My 2023 Monarch Raising Project (III: Disease)

[During the spring of this year, I hope to raise and release 240 monarchs. This is the third post in a series about my monarch butterfly raising project. The first post in this series dealt with growing milkweeds, the host plants for the monarch butterfly. The second post dealt with native flowers to attract the butterflies. This post is about dealing with the possibility of disease.]

In order to raise and release 240 monarchs butterflies, I will need to grow a large amount of milkweed in a fairly small space. I will also have too rear the butterflies in close quarters inside my butterfly enclosures. Anytime any species is found at a high density, the possibility for a disease to spread through the population is present. 

In order to minimize the possibility of a disease outbreak, I will need to do two things — monitor the plant and butterfly populations for diseased individuals and isolate them. It would be great if I could prevent all of the diseases that affect milkweeds or monarchs from arriving, but that isn’t possible. Insects arriving in the garden bring many diseases. Spraying insecticide to kill these insects is not an option because that would also kill the monarchs. Likewise, netting the plants would keep insects off them, but that would include the monarchs. So, I can’t prevent the arrival of insect-borne diseases. With that being the case, I need a plan to deal with insect-borne diseases, should any arrive. I can prevent fungal diseases by avoiding overhead watering and pruning the plants to increase airflow around them, if needed. 

One piece of good news is that I’ve never had a problem before. By the end of every season, my milkweeds are infested with milkweed aphids and milkweed bugs. And sometimes, their leaves get a bit mottled (suggesting some sort of disease). However, every spring the milkweed returns and is healthy. I’ve also never detected any problems with disease among the monarchs. I’ve had tachnid fly infestations, but I deal with that by raising the caterpillars in netted enclosures. 

My plan for dealing with disease is to monitor the plants and the butterflies (larvae and adults) for potential problems. If I detect a problem, I will isolate (or destroy) the diseased individuals. If a plant looks ill, I can simply remove it from the garden — hopefully before whatever it had spreads to other nearby plants. Likewise, if I see a caterpillar that looks ill, I can remove it from its enclosure and not add any new monarchs to that enclosure. I have several, so I can rotate through them and sanitize used enclosures before using them again. 

To make disease less able to spread quickly, I will also physically spread out my milkweed plants as best I can. This may not help much if an insect-borne disease arrives, as insects could easily fly from one side of my yard to the other. But it will help with any disease which spreads faster with physical proximity. I will also and raise the monarch caterpillars in as many different enclosures as is feasible. That way, if an individual becomes diseased, the disease could only be spread within its enclosure — which could be sanitized before being used again. 

Other than tachnid flies, one of the biggest threats to monarchs is the protozoan Ophryocystis elektroscirrha (often simply referred to as OE). Given the seriousness of OE, I’ll devote an entire post to how I will deal with this, should it arrive in my garden. One of the major things gardeners can do to avoid an OE infestation is not grow non-native milkweed. All of my plants are natives, so that’s not a problem. But, the disease is still worthy of serious consideration. 

At the time I am posting this, it is about 5 weeks away from the milkweeds sprouting and maybe 6 or 7 weeks from the monarchs arriving at my garden in central Texas. I have a lot of milkweed seed cold conditioning (stratifying) right now and I also have several milkweed rhizomes in my refrigerator. These are in addition to the milkweeds in my container garden planters. Things should start heating up in early March. If you’re interested, I hope you follow me on my quest to 240.

Sprouting Tomato Seeds

I have planted my 2023 spring tomatoes over the past two weeks. Standard gardening advice is to plant tomato seeds 6–8 weeks before you anticipate putting the transplants in your garden. The best time for transplants is when all danger of frost has passed and overnight lows are 50 °F (10 °C) or above. For me, it’s now 8 weeks until that time. As such, I planted my tomatoes 1 or 2 weeks earlier than recommended. This is not a big deal. Last year, an early heat wave stopped my plants from setting fruit at what should have been the peak of their productivity. So I wanted to be sure to avoid that this year. 

Tomato seed packets and some tomato seeds. All these varieties are TYLCV-resistant cultivars given disease pressures in my area.

The tomato (Solanum lycopersicum) is a member of the nightshade family (Solanaceae), along with potatoes, peppers, tobacco, petunias, and others. This group also includes the poisonous plants Datura spp. (jimsonweed) and Atropa belladonna (deadly nightshade) — both of which of which I grow in my garden.

