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Webinar focuses on pollinators

April 17, 2020 by Beckie Gaskill

This week the Wisconsin Monarch Collaborative put on a webinar entitled Planning a Native Plant Garden to Help Pollinators. It was attended by almost 180 people during the lunch hour on Monday. Presenters of the webinar were Brenna Jones of the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources, Paul Skawinski of the UW-Extension and Wild Ones Central Wisconsin Chapter and Shannon Davis-Fourt of UW-Oshkosh and Wild Ones Fox Valley Chapter.

Monarchs have experienced an 80 percent decline in populations, leading many to be concerned for their future. Pollinators in general are responsible for much of the food we eat and native plants are an integral part of keeping pollinators such as monarch butterflies on the landscape. This has been the goal of the Wisconsin Monarch Collaborative.

There are approximately 130 species of butterflies commonly seen in Wisconsin, according to Skawinski, with 150 species being seen in the state. Most caterpillars require a specialized diet. Adults, he said, have a wider food source, with most likely anything that flowers being a food source.

Milkweed is used by monarch butterflies during all phases of its lifecycle. There are 12 species of milkweed in Wisconsin, Skawinski said. Caterpillars can only eat milkweed, so this particular species in very important to monarch survival. As important as milkweed is to monarchs, a variety of different flowering plants is needed, as well as a lack of pesticides, in order to encourage monarchs and other pollinator species. 

For those looking to create a monarch garden, with over 1,000 species of native plants in Wisconsin, and over 150 of those species being great landscaping choices, a garden is only limited by the gardener’s imagination. Native plants do well in a variety of soils. Areas that are normally too wet or lumpy for a lawn, for instance, may be great locations for a butterfly garden. Butterfly gardens can be put near downspouts where plants can help water soak in rather than create run off. This also leads to less watering. Gardens near a window or patio can create beautiful viewing opportunities, not only for the beauty of the flowers, but also the variety of butterflies, hummingbirds and insects that frequent these spaces. 

The best scenario, Skawinski said, is for a multi-purpose use. He showed examples of gardens used as privacy screens that also gave the added benefit of creating butterfly habitat. Storm water capture is another way a butterfly garden can add beauty and functionality, he said. These gardens can also be used to beautify a walkway or other area where groups may gather.

It is best to locate these gardens in a sunny spot, but partial shade can attract a great deal of butterflies as well. In fact, he said, for egg-laying, partial shade is often preferred by many species. 

Skawinski also showed participants how to create the garden. He recommended smothering the area with a black tarp to kill off weeds or grass. He said the thicker the tarp the better, with black being the best choice because it allows in the least light. He recommended smothering the area for approximately five weeks.  Once the tarp is pulled up, in June, he said a gardener can start planting plugs. 

When transitioning lawn to a garden area, he said, he uses either a sod cutter or a straight-edged shovel. He instructed, for a fast transition, sod can be dug out first and relocated. Skawinski said he is a very impatient gardener, and this allows him to create a garden much quicker than smothering weeds with a tarp.

In an area that has been smothered, he said, gardeners can use a layer of weed-free compost of potting mix to block light from weed seeds before they germinate. This gives him a clean slate into which he can plant his native plants for his butterfly or pollinator garden. He has created large and small gardens, he said, with each project being scalable.

He highlighted some school projects in the Stevens Point area, where he is located. McDill Elementary and Madison Elementary in Stevens Point both have butterfly gardens now, with students helping in the projects.

There was also some discussion of rain gardens, which can create well-used pollinator habitat. Rain gardens are great for areas where stormwater creates runoff from roofs, driveways and other impervious surfaces. This stormwater can flow into lakes and rivers, and create water quality problems. Skawinski said rain gardens are his favorite types of gardens because of their dual purpose. These gardens allow for a great diversity in plants, as they will be home to plants that like “wet feet,” and others that prefer things a bit dryer. These gardens, too, can create an aesthetic appeal in an area that may otherwise be unused.

