-Evans. Encourage these and other ladies in your garden rather than purchasing creatures snatched from the wild. (Photo by Nancy Lawson)

Though companies harvesting ladybugs claim there’s no real impact on the populations, “I don’t know if they have any science to back that up,” says Wainwright-Evans, who recalls one season when ladybug sellers ran out of their supply. “But just from a common sense standpoint, if you go to an ecological area and remove a major portion of the population or even 25, 30 percent, there is going to be some impact.”

And if you don’t already have the habitat to attract ladybugs, these voracious feeders aren’t likely to stick around anyway. Companies selling “conditioned” ladybugs claim to ship them ready to eat, having held them until they are practically starving, Wainwright-Evans says, “but how do they know when they get to that point?” Rather than importing animals to release in your garden, make a home for those already present in the region by adding wildflowers, shrubs and trees where many insect species can eat, reproduce, and provide natural balance.

3. Animal-Based Fertilizers: A Bloody Business

Many organic potting mixes and fertilizers sold en masse contain byproducts of slaughterhouses and industrial operations raising animals in intensive confinement. The lists of ingredients—bone meal, blood meal, feather meal, and pasteurized poultry poop—aren’t just nauseating to read. They can also sicken pets tempted to snack on them.

Image of blood meal bag
Is the eggplant a vampire? Is someone strangling the eggplant? There are much better ways to grow eggplants–and treat farm animals. (Photo by Nancy Lawson)

Yet you wouldn’t know it for all the corporate greenwashing. Marketers for the most visible brand promise a “simple, down-to-earth gardening” experience with soil made “simply from organic things.” Their green bags pair kitschy cartoon drawings with verbiage that sounds like it was adapted from the script of Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure; on the packaging for blood meal, a devious-faced eggplant dons a cape above the promise of a “luscious way to feed your plants for bodacious blooms and vibrant color.”

A product summary on Home Depot’s site takes it one step further by warning consumers about what they’ll get if they don’t accept the pitch: “pale, sickly, lifeless gardens.” It’s an interesting assumption to make, as my free-of-slaughtered-animals garden is anything but lifeless, buzzing and humming with bees, butterflies, birds, and countless other organisms making their home here.

Rather than seeding the “bodacious blooms” we grow for butterflies among the sad remains of once-sentient beings who spent most of their short lives packed into dark warehouses and feedlots, here’s a better idea for reducing the waste and misery of factory farms: Don’t buy anything they’re selling. Nature knows what she’s doing, and plants grew for millennia without our help.

In fact, many native species such as purple lovegrass don’t fare as well in overly composted or fertilized soil. And vegetables proliferate among natural materials from our own gardens—namely compost and leaves that are all too often sent to the landfill. “Why waste those nutrients?” asks Jim Nardi, author of Life in the Soil: A Guide for Naturalists and Gardeners. To enrich his gardens, he doesn’t go to the store; he shreds leaves gathered from neighbors and mixes them into the soil, adding food for millions of underground creatures and creating a far better substrate for root and water penetration than any bottled product could, whether organic or chemical-based. “You can add synthetic fertilizer, and you’ll add plenty of nutrients,” he says, “but it doesn’t do anything for the structure of the soil.”

4. Mystery Mulches: A Masquerade?

What’s in that mulch from the local big box center, and where did it come from? It’s hard to know for sure. Some bags could be filled with the wood of cut-up virgin forests that take centuries to regenerate. Despite efforts to limit the logging of mature bald cypress trees, these stalwarts of rich wetland ecosystems—which help control flooding and provide food and shelter for many wild species—still meet untimely ends as garden mulch.

Other mulch products may be filled with raw construction debris; cloaked in red and chocolate brown dyes, some could contain contaminants invisible to consumers blinded by the bright color choices. “That’s an example to me of sort of treating your yard like the inside of your house,” says William Cullina, executive director of the Coastal Maine Botanical Gardens. “You have to kind of think about ecological function when you go outside too, and it’s beyond just the sort of color-of-the-rug decisions.”

Image of mulch around garden
We occasionally use mulch from the landfill, layering it over newspaper and other natural materials from our property to add and extend plantings. Although we can’t be sure it doesn’t contain chemical residues from other people’s gardens, we know that at least it doesn’t come from freshly cut forest. (Photo by Nancy Lawson)

Cullina recommends using soft-wood mulches that break open to reveal spongy insides with a dark color that matches the exterior, indicating the product has been composted. Mulch from local landfills is recycled and potentially more environmentally friendly, but, as Cullina notes, this recycled yard waste could still contain harmful mystery ingredients such as persistent pesticide residue: “The problem there, obviously, is you really have no idea what the people that rake up those leaves are putting on their lawns.”

Leaves, grass clippings, and shredded branches from your own yard—or from the yards of neighbors who avoid using chemicals—are the most effective and sustainable mulch, not only suppressing invasive plants and other weeds but providing nesting and foraging areas for birds, small mammals, frogs, toads, and insects.

5. No Re-Peats in the Canadian Bogs

Peat moss comes from sensitive wetlands that have evolved over thousands of years and provide habitat for rare flora and fauna. While industry marketers say they harvest only a fraction of the peatlands in Canada—and that restoration efforts post-harvest help the bogs regenerate—ecosystems are fundamentally altered by such disturbance. For a product that isn’t even as useful as the natural materials already in your own backyard, this scraping of the land seems especially wasteful. Often used inappropriately as mulch, peat moss in the garden dries out and blows away. Mixed into soil, it adds little to no nutrients. Compost and shredded leaves are much better alternatives.

It can be hard to avoid potting mixes containing peat moss, which is added to improve water- and air-holding capacity, but it’s possible to make your own or at least reduce your use of peat-based mix by blending it with compost. Many gardeners have tried coconut coir as an alternative, though the long-distance transport from overseas introduces other environmental issues. Cullina suggests peanut husks as a potentially sustainable alternative sourced closer to home—something I plan to try this year.

Do you have any other tips for alternatives to products that exploit animals or harm their habitats? Share them here!



The Butterflies Awaken

Image of mourning cloak on bark

Unlike the many summer butterflies who proliferate on our warm-season blooms, the mourning cloak isn’t much of a flower fancier, instead taking her sustenance from sap upon emerging in early spring. She doesn’t linger for her glam shots either, sensing our apparently formidable presence and absconding before we even open the front door.

A tough cookie, she’s one of the longest-living butterflies, surviving the winter in tree crevices, leaf litter, and cracks in structures with the help of internal antifreeze substances. Yet she’s afraid of my shadow, often taking off into the trees when I’ve hardly yet realized she’s there. A nervous Nelly, she doesn’t float so much as flit—a common behavior among spring butterflies inhabiting the canopies.

Image of mourning cloak on swing
After watching a mourning cloak’s flight path toward this wooden swing surrounded by switch grass, I traced her path and approached quietly from behind to further observe her. Said to be named after similarly colored attire once worn during grieving ceremonies, mourning cloaks inspire anything but sadness. They’re a harbinger of spring, one of the first visible creatures to beautify the still-brown landscape.

Last year I spent a week of early afternoons in hot pursuit of my elusive friends, sitting in several locations around their favorite elm tree and waiting with what I thought was infinite patience. It wasn’t until my knee became a surprise runway for a butterfly landing—and I caught only the tail end because I was engrossed in my iPhone—that I realized how unready my spirit was for the privilege of close encounters with this shy species. (I described the experience in a post called Emergence.)

Image of mourning cloak on swing
Mourning cloaks live much longer than most butterflies – up to 10 months or so. Most adults will likely die not long after mating and laying the eggs of a new generation in the spring.