Planting Tomato Seeds

Planting tomatoes is very straightforward. To do so, fill your flats with potting mix and shake them to settle the soil. Take your finger and press lightly in the middle of each well of the flat, making a depression roughly 1/8” (0.3 cm) deep. Place one seed in each depression and sprinkle potting mix over each seed until it is covered. Getting the exact depth is not important. If you plant the seeds way too deep, over 1/2” (1.3 cm), the seedling will not reach the surface. Too shallow, and the seedling may fall over. However, anywhere in the ballpark of 1/8” (0.3 cm) will work fine. Another rule of thumb is that each tomato seed should be covered to a depth of roughly 3 seed widths.

Some newly sprouted tomatoes (left) and some slightly older tomatoes (right). When first sprouted, the plants unfurl their two cotyledons (seed leaves); next their first true leaves emerge from the stem, at right angles to the cotyledons.

Tending to Planted Seeds and Seedlings

While the seeds are sprouting, you will need to keep the potting mix damp. Tomatoes will do best when sprouted at 65–85 °F (18–30 °C). This is a wide range and standard room temperature falls within it. A seedling heating mat will bring seeds to the upper end of this range. I used a heating mat and my seeds started germinating on day 5. Of course, warm and damp is an invitation for mold or other fungi to start growing. However, tomatoes sprout more quickly than any fungus can get going, so it’s not a problem. 

Tomato seedlings in flats (left) and in 6″ planters (right). The true leaves have extended to become branches, from which multiple, multi-lobed leaves grow.

I keep the seedlings indoors overnight, where the temperature is 68–70 °F (20–21 °C), but set them out in the sunshine when the temperature outside is above 50 °F (10 °C).  On days when they can’t get any outside sun, they sit by a window and I turn on my grow light. During the seedling stage is when fungi can become a problem. To deter the growth of fungi, remove the flats from the heating mat and allow the top of the potting mix to dry out, or nearly so, between waterings.

In a couple months the plants will produce small, yellow flowers and set fruit. These are tomatoes from last year (2022).

I’m in USDA Plant Hardiness Zone 8B, so my gardening season is going to start a bit before most gardeners in the US. Keep watching this website for more vegetable gardening information. 

Early Growth Stages in a Nightshade

The early growth of deadly nightshade (Atropa belladonna) shows some typical features of a plant in the Solanaceae family. The Solanaceae is also called the nightshade family. Other plants in this family include tomatoes, chili peppers, potatoes, eggplant, and tobacco. As a gardener and a biologist, how plants grow interests me. And, with a bit of observation, it is easy to gain some understanding into how a tiny sprout eventually unfolds into a larger adult plant.

Deadly nightshade seeds from two sources. They germinate better if they are cold conditioned.

In this blog, I will highlight the early growth stages of a variety of plants. These will include common garden vegetables and native perennial wildflowers. Not only is this interesting, but it has a practical value. Most gardening guides show only adult plants, with flowers or hanging fruit, to illustrate an entry on a plant. However, it is helpful for a gardener to be able distinguish the small seedlings of desired plants from weeds and to be able to identify volunteer plants in a garden. In the spring, I will compare early tomato and pepper development to this plant. 

Most vegetable gardeners plant their seeds in the spring. The seeds sprout soon after and the plants flower and bear fruit while it is still warm. However, there are many perennial wildflowers that are best planted in the fall. Some of these will emerge during the winter and will die off when the weather warms up. Deadly nightshade is happy to sprout in cold temperatures. So is larkspur, which typically dies back when other early blooming wildflowers are just starting the bud. Deadly nightshade is notoriously hard to germinate, and how I got my seeds to sprout will be the topic of a separate post. But they are sprouting now, and by looking at the sprouts, you can see how the plant develops through its earliest stages. 

Flowering plants can be divided into dicots and monocots. The “cot” in dicot and monocot refers to the seed leaves, or cotyledons. Dicots have two. Monocots have one. Most common garden vegetables and wildflowers are dicots. Monocots are grassses such as corn, wheat, barley, oats, rice, etc. The cotyledons, along with the stem, are the first structures to appear above the soil when the plant sprouts. If a plant emerges and initially has two “leaves,” it’s a dicot. 

Left: Two seedlings that have just emerged. You can see the seed coats still attached to their cotyledons. Right: Same two a few days later, and a couple other new sprouts.

