Butterfly Predictions 2012: Historic Low Monarch counts, Wildflower Bounty, Butterflies Year-Round, a Blow For GMOs

Happy New Year!   January 1 provokes anticipation for what’s next.  In our case, we’re contemplating the next 12 months for native plants, caterpillars and butterflies.

Many would cast 2011 as a year best left in the rear-view mirror.  The historic drought seemed to mirror the dragging, downer economy.  We’re thinking 2012 will be different.  Here are four (mostly optimistic) predictions from the Texas Butterfly Ranch.

1.  The Monarch butterfly overwintering population will set a record low in Michoacan.

Initial reports suggest this may be the worst year in history for the number of Monarch butterflies that made it to Mexico.  “We have preliminary reports that suggest the area occupied by the butterflies this season will be less than last year,” Rosendo Caro of the Biosphere Monarch Butterfly Reserve told BBC Mundo.  Last year the butterflies occupied about 10 acres.

Rosendo Caro, of the Monarch Butterfly Preserve in Michocan

In this Spanish video, Rosendo Caro, of the Monarch Butterfly Preserve in Michoacan blames the drought for low Monarch roosting numbers.

No surprise, as the creatures had a hellacious year in 2011. Late season deep freezes in Texas resulted in a milkweed shortage just as the butterflies made it to the Lone Star State, thus no eggs were laid.  Then our historic drought during their autumn return depleted nectar plants they normally use for fueling on the return flight to Mexico.

Monarch Watch founder Dr. Chip Taylor characterized drought-stricken Texas as ”1,000 miles of hell” for migrating Monarch butterflies. We’ll await official reports, but betting on dreary news.

2.  Texas will see a blockbuster wildflower season.  

Texas Butterfly Ranch optimistically predicts boatloads of wildflowers this year.   A hefty seed bank offers pent-up supplies, with seeds stored in the soil and in ant tunnels during the drought.  Perfectly timed, slow falling rains in December bode well for Central and South Texas wildscapes.

A wildflower bounty in 2012?  We hope so.

A wildflower bounty in 2012? We hope so. Photo by http://www.easywildflowers.com

Yes, a dry spring could kill this optimism, but a wildflower bounty seems likely, judging from a recent trip to the Llano River.  Bluebonnet rosettes were popping several inches out of the ground and Cowpen Daisies were busting through the damp soil making their happy stems known. Abundant Goldenrod populated the riverbanks.  Keep your fingers crossed.

3.  With climate change, we’ll see more butterflies year-round.

The historic drought killed our butterfly dreams this summer, but the warm, wet winter that followed has an upside:  butterfly season has extended into December and January.

wChristmas caterpillars on the San Antonio Riverwalk, 12/2011

Christmas caterpillars on the San Antonio River Walk, 12/2011, photo by Robert Rivard

We picked Monarch caterpillars off the San Antonio River Walk milkweed patch as late as  December 18th.  And Gulf Fritillaries, Sulphurs and Painted Ladies were flying well into December.   Perhaps San Antonio will develop a year-round population of Monarchs like Houston and areas of Florida.  Again, keep your fingers crossed.

4.  Insects, including butterflies in all their stages, will outsmart genetically modified organisms (GMOs).  

Again, an optimistic hope from here, but we ARE hearing much about the imperfections of  genetically modified corn, which produces it’s own caterpillar-killing pesticide, bacillus thurengiensis.

Bugs may be resistant to Genetically Modified Corn,” headlined an AP story on December 28.  The article described how the western corn rootworm appears to be developing a resistance to the insecticide-producing Monsanto seed more quickly than expected.

Insects, including caterpillars and butterflies, are some of the most adaptable lifeforms on the planet.  “They produce large, numerous generations in a short amount of time, and adapt quickly,” says Austin entomologist Mike Quinn of Texas MonarchWatch.   Quinn points to the use of the fruit fly in genetic research.   The reason?  The insect adapts quickly and reproduces prolifically, allowing for efficient observation of genetic changes.   GMO weaknesses, and the adaptability and resistance of caterpillars and other insects, mean good news for butterflies-to-be.