Forced to sit still, listen, watch, read and think for long stretches this past winter while writing a book, I have undergone my own metamorphosis since the last time these beautiful creatures awakened. This season, it hasn’t taken long to learn how to revise my approach—both physical and mental—to studying them. More than anything else, it helps if you put down your tool of distraction long enough to examine their flight patterns and basking behaviors. Moving deliberately is also key. In Butterflies through Binoculars, Jeffrey Glassberg provides tips that seem to be written directly to my clumsy old self: “Unfortunately, butterflies are pretty good motion detectors. So, you need to slow down. And be more graceful. The more slowly and gracefully you move, the less likely you will frighten the butterfly.”

Image of mourning cloak in wind
Trying to hold himself up in the wind, this mourning cloak shows the bark-like camouflage of his outer wings.
Image of mourning cloak in wind
After a cold winter, strong March winds didn’t deter this fellow either; he repeatedly pulled himself upright while basking in the intermittent sunshine.

The last thing I want to do is frighten any creature, so this year’s sightings of mourning cloaks and other butterflies in the brushfoot family have had me tiptoeing around the front yard as if I have tiny brushfeet of my own. When a mourning cloak landed directly in the path through our front garden as I headed to the post office last week, I postponed my outing, retrieved my camera, sat on the stoop, and waited. It didn’t take long before the return appearance, and over the next half-hour I moved my legs and arms ever so slightly to get closer to the little beauty. In the process of watching the butterflies over the next few days, I saw them blow over in high winds and then right themselves again once the gusts had passed. I noticed their wings becoming more tattered. I discovered other insects that I’d never have come across—including a beautiful painted hickory borer—without the spring butterflies as my guides.

Image of mourning cloak caterpillar
While removing what I thought was garden “debris” a few years ago, I came across this mourning cloak caterpillar, likely on his way to pupating. The experience taught me not to sweep away leaves where many small creatures overwinter, nest, and feed.

It was an Eastern comma butterfly’s repeated refills from the tap of elm tree sap that led my camera lens to that hickory borer cruising up the bark nearby. But the comma herself kept a wide berth, darting away as I tried to capture an image but then flying teasingly over my head after I gave up and decided to refill the birdbaths and weed the elderberry patch instead. One afternoon I parked in my chair and took photos from a 30-foot distance, lamenting that the Eastern comma still did not think me evolved enough to join her inner circle.

Image of Eastern comma on elm
The white comma mark on the outer wing of the Eastern comma butterfly explains her name. A related butterfly, the question mark, displays a similar marking but with a dot to complete her punctuation symbol.

But no matter; it must mean I’m not ready yet. I will keep trying, stopping and waiting to see what these butterflies have to teach me. If I’m lucky enough, I may even feel a little tickle on my knee again one day. I just hope I’m still ditching my phone long enough to enjoy the experience.

In late summer last year, this Eastern comma wasn’t nearly as bothered by my presence while I watched him puddle in the driveway. Though the species likes to inhabit woodlands, they are frequent visitors to yards that include their host plants (elms and nettles for Eastern commas and willows, elms, hackberries and birch for mourning cloaks).

Image of Eastern comma profilePhotos by Nancy Lawson



Through a Child’s Eyes

Image of camping trip
A flashback from 1973: My most cherished memories sprouted under the trees, where my brother Jeff, sister Janet and I spent many summers and spring breaks. Sometimes the Easter bunny joined us. (Photo by Roger Lawson)

We zigzag from tree to tree, seeking refuge under the leaf umbrellas. Drizzle turns to deluge as we dash beneath a tall canopy to plot our escape. The sky booms. My dad takes my hand, and I look up to see if he shares my sense of foreboding. But he’s smiling at me, his eyes twinkling. He says something funny, and we start laughing. I feel happy. Hand in hand, we make a break for it, dodging the downpour with the help of our tree friends, even though we’re already dripping wet.

This is my first memory of being alive, two months before my third birthday. Decades later, the rain-soaked hike remains foundational to my worldview. The trees took care of me on that day and many others, and so did my dad. It only makes sense that I have spent the rest of my life loving them back.

That’s not just my theory. Research correlates such childhood experiences and adult role models with lifelong respect for the natural world. While humans reap documented benefits from venturing beyond manmade environments—including stress reduction and greater physical health—our early interaction with nature is also essential to the survival of other species. As Richard Louv concluded in Last Child in the Woods, future decision makers are unlikely to protect what they don’t understand: “If we are going to save environmentalism and the environment, we must also save an endangered indicator species: the child in nature.”

When babies meet babies: A toddler discovers a monarch butterfly caterpillar while her mom shops for native plants at Herring Run Nursery in Baltimore. (Photo by Nancy Lawson)

Even the title of Louv’s book, which introduced the phrase “nature deficit disorder,” resonates with sustainability educator Chiara D’Amore. “I felt like the last child in the woods,” says the 36-year-old, who used to spend hours alone outside while her friends were glued to their video games. “That was me.”

For her doctoral research on the positive influence of family nature clubs, D’Amore started a group in Maryland two years ago. Columbia Families in Nature has been transformative for participants, including the deaf girl whose newfound confidence on uphill hikes amazes her mother, the families walking in a river or meadow for the first time, the boy and his mom who “feel like a part of nature” now, stopping to help an injured bird they would have ignored in the past, they told D’Amore. “We can’t just walk by.”

Whether out of fear of the unknown or lack of knowledge, many parents are hesitant to head into the wild, says D’Amore. Clubs remove barriers through guidance, camaraderie and a feeling of safety. But you don’t need a formal group to give the gift of nature. If you’re hiking in a park, enhancing your yard or walking through your neighborhood, these tips can help engage the little ones in your life.

Nature Knows Best
Decades after her mother transformed into Madam Zula under the pine trees, Cora Dieguez plays in hideouts like this one at the Adkins Arboretum Children’s Funshine Garden in Ridgely, Maryland. (Photo by Julie Dieguez)

It’s no surprise that shrinking wildlife habitat coincides with a dearth of kid-friendly spaces. Flat turfgrass provides few places to dig, hide or explore. What children gain in new ball fields, writes Louv, they lose in opportunities for self-directed play: “Research suggests that children, when left to their own devices, are drawn to the rough edges … the ravines and rocky inclines, the natural vegetation.”

When designing such elements for natural play spaces, Julie Dieguez recalls favorite memories: the natural cave of a forsythia bush or the pine trees that sheltered her “Madam Zula” table, where she and her sister put half of a split-apart, star-speckled rubber ball on their heads and told fortunes to neighborhood kids. Such magical forts can also sprout from sunflower hedges and bamboo fences, says Dieguez, whose company, The Wild Child, helps organizations and families bring kids outdoors.

“They are what you make them,” she says. “For us, it was usually a house, sometimes a hideout. But in all cases, it was a special place that was just ours.”

Wildlife-friendly plants add opportunity for discovery. Milkweed is the “crown jewel,” says Dieguez, who witnessed more than a dozen monarch chrysalises hatching while eating pancakes with her daughter in their backyard.

The Simpler, the Better

Kids are like cats: They just might snub expensive toys for cardboard boxes. Jumping in leaves, climbing rocks, making mudcakes, leaping across sliced tree stumps—this is the stuff their dreams are made of.

