Scientist and naturalists are concerned about the drastic decrease in the number of monarch butterflies that arrived in Mexico last winter; numbers that have been slowly declining for years but are now at an all-time low. Deforestation for farming, housing and for beautification of highways and public spaces and the prevalence of pesticides are all working together to weaken the immune systems of monarch butterflies, starve them and destroy habitat and host plants for their young. It takes a whole lot of nectar to nourish butterflies as they fly from Canada to Mexico and they need flower motels and other stop-over areas in which to refuel and plants to start their families on along the way. The same food and accommodations are required on their return trip when temperatures warm up in the north. The disruption in this natural phenomenon is significant because insect pollinators play a huge role in our food production. It is also significant since butterflies are considered the most graceful (and the least feared) insects and provide the awesome spectacle of beauty and wonder as mass numbers take flight each year and their breath-taking congregation in Mexico. However, other less adored species of insects, their food supply and host plants are also being similarly affected along with birds and larger animals. Disruptions in the numbers of monarch butterflies signal disruptions in our entire ecosystem and we all should be very concerned.
As a child growing up in Trinidad I witnessed similar migrations of Urania leilus or the daytime -flying swallowtail moth, which we called 'police butterflies'. There would be hundreds of these blue, black, green and white lovely creatures laying with tattered wings on sidewalks and along country roads as swarms made the journey to and from the mainland. Hardly anyone I speak to today recalls these migrations and no one remembers when they ceased.
This Spring I worked with students at PS188 in Coney Island to create a garden to attract butterflies, birds and bees. Our May classes focused on the anatomy of a flower and how insects and birds are attracted to and pollinate them. We made paper flowers detailing both male and female parts. How marvelous is the natural world and how incredible that every shape, color, line, texture and scent of these enticing floral creations is meant to attract pollinators and distributors, including humans to them. It is a simple fact that the main goal of all species is to survive by constant reproduction, even though it may seem like the sole purpose of survival of one species is to nourish another. Our morphology is meant to attract mates and create offspring. I couldn't help but notice the awkward moments amongst students when I talked about the male and female parts of the flower. Fertilization of flowers, even aided by butterflies birds and bees, is sex talk.
In June we briefly covered the life cycle of the butterfly, their quirky habits, their predators and defense mechanisms. We also discussed how to behave around bees, welcome visitors to the garden and the not-so-welcome visitors, wasps. While many wasps are great pollinators, some prey on butterfly larvae. It is not so easy to love wasps.
Our major task was planting hundreds of native plants from Prairie Nursery. Larger pollinator-attracting plants and shrubs were planted earlier and plants from seed were started indoors. All came together to create our brand new pollinator garden. Students read the descriptions of various plants and enjoyed trying to pronounce the scientific names. Some star plants do double and even triple duty, attracting butterflies, hummingbirds, song birds and bees. Liatris ligulistylis, Asclepias tuberosa, Monarda fistulosa and Echinacea purpurea are star attractors.
Partial pant installation in early June in the small garden with narrow crisscrossing paths
Tubular flowers were designed to accommodate the long beaks of hummingbirds who reach deep within to sip tasty nectar. Hummingbirds love red so we planted flycatcher plants and columbine, both orange-red. We also started cypress climber, which have interesting finely cut leaves and bright red tubular flowers (although the vines were stolen when they were about four feet up the wrought iron fence). Other flowering vines like Mina lobata and hyacinth beans were started from seed. Climbing nasturtiums were started under grow lights on the fifth floor and did just as well as ones started in the garden. Salvias are some of my favorite plants and a major attractor of hummingbirds regardless of the color. We have red, pink, blue and purple salvia. Plants for song birds include switchgrass, prairie dropseed, little bluestem and Mexican sunflowers. Ilex verticillata is in place to provide birds with berries in winter. The showy red berry display is also a good reason to include these shrubs. One large tree, a young honeylocust, stands in the garden. As spring proceeded, it became clear how badly it was damaged by Hurricane Sandy. It may be removed and possibly replaced by a shad bush or another shrub that produces berries that both kids and birds will love.
Bees love purple and blue although the centers of many of the flowers they are drawn to are yellow.
Butterflies are not too picky about flower color and will flit about on many although each species has its favorites. We planted Joe pye weed, tons of Echinachea purpurea, E. pallida, E. parodoxa, sedum, rudbeckia, eupatorium, iron weed, culver's root and several species of asters to provide fuel to monarchs during their fall migration to Mexico; Monarda didyma and M. fistolusa, goldenrods, penstemon, liatris, agastache and of course, lots of three species of milkweed. Monarch caterpillars feed exclusively on milkweeds. Rattlesnake master was included for its unique foliage and flowers and for the love of saying the names (both scientific and common).