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Posted in Butterfly Life Cycle, Butterflybeat, Monarch Butterfly, Monarch caterpillar, Monarch Migration, Monarch Watch, wildflowers | Tagged , , , , | 8 Comments

Happy Winter Solstice! Celebrate with Seedballs, a Recipe, and Step-by-Step Directions on How to Make them

As many Texans climb into bed tomorrow night and the sun moves directly over the Tropic of Capricorn at precisely 11:30 PM Central Standard Time, we’ll turn the corner on the shortest day and longest night of 2011.  It’s the Winter Solstice.  From here until mid June, the days will get longer.

Let there be seed balls for the Solstice! Chile pepper discourages insects and birds. --Seedball slideshow photos by Hugh Daschbach and Monika Maeckle

Spring marches our way–something to celebrate.  Some folks will bake Christmas cookies.  Others will craft tamales.   And some of us will combine soil, clay, water and seed–with a generous dash of chile pepper–to make seedballs.

What are seedballs?

Introduced in the 70s, seedballs are a form of “guerilla gardening” whereby seeds, soil and clay are mixed together into tidy germination bombs that are said to have an 80% higher success rate than simply broadcasting seeds onto soil.  Adding red potters’ clay to the mix protects the seeds from being blown away by wind or consumed by insects or birds.   Generally, seedballs don’t require watering and you should NOT bury or plant them.  Simply toss them in a vacant lot, your front yard, or a wildscape situation like a ranch or roadside.  Wait for the rain to melt away the clay casing, and nature will do the rest.

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Seedball recipes vary as much as those for Christmas cookies.  Some seedball aficionados recommend a 3:2:1 ratio of soil, clay and seed, adding nutrient rich ingredients like worm casings or other natural fortifiers.  The Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center encourages a concotion that includes sifting, humus with good bacteria intact, your local soil, and sand.  I’ve had great success using three parts local or potting soil, 1-2- parts red potter’sclay powder (purchased from a pottery supply) and 1 part seeds. The clay binds the ingredients and keeps the balls intact.  Add water until you get a workable dough that allows you to roll spoonful of seedball mix into a ball that doesn’t stick.

Put them on newspaper to set up and then add my secret ingredient: red chile pepper.  The pepper discourages insects and birds from denigrating or eating the seeds, giving them a higher chance at germinating.  If you find that your seedball dough is too watery, just wait.  The soil soaks up the excess liquid with time.

Once the seedballs set up, usually after 24 hours, store them in paper bags for later use or toss them right away.  Remember to use only native seeds for wildscaping situations. Good luck and let us know how it goes.

Texas Butterfly Ranch Seedball Recipe

3 parts local soil or potting soil
1 – 2 parts red potter’s clay powder, also known as “terracotta powder” at pottery supply stores
1 part native wildflower seeds
Water, as needed.
Newspaper and cookie sheets for drying seedballs
Stainless steal bowls or pots for mixing
1.  Assemble ingredients.
2.  Mix soil, clay and wildflower seeds together in bowl.  Mix well.
3.  Add water to attain dough-like consistency, much like tart or pie dough
4. Pinch off or use spoon to grab gumball-sized amounts of the mix.  Roll between your palms to get round form.  Drop onto newspaper covered cookie sheet to dry.
5.  Sprinkle generously with red chile pepper.  Let set for 24 hours.
6.  Toss and wait.  Nature will do the rest.
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Posted in Butterfly gardening, Seedballs, seeds, Solstice and Equinox | Tagged , , , , , | 5 Comments

Mission Reach Improvements on San Antonio River Spell Good News for Naturalists, Will Result in More Butterflies

If, like me, you enjoy witnessing the metamorphosis, come down to the Mission Reach of the San Antonio River over the holidays to check out the transformation underway.  More than 3,000 native tree saplings have been planted about two miles south of the new LED lights on the River Walk, an apt backdrop to restoring “the meander” to the San Antonio River.

Cormorants, Snowy Egrets, ducks and Greater Blue Heron have taken up residence on the San Antonio River Mission Reach

Various bird life has settled on the San Antonio River Mission Reach. Butterflies are not far behind., an apt backdrop for bringing "the meander" back to the River.