Jan on vine
It’s the simple things in life: This swinging vine at Catoctin Mountain Park was a highlight of my older sister Janet’s youth, as were the trees she climbed and the mudpies she made in our backyard. (Photo by Roger Lawson)

Scavenger hunts for skunk cabbage or signs of beaver chewing are a favorite activity, says D’Amore. Before group outings, she does a “pre-hike” to find logs harboring salamanders and other close-up opportunities. “You can’t orchestrate that,” she says, “but any time when I can help draw people’s attention to slowing down and looking and pausing and getting quiet, we come across a turtle or a frog or even a centipede or worm, and the kids just go gaga over it.”

You don’t need a naturalist’s knowledge to get started. “As adults, our default is that we think that something needs to be really intricate and complex to be interesting to a child, and that’s so not true at all,” says Dieguez. “In fact, in a lot of cases the more simple it is, the more they have to use their imagination.”

At autumn “leaf parties” D’Amore helps organize with Transition Howard County, families make pollinator gardens from cardboard and leaves laid over turfgrass. The goal is increased habitat connectivity, but the children’s main job is to jump in the piles. “It doesn’t take a whole lot of leaves and sticks to keep them happy,” says D’Amore. “At one of the last leaf parties … all my daughter wanted to do was play with the woolly bear caterpillars.”

Tap into Your Kid-Brain

To learn respect for animals, it helps if you can relate to them. Nevada environmental educator Margie Klein uses her hands to model a stealthy coyote. “To survive in the environment, the coyote has to keep its ears open all the time but its mouth closed,” she tells her young charges. “Let’s be quiet coyotes.”

If kids chase animals or carelessly rip leaves off bushes, Klein asks, “What would it be like if this was your home?” To discourage them from collecting wildlife as pets, Klein poses illuminating questions. “Horned toads only eat a certain kind of ant. So I tell the kids,” she says, in an almost-whisper, “ ‘Do you think you could find enough of this one species of ant to keep it fed every day?’ ”

On desert walks near her home, Klein and her grandson look for tracks, nests and other signs of animals: Has anyone been bedding down in the bushes? Are there shallow scrapes where jackrabbits have slept? Who chews on leaves? Which seeds will birds eat?

Children know what many of us world-weary adults have forgotten: Life is much more meaningful when you take time to smell the roses — and pet the goats. (Photo by Nancy Lawson)

Klein uses food to talk about scat; cocoa puffs represent plant-eater pellets, Tootsie Rolls mimic meat-eater scat. Fox scat looks like granola bars because foxes are omnivores. “You’ve got to find ways to connect it to a child’s mind and make it interesting for them.”

By letting kids lead the way in conversation and in the woods, you can avoid the feeling of “a forced march through a museum,” says D’Amore. “It’s that old adage: It’s about the journey.”

Long after my dad and I ran scattershot through the storm, I continued my nonlinear path. Sometimes the one-block walk from school took two hours, but my mom understood there were important discoveries to be made in the crackly leaves on the curbside or the water beneath the sewer grate. The world wasn’t a place to barrel through or admire from afar; it was a place to touch, smell, hear and be a part of—my place, and one that, all these years later, I would remain committed to protecting.

This article originally appeared in the March-April 2016 issue of All Animals.



Image of ironweed and skippersHumans have devised a good bit of verbal trickery to justify abuse of our surroundings. If we’re tired of a certain kind of animal—or simply don’t like the looks of him—we label the whole species a “pest.” If we think a particular plant is too independent-minded for the boring cookie-cutter aesthetic standards of our corporatized culture, we call it a “weed.”

Even the official definition of “weed” is entirely arbitrary: “a plant that is not valued where it is growing,” Webster’s tells us, “and is usually of vigorous growth; especially : one that tends to overgrow or choke out more desirable plants.” I won’t be the first or last to point out the irony of such a description sprouting from the minds of a species that has taken over the planet faster than any plant ever could.

If animals had a say in the matter—if they could write their own assessments of their surroundings—what would they tell us? We’ll never know for sure, but based on our observations, we can be certain that the flowers and trees we often treat as trash are treasures for wildlife. Some of these native plants need little introduction, having finally revealed their long-neglected beauty thanks to a growing interest in life-sustaining gardens. Others are still commonly saddled with stereotypes, appearing most often in derogatory lists of “weeds” created for large-scale agriculture.

In an ongoing Humane Gardener series, #WeedsNotWeeds, I’m going to highlight both the native plants in the limelight and those in the still-maligned-light. Here are five to get us started.

New York Ironweed (Vernonia noveboracensis)

A plant frequently sold by native nurseries, the gorgeous ironweed wouldn’t normally top my list of species in need of defenders. But it didn’t take much research to learn why it was ever dubbed a “weed” in the first place: Cows and horses find it unpalatable, so it has an easy time spreading in pastures where farmers would prefer to grow grazing plants. But butterflies, bees, and birds need to eat, too. To provide a nonstop buffet from late summer into fall, add native ironweeds to your garden. In my meadow, ironweed thrives and reseeds among Joe Pye weed and native sunflower species.

Burnweed, Fireweed, Pilewort (Erechtites hieracifolia)Image of horseweed

As its common Image of burnweednames imply, this native plant colonizes burned or disturbed sites. In my yard, it has appeared in an abandoned vegetable garden, sprouting in the shadow of volunteer goldenrods. Though the tiny composite flowers are hard for us to discern, they’re delicious to bees large and small, as well as to wasps and flies. This isn’t so much a species you purchase—I’ve never seen it sold except in dried form for medicinal use—as one you let bloom where it plants itself in naturalized areas. For help with identification at different stages, check out these Name That Plant photos.

Jewelweed (Impatiens capensis)

Image of jewelweedJewelweed never fails to remind me of my own ignorance—and of the fallibility of human language and perspective. Its spectacular flowers are a magnet for hummingbirds; bees and butterflies also visit. Unfortunately for those animals, when we moved into our home 16 years ago, I saw jewelweed growing along the back fence and insisted on removing it. As I extolled its beauty even while yanking it out, my husband tried to stop me from my militancy. But eventually he joined in after I showed him the name of the plant. Neither of us realized back then not to trust labels.

Though it grows throughout much of the U.S. and Canada in shady, moist areas, jewelweed has not come back in my yard. Last summer while walking up the street, I saw it repatriating a lot where a developer had clear-cut an eighth of an acre before abandoning his project a few years back. Sadly, by the time of my next walk, the jewelweed had been mowed down. The next time I see it there, I will collect a few seeds—a great way to give the population a protected home while also ensuring my new plants are already adapted to local conditions.

Smartweed (Polygonum pensylvanicum)Image of Pennsylvania smartweed

If you ask a duck, mourning dove or goose whether this is a valuable plant, they may be too busy nibbling to respond. Smartweed seeds also feed bobwhites, ring-necked pheasants, rails, mice, muskrats, raccoons, fox squirrels, and dozens of other species. Birds and other animals seek cover among the leaves. Last summer, after digging up turfgrass to plant native river oats (Chasmanthum latifolium), I discovered smartweed and Japanese stiltgrass moving in together around the edges. I trimmed down the stiltgrass to keep it from seeding and let the smartweed continue to proliferate. We’ll witness the next stage of this experiment when the weather warms.

Horseweed (Conyza canadensis) DSC_0249

You can’t keep a good “weed” down. Some populations of this native plant have developed resistance to herbicides, including glyphosate, the primary ingredient in Roundup. The spraying of glyphosate on Midwestern corn and soy fields has been implicated in losses of the monarch butterfly’s only larval host plant, milkweed—which, like horseweed, grows in pastureland and on roadsides and disturbed sites.

It turns out that horseweed is also a friend to the monarch, providing an important nectar source during fall migrations. And it feeds butterfly and moth larvae, including beautiful caterpillars in the Cucullia genus. I like to think of horseweed’s persistence and refusal to stand down in the face of giant chemical companies as Mother Nature’s conspiracy to fight on behalf of all these interdependent species.

