Gardening | Here we go again

By Master Gardener Lesley Arrandale
mail@floridanewsline.com

Summer rains arrived early this year, in the form of Subtropical Storm Alberto. It is now officially the hurricane season, and as always, we need to be as prepared as possible, with supplies in hand and an evacuation plan in the event of a potential major impact.

Rain in general, both the lack of it and an overabundance, is at the forefront of many a gardener’s mind. It governs how we deal with our gardens from day to day, and season to season. If we are in drought, drip irrigation can help save our plants and there’s the added bonus that it can reduce water use, saving us from large water bills. If you can install a water barrel which fills from a drainpipe or receives runoff from a valley in the roof, the rain collected is ideal for ornamentals; however, shingle roofs can potentially pollute rainwater if new or very old, and perhaps should not be used on vegetables under those circumstances.

Low areas of the yard that regularly become saturated with rain can be planted with water-tolerant plants — a rain garden. Choose plants which can take dry periods as well as periods of inundation. This website will help guide your choices: https://tinyurl.com/y7srcqxr.

Master Gardeners have a variety of tasks we can take on, depending on our interests. But all of us, I think I can safely say, are basically fascinated with plants. So when a group of us recently took a trip to the Florida Panhandle to visit nurseries, research establishments, and the stunningly beautiful St. Marks National Wildlife Refuge, a good time was guaranteed!

For me, one of the highlights was a visit to the nursery of The Monarch-Milkweed Initiative, based at the headquarters of the St. Marks National Wildlife Refuge, established in 2014 after President Obama signed a Presidential memorandum “creating a federal strategy to promote the health of honey bees and other pollinators.” The response by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service was to ask refuges nationwide to increase milkweed populations, conserve habitats, and inform the public about the importance of pollinators.

Through careful research and experimentation St. Marks’ Ranger Scott Davis has established germination methods for the 21 milkweeds native to Florida. To obtain the often rare plants and seeds, he relies on help from volunteers and members of the public reporting on the whereabouts of populations of the plants, as well as undertaking his own reconnaissance (https://tinyurl.com/yb4aq2bj). By judiciously gathering plant material, the group propagates thousands of milkweeds every year which are given to groups which establish them in natural areas, use them in the restoration of degraded habitats, or plant them in both public and private gardens, all of which help to support the monarch butterflies and other pollinators which grace our state.

Sadly native milkweeds are still not widely available in local nurseries. Butterfly weed, Asclepias tuberosa, is the one most likely to be found, and will take full sun and sandy well drained soil. As with most plants, it needs careful watering until established, but should then be able to survive on rainfall alone. We learnt at the milkweed nursery that milkweeds don’t usually set seed by themselves; two or more plants are needed for cross pollination. And if a productive butterfly garden is your ambition, plant a number of A. tuberosa to support feeding caterpillars: those monarch babies are voracious eaters!

If butterfly weed just can’t be found, the internet is a good resource, but if you’d rather visit your local nursery you are more likely to find the Mexican milkweed (A. curassavica). Some caveats: A. curassavica can carry a disease which is harmful to monarch butterflies, and it should be cut down in November, both to reduce the impact of the disease and to mimic the native milkweeds dying back for the winter.

Enjoy our beautiful butterflies and have a safe summer.