My 2023 Monarch Raising Project (I)

In North America, there are essentially two main populations of monarch butterflies (Danaus plexippus). The largest population overwinters in Mexico and migrates to the northern United States — from North Dakota to Maine — and southern Canada each year. The second population overwinters in southern California and makes a shorter migration up the West Coast. Additionally, smaller populations of monarchs live in Florida or overwinter in scattered locations along the Gulf Coast.

The number of butterflies overwintering in Mexico has been trending downward since the 1970s. Milkweeds (mostly plants in the genus Asclepias) are the only host plant for monarch butterflies. Many gardeners, like myself, grow milkweed in order to provide food for monarch caterpillars. A combination of milkweeds and other native flowering plants also provides food for bees, other butterflies, and hummingbirds.

The number of monarch butterflies has been declining since the 1970s.

In 2021, I raised and released 77 monarch butterflies. My goal for 2023 is to release 240 — roughly three times as many. The reason for 240 is that for many years I raised roughly twice as many monarchs as the year before — from 7 in 2016, to 15 the next year, 30 the next, and then around 60 in 2019. To fit the pattern, I “should” have raised 120 in 2020. But there was a pandemic and other factors intervened and I only raised around 30. So, for 2023, I want to get back to the doubling — if only for a year.

To hit this target, I figure that I need four things:

1.) Sufficient milkweed to feed the monarch caterpillars

2.) Enough blooming flowers to attract the adult female monarchs

3.) To suppress any disease outbreaks in either the milkweeds or the monarchs

4.) A little luck

In this post, I will discuss the milkweeds.

In 2021, I had roughly 40 milkweed plants in my garden. These ranged from plants I had grown for many years to first-year seedlings. By the time the 77th butterfly was released, I was running low on milkweed. Using this information as a start, I figured that I would need at least one milkweed plant for every two monarchs I plan to raise. This should give me enough milkweed with a little excess. This year (2022), I have around 70 plants and I easily have enough seed for 50 more. That should be sufficient milkweed.

Milkweed is the host plant for monarch larvae (caterpillars).

In past years, I would look for monarch eggs or monarch caterpillars on my milkweeds when the monarchs were migrating through my area. I would then pick the leaf the insect was on and place it in one of my butterfly enclosures. Unfortunately, this wasted a lot of milkweed. When small, the caterpillars won’t consume an entire leaf overnight. By the next day, they want a fresh leaf. So this year, I plan to conserve leaf material by taking a pair of scissors and cutting around the egg or caterpillar. I’ll then lay that bit of leaf on a small plant in an enclosure. When the caterpillar abandons the leaf cutting, it will find itself on a milkweed plant. I can rotate partially consumed plants out of the enclosures to let them recuperate for awhile before using them again. Milkweeds are very resilient with regards to caterpillar damage. This should give me a little more leeway with regards the amount of milkweed biomass I need.

Adult monarchs will feed on the nectar of many native plants, such as these.

In a few days, I will discuss the other plants I will be growing for my monarch project. Milkweeds are the host plant for monarch caterpillars, but adult monarchs nectar on the the flowers of many plants. I have a plan to provide multiple types of flowers — blooming at multiple heights — throughout the monarch migration. In spring, I will update this website often on the progress I have made. At my location in central Texas, milkweeds start sprouting in late March and “monarch season” usually lasts from April through June.

Newly eclosed monarchs in a mesh enclosure, about to be released.

 

Safe Seed Pledges Are Bunk

In the early spring, seed catalogs will start arriving. I always enjoy the new year’s set of catalogs although one thing in most of them bugs me — safe seed pledges. You’ve likely seen them, a promise that the nursery does not sell seeds for GMOs (genetically modified organisms). Sometimes there’s a little badge that goes along with it. I’m very pro-science and, given the title of this article, you might expect me to launch into a defense of GM plants. But I’m not going to. There’s no need to. Whether you believe GMOs are harmful or have a reasonable grasp of genetics, safe seed pledges are complete rubbish.

We pledge not to sell you GMO seeds. We offer you this heap of complete rubbish instead.

Why? Because GM seeds are not available to the public. No nursery anywhere sells GM seeds to private individuals. If you are a farmer, you can purchase GM field corn, soy, alfalfa, cotton, canola, sugar beets, and . . .  that’s basically it. There are a couple other GM crops available, but they are mostly grown outside the US. (Wikipedia maintains a list of what GM crops are available as well as how much of each is being grown.) There certainly are not GM varieties for the vast majority of garden vegetables and flowers. What about the Flavr Savr tomato, you might ask? It’s not being produced anymore.

. . . just like every other nursery.

Nurseries participating in the official Safe Seed Pledge are pledging not to sell you something they don’t have, cannot sell, and in the vast majority of cases doesn’t exist. If you believe that GMOs are a distinct class of organisms that are harmful to humans or the environment, they are treating you like a gullible rube. Some even go so far as to say, “We will not knowingly buy or sell and genetically modified seeds or plants,” as if there are unscrupulous seed suppliers out there selling GMO rutabagas to unsuspecting nurseries on the sly. Farmers have to sign contracts specifying what they can and cannot do with their seed when they buy GMO crops. There’s no way a nursery could unknowingly buy GM seed. And they know this. Safe seed pledges are “protecting” you from something that doesn’t exist. It’s like Old Spice certifying that Krakengärd shampoo will keep you safe from krakens.