Though I’ve seen even native plant enthusiasts cast aspersions on this plant for its supposedly aggressive tendencies, it doesn’t persist indefinitely, instead gradually giving way to perennials. When horseweed popped up to keep my new Virginia roses company last summer, I cheered it on—and so did the monarch I saw visiting the plant in late summer. Viva la revolución! 

What are your favorite #WeedsNotWeeds?

(Jewelweed photo by Will Heinz; all others by Nancy Lawson.)

Splendor in the Grass

Image of broomsedge
A tale of two species: A battle with invasive Japanese barberry led to a thrilling discovery of this native colonizer.

As I went on a mission to rid our woods of invasive Japanese barberry, the plants organized their own offensive to rid the woods of me. They poked and prodded and pricked, all the while displaying taunting evidence of a new generation destined to pick up the fight next year: a red berry fallen into the stream, dozens of new seedlings sprouting under logs. For every barberry I cut down, at least three more lay in wait.

Removing invasive plants, barbs or no barbs, doesn’t feel particularly life-affirming. In the long term it makes way for many more wildlife-friendly species to thrive on my property, but in the moment such broad-scale butchery makes me feel like the grim reaper. It’s not the barberry’s fault it ended up here in the woods of suburban Maryland, far from its real home in the mountains of Japan. Imported as a garden ornamental in the 1800s, the once prized species is now considered a noxious invader in a number of states because of its impact on wildlife habitat, yet, paradoxically, is still widely sold and planted.

In my woods, the bushes certainly seemed to have no rivals but me. Around the time these thorns in my side lodged a thorn right through my glove and into in my thumb, I fantasized about possible antidotes to all this unpleasantry on an otherwise mild November day. If only a new native plant would make itself known, I mused as I carried out the last bunch of spiny branches my sore arms could tolerate cutting, it might make up for this prickly afternoon. The idea wasn’t entirely preposterous. Just a few weeks before, my husband and I had found nine Eastern red cedar volunteers peeking through the invasive ground ivy in our front yard. Other species I never planted, from the blue-eyed grass and heath asters to the sassafras and the mockernut hickories, have made a good life here, asking for nothing of us except freedom from being mowed down.

Piles of chopped-down Japanese barberry lie waiting to be carted away. Imported as an ornamental species in the 1800s, the bush escaped from cultivation and takes over native wildlife habitat.

Still, during that reluctant battle with barberries, my attempts to correct the sins of our country’s horticultural past and present in whatever small way I could were getting the best of my spirits. The plants had established such a roothold, and there were so many of them, that controlling their spread started to feel futile. It was nice to think about just happening upon a pioneering native species popping up elsewhere, but as I passed a leftover mat of Japanese stilt grass we’d tried for years to control at the woods’ edge, the possibility of an equally significant surprise native planting seemed ever more remote.

Image of broomsedge
Broomsedge provides cover, nesting, and forage opportunities for wildlife. Its leaves are larval hosts for several species of butterflies.

Just as I was coming upon a broad expanse of once barren field, though, I saw in a new, golden light a plant I’d passed by many times before. Standing tall in the warm autumn glow were masses of burnt orange grasses, their delicate fluffy seedheads sparkling up and down the blades. It was a species I’d admired in previous years, in small patches, when we’d tried to let the grass around our slowly growing tree plantings go wild, only to be repeatedly thwarted by multiflora rose and other invasive opportunists. This time it appeared our mid-summer decision to let nature take its course had finally been rewarded. Stretched out before me, in three large colonies intersected by mowed paths to the compost pile, were hundreds of clumps of this grass so vibrant it reminded me of sunshine and of the sun itself.

It also reminded me of a $15 plant I’d almost bought at a native nursery a few months before but left behind after overspending my gift card. And good thing I’d abandoned the unnecessary purchase, as a little research revealed that the grass clumping its way through our field was indeed the same species: Andropogon virginicus, or broomsedge, a species that is often the first to pioneer abandoned pastures. Thriving in soil considered infertile by conventional definition, it can hold its own once established, emitting alleopathic chemicals that inhibit the growth of other plants. Best of all, broomsedge provides important cover and nesting habitat. Birds and rodents feed on its seeds, deer and caterpillars feed on its leaves, and bees use the plant for nesting material.

Of course, as is the case so often with underappreciated native plants, all the merits of broomsedge add up to a whole lot of nothing for traditional agricultural interests. Still viewing the species as a weed because it often goes untouched by their grazing animals, many farmers follow the conventional advice to replace broomsedge with densely growing European fescue. In the process they are also replacing vital habitat used by quail, meadowlarks and other grassland birds, who need the escape pathways formed between clumping warm-season native bunch grasses.

Image of broomsedge
Unremarkable during the warm months, broomsedge comes into its own in the fall, its brilliant orange leaf blades covered in jewel-like seed heads. Though still called a weed in agricultural circles, gardeners and golf course landscapers have come to appreciate its beauty.

As I lamented my barberry and celebrated my broomsedge, I began to wonder if gardeners in Japan are doing the same thing in reverse. The broomsedge that enriches wildlife habitat here has been introduced there and in other places, including Hawaii, where it has no natural competitors. And the barberry that has become such a scourge on our corner of the planet is surely an important source of sustenance or spot for nesting for the wild animals with whom it co-evolved in Japan. Every plant is native to somewhere and has a place in the local ecology of its homeland. And every plant introduced beyond its range has the potential to wipe out other species unable to adapt quickly enough to its presence.

It’s easy to become discouraged by human manipulation of a natural world that can’t keep up with such rapid alterations, but the power of nature’s helping hand in healing itself provides an infinite source of hope even on my small plot of land. Despite a seemingly overwhelming number of habitat-destroying plants, I’ve seen so many examples of natives holding their own and sometimes thriving among them. Some are even outcompeting their nonnative neighbors. The trick for us gardeners is to be patient enough to identify these gems before we carelessly destroy them, and to let natives beget even more natives.

Image of purpletop grass
True to its name, purpletop grass shines a brilliant purple in summer. Wrongly assuming it was a too-good-to-be-true invasive, I neglected to photograph it at its prime and almost pulled it out.

In the case of my recent discovery, it came with a special bonus. An email to an ecologist confirmed not only the colonization of broomsedge in our field but the origin of a gorgeous grass with deep purple seedheads mixed among it. It was so pretty and so unknown to me that I’d made the mistake, once again, of assuming it was a too-good-to-be-true new invader I’d soon need to pull. But purpletop grass, or Tridens flavus, belongs here in this field, along with the caterpillars it hosts and the birds and other animals who find cover and sustenance in its blades and seeds.

Somewhere in Japan, I hope, another wildlife gardener has made a similar discovery. I only wish we could meet up to exchange our plants, together reversing the damage done by those who may not have known better. A simple handoff is impossible, of course, as is a return to the way things were. But improvement of habitat is definitely doable, because we do know better now, and we don’t have to know everything to get started in restoring ecological function to our landscapes. We just need to be humble and curious enough to watch and learn, letting the most overlooked teachers of all—the plants themselves—be our guide.

How to Grow a Wildlife Garden in 5 Easy Steps

Image of widow skimmer dragonfly
A widow skimmer enjoys the perimeter of a new native rose garden.

How’s a person supposed to get any work done when such exquisite creatures are flying in front of her face all day? That’s the question I’ve posed to the birds and bees and butterflies doing their best to distract me from a book project this summer. They’ve remained conspicuously silent on the matter, but my sister has confirmed my suspicions about this winged conspiracy: “There are so many,” she said of the pollinators crowding the swamp milkweed and green coneflower near my patio, “it’s hard to look away!”