For years the San Antonio River south of downtown was treated like a drainage ditch.   But no more.   With the $246 million Mission Reach investment of public and private funds overseen by the San Antonio River Authority (SARA), the River will once again flow as a riffle-riddled stream, home to a diversity of birds, other wildlife, and yes:  butterflies.

No official butterfly habitat has been declared, says Lee Marlowe, Natural Resource Management Specialist for SARA.  Yet these early stages of the Mission Reach improvements are “habitat restoration projects, so the entire areas support numerous butterfly species,” she says.  I like the sound of that.

Marlowe provided a Mission Reach plant list that spells good news for future generations of butterflies:    Milkweed, Purple Coneflower, Cut Leaf Daisy, Sunflowers, Goldenrod, and several clovers are included.  Host and nectar plants dot the list of 39-species.  So do dozens of native trees and grasses.

When complete, the project will add eight miles of nature trails to San Antonio, connecting four of our historic missions to each other via hike and bike trails and restoring and restoring 334 acres of riparian woodland.  City leadership also hopes the south side Mission Reach, combined with the north bound Museum Reach, will connect the north and south sides of our city to each with the San Antonio River as a common thread.  See the video above for an overview of the project.

On the Mission Reach of the San Antonio River Walk: 3,000 trees planted in recent weeks

On the Mission Reach of the San Antonio River: 3,000 trees planted in recent weeks

A sense of community has already taken root along the trails as regulars walk their dogs, jog, ride bikes and enjoy the riffles.  The same goes for wildlife:  more trees, wildflowers and a restored River mean more insects and aquatic life.  Snowy egrets, Greater Blue Heron, ducks and Cormorants have all taken up residence on the Mission Reach so they can  enjoy the bounty.  An increased butterfly population is not far behind.

Posted in Butterflybeat, San Antonio River Walk, San Antonio Riverwalk, Where to see butterflies | Tagged , , , , | 1 Comment

San Antonio River Walk Boasts Vibrant “Butterfly City” Along Museum Reach as Butterfly Wildscape Matures

Having spent the last year in Austin, I haven’t had the chance to check on my favorite public milkweed patch on the Museum Reach of the San Antonio River Walk as often as I’d like.  Whenever I came to town over the last year and my husband and I found ourselves at the Pearl Brewery Farmer’s Market or enjoying a taco at La Gloria, we would wander down to the vast expanse of Asclepias tuberosa (native Butterflyweed and Monarch butterfly host) planted by the San Antonio River Authority (SARA) two years ago.

The Museum Reach Milkweed Patch on the San Antonio Riverwalk

The Museum Reach Milkweed Patch on San Antonio River Walk in Dec. 2011, dwarf white Lantana in background

A visit upon my recent San Antonio homecoming left me grinning.   A diverse population of butterflies flitted along the flowering stretch of river just south of the Pearl Brewery.

Monarchs, Sulphurs, Painted Ladies, Gulf Fritillaries–all nectared on native milkweed, lantana and passionflower vines, aerially skipping above the walkways and enchanting those lucky enough to bear witness.  Even after hints of a first frost descended on San Antonio this week, the butterfly wildscape looked stunning–robust, healthy, and still showing flowers.  Recent rains helped.

Passionflower and its fruit, the host plant to the Gulf Fritillary and Zebra Longwing, on the San Antonio Riverwalk

Passionflower and its fruit, the host plant to the Gulf Fritillary and Zebra Longwing, on the San Antonio River Walk

I’m not the only one delighted by the display.   Benjamin Ahlburg, a five-year-old fellow butterfly fan and son of Trinity University’s President Dennis Ahlburg and Penelope Harley, relayed via email that a recent trot down the River Walk left him charmed.

“Mum, it really is a butterfly city,” he told his British mom in an accent worthy of Harry Potter.  Tourists and passers-by parked themselves on benches to observe the butterfly festival, pronouncing it “lovely.”

Sulphur butterfly on lantana, photo by hsny.org

Sulphur butterfly on lantana, photo by hsny.org

Austin has Ladybird Lake and its incumbent urban charms–hipster-crowded running trails, kayaks and stand-up paddle boards for rent, and of course, the famous bat colony under the Congress Avenue bridge.