What happens next depends on the species of plant. In the case of deadly nightshade, the first true leaf emerges by itself. This single-lobed leaf is oriented perpendiciular to the long axis of the cotyledons. Next, the second leaf emerges opposite the first leaf. At the two-leaf stage, the two cotyledons and two leaves form a cross. 

Two seedlings at the first true leaf stage and one with the second leaf emerging.

This is not the only pattern in dicots, however. In some plants, the first two true leaves emerge opposite each other simultaneously. And what comes after that also varies. Some plants quickly elongate their stem and keep producing leaves at regular intervals. Others develop a large number of leaves to form a small mound of vegetation. But for now, here is how deadly nightshade starts its life cycle. More later. 

Seedlings with their second leaves, and one for which the third leaf is just emerging (far right).

Garlic Experiment

One question many gardeners have is whether you can plant supermarket garlic and have it grow successfully. If you search the web for the answer, you get both yes and no. Some people say, “Sure, just stick it in the ground and it will grow.” And this is tempting since seed garlic is expensive compared to supermarket garlic. Others — and especially those selling seed garlic — will say that supermarket garlic may be treated with growth inhibitors or that it may bring disease to your garden. I decided to conduct an experiment to compare the two. 

Supermarket garlic (left): It cost less than $0.65 per bulb. Seed garlic (right): It cost about $18.00 for this bag, making it roughly $5.40 per bulb. The sizes of the seed garlic bulbs, and cloves inside, were bigger than the supermarket variety, however.

Garlic is planted in the fall. In my area, they say that mid to late October is the best time to plant. So, my experiment is already up and running. In one of my 50-gallon planters, I planted both supermarket garlic and seed garlic. Both types were softneck garlic, although they are different cultivars as I couldn’t find seed for the supermarket variety. The seed garlic I planted is called Lorz Italian. Sharing the same planter, both types are in the same type of soil, will get the same amount of watering, and the same amount of sun. I planted the garlic cloves in a grid with alternating types. That way, if — for some reason — one section of the planter was more favorable to growing garlic, both types would be growing in it. That’s not likely, but a good experiment is designed to control for all possibilities.

Everything in the experiment was designed to treat both types of garlic the same way. That way, any differences between them should be due to the experimental variable (supermaket or seed), not to differences in how they were raised. I’ll give more “science-y” details about this experiment in a later post. These will include a discussion of sample size, statistics, and whether this experiment has the power to answer the experimental question. I will also discuss limits to the inferences that can be drawn from the data and more. 

On the left, a picture of the planter after the supermarket garlic was planted, but (immediately) before the seed garlic was. The red markers show where the seed garlic will go. The supermarket garlic is planted to the left or right of the markets, with the spacing being even. The cloves are all separated by 5 inches. On the right, the planter today, with a few sprouts visible.

I planted 10 large, healthy-looking cloves from the supermarket garlic and 10 from the seed garlic. The seed garlic cloves were substantially larger than the supermarket cloves. (I still have some of each type left and will weigh them to get a ballpark difference. I should have done that with the actual cloves I planted, but didn’t think about it until after they were in the ground.) I will assess the germination rate of each type. In the summer, I will give a rating based on how large and healthy the plants look during mid season. I will also reassess at maturity. Most importantly, at harvest time I will weigh the garlic heads to see if one is yielding more than the other. And of course, there will be a taste test. 

I planted both types two weeks ago and they have already started sprouting. (There looks to be a pattern emerging, but I’ll wait until all the data is in before reporting it. For one thing, early sprouting may not be a good sign. Or it might be, I don’t know. However, through the experiment, I have a good chance of finding out.)

Two types of seed garlic — softneck (left) and hardneck (right).

I also have a second garlic experiment running, although this one is not as well-controlled as the first. In a separate planter, I have planted 12 cloves of hardneck garlic, a variety called German White. I want to see how softneck garlic performs vs. hardneck in my neck of the woods. The answer in every garden guide I’ve ever read is that hardneck garlic will do poorly in the south (where I live). But, I’ll find out. 

My hardneck garlic planter. I’ll need to mulch this down before cold weather arrives (if it does).

Cold Conditioning Native Seeds (I)

Fresh garden vegetable seed will generally germinate promptly and evenly after planting. For example, if you plant 100 green bean seeds in the correct soil temperature range and water them adequately, they will begin to sprout after about 7–10 days. And, on average, 98 or more of them will emerge over the course of the next few days. The same goes for most commercially cultivated annual flower seeds. If you try that with many native plant seeds, the result will be much different. 