Although my blog writing has become more sporadic in light of the looming deadline, I can’t let this week—the one-year anniversary of the launch of Humane Gardener—go by without paying homage to all creatures great and small who’ve made it possible.  With gratitude to them and to the many wonderful members of our two-legged species I’ve met along the way, I offer these tips.

Step 1. Make Friends.

Image of fritillaries on butterflyweed
Dozens of great spangled fritillary butterflies make their home in my yard every day. Though they enjoy butterflyweed and other plants in the milkweed family as adults, their caterpillars must have violets to survive.

You don’t need to earn a landscaping degree or hold a PhD in bee biology to start a wildlife garden. But it helps to have people in your life who are willing to share with wild abandon.

If it weren’t for my friend Sally, we would not have such a proliferation of great spangled fritillary butterflies. Though they’re attracted as adults to the nectar of many native species, their caterpillars can eat only violets. From the three plants Sally uprooted 15 years ago, we now have thousands that provide essential habitat for these little beauties.

At only two weeks old, our newest milkweed patch is much younger than Sally’s violets. But I’ve already found monarch eggs on each of the seven little transplants. And that’s thanks to Molly, who generously offered up her extras at a time when my battered milkweed in the front yard seemed to be getting too tired to support fall migrations.

Image of monarch eggs
My latest milkweed patch is sited near a pollinator garden, where last night I spotted a monarch butterfly among all the swallowtails, fritillaries, skippers, wasps, and bees. Wondering if she’d laid eggs on the transplants, I went to look under the leaves. Sure enough, some even had two eggs. Given to me by a new friend, these plants will heretofore be known as Molly’s Magic Milkweed.

My gardens are filled with such gifts: the aptly named “queen of the prairie” flower from Lisa, the tasty strawberries from Janet, the sweet-smelling mountain mint from Stephanie, the exotic-looking native hibiscus from Jan, the misunderstood but much-beloved-by-pollinators dogbane from Angela, the giant late-flowering asters from Christine.

Whenever I see all these plants and the life they sustain, I am grateful for the friends who care so much about our earth that they want to share its bounty.

Step 2. Give Back.

Image of eldeberry bushes
Planted in June directly into the turfgrass, these elderberries, a great fruit source for birds, are already twice as large as they were when I bought them.

Preying on insecurities of new gardeners, a whole industry has grown up around promotion of fancy bagged products and potions. But more often than not, these external inputs are counterproductive, disrupting natural soil cycles and maiming bees, butterfly larvae, and countless other sensitive creatures who feed and reproduce on our plants or in the ground.

Using what you have on hand—and returning materials back to the earth—is more sustainable and infinitely more doable on a small budget. On our own two acres, carving gardens out of the sea of turfgrass used to be a daunting task. After spending too many sweltering afternoons jumping up and down on a shovel wedged into hard clay, I began papering it over instead. This method preserves both rich organic matter and my fragile back. It also means I can use natural materials already on site, as Maryland natives grown in their preferred light and moisture conditions usually thrive in existing soil.

Image of clethra and birdbath
All grown in: This is the edge of a large garden created last year by layering newspaper over grass. Clethra is one of many beautiful alternatives to butterfly bush, the seeds of which escape from gardens to invade natural habitats miles away. Native groundcovers golden ragwort and green-and-gold serve as “green mulch” in this garden, quickly filling in around the well-used birdbath.

While the most commonly recommended method is to layer paper or cardboard beneath compost or mulch and let it all sit a few months before planting, I prefer not to wait that long. To make an insta-garden, I dig holes in the grass, put my plants in, surround them with paper, soak the paper with water to hold it in place, and top it all off with whatever else I have handy—leaves, old coconut fiber from hanging pots, potting soil from transplants, and (when I run out of options) mulch from the landfill. The beauty of this method is that, even as the new plants grow taller and the surrounding materials start to break down, animals and wind begin sowing seeds of other species in the spaces between. And before I know it, the earth erupts in flowers sown by both me and by nature.

Step 3. Think of the Children.

Image of pearl crescent butterfly
Spread the word: This pearl crescent butterfly fluttered all over the newspaper I laid down around my new milkweed, reminding me that we need to consider the needs of all our garden visitors. Though adults can drink nectar from many flowers, the pearl crescent needs aster leaves for her babies.

Much attention has been paid to the plight of monarch butterflies, and for good reason. The wanton destruction of the only plants they can lay their eggs on—those in the milkweed family—has led to a steep decline in their numbers. But milkweed is only one host plant among hundreds needed to support the life cycles of many butterfly and moth species in our gardens.

Image of American lady caterpillar
If you want butterflies, you need plants that will feed their babies. Antennaria groundcovers—in this case, Parlin’s pussytoes—are a favored host plant for caterpillars of the American lady butterfly. Within two months of adding them to my garden this summer, we already had an American lady nursery.

A pearl crescent reminded me of that last week while I planted Molly’s Magic Milkweed to expand my monarch offerings. She made quite a show of enjoying the damp newspaper and mulch used to smother the grass of the new garden, but her presence had broader meaning for me. This milkweed is nice and all, she seemed to be saying, but I need asters for my babies! While I happen to have many species of aster in my garden—including heath asters, smooth asters, and New England asters—I can’t say I planted them intentionally for pearl crescent caterpillars. In the fall I will add more in honor of my small-but-mighty friend.

Step 4. Call in Quality Control.

catbird 2
What’s good enough for the catbirds is good enough for me. They enjoy a range of insects and fruits in their diet, and I am only too happy to provide for them.

Host plants for caterpillars? Check. Nectar plants for butterflies? Check. Is there something you’re still forgetting? You can always count on the catbird to let you know. Like many birds, and especially baby birds, they are voracious consumers of insects. To ensure you have a plentiful supply, stay away from pesticides and other chemicals that kill grasshoppers and ants and everyone in between. Manufacturers of these products like to promise you the perfect rose garden, but a garden too toxic for a bee and too nutritionally deficient for a bird is no garden at all.

Image of goldfinch
Catbird-tested, goldfinch-approved: A year-old garden made from newspapers provides rudbeckia and other much-needed midsummer seed for goldfinches, one of the few birds who don’t feed their babies insects. They are “among the strictest vegetarians in the bird world,” notes the Cornell Lab of Ornithology.

Birds also need native fruits and seeds in varying supply when migrating, breeding, and overwintering. Shrubs offer both berries for sustenance and dense habit for nesting and cover from predators. Fortunately I was able to let my catbird friend know that this garden-in-the-making would soon be a thicket of native roses, a family-friendly spot for rose-hip dining and baby bird rearing.

 Step 5. Let the Team Take Over.

Image of bluebirds
Because our native trees, shrubs, vines, perennials, and groundcovers feed many species of caterpillars, the bluebirds in our front yard had plenty of food to raise noisy, healthy babies this year. Photo by Will Heinz
Image of hummingbird moth on phlox
In the spring hummingbird moths dine on phlox divaricata; in mid-summer they find this phlox paniculata irresistible.

Once you have a few spots planted with species native to your area, sit back and watch the magic happen. Leave as much of your garden as possible the way nature intended: Let perennial stalks stay up overwinter so the seedheads can feed birds and stems can shelter bees. Provide bare, undisturbed patches near your pollinator plants so ground-nesting bees can raise their babies. Let leaves fall where they may to give shelter to caterpillars, pupae, salamanders, and many other animals during the cold, dark days.