San Antonio’s River Walk has some of that, and more:  a unique marriage of wild and  urban.  Venture north or south of the touristy downtown River Walk and enjoy publicly funded improvements that bring the wild aspects of South Texas into our downtown backyard.  This urban wildscape befits San Antonio’s geographic location as “the funnel” of the Monarch Butterfly migration and as a crossroads for myriad butterfly species. And for home gardeners and those with acreage destined for a butterfly wildscape, our San Antonio River Walk provides proven inspiration for what works.

San Antonio River Improvements Project Map

San Antonio River Improvements Project

Two years after its installation during our historic Texas drought, the SARA’s $72.1 million Museum Urban Reach Segment extends 1.5 miles north from downtown, from Lexington Street to Josephine Street.   The project is part of  $358.3 million in San Antonio River improvements to restore the San Antonio River by Bexar County, the City of San Antonio, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers (USACE), the San Antonio River Authority (SARA) and the San Antonio River Foundation.

And it gets better.  South of downtown, the Mission Reach segment of the improvement project offers an even longer, more natural river walk all the way to Mission Espada.   The undertaking will restore 334 acres of riparian woodland and includes the planting of more than 20,000 young trees and shrubs, 39 native tree and shrub species and more than 60 native grass and wildlife species. It’s already happening and vividly on display just south of The Blue Star Arts complex.

According to the Project website, when the restoration is complete,

“The native landscape will look wild rather than manicured. Grasses and wildflowers will be allowed to grow to their natural heights rather than mowed. Boat traffic on the river will be limited to canoes and kayaks rather than barges. The result will be a serene, natural landscape where visitors can enjoy the inherent beauty of the river.”

Hallelujah.  More butterflies in our future.

Posted in Butterfly gardening, Butterfly Life Cycle, Milkweed, Monarch Migration | Tagged , , , , , , , , | 13 Comments

A Year in the Life of A Butterfly Garden: From Turf to a Butterfly Host and Nectar Garden, with Edible Landscape In Between

OK, no excuses people.  Time to get outside and get the butterfly garden going.  It’s not hard.  Doesn’t take all that much time.  And every day it inspires.  For proof, check out the slideshow below.

Turf to bed conversion: What are you waiting for?

Turf to bed conversion: why wait?

The photos below reflect 12 months in the life of a butterfly garden.  On November 17, 2010, I converted the Bermuda grass infested front yard of  my Austin apartment into a productive, fun and fascinating butterfly garden and edible landscape.  A year later, I’m leaving it behind and moving back to San Antonio to begin another yard transformation.

For help getting started, check out Part I and Part II of our Turf to Bed Conversion Series.  All the drought-damaged lawns around Austin and San Antonio beg to be converted from turf to beds.

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Fair warning: a butterfly garden has the occasional dose of drama.  Consider the case of my Heirloom Tomato Thief.

In June, someone stole the perfectly robust, ripe heirloom tomatoes I had incorporated into my butterfly landscape.   I only had two tomato plants, so this was especially aggravating.  Each day I passed  these plants en route to work via the walkway from my apartment to the car, and was clocking their optimal harvest time.

Just as they reached their prime, a thief snatched the purply red tomatoes from their destiny as a Caprese salad.  Then someone chopped down my remaining six-foot tall sunflower a day later.  These garden violations drove me to borrow a digital game camera and bungee-cord it to a tree, where it snapped photos every five minutes for two days.  The backside of the alleged tomato robber was captured by “the Gardencam”–but she wasn’t.  Take a look.  Nothing conclusive, but I felt a bit better and the thievery stopped.

Butterfly gardens can make productive use of even a small plot.  In my limited space, I raised dozens of caterpillars and butterflies, grew handfuls of fruits and vegetables, and burned calories, worked on my tan, and made new friends as neighbors walked by commenting and asking questions.

What’s stopping you?  Your butterfly garden is waiting.  Make it happen.  Let us know if you have questions, and good luck!

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Posted in Butterfly gardening, Butterfly Life Cycle, Butterflybeat, Jimsonweed, Milkweed, Monarch Butterfly, Queen Butterfly, Queen caterpillar, seeds, turf-to-bed-conversion | Tagged , , , , , , | 5 Comments

Monarch Butterflies Arrive in Michoacan, Mexico, Just in Time for Thanksgiving

As we all sit down to feast and say thanks today, reassuring news arrives from our friends in Mexico:  the Monarch butterflies have arrived in Michoacan.