In the best case scenario, most of your native seeds will start to sprout relatively soon. But in some cases, early germination may be sparse and the rest will appear slowly and unevenly. Some seeds may even lay dormant until the next year. By staggering germination times, native plants avoid putting all their eggs in one basket. Their seeds will sprout at different times and hopefully at one point the conditions will be just right for them to flourish. 

In the worst case scenario, none of your seeds — or very few of them — will germinate. Many native plants additionally require some sort of trigger to get them to germinate. One of the most common of these requirements is a period of low temperatures. (Other seeds require alternating periods of hot and cold or other treatments. In general, a treatment meant to increase the germination rate of seeds is called stratification.)  Milkweeds are one example of seeds that benefit from being exposed to cold temperatures before planting, but this very common for native perennial seeds. 

Milkweed seeds (left) and monkshood seeds (right) are two of the many native perennials that benefit from cold conditioning.

In the wild, of course, the cold temperatures are supplied by winter. Seeds that form during the spring, summer, and fall are spread by the wind or by animals. Some of them end up in a location that is suitable for germination. During their time in (or on) the ground, precipation wets their seed coats and germination inhibitors are washed away. Then, in the winter, a period of cold temperatures primes the seeds for germination. When warmer spring temperatures arrive, the seeds sprout and the plants start growing. 

As a gardener, you can cold condition your native seeds in a couple of ways. Obviously, you can plant them outdoors before your first frost and simply wait for spring. To do this, you should clear the planting location of any existing plants. Unless you experience a drought, however, you don’t need to tend to the seeds over the winter. However, it may help to add some mulch over the area and label it with a stake so you remember what sprouts you are expecting in the spring.

The ground on the left needs to be cleared before seeds are planted. If not, it will be hard to tell the sprouts of desired plants from the existing plants growing there. Bare ground (right) can be mulched to keep the soil from drying out.

You can also cold condition seeds in your house to prepare for early spring planting. There are several ways to do this, and I will cover that in a later post.

My 2023 Monarch Raising Project (II: Other Flowers)

[This is the second in a series, which started with a post on milkweeds.]

My 2023 Monarch Project — the goal of which is to raise and release 240 monarch butterflies — relies heavily on milkweeds. Milkweeds are the host plant for monarchs, in other words the plant monarch caterpillars eat before becoming a chrysalis. However, adult monarchs will feed on the nectar of a wide variety of native flowers. And, the more blooms that are present in a garden, the more likely monarchs are to visit it and discover the milkweeds. As with the milkweeds, I have a plan for growing a sufficient number of flowering plants to reach my goal. 

These monarch caterpillars are feeding on common milkweed.

I believe my biggest problem in past years has been too few blooms to bring the gravid female monarchs in. (“Gravid” means carrying eggs.) In the last few years, I’ve always had milkweed left after the monarchs moved on. So that has not been the limiting factor for how many monarchs I raise. This year (2022), I am working to solve this problem for next year. I have planted and maintained many more native perennials with showy flowers than I have in the past. These should return larger in 2023 and with more blooms. My goal is to have native flowers blooming continually throughout the period when the monarchs are heading north through my region. Additionally, I want to have more blooming flowers when they pass back through in the late fall. But that’s another update.

Spiderworts are one of the first flowers to bloom each spring in my area. This year, mine have already sprouted in October. If past years are any indication, they will overwinter and then start flowering in February.

I am lucky in have I have some early bloomers growing naturally in my yard. Spiderwort, baby blue eyes, and oxalis all grow wild around my house. I mow around these each year until they are done flowering and the seed heads dry out. I will also be planting a lot of larkspur, which is a very early bloomer. For “merely early” bloomers, I have multiple lance-leaf coreopsis plants that are several years old. I separated two of these older plants this fall and now have four healthy plants from them. I also planted two coreopsis plants from seed last spring. Lance-leaf coreopsis will lend their yellow blooms to the garden at a time when the spiderworts and larkspurs are starting to fade and the other plants are just budding. 

Lance-leaf coreopsis is an early bloomer. This flower attracts butterflies when little else is blooming.

