Question: My fourth grader learned in class that monarch butterflies are threatened and we need to “create a habitat” in our backyard to help them survive. Is that true, and if so, what can we do to help?
Answer: It’s true, monarchs are threatened and need all the help we can give them. The California State Wildlife Action Plan has identified them as a “Species of Greatest Conservation Need.”
Researchers believe several factors contribute to monarch decline. Among them are:
• Changing climate: Inconsistent and unpredictable living conditions, temperatures and precipitation levels make it hard for monarchs to thrive.
• Loss of nourishment: Monarch caterpillars need milkweed, the one host plant they eat to survive. Monarch butterflies, especially the early-emerging ones, need nectar plants.
• Poor land management: Overdevelopment and other land management practices often destroy the habitat monarchs require for nourishment and reproduction.
• Herbicides and insecticides, including systemic neonicotinoids: Excessive use of chemicals that eradicate all insects critical to biodiversity, including monarchs.
According to the Xerces Society’s Western Monarch Call to Action (find it at bit.ly/3dUivmU), there are several things home gardeners can do to create habitat.
• Plant native California milkweed for monarch caterpillars. Narrow-leafed milkweed (Asclepias fascicularis) and showy milkweed (Asclepias speciosa) are the two most common native milkweeds found in Sonoma County. Look for those Latin names on the plant tag when you go to a nursery, and avoid planting nonnative milkweeds. In Sonoma County, avoid planting milkweed within five miles of the coast. The mild climate of the coast prevents or delays winter dormancy and may lead to disruptions in the monarch life cycle.
• Plant nectar-rich flowers for monarch butterflies as well as other pollinators. Common plants include yarrow (Achillea millefolium), Pacific aster (Symphyotrichum chilense), sunflowers (Helianthus spp.), seaside fleabane (Erigeron glaucus) and manzanita (Arctostaphylos spp.). Find more information about planting milkweed and nectar plants at bit.ly/3t4NKzQ
• Don’t use herbicides and insecticides, which can poison or kill monarchs.
• Make sure the plants you buy from nurseries or garden centers are free of systemic insecticides. If you can’t tell if a plant has been treated, ask before you buy it.
• Don’t capture and collect monarchs as “pets” or living examples of metamorphosis. Due to monarchs’ imperiled status, you can look, but please don’t touch. Instead, feed them by planting a monarch-friendly garden so you and your child can observe adult butterflies laying eggs that become caterpillars.
We can protect, manage and restore monarch habitats for summer breeding and fall migration. If you want to do more, you can encourage public land managers at the local, state or national level to create butterfly habitat near agricultural fields. Support local organizations that are creating wildlife corridors to link native habitats across human development sites.
And finally, consider becoming a “citizen scientist” with your child and report your sightings of monarch butterflies and caterpillars. Find out more at inaturalist.org
Other useful links to learn about monarchs:
Western Monarch Milkweed Mapper: monarchmilkweedmapper.org
California Department of Fish and Wildlife: bit.ly/3vJpS6G
Monarch Joint Venture: monarchjointventure.org
Question: Can I grow pumpkins in a small garden?
Answer: Yes, because you can train the vines to climb. Vertical gardening offers lots of advantages. By growing pumpkins vertically, you can grow more in less space, plus harvesting is easier and the pumpkins stay off the ground. Trellising works best with pumpkins and squash that weigh less than 12 to 15 pounds each. The following instructions apply to the entire winter squash family.
Pumpkin seeds require three months of frost-free weather to mature. Make a hill of soil, enriched with compost, about 8 inches high. Plant four seeds at a time, 2 to 3 inches deep in the hill. Set your trellis above the hill or next to the hill.
It is important to have the trellis in place at the time of planting, to avoid disturbing the roots. Unless you trellis them, the vines will sprawl and take up a lot of space in the garden and attach themselves to your other plants. A trellis can be a fence, an A-frame, an arbor, a pergola, hardware cloth attached to poles in the ground, a tripod, a cage or a frame for the vines to crawl on.
When plants emerge, thin the starts to one plant per hill. As the vines grow, use twine or garden ties to train them up your support. As the plant matures, the vine tendrils take over.
Weight becomes an issue as plants climb. Growing pumpkins need support so they don’t break off the vines as they get larger. You can put them in a sling or a mesh bag that expands and tie the bag or sling securely to the trellis.
Squash plants need regular, deep watering at ground level. Make a moat around the pumpkin hill and water with irrigation or a hose. To prevent foliage diseases, do not water overhead.
Pumpkin plants take all summer to mature. When the fruit is ripe, the skin and stem harden. Cut the pumpkin stems about 3 inches from the fruit and leave the pumpkins outdoors for a few days to cure on a clean surface and protected from frost. And though it looks like it should be, the stem is not a handle. Carefully pick up your pumpkin.
Have fun growing, eating and carving your pumpkins!
Contributors to this week’s column were Suzanne Clarke, Ellie Samuel, Pat Decker and Karen Felker.
Send your gardening questions to email@example.com. The UC Master Gardener Program of Sonoma County (sonomamg.ucanr.edu) provides environmentally sustainable, science-based horticultural information to Sonoma County home gardeners. The Master Gardeners will answer in the newspaper only questions selected for this column. Other questions may be directed to their Information Desk: 707-565-2608 or firstname.lastname@example.org