As this video by El Universal, a respected Mexico City daily, reports, butterflies began pouring in to the Oyamel forests surrounding Morelia  this week.   As reported earlier, the sanctuaries opened to the public on November 18.

Monarch Butterfly Sanctuary in Michoacan, Mexico

Monarch Butterfly Sanctuary in Michoacan, Mexico--photo by El Universal

Monarch butterfly scientists predict one of the smallest Monarch butterfly roosting populations in history this year because of the harsh conditions that prevailed in 2011:  a brutal freeze followed by a late Spring, historic drought and raging wildfires.

“Keep your fingers crossed that there are no winter storms in Mexico that could make matters worse,” wrote Dr. Chip Taylor in his annual state-of-the-Monarch-butterfly report on the Monarch Watch blog in September.

We’ll keep you posted on the status of the overwintering population as reports unfold, but in the meantime we can all say “gracias” to the fact that despite the challenges, the Monarch butterfly migration continues.  For now.

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Posted in Butterfly Life Cycle, Butterflybeat, Mexico, Monarch Butterfly, Monarch caterpillar, Monarch Migration | Tagged , , , , , , | 4 Comments

In the Butterfly Garden, Part II: Transplants and Seedlings to Make a Vibrant Butterfly Garden in Downtown San Antonio

Last week we encouraged you to head into the garden to smother your dead turf with layers of newspaper and mounds of mulch.  This week the turf-to-bed conversion continues.

After giving your new beds  time to settle (with welcome help from recent Central and South Texas showers), you can start plugging in transplants and later, begin seedlings for the spring.

Coming soon: Butterfly Garden at "the Cube" in San Antonio, TX 78210

Coming soon: Butterfly Garden at "the Cube" in San Antonio, TX 78210

I like to recycle plants from one garden to another.  As I mentioned in Part I, last year I moved to Austin from San Antonio and took several plants from my Alamo Heights butterfly garden with me. A large rue bush, several milkweeds, a couple of bulbines–these plants made the 75-mile trek to Austin.

Now I find myself returning to the Alamo City.  I’ll take a few favorite plants back–some of the original San Antonians, as well as Austin finds.   Our new living quarters will be a green built downtown “Cube” (Leed-certification pending) conceived by progressive architect/urban pioneer Hilary Scruggs of Operative Ventures.   The front yard plot has a grey water system that recycles shower, bath and dishwater for landscape irrigation.  That has been an interesting learning experience (more on that another time).

Last week I prepped the area via solarization, using mulch and newspaper to kill the turf.  Now I’ll install a few plants.

Future butterfly garden. Hilary Scruggs "Cube" has a grey water sprinkler system

Future butterfly garden. Hilary Scruggs' "Cube" has a grey water sprinkler system

Here’s what I’m digging up and moving from my Austin bed:

Several milkweeds–brought from my Alamo Heights garden
Rue–the same one I moved from Alamo Heights
Bulbines–moved two from Alamo Heights
Lantana–bought in Austin, will move them to SA
Indigo spires–bought in Austin, will move them to SA
Red sage–bought in Austin, will move them to SA

Fresh transplants will be added shortly, such as:

Italian Parsley–buy at local nursery
Dill–buy at local nursery
Fennel–buy at local nursery

Milkweeds, of course, are the Monarch butterfly and Queen host plant and will ensure plenty of caterpillars.  In late March, the Monarchs leave their overwintering roosts in Mexico, laying the first eggs of the migratory season in Texas.  Milkweeds transplanted now will die back with freezes, but bounce back in the spring.  Many species of butterflies enjoy nectaring on Milkweed.

San Antonio milkweed, born in Alamo Heights, will return home after a stint in Austin

Tropical milkweed, born in Alamo Heights, will return to San Antonio after a stint in Austin

This well-traveled Rue bush will return to San Antonio next week

This well-traveled rue bush will return to San Antonio next week

My well-traveled rue bush is a sturdy, heat tolerant perennial that plays host to the Eastern and Giant Swallowtail butterflies and blooms yellow in the heat of summer.  As soon as the weather begins to warm, the black and blue butterflies deposit their golden yellow eggs on rue, Italian parsley, dill, and their apparent favorite–fennel.  For some reason they don’t care for the curly parsley and I don’t either.  The Swallowtail caterpillars are highly entertaining, and sport crazy yellow tentacles that seem to reach out and fathom the universe when bothered, giving off a weird scent. Kids love them.