After the coreopsis blooms, I have multiple gaillardia, partridge pea, and salvia plants. Partridge pea blooms heavily in the spring. Gaillardia and salvia bloom continually throughout the late spring, summer, and into fall. A little deadheading (removing faded blooms) keeps them producing flowers. Purple coneflowers, anise hyssops, and early sunflowers will also begin to bloom around this time. Additionally, four-o-clocks grow wild in my back yard. 

Gaillardia, also called blanket flower, is a prolific bloomer that keeps going all summer and into the fall.

For mid-season bloomers, when the monarchs have mostly passed, I have butterfly weed (a type of milkweed), western sunflower, California poppy, black eyed susan, and others. I have a few late season bloomers too, including aromatic aster. Most of these plants bloom at “butterfly height.” The others are still accessible to bees and other pollinators. 

Echinacea, also called purple coneflower, starts blooming mid-spring — after the early blooming flowers. It is a magnet for bees and butterflies.

With far more flowers than I have ever had, the 2023 spring garden should be more attractive to butterflies. I will also be planting new flowers in 2023, even though many native flowering plants do not bloom until their second year. I’ll also be planting and transplanting some flowers into the side yard . . . and I found a patch of my backyard that gets just enough sun for plants comfortable with partial shade. So, I can squeeze a few more plants into the yard.

Monarch butterflies in one of the enclosures I use to raise them. The enclosure is kept outdoors, so the caterpillars and chrysalises know where the sun is throughout the day. This may effect their ability to orient and migrate in the correct direction.

I will have one more post describing my 2023 Monarch Project. Then, in March of 2023, I’ll start posting weekly updates of how the project is progressing — what plants are sprouting, what flowers are blooming, how many monarchs are visiting the garden, how many caterpillars I’ve caught, and — of course — how many adult monarch butterflies I have released.

Gardening As The Climate Changes (II)

Scientists expect that climate change will have a number of effects on our lives. As gardeners, one of the most important of these is a change in the arrival time of spring temperatures. Averaged globally, spring temperatures will start arriving very slightly sooner each year. However, at any individual location, the arrival of spring temperatures — compared to their expected arrival date — will be highly variable. Since spring is more likely to arrive early than late, make a plan to take advantage of this situation.

USDA Plant Hardiness Zones correspond roughly to the last frost dates in those areas. Mountainous regions will have later than expected frosts compared to flatlands. Check the internet to find your local average last date.

Most gardeners are well aware of their region’s average last frost date. Gardeners generally begin planting vegetables and annual flowers once this date has passed and the weather forecast indicates a continuance of above freezing temperatures. In northern gardens, the overall growing season is fairly short. For long-season crops, such as pumpkins, getting them started at the right time will ensure that they develop and reach maturity under favorable temperature conditions. In the south, vegetables needs to be planted promptly so that exceedingly hot temperatures don’t arrive until after the plants have flowered and set fruit. Most vegetables will not set fruit at temperatures over 95 °F (35 °C). As an example, the unprecedented heat in Texas in the spring of 2022 was disastrous to watermelon farmers. (It also did in my watermelons and limited my tomato crop.)

Sometimes it seems like spring has arrived early, but don’t interpret early warm temperatures as an indication that no future freezes are coming. Watch your local long-term weather forecast as your last frost date approaches.

As spring approaches, you should plan to plant when you normally do in relation to your average last frost date. As this time approaches, however, keep an eye on the long-range weather forecast. If your last frost date is still approaching, but the forecast does not include a freeze, consider planting at least some of your spring garden plants. Keep in mind, though, that nearly every year there are at least a few days of comparative warm weather near the end of winter. Every year, this entices gardeners everywhere to set out tomato transplants early only to have them freeze later. Recall that half of all final freezes occur after the average last frost date. So resist the urge to plant over three weeks early. That’s just asking for trouble. Planting early can reap big benefits, but it is also taking a risk. If your last frost date is three weeks away, and the forecast overnight lows are all above 36 °F (2 °C) or so, think about planting the vegetables that will thrive (or at least tolerate) those temperatures. For example, most peas will be fine when planted immediately after the soil thaws. Most beans, however, will do poorly if the soil temperature is lower than 50 °F (10 °C). Lima beans require even warmer soil temperatures and daytime air temperatures should be around 65 °C (18 °C).

