Down to earth – Where are the butterflies?

(Originally published September 19, 2013 in East Bay/South Coast Life)

From where I’m sitting, if I turn my head 90° to the right I have a view of a butterfly bush (Buddleia davidii ‘Ellen’s Blue’) planted under my window. I can clearly see, even through the screen, the tiny orange anthers inside hundreds of deep purple-blue flowers clustering every twig end, and my nose is filled with its honey scent whether I’m looking at it or not. But what I cannot see are all the butterflies that give it its common name.

Over the course of the summer I haven’t seen many Black Swallowtails, though I have spotted their caterpillars munching my bronze fennel and dill. Last year every anise hyssop (Agastache foeniculum and cvs.) was visited by dozens of Painted Ladies. This year, not a one. I haven’t seen any Red Admirals either. And the most iconic of all, the butterfly whose inconceivable migration to and from a pin on the map of central Mexico has captivated us all since childhood, is conspicuously absent.

I can count on one, maybe two fingers how many Monarch butterflies I have seen so far this year, and they weren’t even in my garden. I’m not alone. My in-laws, who spend their August vacation way up in the nosebleed section of Ontario, Canada enjoy watching whole flocks bask on Lake Huron’s rocky outcrops. The butterflies were a no-show this year and other friends, closer to home, are reporting similar news. It’s not OK. The Monarch’s absence has been especially distressing to me because I allowed the milkweed in my front yard garden to proliferate madly.

Swamp milkweed (Asclepias incarnata) seedpods along my fenceI’ll admit that wasn’t entirely intentional. Every fall I scatter seeds stolen from butterfly weed (Asclepias tuberosa), a sturdy two-footer with clusters of bright orange lunar lander flowers. This past spring, when I saw the telltale pointed leaves rise on milk-sapped stalks, I thought this is it! They’ve taken. Alas, when the plants rose another foot or two and opened clusters of Pepto-pink and creamy-white flowers instead, I had to concede defeat. But all was not lost because swamp milkweed (Asclepias elegans) and its white cultivar ‘Ice Ballet’ are just as garden worthy and evidently perfectly happy to spread in my stony soil. Plus, they too are an essential food source for Monarch butterfly caterpillars. So I let broad swaths crowd less important plants out.

If only the Monarchs were here right now to appreciate my generosity. But according to counts conducted annually in the Oyamel fir forests of Mexico, their population declined 59% from just last year. Since 1996-97 their winter range has dwindled from nearly 45 acres of forest to just under 3 acres. That is shocking. Deforestation within their refuge in Mexico is partly to blame as is the unseasonable weather during migration caused by climate change. But habitat loss on this side of the border has been particularly detrimental.

It is perfectly appropriate to heap blame on Midwestern farmers who spray weedkiller over their fields of genetically modified Roundup Ready® crops. But even though the corn belt is an important egg laying point for butterfly generations en route north, we are also to blame. In many yards and gardens milkweed is still considered a weed—as are many of the host plants for other species of Lepidoptera.

Insect populations typically cycle through highs and lows and so far biologists are not sounding the Monarch’s extinction alarm. But I hear a wake-up call. Everything on this earth is connected and the ripples from a drop fan out. The very least we can do is to remember that our gardens are a vital part of a struggling ecosystem.

It is so easy to attract butterflies to the garden. Winged adults feed on nectar and only require a smorgasbord of flowers. Most of us, we gardeners anyway, are more than happy to oblige. But to keep butterflies in our gardens, and to ensure generations of survivors, we absolutely must provide their eggs and caterpillars with the proper host species and—this should go without saying—a safe, pesticide-free habitat too. If you plant it, they will make a comeback.

Have you seen (m)any Monarchs this season?

The uniform

While Haiti lies in ruins and orphans need kin; and the Mass. voters have chosen to be catastrophically unhelpful regarding healthcare reform, I opt to focus on my own ridonculous problems instead. Like the tiny little identity crisis I’ve been having. (Honestly, it’s just easier. But let me say, in my defense, that my $$ has gone where the need truly is.)