Swallowtail on Fennel

Plant fennel now so you can have Swallowtail caterpillars in your butterfly garden this Spring

Another plus to using these herbs as a foundation for your butterfly garden: you can eat them, harvesting leaves and seeds for cooking.  Fennel bulbs can be braised and used raw in salads.  As temperatures rise in June, the herbs will bloom and go to seed, useful for next year or as an addition to dips, yogurt or sprinkled on toast or pizza.

But we’re getting ahead of ourselves.   After plugging in the transplants by simply cutting a hole in your mulch-covered newspaper, you can  propagate more butterfly plants by starting them inside with this year’s seeds. Cowpen Daisy, milkweed, Frostweed, sunflowers, and Jimsonweed can all be perpetuated by a shallow planting in plastic seedling trays with potting soil.   Get the plants started  indoors, water regularly, and they’ll be ready to transplant in the ground after danger of frost is past (usually March 15).

Cowpen Daisy seedlings in January 2011

Cowpen Daisy seedlings in January 2011

This year I might try pellitory or nettles, which host the Red Admiral butterfly.  Passionflower, host to Zebra Longwings and Gulf Fritillaries, also makes my wish list. Friends at the Austin Butterfly Forum rave about the woody Flaming Acanthus, the host plant to the Crimson Patch butterfly.  That would be a new species for me, and apparently hummingbirds love it.

Until then, my winter garden will remain sparse, as the solarization process breaks down the turf, creating fertile soil.  Likely I will supplement with winter lettuces–arugula, frisee, chard and kale–probably in a container.  Then, later in the spring, we’ll add tomatoes, okra, and peppers or eggplant.   Mixing edibles into the butterfly garden makes for a continuum of interest and activities.  If you’re not enjoying the butterflies or collecting caterpillars, you’ll be harvesting fresh produce.

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Posted in Butterfly gardening, Butterfly Life Cycle, Eastern Swallowtail, Jimsonweed, Milkweed, Monarch Butterfly, Monarch caterpillar, seeds, turf-to-bed-conversion | Tagged , , , , , , | 13 Comments

In the Butterfly Garden: Use Solarization to Convert a Drought Damaged Lawn into a Vibrant Butterfly Garden

From Alamo Heights in San Antonio (78209) to Travis Heights in Austin (78704) a butterfly garden evolves from an ugly patch of Bermuda grass

Last November, I relocated to Austin temporarily when my employer moved operations there from San Antonio.  Since my husband and I had just sold our family home in San Antonio’s Alamo Heights (78209), I decided to take an apartment in Austin’s Travis Heights neighborhood (78704) while continuing my job and figuring out next steps.

Future butterfly garden in Travis Heights, Austin, 78704 November 2010

FROM THIS: Bermuda grass front yard in Travis Heights, Austin, TX 78704, November 2010

Treating the episode as a “semester abroad”  with a full-time paycheck seemed a logical approach for our family, as was avoiding the maddening 75-mile commute.  That’s how I ended up renting Apartment B in a small South Austin quadriplex.   Exploring, experiencing and enjoying Austin’s myriad offerings held immense appeal, but one thought plagued me: I MUST have a garden, or grumpiness would trounce my fun.

With my lease starting December 1, 2010, I begged my landlord to allow me two weeks’ early access so I could begin a turf-to-bed conversion that would turn the Bermuda grass infested yard into a stage for my future butterfly garden.  My new circumstances required I park on the street and enter my apartment via the walkway above.  A garden makeover would not only provide a steady supply of caterpillars and butterflies to keep me busy, but a more scenic stroll each time I left the house.

Butterfly Garden, Travis Heights, Austin, TX 78704, Summer 2011

TO THIS: Butterfly Garden, Travis Heights, Austin, TX 78704, Summer 2011

Since first freezes in Austin can occur as early as November 15, I raced to begin my project, hoping to exploit the season’s remaining warm days.  But just as I arrived in Austin, the days grew shorter and temperatures dropped. What to do?