You’ll be amazed by how many furred, feathered, and antennaed friends swoop in to offer their help once you make your home theirs, too.

The Monarch-y’s in Town!

Welcome to the Humane Gardener Monarch-y, where every day this week we’ve hosted royal visitors.

Mine, All Mine!

Image of monarch on signTo clear up any confusion about why common milkweed (Asclepias syriaca) is taking over our front yard, I posted a sign after registering our property as a Monarch Waystation. It was like an instant welcome mat for this male, who reigned over our little patch of earth yesterday. His gender is identifiable by the black dots on his hindwings.

What’s for Dinner?

Image of monarch on liatrisJust in time for the king’s banquet, the liatris began blooming. Later in the season, the monarchs will visit other nectar favorites: the asters budding in the background, the ironweed and Joe Pye weed in the meadow behind our house, and the boneset and goldenrod I’ve let seed throughout the gardens. Nectar-producing flowers that bloom in succession ensure a continuous supply of food for many creatures who stop by our habitat.

Can’t You Beetles Read the Sign?

image of monarch and milkweed beetleAs adults, monarchs feed from a variety of flowers, but while in bloom, common milkweed is by far their favorite in our yard (even though they are often forced to share). Since milkweed species are the only plants they can eat as caterpillars, a patch of its flowers must feel to a monarch like the front porch lights of his ancestral home.

Hey! You! Get Off of My Flower!

image of monarch on echinaceaA line has already been forming at the echinacea, too, even though it’s just beginning to bloom. This bee didn’t mind a little company from the glam squad, though.

Some Privacy, Please?

Image of monarch on sassafras leafOn Wednesday I followed this little one as she rested on a thistle, a potted rubber plant, some milkweed, and some black-eyed Susans. I’m not sure what she was up to here as she dallied on this sassafras leaf, but she seemed to be basking after a rain (or possibly after just emerging into the world).

Seriously? We’re Trying to Make Babies Here.

image of monarch on swamp milkweedToday another royal appeared to be ovipositing on this swamp milkweed (Asclepias incarnata) by the back patio. Monarchs like to lay their eggs on newer leaves, and planting more than one native milkweed species can help round out the nursery at different times of the season. To keep things fresh for late-summer breeding, gardeners can also cut back tattered milkweed to encourage the growth of new leaves. Just be sure to check for eggs before pruning. (Training videos from the Monarch Larva Monitoring Project can help you learn how to identify monarchs at different stages of their life cycle.)

A Log Moat Around the Butterfly Palace

Image of monarch sign and logsThanks to my husband, Will, our little Monarch-y is protected from county mowers by logs gathered from neighbors. Will helps me lay out the milkweed carpet for everyone who flocks to these plants—not just monarchs but skippers, bees, fritillaries, milkweed beetles, moths, spiders and many other members of the royal brigade.

The Value of Pollinators? Priceless

Image of margined leatherwing/margined soldier beetle
Wheee!!! It’s National Pollinator Week. This margined soldier beetle, his legs already awash in pollen, heads to another flower to continue the party.

We hear a lot about what other species can do for us, often through attempts to quantify their value in economic terms. Statisticians put pollinators’ contributions to U.S. food crops in the $15 to $30 billion range, and researchers have even calculated price points for individual species. Did you know, for example, that a single Southeastern blueberry bee has been found to visit nearly 50,000 blueberry flowers in a year, pollinating up to $75 worth of berries?*

Though the thought of all that effort heightens my admiration for both the animals and the scientists who have taken the painstaking time to study them, the ubiquitousness of this kind of “What’s in it for me?” framework gives me pause. Even the very word “pollinator” itself, at least as it’s often used now, is reductionist, singling out only one functional aspect among many that characterize this vastly diverse set of creatures.

The approach is understandable in a society plagued with short attention spans and even shorter-term thinking, but I fear that emphasizing the financial benefits we derive from animals may have the opposite of its intended effect. As Richard Conniff described so eloquently in a New York Times opinion piece, economic value is often successfully invoked to the detriment of our fellow species. “[U]sefulness is precisely the argument other people put forward to justify destroying or displacing wildlife,” he writes, “and they generally bring a larger and more persuasive kind of green to the argument.”

Around the time I read Conniff’s essay last fall, someone suggested I write a blog on the economic value of pollinators. I’ve tried, but the numbers are contradictory, and the story never seems to hold up. There’s a reason for that: Our pollinators—and indeed all the animals on this planet—have a priceless role to play, even if we humans haven’t figured it all out yet. Beyond what they do for us in the immediate present, the hard work of insects results in seeds and fruit that are critical to the diets of a quarter of our birds and many mammals. They’re also in and of themselves a meal for wildlife ranging from baby birds to foxes to bears. As the most diverse and numerous group of animals on the planet, insects are the very cornerstone of life itself. How can we possibly quantify that?

In honor of National Pollinator Week, I’d rather not talk about their financial value—which, as Conniff writes, should be obvious by now. I’d like to let these wondrous creatures—beautiful and strange and deserving of our respect and appreciation in their own right—help tell their stories through close-up views of their daily existence. Taken in only a couple of days this week on just a few plants, these photos gleaned tiny surprises I didn’t even see until I zoomed in. If only we could always train a macro lens on nature with our naked eyes, how much more would we understand of the bigger picture unfolding before us?

To be a bee or not to be a bee?

Image of trichiotinus piger (hairy flower chafer or bee-like flower scarab beetle)Image of Trichiotinus piger (hairy flower chafer, bee -like flower scarab) Watching the buzz around my possumhaw viburnums, my father and I wondered if these were baby bumblebees. They’re certainly fuzzy enough. But those little hairs captured so much pollen that it was hard to say for sure what lay beneath, and there was something about the bulkiness and movements of these insects that suggested a different species. Sure enough, they’re one of many that evolved to mimic bees, possibly to keep predators at bay. Commonly called the hairy flower chafer or bee-like flower scarab beetle, Trichiotinus piger also has some gorgeous headgear: a set of antennae that look like antlers or tiny twigs.


image of notch-tipped longhorn beetle on viburnumimage of notch-tipped longhorn beetle on viburnumAlso covered in pollen—to the point of looking like an albino insect (top)—were these notch-tipped flower longhorn beetles (Typocerus sinuatus). Only after finding one with a mere dusting of pollen (above) on another patch of possumhaw viburnum was I able to discern the markings. Beetles are thought to be the original pollinators, along with flies, appearing millions of years before bees.

Precision pollinator?

Image of Metacmaeops vittata on viburnum nudumIt was practically a beetle festival, with our new plantings of viburnum attracting a diverse crowd. This second type of flower longhorn beetle, Metacmaeops vittata, looked more smooth-bodied and less prone to masquerading in full-on pollen makeup while enjoying the open, flat blooms. Her larvae are wood borers, preferring tulip poplar—another abundant species on our property—as a host. When these plants produce nutritious pink and blue berries in the fall, the birds will have this and all our other industrious beetles to thank.

Don’t look at me—I’m plant debris!

Image of Himmelman's plume moth or grape plume moth on dogwood flowerIn trying to capture a photo of a small bee on this dogwood, I saw a reddish dangling bit hanging off the flower but didn’t think anything of it until I downloaded my photos onto the big screen. To my eyes, this creature looked like a piece of debris. And that’s how she likes it, apparently fooling a lot of species into thinking she’s a leftover plant part. So tiny that she’s sometimes grouped with an informal assemblage of moths called “microlepidoptera,” this is probably a grape plume moth or a Himmelman’s plume moth. Though many moths are considered important specialist pollinators, especially of night-blooming plants, the 10,000 species on this continent remain underappreciated. As the authors of the Xerces Society’s Attracting Native Pollinators note, “The muted colors of moths, their largely nocturnal lives, and the reputation of only a few species as crop or wardrobe pests results in their typically being overlooked at best or despised at worst.” I’m so grateful my camera was more attentive than I.