I used to be the kind of person who put some thought into getting dressed in the morning – I wasn’t terribly adventurous or avant-garde, just ever so slightly creative. (I wore scarves.) When I was in (art) school, I wore my charcoal handprints and paintsplatters like badges (Hello My Name Is Artiste) of devil-may-bite-me cool. Lately though, because gardening is such dirty work, and I’m not 19 anymore, I have filled my closet, thanks to Savers (that’s Value Village to you west coasties), with chinos and khakis and ugly sweaters because I don’t mind ruining those things.

I realized recently that dressing for work in clothes I hate has made me (unfashionably) lazy and invisible way before my time. I have been known to wear the same exact thing all week because I’ve gotten so out of the habit of giving a shit. I generally don’t even bother anymore with cuteness on the weekends – especially if I’m going to be blowing out my knees in this garden. My inner French-girl weeps and refuses to open the shutters.

Maybe it’s because I’m in a hurry to enjoy the last months of my thirties before my butt drops below my knees; maybe it’s because I have to wear an actual uniform at work; maybe it’s because gardening media seems suddenly infused with excessively hip hipsters like Alys Fowler, Gayle Trail and Patti Moreno The-Garden-Girl, who wear vintage scarves and have tattoos and tromp around their gardens in Jack Purcells or exquisitely expensive Hunter wellies. For whatever combination of reasons, I have become increasingly aware that I don’t like what I’m projecting. I’m not liking that I’m not looking as much like me as I used to.

The only thing I can think to do for it (aside from shopping for new “work” clothes and I’m trying to resist that impulse) is to open up my closet. And truly, since most of it, even the cute stuff, is from Savers anyway, nothing is sacred. And I wonder if stretching my creative muscle this way will make it limber in other ways. (Maybe I’ll paint again?) Meanwhile the true woes of the world worry on…

Do you wear a uniform – in or out of the garden?

An exclusive first-listen to Charlotte Gainsbourg’s (avec Beck) new album is here.

Neighbor relations

Walter's garageWhat do you do when you realize the neighbors hate you? Do you cower in the house and contemplate relocation? Do you carry on with the frontyardwork, wave and smile but maybe let your dog pee on his hostas sometimes?

I have this across-the-street neighbor – we’ll call him Walter because that’s his name – who is exceedingly jovial. He resembles a Portuguese Jerry Garcia and seems as laid back as your average cigar smoking deadhead. He was the first on my street to give me the thumbs up for ripping out shrubbery and planting a garden and he always waves and smiles when I walk by with the dog. But Walter, like many long haired children of the 60’s, loves the Golden Oldies and is apparently hard of hearing – and only ever plays his current fave on a loop. Last year we were treated to Moody Blues at top volume from his shop. This year evidently his fave is a Portuguese crooner not unlike Tom Jones who covers songs like House of the Rising Sun, Smoke Gets in Your Eyes and other earworms now played at top volume from his car in a garage that faces our street.

I think perhaps if he had varied the selection at all this weekend (or if it was this band I found on YT) I might have been more tolerant of the noise. Honestly, the first time through I kind of enjoyed the kitsch of it. But by the 6th or 8th repeat I had pretty much had it. There was nowhere in the yard or house to retreat to. Even with the ipod at high volume plugged directly into my brain I could still hear Walter’s album. We even elected to vacate the premises only to return to the same. So today, Sunday – the God given quiet day, after my dogwalk, I peered into the garage where Walter was working on his car and wrecking his eardrums, smiled and gave the universal hand signals for “Dude, could you turn the music down a notch before I lose my mind? Thanks, man. Peace!” I thought he nodded and said OK.

A few minutes later, blessed silence and I went back out to mow the grass. I spotted Walter and smiled and waved but he was shouting something. Hold on, I can’t quite hear you…

“Oh no!”, still smiling, “I just was hoping you’d turn it down a li-”


Not smiling anymore – wide eyed, panicked, “No, I really just wanted you to turn it down – we could hear it everywhere over he-”


Hands up in universal “I surrender.” “Aaargh. OK Walter. Turn it up. We love it.”

It’s been quiet ever since but I can’t help wondering what the hell? Granted, this is Bristol where anyone who isn’t “born” here doesn’t belong and 2 and a half years in the neighborhood is exactly like 2 weeks. But he had been fairly welcoming. Is Walter on a bender and will he be jolly again tomorrow? Is he seething and plotting vengeance for the ruination of his afternoon? Will he forbid his grandchildren to ever pet Nino again? Can we weather this with hilarity or do we need to start house hunting?