An alternative to what, exactly?

Understanding GMOs requires you to know a bit of genetics and molecular biology. How they fit into our food choices requires you to understand a little about plant breeding and the history of agriculture. For those who are acquainted with these things, it’s annoying to see nurseries flog for an anti-science position at a time when conspiracy theories and “alternative facts” are having a large negative effect on our country. For a while, almost everything in the supermarket was labelled gluten-free. You could buy gluten-free sugar and gluten-free salt. You could also buy gluten-free vegetables, gluten-free fruits, gluten-free eggs and — I am not kidding —  gluten-free water. Were the companies selling these products making life better for people avoiding gluten? No, none of those items ever contained gluten. Gluten comes from wheat (and some gluten-like compounds, that can cause problems for celiacs, come from related cereals). A lot of companies preyed on the scientific ignorance of people to make a buck, just as nurseries tauting their pledges not to sell GMO seeds are.

So that’s my first gardening post of the Beer and Gardening phase of this website. I hope you like it. This is not the most popular sentiment among gardeners, but I am not alone in holding it. And finally, I solemnly pledge to all my readers to supply the type of gardening knowledge that will keep you safe from kraken attacks, which kill the exact same number of people as GMOs do each year. (What a coincidence, huh?) I care that much about you.

Krakengärd is manning the front lines of the battle against kraken. Like the sea monster it has sworn to fight, Krakengärd is gluten-free and not genetically modified.

Welcome to Beer and Gardening Journal

Welcome. Today, I’m launching this website that will, as the name implies, cover two topics — beer and gardening.

Malt, hops, water, and yeast — in the hands of skilled brewer, that’s all it takes to brew beer.

My coverage of beer will mostly consist of how-to brewing articles aimed at home brewers. I will also post some general beer appreciation articles. As the successor to Beer and Wine Journal, there are already almost 600 articles on beer and brewing here. (There are fewer than 10 wine-related stories, which should be a tipoff as to why I changed the name and focus of the site.) I have been a homebrewer for over 30 years and have published 3 books — and literally hundreds of magazine articles — on brewing. I will continue to cover beer and brewing in a way that I intend to be accessible to beginners, but with enough advanced content to keep long-time brewers engaged.

Tomatoes and melons are a few of my favorite garden vegetables

On the gardening side, I will cover both vegetable gardening and growing native plants to attract pollinators. Over the years, I have grown a lot of different types of vegetables. These include tomatoes, peppers, pumpkins, squash, cucumbers, watermelons, cantaloupes, sweet corn, green beans, snap beans, broccoli (and most of the other major _Brassica_ vegetables), and others. More recently, I have begun growing native plants to feed the native bees and other pollinators in my area. In Beer and Gardening Journal, I will discuss these as well as pest management and plant diseases.

Native flowers blooming in my garden

This spring (2023), a major focus will be on growing plants to attract and host monarch butterflies. I have set a goal to raise and release 240 monarch butterflies in 2023. My previous record, set in 2021, is 77. I will, of course, be growing milkweed to feed the caterpillars. I have several species growing in my garden already and will add two more new ones in the spring. I will also have numerous native plants flowering when the adult monarchs arrive. These will draw the butterflies into the garden where they will discover the milkweed. Throughout the Texas stage of their migration, I hope to have at least three types of flowers in bloom at three different heights.  I will have weekly posts updating my progress on this once the monarchs arrive.

The number of monarch butterflies in the main North American population has been declining since the 1970s.

I will also discuss growing poisonous plants. Poisonous plants are fascinating, often beautiful, and — grown responsibly — they are not a threat to anyone. (When’s the last time someone ate leaves from your garden?) Each has its role in nature, too. For example, my monarch butterfly project relies heavily on milkweeds, which are poisonous. Also, roughly half of the plants in my garden that attract hummingbirds are poisonous.

Castor bean, foxglove, and larkspur are wonderful plants. They are, however, toxic.

At my home in Bastrop, Texas, I have an in-ground garden and several container gardens — or one large container garden spread out over multiple locations, if you prefer. In addition to being an avid gardener for over 20 years, I have a PhD in biology and an amateur interest in botany. As such, there will be a fair amount of science-heavy posts including those on botany, garden insects (both pests and predators), garden spiders, plant diseases, pest control (esp. for those wanting to avoid or minimize the use of synthetic pesticides), GMO plants, and plant development, and evolution. As with the beer content, I will strive to make the science-heavy posts accessible and relvant to all gardeners, without “dumbing down” the material. So if you are serious about gardening, you will learn things.

Here’s to beer! Here’s to gardening! Here’s to beer and gardening. Skål!

In the beginning, I will be posting a variable number — most likely 3–4 — articles per week. I will initially post more gardening articles, as the site already has 600 beer pieces, but that will even out over time. So please bookmark this page and stop by often.