Covering plants with cloches, row covers, or by growing them in mesh enclosures allows you to get a jump on the season. They will also keep out pests, but must be removed before temperatures get too high. (Cloche photo courtesy Wikipedia)

If you do plan to plant early, invest in some hoops and agricultural netting. This will allow you cover the rows if a light freeze is forecast. For individual large plants, a cloche can serve as a mini-greenhouse when cold weather threatens. If the plant is only a few inches tall, you can cut the bottom out of a gallon milk jug and use that as protection. Large plants, of course, can be planted indoors in small containers and moved outside when the weather is suitable. Even before climate change became an issue, gardeners had been doing this to raise transplants for spring planting.

You can plant garden plants indoors before it is warm enough for them to be outside. Take them outside on warm afternoons and bring them in at night. Or, keep them by a window that gets sun or under grow lamps.

Among the longer-term effects of climate change will be a shifting of agricultural zones towards the poles. North American gardeners on the southern edge of where growing a typical vegetable garden is possible will find it increasingly difficult, and eventually impossible, to grow anything other than a few locally-adapted plants. Gardeners on the current northern edge of vegetable gardening feasibility will start experiencing longer growing seasons and higher peak temperatures. The line on the map separating places that normally experience at least one hard freeze every year from places that do not usually experience freezing temperatures will creep northward. This line is currently in the very southern tips of Florida and Texas. Gardeners south of this line may experience more insect pests in the early spring as they won’t freeze in the winter. (And of course, some insects are adapted to survive freezing temperatures in the winter.) However, these conditions will not arrive overnight.



So, to make a long story short, expect the change in climate to proceed fairly slowly. (Or at least, it will seem slow from our perspective. On a geologic scale, it’s happening blindingly quickly.) But expect the variability in your local weather to become progressively more pronounced. As a gardener, expect that spring temperatures are more likely to arrive sooner than usual than later than usual. But realize that advance will be sporadic. Most years, your weather will likely stick close to the long-term averages. However, sometimes spring temperatures will arrive substantially earlier than expected. So plan for your usual gardening season, but be prepared to get a jump on your spring planting each year. If the indicators of an early spring are present, the risk of early planting should pay off more often than not.

Gardening As The Climate Changes (I)

Our planet is warming. Carbon dioxide (CO2) levels in our atmosphere have increased from under 300 ppm in the early 1900s to over 410 ppm today. This is mostly due to the burning of fossil fuels. Carbon dioxide acts as a greenhouse gas and the global mean temperature has risen 1.8 °F (1 .0 °C) in the past 20 years. This change in temperature has affected weather patterns all over the globe. On average, what we expect to see in the coming years is an earlier arrival of typical spring temperatures. Likewise, we expect longer and hotter summers, a later arrival of typical winter temperatures, and less predictable patterns of precipitation. The phrase “on average” is very important to understanding climate change. The average rate of climate change for any given location will be very slow, but the effects on local weather patterns will vary in intensity.

Carbon dioxide levels have been rising steadily in our atmosphere for decades. The average temperature at the earth’s surface is also trending upwards, but notice that it drops for short periods, too. Compared to the 20th Century as a whole, we are now between 0.8 and 1.0 °C warmer. (Figures from NOAA.)

In the coming years, your garden is likely to experience spring temperatures sooner than in past years. However, in some years, spring could come later. The chance of the latter is lower than the former, but far from zero. As we’ve seen in the previous decade, peak summer temperatures will usually be higher than usual. In a like manner, typical fall temperatures will remain a bit longer before falling.  In both cases, the opposite may occasionally be true. But those instances with be rare.

On average, this progression will be very slow. It will also vary with location. For example, regions near the poles are warming faster. In addition to changes in the seasonal temperatures, you may experience more or less rainfall than average, depending global weather patterns. You will also likely experience years during which your weather is relatively normal.

You can think of climate change this way. Let’s say you had a 6-sided die and you rolled it each spring. The number you got determined your weather. One and two meant cooler than usual weather. Three and four meant average temperatures. And five and six meant higher temperatures. In the past, with a fair die, those three outcomes would have occurred equally frequently in the long term. These days, the die would be loaded. It would be fixed so fives and sixes occurred slightly more often than they should. You could still roll a one through a four, though. You could even roll a series of ones, twos, threes, and fours. However, over time, you’d rack up more five and sixes than any of the other numbers. 