Accept no imitation?

image of bumblebee on lamb's earsThe real deal: Bumblebees have a lot of imitators in the animal world, but none quite so bumbly and fuzzy as the bees themselves. We have added lots of natives for them, but we also leave in place some long-ago planted lamb’s ear and catmint to help tide them over during the transition from late spring to summer blooms. This year we have had far fewer bees so far, an observation I’ve heard echoed by friends and colleagues around the country. Though we have not used chemicals of any kind in the landscape during the 15 years we’ve lived on this property, I can’t say the same for all my neighbors and have wondered if this is playing a role in the sudden decline.

This is my milkweed, too!Image of great spangled fritillary on common milkweed

Who says milkweed is just for monarchs? Many kinds of insects enjoy drinking from the flowers, eating the leaves, mating on the plants, and even eating each other in the milkweed patch (not necessarily all at once or in that order!). This great spangled fritillary has come to feed again and again on the nectar, keeping an eye out (or actually many eyes—butterflies have compound eyes with numerous lenses) for predators like me. I wish I could thank her and tell her I need nothing more from her; what she and her kind have already given us is far more than enough.

*This often-cited statistic is based on a 1997 study related to Southeastern blueberry bees in Alabama that was published in a journal of the International Society for Horticultural Science. Though the original research estimated the value at $20, recent citations have increased that number to $75, accounting for inflation in the price of blueberries. Subsequent research has shown varying levels of seed set in blueberries pollinated by this native bee, and scientists are looking at a number of different factors that influence pollination by these and other species. One thing’s for sure: Loss of habitat plays a key role in our native bees’ abilities to pollinate crops. As the Xerces Society pointed out in its book, Attracting Native Pollinators, transported honeybees are needed to supplement blueberry crops in Maine because wild bees lack consistent food sources from spring through fall.

A Rose by Any Other Name?

Image of hoverfly on Virginia rose
Unlike many of their nonnative cousins, Virginia roses bare their reproductive parts and entice pollinators like this hoverfly. A bee foraging on a nearby “Knockout” rose was not so lucky.

The sweat bee circled the perimeter, casing the rosey joint before nose-diving into the outer layer. Finding nothing, he tried a different tack, going around the bend into adjacent petals. Coming up short again, he reappeared head first and ascended the protective border of the inner circle.

Just a few steps from the anthers, he was on the verge of finally reaching his destination. But the flower remained stubbornly closed to visitors, and my friend flew off on an empty stomach.

The scene was akin to watching a child trying to open a child-proof container, but it wasn’t entirely a surprise. The bee’s chosen restaurant was a Knockout rose, bred for its hardiness, disease resistance, long bloom times, and just about everything else that humans desire but bees don’t give a damn about.

If there’d been a Yelp category for bee-friendly establishments, the dejected rose visitor would have found reviews from other pollinators with similar experiences. And he would have steered clear of this unwelcoming hedge and instead joined the hoverfly dining on my new patch of pollinator-friendly native Virginia roses in our backyard.

A rose by any other name, it turns out, is sometimes not so sweet at all when gardening for wildlife. Many modern and highly cultivated types provide little for our animal friends, their shapes and colors and structures so altered as to make finding food an exercise in frustration. In short, these manicured flowers may be a convenient and over-the-top feast for our human eyes, but they often fail to nourish our fellow species.

Image of sweat bee on Knockout rose

Image of sweat bee on Knockout rose
Around and around this sweat bee went on a Knockout rose before finally abandoning his mission.

Introduced with much fanfare in 2000, the same year my husband and I moved to our 2-acre property, the Knockout line once seemed like the perfect plant for a flower lover who’d been raised with a healthy fear of unhealthy roses. My pragmatic mom had occasionally expressed a quiet longing for the voluptuous blooms, but always with a note of regret about how difficult they were to grow. My plant scientist dad acknowledged the otherworldly aspect of roses but preferred species that required far less coddling.

My parents are from Portland, Oregon, where seemingly anything grows and entire festivals are devoted to celebrating the ancient floral symbol of love and death and regret. But they settled near Washington, D.C., a region with its own kind of lushness that hasn’t forgotten its muggy wetland roots and powdery mildew-filled, black-spot-tainted atmosphere. It’s great for some plants—like those that evolved here and thrive on the humidity—but not so accommodating of flowery fussbudgetry meant for cooler-headed climates.

Which is why much of America—its median strips, its parking lots, its storefronts and libraries and post offices and parks—ended up with ubiquitous hedges of the flamboyant and seemingly carefree Knockouts. In our own space, they quickly became a centerpiece of our front yard, needing nothing from me but a little water in the beginning and a lot of admiration in successive years. Even a vole who cut them off at the knees with his teeth didn’t manage to do any permanent damage.

Image of Knockout rose
This was the first of six Knockout roses I planted more than a decade ago. Most are now dead, likely from a virus, and I’m replacing them with more native plants that sustain wildlife.

They were roses that could stand on their own, without support from toxic chemicals, and that was why I’d bought them. What was not to love?

Over the years, though, I realized that the only other creatures who shared these affections were my one-time vole visitors. As I watched sparrows eat the seeds of the switchgrasses I’d planted nearby and bees collect pollen from the wild senna that volunteered between the bushes, I was dismayed to realize that, in spite of their gregarious-looking ways, these roses were at heart a very lonely species.

This year, as the Knockouts nearly succumbed to either extreme cold or the rose rosette disease virus that’s now known to attack them—possibly a combination of both—we cut the dead branches back to the ground and made way for more senna and switchgrasses  to take over. And I went on a mission to find roses that were meant to be here. Planted two weeks ago on a gentle dry slope in our backyard, the five Rosa virginianas are already thriving. Native to much of the eastern United States, they aren’t just disease-resistant and beautiful throughout the year; they also provide nectar and pollen for native bees and other pollinators, nutrient-rich hips and cover for birds and mammals, and foliage for caterpillars and leaf-cutter bees.

Image of Knockout rose center

Image of Virginia rose closeup
Maybe the bashfulness of modern roses is a relic of the Victorian era. To see the anthers of the Knockout rose the sweat bee had visited (top), I had to pull back the petals and hold them for the camera. Native roses (above) are not nearly so reticent, their perfect five-petaled blooms showcasing the heart of the flower for all to see.

Though we’ve been trained  to think of the fluffy-bloomed peacocks of the rose world as the most exquisite, to my eyes there’s something much bolder about our single-petaled native roses. Unapologetically baring all their reproductive parts, the flowers’ contrasts of pink and yellow beckon animals to come feed. And when the animals respond, it’s clear that flora and fauna are old friends who know precisely what to do when they meet again. Like any good host, the flower offers its tasty treats in just the right-sized cup for the tongues of its visitors, who return the favor with the gift of pollination.

The next time I visit my new Virginia rose patch, I hope to find Mr. Sweat Bee and his friends there, enjoying themselves at the open bar instead of wasting their time on roses that refuse to serve their kind. Those plants are manmade constructs that have little to do with the needs of the natural world. I don’t blame people for not knowing this; it took me years to figure it out. But once you know, you can’t un-know, nor should you try. The plants and animals have taught us that lesson over and over again. It’s our job now, as fellow citizens of this beautiful but degraded planet, to stop ignoring them, start turning down the volume on all the marketing ploys that encourage us to carry on ignorantly in our human-centric ways, and act in the best interests of all species. It’s not hard. We just have to restore our humility enough to follow their lead—to whichever flowers they take us to.



