Got Milkweed?

GC mtg 3-2015

On a recent Wednesday afternoon I was observing an attractive group of women sitting in the mansion nibbling on small plates of fruit, while waiting for the discussion to begin.    Which ones were ready to change their views and “Go wild in their garden?”


Then Kirstin Larson began speaking.  She was the child of hippies she said.  They had lived on a fifty acre organic farm in the 70’s.  She worked in their nursery and continued working for many years in Greenhouses.  She became a Master Gardener.  In other words, she has lived the eco-friendly gardening life of which she so passionately preaches.

Kirstin Larson  GCOPRF - March 2015
Kirstin Larson
GCOPRF – March 2015

She began her slide show: a picture of a neat house with an immaculate front lawn and foundation evergreens. What was wrong with the pictured landscaping that has been popular for decades?  “Sterile looking” murmured Peggy with a chorus of “amen” heard from the rest of the guests sitting at the table.  (Kirstin was apparently preaching to the choir at least on my side of the room!)   We were at this lecture to find out how to attract birds, butterflies and bees to our gardens.  Why have the song birds and pollinators been disappearing from the landscape?  In a super simplified answer the three main causes are: lack of diversity, loss of habitat and chemicals.

Lack of Diversity:

Acres of prairies with native plants have been replaced with housing developments, parking lots, shopping centers.   Many of the small family run farms and victory gardens are no more.  Agribusiness has come in with monoculture farming and chemicals.  Our garden centers offer pest free or disease free plants.  Without predators or natural enemies the “introduced” plants can and do crowd out the native plants.  Creeping Charlie was brought in from Europe as a good ground cover and is now difficult to eradicate.   Native plants are adapted to the local soils and climates and are the best sources of pollen and nectars for native pollinators.  If your yard only has cardinals, wrens, bunnies and squirrels, that is a good indication that there is not enough of a variety of plants to attract other species.  On the plus side, native plants usually require less water than non-natives, flourish without fertilizers and are less likely to become weedy. Many pollinators are plant specific. Sites on line, local nurseries and the Chicago Botanic Gardens provide extensive guides to native Midwest plants that are are attractive to pollinators.

Loss of Habitat:

As farms and fields became urban sprawl, the pollinators we depend on in the US for producing $40 billion worth of food and flowering plant products are losing their habitats.    Pollination occurs when pollen is moved within flowers or carried from flower to flower by pollinating animals such as birds, bees, bats, butterflies, moths, and beetles.  Native pollinators need native plants with certain characteristics particularly shape and size. While butterflies, bats, hummingbirds and moths can travel long distances, small mammals, native bees and wasps do not.  Providing shelter, water, and food sources are necessary to keep birds and butterflies returning to your yard.

Birds need a nesting spot, food and water.  Some birds are seed eaters, and prefer not only certain seeds but also a certain style of feeder.   Many birds are attracted to berries and fruit found on shrubs and fruit trees while woodpeckers eat insects.  Most birds like the sound of dripping or moving water and will appear daily at a bird bath. Larger birds, like robins, like to splash around in the water while smaller birds need the rim or a rock to perch on.  Even a trash can lid on the ground with some stones or sticks for perching and an inch of fresh water daily will attract an assortment of birds, insects and mammals.  Evergreens and shrubs like hollies can provide winter shelter for birds. If you have the room and can tolerate a natural nesting spot, let a portion of your yard grow a little wild.  Tall grass, a brush pile, leaves, dead trees or branches will provide a foraging and nesting area.

Hummingbirds like sugar water that you can make yourself.  The ratio is four cups of boiling water to one cup of white granulated sugar.  Stir until the sugar has dissolved.  DO NOT ADD RED FOOD COLORING!  Let the mixture cool before adding it to the feeder.  The water mixture needs to frequently be changed as well as washing the feeder with soap and water to prevent disease.

When choosing the best flowers for attracting hummingbirds, birders need to consider more than just whether or not a hummingbird will drink from the flower. It is also important to choose several varieties of flowers that bloom at different times so nectar is available from early spring through late summer, giving the birds a rich food source throughout the season. Flowers with very little fragrance will be less attractive to bees, which can help eliminate the problem of insects on hummingbird feeders.  Finally, all the flowers should be suitable to the climate, temperature, soil and level of sunlight so they will bloom well and produce healthy, rich flowers.  FYI:  Kirstin heartily recommended blue and black salvia for attracting hummingbirds

Butterfly Garden

Monarch caterpillar chrysalis

Butterfly habitat is another huge subject. Basically butterflies need host plants to lay their eggs and provide food for the emerging caterpillar and nectar plants for adult caterpillar’s food. Of course we all know that Monarchs lay their eggs on common milkweed (Asclepias) which has been rapidly disappearing in the landscapes.   You need to be able to tolerate chewed leaves and caterpillars to enjoy the sight of the butterfly.  All adult butterflies need nectar plants for feeding and are attracted to bright colors and flowers with strong scents.   Native plants will attract native butterflies.  Hybrid plants on the other hand, are bred for color or flower size and do not have much nectar.  Butterflies like a nice rock for a sun bath and shelter on the north for wind breaks.  They like mud for minerals so a shallow container of mud or moist bare ground would satisfy that requirement.

Interestingly our garden oasis will not have much impact on honeybees which are a European import, and are used commercially for honey production and pollination.  Commercial use of honey bees to pollinate almonds, cranberries and canola has developed into a business of trucking the hives across state lines to the specific crops needing fertilization.  As remarkable as they are, honeybees do not know how to pollinate a tomato or an eggplant flower.

Approximately 4,000 species of native bees exist with at least 250 species in Illinois.  Native bees are generally solitary which means that every female is fertile and inhabits a nest that she constructs herself in the ground or in hollow spaces in wood.  A solitary bee produces neither honey nor beeswax but is a good pollinator as she collects pollen and nectar that she puts in each cell of her nest and then seals it off.  Providing nest boxes has become popular for gardeners.


Probably the best way to have birds, bees and butterflies frequent our gardens is to stop using pesticides.  In general a pesticide is a poison meant to destroy or mitigate any pest.  The target pests can include insects, weeds, birds, plant pathogens, mammals, fish and microbes that destroy property, cause a nuisance or spread disease.  These poisons are very effective but the drawback is the toxicity to humans and other desired species.  Pesticide exposure can have a variety of adverse effects from mild irritation to skin and eyes to documented studies of very severe effects.  The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends limiting exposure of children to pesticides and to use safer alternatives.  Pesticides contribute to the decline of pollinators and their habitat, particularly birds. Pesticide drift occurs via wind and water to other areas and is known to cause water pollution and soil contamination.  The immediate benefit of the pesticide may not be worth the long term effect.

Integrated pest management, crop rotation and plant diversity are a few of the safer alternatives to pesticides.

“Not all insects, weeds, and other living organisms require control. Many organisms are innocuous, and some are even beneficial. IPM programs work to monitor for pests and identify them accurately, so that appropriate control decisions can be made in conjunction with action thresholds. This monitoring and identification removes the possibility that pesticides will be used when they are not really needed or that the wrong kind of pesticide will be used.”

Beneficial organic controls such as praying mantis egg cases and lady bugs can be found at Garden Centers and through special group sales.  A more tolerant attitude towards a few holes or nibbles on leaves and an acceptance that all insects are not bad will go a long way towards eliminating the need for cans of bug spray. Healthy plants and grass thrive on good soil that contains organic matter which encourages earthworms and microbes, and retains nutrients.

Companion planting is all about natural pest management.