The ten hottest years of all time all occurred in the past 20 years. Nine of the past 10 decades have been warmer than the decade before them. 1940–1949 stands out as a comparatively hot decade. (Data from NOAA and NASA; tables courtesy of Wikipedia)

When it comes to planning your garden, the thing to realize is that the average change in your seasonal weather is going to be very slight. However, the variability in weather patterns will be higher than in past years. Most years, your usual planting schedule should work. However, in other years it might be substantially out of sync with the weather. As such, you may want to hedge your bets. Since temperature anomalies are more likely to be higher than lower, your best bet is to assume that you will experience normal temperatures during the gardening season, but prepare for warmer temperatures. In an upcoming post, I will explain how to do this.

In 2021, some parts of our planet experienced temperatures on par with their long-term average. Much of the Pacific Ocean, for example, was not hotter or colder than usual. And, some of Antartica was slightly colder than usual. However, most places on earth were warmer than usual — especially near the poles. (Figure from NOAA.)


Why Grow Native Plants?

One of the major focuses of this website will be growing native plants. A good question to begin with is why should we divide plants into natives and non-natives and favor growing one over the other? Plants are just plants, right? Long story short, yes but there’s more.

Purple coneflowers and blanket flowers are native perennials.

The native plants growing in your region are adapted to living there. There are adapted to the seasonal weather changes. They are adapted to the local soil types. And they are adapted to local wildlife and vice versa. As a gardener, you will find most native plants easy to establish and require less maintenance than non-natives. This is especially true of perennial plants — plants that live for more than one year. After their first year, during which they made need a little attention, perennials will often flourish without any intervention. 

A spider on a black eyed susan and a moonflower, which opens at dusk.

Native plants generally require less water than non-native plants. This is especially true for native plants adapted to living in prairies, open fields, or drought-prone regions. Of course, some natives live next to streams or ponds, and their water requirements reflect that. Knowing the microenvironment a plant lives in can help you decide what to plant where on your property. However, on average, you will need to water native plants less than non-native plants — especially those bred to be showy landscaping plants.  

Texas red salvia (a mint) and partridge pea (a legume) are native plants.

Native plants generally require less fertilizer than non-natives. They are adapted to living in soil that has not been amended by humans, unlike many landscaping plants. They also generally do not require pesticides. Native plants have insect pests, of course. They and the insects that feed on them have coevolved for long periods of times, up to hundreds of millions of year. But those pests also have native predators, including insect predators — such as ladybugs, preying mantises, and robber flies. They also have other predators. Many birds are insectivourous. So are many bats. So are many small reptiles. (I have a thriving population of Texas spiny lizards living in and around my garden.) And of course, spiders eat insects. 

Larkspur flowers and berries on a black nightshade plant. Catbirds love these berries.

If you have a typical suburban lawn (of non-native grass) and non-native landscaping plants, you can start small and simply subsitute some natives in your flower beds in the spring. Plant a ring of natives around your vegetable garden or between rows. Surround tree trunks with a ring of native plants or expand your flower beds to take up more room in your yard. Even making small changes can help your local environment and make your life as a gardener easier. 

A butterfly on a lance leaf coreopsis flower and a skipper on a Verbena hastata flower.

Native plants are connected to other species in your region in a way non-natives are not. A native plant may be a host plant for a butterfly. It may provide nectar to a bee, butterfly, or hummingbird — and in turn these animals will pollinate other plants. It may provide seeds for a seed-eating bird. It may draw in insects that insectivorous birds, bats, lizards, spiders, or other insects can feed on. Taller native plants provide perches for insect predators to survey your garden. 

A green-eyed robber fly and another robber fly (in the genus Efferia).

Having insects — and hence insect predators — in your yard and garden can also help you enjoy being outdoors more. If you have a typical suburban lawn and non-native landscaping plants, your yard and garden can easily get overun by mosquitoes or flies. Mosquitoes feed on blood, of course. And flies lay their eggs in dead animals, feces, or rotting food. As such, what you plant in your yard or garden isn’t going to attract or deter them. However, if you have a healthy population of insect predators around your house, they can knock the numbers of these insects down substantially — making spending time outdoors in the evenings more enjoyable. 

A monarch caterpillar on a milkweed plant and a black swallowtail caterpillar on fennel.

Planting natives plants does a lot to help your local environment. And they also require less care, water, and fertilizer — allowing you, the gardener, more time for other things (such as planting a larger garden). 

My 2023 Monarch Raising Project (I: Milkweeds)

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.