Giving Nature a Fighting Chance

DSC_0360 - Version 2

It seemed inevitable that soon enough in the coming months, this continent’s most captivating moth species would once again grace my outdoor spaces. And following a talk by entomologist and garden revolutionary Doug Tallamy last week, it even seemed conceivable that at some point I’d have the privilege of watching them feast on my fledgling woodland phlox.

What I didn’t realize was how quickly that would happen. Only two days after hearing Tallamy practically guarantee a visit from day-flying sphinx moths wherever Phlox divaricata is planted, one zipped past me to treat herself to the tasty spring ephemerals by our patio.

Seeing the tiny hummingbird lookalike so early in the season was magical, but her attraction to the pretty purple flowers shouldn’t have come as a surprise. Native plants are like that, beckoning their animal paparazzi before we can even get them in the ground. It’s why I’d chosen this species last fall—to provide blooms for early pollinators and spring salve for my own winter-sore eyes.

What took me aback, though, was the specificity of the visit. This wasn’t just any pollinator; it was exactly what Tallamy had predicted, and on the very native plant he had shown us in his presentation to Maryland’s Howard County Master Gardeners. It was as if he’d made a pit stop at my home and conspired with the moths to orchestrate the whole event.

Image of clearwing moth on verbena
This annual verbena was the only species I’d ever seen clearwing moths sipping from at this time of year—until I planted just three phlox divaricata (shown at top) last fall. The native phlox will return and spread every season, requiring less water and feeding more pollinators who depend on early blooms.

He hadn’t, of course, and that’s the point of the powerful message he’s been sending to the gardening public for nearly a decade, first through his 2007 book, Bringing Nature Home, and now through The Living Landscape, coauthored with Rick Darke. Nature evolved over millennia to create this and many other specialized relationships, he argues, so our role is to restore and nurture these plant and animal communities if we’re going to save enough biodiversity for a livable planet.

In the case of woodland phlox, it spreads readily from seed, but not unless it’s pollinated. And because of its narrow corolla, only an especially long proboscis can accomplish the task. “I’ve watched many bees land on those flowers and try to get their tongues into it, but they can’t do it,” Tallamy said. “It’s too small a hole.”

Image of hummingbird clearwing moth on phlox
Made for each other: Phlox flowers provide a perfect pathway for the proboscis of this hummingbird clearwing moth visiting my patio.

It’s just right for the snowberry clearwing moth he captured in his photo, though, and for the closely related hummingbird clearwing moth I captured in mine. And while the phlox may need these adult moths more than they need the phlox—clearwings dine on the nectar of other flowering species—the interdependencies don’t stop there. Clearwing moth caterpillars, like most other insects, rely completely on a limited palette of plants to survive.

In fact, 90 percent of the insects who eat plants are specialists, meaning they have evolved in concert with only a few plant lineages. That has critical implications for our terrestrial bird species, 96 percent of whom rely on insects, spiders, and other arthropods to feed their young.

Image of hummingbird on wild bergamot
Hummingbirds are more visible to us when they’re sipping nectar, but insects and spiders make up 80 to 90 percent of their diet. “So you don’t even have hummingbirds to put up that hummingbird feeder for if you don’t have any insects and spiders,” said Tallamy. Frogs, toads, bats, rodents, possums, raccoons, foxes, and bears also rely on insects.

“This is news to a lot of people,” said Tallamy. “It’s news to the people who write ‘landscape for birds’ books. You can read those books, and they’ll all tell you how to put plants that make seeds and berries in your yard. And that’s good to make seeds and berries. But if you don’t have the plants to make the insects, you don’t even have the birds to make the seeds and berries for later on in the season. So we need to put the plants that are making insects in our yards as well.”

Over the past half-century, as we’ve sprayed and chopped and mowed down those life-sustaining flora, we’ve inflicted incalculable losses on the fauna who depend on them. In just 40 years, bird numbers have dropped by 50 percent. More than 230 bird species are on a watch list for possible extinction. As of last winter, monarch butterfly numbers were down by 96.4 percent of their population size in 1976. Some other species of butterflies and bees are either on their way to extinction or thought to be already gone, their declines so precipitous that even the White House is intervening. Our frogs are in trouble, our watersheds suffocating from decades of uncontrolled runoff from crops and lawns.

Image of monarch on milkweed
A monarch butterfly found our front yard on Sunday, just a week after the emergence of milkweed, its host plant. We can plant with intention for many other species as well, said Tallamy. “We can use the knowledge of specialization to actually rebuild food webs wherever we want to do that.”

As bleak as it sounds, the trend is not inevitable. Collectively, one homeowner at a time, we can start to reconnect whatever fragmented habitats are left. Each time we choose a new plant for our yards, Tallamy advised, we should ask: How are we saving our pollinators? How are we sequestering carbon and repairing the damage done by chopping down so many of our forests? How are we contributing to the food web that starts with the insect specialists?

“This is the single most important thing you can do to stop the steady drain of species from our neighborhoods,” Tallamy said. ” … We need to raise the bar about what we’ve asked our landscapes to do. In the past we’ve asked them to be pretty. We’re good at that. But these days we’re going to have to ask them to support life. Because if we build lifeless landscapes at home, we’re going to lose the biodiversity that runs our ecosystems.”

Image of coral honeysuckle vine
Beauty and brawn: Vines and trees provide not just nectar and shelter for birds but food for caterpillars—who in turn are critical food for bird babies. A native nectar plant, this coral honeysuckle went into my garden more than a decade ago because I had a vague sense it would help other species while bringing joy to me. Only later did I learn that those species include leaf-eating caterpillars of the snowberry clearwing moth. Other native species, including the viburnums and hawthorns we planted, are favorites of the larvae of their close relative, the hummingbird clearwing moth.

In our own garden, this challenge has meant inserting native plants into the lifeless lawn my husband and I were faced with when we moved in 15 years ago—just 2.25 acres of the 45 million and counting that are covered over in unsustainable turfgrass across the U.S. It has meant removing invasives that take over habitat while encouraging natives that pop up on their own—the milkweed, the sassafras, the oaks, the hickories, the boneset, the violets, the sumacs, the black walnuts, the common evening primrose—to bloom where they’re planted. And it has meant learning to celebrate the holes in the leaves and the beetles on the flowers and the messy little webs and tents that signal the presence of our forgotten baby insects.

I’ll be the first to admit I haven’t always understood the interactions at play. My nurturing of the entire lifecycle of day-flying sphinx moths was only broadly intentional, in that I knew native landscaping would at least help someone crawling or flying or hopping through my garden. I just didn’t always know whom. But as I would come to learn long after planting our coral honeysuckle more than a decade ago, the vine isn’t just a nectar and fruiting plant for pollinators and birds; it also feeds the caterpillars of the snowberry clearwing moth and the spring azure butterfly. Even the leaves we’ve left undisturbed below those vines—out of a sense that tiny creatures might take cover and feed there—have a role to play, sheltering pupae during the long winters.

Some people admire the wild beauty my husband and I have gradually tried to restore on our property, replete with incongruous-looking species like viburnum and milkweed and invasive Bradford pear seedlings emerging side by side. Those who can tolerate the concept of a landscape in transition have even asked us to help them in their own gardens. But the truth is that we’ve had little to do with the most wondrous things happening here. Nature swept in and made it largely by herself. All we needed to do was learn when to get out of the way and give her a fighting chance.

A sanctuary for all living beings

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