Skawinski said people often ask him if rain gardens breed mosquitos. His answer was a resounding “no.” Mosquito larvae, he said, need standing water for at least five days. Water in rain gardens are typically held for from 10 minutes to a couple of hours, he said. 

The Healthy Lakes Program, a DNR and UW-Extension cooperative program, is a cost share program for those living near a lake or river. More information on that can be found on healthylakeswi.com.

From there, Skawinski talked about several species he likes to use in his native gardens. Butterfly milkweed, he said, is a great alternative for smaller spaces as it is fairly compact and not as aggressive as common milkweed. The plants prefer dry soil and full sun and grow to about 1.5 feet. They tolerate heat well and bloom from July to August. 

Another July-August bloomer is the Meadow Blazing Star, he said. This is one of the best species at attracting various butterflies and prefers full sun but moderate moisture.

Red Milkweed, Skawinski said, is another of his favorites. This milkweed variety prefers full sun and moderate to wet soil, making it good for areas that often stay a bit soggy and are unusable for some other varieties of plants. 

Asters were the last flowers he highlighted They grow well in part to full sun and prefer dry to moderate moisture. These native plants will flower in September to October.

Shannon Davis-Fourt spoke about how to select the proper plants for different areas. Selecting plants from as close to home as possible is the best idea, she said. The DNR has an extensive list of native plants, and local garden shops have a very good knowledge of what would work well in various places as far as which native plants will help attract what species of insects and other pollinators. 

When looking at which plants to put in a location, Davis-Fourt said, soil moisture and type are important considerations. Shading is another important consideration. She said the DNR has a “50-mile rule,” they recommend. This is sourcing plants from a 50 mile radius or less when creating native plant gardens. She said she prefers the “Midwest mile rule,” and often gets plants from different suppliers in the upper Midwest, keeping in mind what is native to this area.

Another consideration, she said, is whether to start with seeds or plugs. Seeds will be less expensive, of course. Plugs, however, offer a more immediate result but can be more labor intensive. Some native seeds can be sowed in winter, directly onto the snow, where they will leach down into the soil in spring when the snow melts.

She also recommended joining a local chapter of Wild Ones. The organization’s chapters have field trips and plant sales throughout the year. They may also offer free plants and take seed harvesting field trips.

When picking seeds, Davis-Fourt did have some tips as well. It is important to pick seeds at the right time, she said. When the seed caps first start to split, but before they are completely open, is the best time to pick them. She also cautioned gardeners to wait until the soil dries if picking seeds after a rain event. September to October is usually the best time to pick native plant seeds. She said there is no need to clean and separate native plant seeds if they are just to be replanted. Some seeds may need treatment such as stratification or cold exposure before planting, Others may need scarification, which, as the name implies, is the scarring of the seed coat. Some legumes, she said, may need inoculation and more attention than others.

The webinar also went into design of the garden and maintenance of that garden. While some weeds may take over a native plant garden, others may be better suited to live with the native plants. A few of the hardiest, such as quack grass, may call for a pesticide treatment, pulling those from a native plant garden is usually the better idea, as pesticides can cause problems for other species as well as pollinators. Choosing the battles to fight with weeds in a native garden can be important to the overall health of the garden, she said. 

She also discussed mowing and burning as a way to rid an area of invasive species or unwanted species. 

Disease, too, can be a problem for native plants. Often, the local master gardeners’ association is a good place to turn in learning more about certain diseases, how serious they can or should not be, and what treatments are available to combat those diseases.

The entire webinar can be found on the UW-Extension Lakes YouTube Channel.  Those interested can also find more information about monarchs and native plant gardens on the Wisconsin Monarch Collaborative website wimonarchs.com and the Wild Ones website wildones.org. For those who live near water and would like to learn more about getting involved in the Healthy Lakes cost share program, more information can be found here: healthylakeswi.com.

Beckie Gaskill may be reached via email at [email protected]

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