Turf-to-bed conversion:  six-10 layers of newspaper with three-four inches of mulch

Turf-to-bed conversion: six-10 layers of newspaper with several inches of mulch

Some gardeners would reach for the Round-Up or other weedkillers, but I prefer the chemical-free approach of solarization.  Solarization has worked well for me in previous lawn makeovers.  My butterfly garden in Alamo Heights, once an expanse of St. Augustine, had been converted into a wild, vibrant pollinator station in two short years. See photos below. (I STILL miss it!)

St. Augustine ruled for years at my Alamo Heights home in San Antonio, TX 78209

St. Augustine ruled for years at my Alamo Heights home in San Antonio, TX 78209

Solarization flaunts a low cost, low tech, low impact, chemical free approach to weed removal and bed prep.  Plus, why not take advantage of the free solar power that shines on our part of the world an average 300 days a year?

The idea of solarizing the soil or killing turf  in this manner is to smother, almost pasteurize the soil, killing most weeds and undesirable live organisms by raising the temperature and “cooking” the earth–much like a compost pile.  Piling mulch on top of layers of newsprint ensures darkness and insulates the ground, increasing the temperature–as high as 140 degrees, depending on the time of year you do it. According to several studies, solarization kills pathogens, nematodes, weed seeds and seedlings and speeds up the breakdown of organic material, resulting in more soluble nutrients for future plants. The process can take as little as three  – six weeks.

Two year old butterfly garden in San Antonio, TX 78209 Once it was St. Augustine

Former St. Augustine lawn, two years later, a glorious butterfly garden, San Antonio, TX 78209

With so many drought damaged landscapes in Central and South Texas, maybe it’s time to think about solarization and converting your yard to a butterfly garden.  Here’s how to do it.

Solarization How-To

1.  Thoroughly water (but don’t soak) the area you’re planning to convert from grass or weeds to butterfly beds.

2. Take a pile of newsprint destined for the recycling heap (I prefer the Wall Street Journal because they still publish their pages in large format), and lay down  six, preferably 10 layers of newspaper over the well-watered turf.  Cardboard, feedbags, and other compostable paper products can also be used, but my preference is newsprint. NOTE:  Many solarization directions call for black plastic to turn up the heat on the soil.  You can use plastic, but then you will have to remove it later.  As a lazy gardener, I prefer materials that will simply decompose.

3.  Water down the newsprint with a good spraying so it doesn’t argue with the breeze and will stay in its assigned place.

4.  Load  4-6 inches of native Texas mulch (for the two 15 x 10 areas straddling my walkway, I used about 40 bags/or $90 at the South Austin Home Depot) on top of the newspapers.   Then?

5. Water again thoroughly and wait.

You can begin to install transplants immediately, but that’s another blogpost.

Next week: we’ll discuss transplanting your favorite butterfly plants and getting seedlings started and incorporating edible landscape into your butterfly garden.

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Posted in Butterfly gardening, Butterfly Life Cycle, Butterflybeat, turf-to-bed-conversion | Tagged , , , , , | 2 Comments

State of the Monarch Butterfly Migration in Two Minutes: Thank you, Mike Quinn of Texas MonarchWatch

Our good friend Mike Quinn, an entomologist in Austin, Texas, who devotedly tracks the Monarch butterfly  migration and other insect activities (especially beetles) succinctly summarized the State of the Union of the Monarch Butterfly Migration this week on KXAN-TV Austin.  The two-minute clip, set partially at the Ladybird Johnson Wildflower Center, focused on the impact of the Texas drought and was picked up by the AP, the Weather Channel, and CNN.

“It’s like running a transcontinental marathon and then having a baby at the end,” the Texas  Monarch Watch coordinator and former statewide entomologist for Texas Parks and Wildlife tells the reporter.

Well put!

The article was even translated into Spanish:

Sequía en Texas afecta migración de monarcas.

Mike joined our Monarch Butterfly Texas tag team when we toured the drought-stricken Hill Country last month with the legendary Dr. William Brower, snapping professional quality photographs along the way and sharing with the world via social sharing sites.

As a passionate butterfly enthusiast, I often turn to Mike for a scientific perspective which he always generously provides.  Mike also serves as president of the Austin Butterfly Forum where he helps recruit first-class speakers such as world-renown caterpillar expert Dr. David Wagner who then avail themselves to Austin audiences with understanding, knowledge and really fun field trips.

Thanks for all you do for the butterflies, Mike.

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Posted in Butterfly Life Cycle, Llano River, Mexico, Monarch Butterfly, Monarch Migration, Texas Hill Country, wildflowers | Tagged , , , , , | 3 Comments

Texas Drought Impact on Wildflower Seed Production Cuts Both Ways, PLUS Five Tips for Collecting Wildflower Seeds

First frosts lighting on Central Texas this week and reports of Monarchs and other butterflies on the wane kindle dreams of next year’s butterfly gardens and meadows. To get a jump on next year’s butterfly hostplant and nectar haven, start by collecting seeds from the wild now.  November is the perfect time to gather seeds.

Cowpen Daisy patch October 2011

Cowpen Daisy "patch" at Lucky Boy Ranch on the Llano River, October 2011

Last year we wrote about collecting seeds from the prolific Cowpen Daisy, one of my favorite wildflowers.  Those seeds, Verbesina encelioidesm, are more scarce this year thanks to the historic Texas drought–just look at the recent picture above taken at Lucky Boy Ranch on the Llano River compared to the one below snapped last fall. Both reflect the same stretch of dirt road.  What a difference a year of historic drought makes.

Cowpen Daisy patch Fall 2010

Cowpen Daisy patch at Lucky Boy Ranch on the Llano River, Fall of 2010

When it comes to seed production in the face of drought, not all plants respond the same way. “It’s a strange thing,” says  George Cates, “seed cleaner extraordinaire” at Native American Seed, a company based in Junction, Texas, that focuses exclusively on native American seeds.   “Certain species are very well adapted to drought conditions and actually produce MORE seed during drought,” he says.

Cates suggests that the seeds of more drought adaptive plants often seem less desirable to consumers–the poisonous purple nightshade, ornery white prickly poppy and the invasive King Ranch bluestem.

Monarch butterfly on Gayfeather at American Native Seed in Junction, TX

Monarch butterfly on Gayfeather at American Native Seed in Junction, TX --photo by American Native Seed

Less adaptive plants die back during the drought exposing soil to the seeds of plants that are warm season dominant, creating an opportunity for more adaptive plants’ seeds to exploit the opportunity. (One of the primary reasons wildflower seeds fail to germinate is a lack of contact with soil.) “As the ground stays crispy and cooked, other things can take advantage,” says Cates.

Plants seem to exhibit native intelligence, says Cates.  “Somehow the plants know that now is a good time to make more seeds,” he explains, adding that American Native Seed’s gayfeather crop produced more abundant seeds this year than last–even though less rain fell and the native seed farm was forced by water restrictions to discontinue irrigation early in the summer.

Cates says that seeds produced in a drought likely will demonstrate longer periods of dormancy and may take longer to germinate as they await optimal conditions.

Here’s five tips from Cates on collecting wildflower seeds:

1. Try to assess whether the seed is viable.  A microscope is ideal for this, but if you don’t carry one on your nature hikes, Cates recommends selecting samples from various parts of the plant and squeezing a few seeds between your fingers.  Look for the hard germ core as well as softer, latent matter that surrounds and protects the seed.

2. Cut the stalk of the plant if possible and hang upside down for plant nutrients to bleed into the seeds until fully dry.

3.  Don’t feel you have to clean all the fluff and chaff off the seeds.  “There’s nutrients in that latent material,” says Cates.  Just keep the material dry.

4. Store seeds in paper bag until completely dry.  If you opt for plastic bags and store damp seed material, seeds will rot.   Dry seeds=important.

5. Don’t take every last stalk of seed.  Plan ahead and leave some for next year.

Good luck, and please let us know how it goes.

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Posted in Butterfly gardening, Butterflybeat, Llano River, seeds, Texas Hill Country, wildflowers | Tagged , , , , , , | 2 Comments