Many gardeners are caught up in the 'Native Garden Wave'. It makes perfect sense to plant native plants to attract insects and birds since native species of insects and birds have adapted and evolved along with their food and habitat plants. Restoring habitats of native plants to increase the population of monarch butterflies is of major priority. However, like New Yorkers, many birds, bees and butterflies have cosmopolitan diets. The success of their intercontinental flights depend in it. Some have adapted to and often delight in foreign cuisines like Peruvian nasturtium and Mexican sunflower which are welcome immigrants to our almost-all-native pollinator garden and are butterfly and hummingbird magnets. Butterflies love zinnias which are also from Mexico. I noticed bees visiting the tiny flowers on the Ilex crenata, a Japanese native. And what American garden does not include a bit from the Chinese? Buddleia davidii is a native of China but very reliable when it comes to attracting butterflies. Simply put, butterflies consider buddleia the bees' knees. Verbenas are a hit with butterflies and tall, airy Verbena bonariensis is from Brazil. Perovskia atriplicifolia or Russian sage attracts bees, bumblebees and hummingbirds. It too has its place in the garden which, though consisting of mostly true natives, is as diverse as the community in which it sits. Go native please, but be practical.
Habitat gardens that look like a little field or like something from a 'Garden by Numbers' box seem to also be the trend. Maybe it is the influence of native plant catalogs and the notion that butterfly gardens should be wild and weedy. This garden is an outdoor classroom to inspire and entertain but gardens are nothing if they are not beautiful and organized, even in their seemingly random states. That said, I design and plant with beauty, order, structure and form in mind so that children and adults can be drawn into the space and be mesmerized by individual plants, plant combinations, colors, shapes and textures, even as they observe caterpillars devouring leaves and entire plants.
Beautiful foreigner that it is, Cotinus coggygria 'Royal Purple' stands out in the garden. The burgundy leaves echo the color of the recently constructed school gymnasium which is very modern compared to the main school building. I intended the garden itself to reflect the sensibility of the new building with neatly laid out gray gravel paths bordered by steel edging. However, this is a dream at the moment since the budget did not allow for the required materials. Shredded bark will have to do until some kind contractor with welding and steel-bending skills will do it, gratis. Cotinus acts as a great structural plant amidst wispy fennel, agastache and steel blue panicum. And yes, I included boxwood. Two rows of little boxwood act as barriers and guide visitors to step onto the narrow paths as they enter the garden from the north or south sides. Boxwood and the three very upright and narrow Ilex crenata 'Sky Pencil' are already hiding places for sparrows and would provide welcome shelters in winter. Little boxwood were also included in the vegetable garden constructed a few feet north of the habitat garden. I never forget that I am planting with children in mind and the evergreen spheres that clipped boxwood create and fuzzy lambs ears are a playful contrast to grasses and masses of prairie natives.
The garden space was meant to utilize rain water runoff from part of the school building and there is a rain water collection area in the vegetable garden too, adding sustainability of both gardens. It is very cool that the architects thought of this! Rain water can be used to water vegetables and minimize water use in the pollinator / habitat garden. Water attracts wildlife and the plan is to invite them to make this garden their home or at least visit often. A tiny, shallow pool can easily be created to attract frogs and possibly dragonflies. This will be a great project to do with the kids. A spot is reserved for a simple birdbath and a nectar feeder for hummingbirds will be installed (Donations Please). Enticing butterflies with a shallow drinking spot and mud puddle are quick and easy projects. With these features in place, PS188 will officially be the site of a Coney Island Eco-Habitat garden. There is a sizable compost area in the vegetable garden. With a few changes like the collection of lunchtime vegetable and fruit scraps for composting and replacing Styrofoam lunch trays with bio-degradable cardboard ones PS188 is on its way to becoming an Eco-School.
We are done planting! Asclepias syriaca and Helenium 'Moerheim beauty' from North Creek Nurseries were last to go in the ground. Three small patches of white, pale and dark blue Siberian irises, a light pink monarda and a few common milkweed made it on a bus trip from Jeffrey Farrell's garden in Massachusetts. They overnighted in Harlem and are now residing in Coney Island. Brilliant red hollyhocks, red velarian and two lovely pink dianthus were picked up on that weekend trip in MA too. Rose malva, pink geranium, blue columbine and a small clump of variegated miscanthus were schlepped from the West 148 Street garden in Harlem. A couple bamboo trellises are still to be installed for Clematis virginiana and a honeysuckle that was labeled as rust orange but is really a pale yellow. Ugh! Do you think hummingbirds will care that the flowers are yellow and not orange?
The garden is mostly green still. Three very sturdy and long-flowering allium 'Globemaster' and Baptista australis of a similar shade of blue are now spent. Columbine, salvia, yarrow, malva and lantanas are blooming while buddleia and coneflowers are gearing up for the show. When students return in September, purple coneflowers, monarda, rudbeckia, goldenrods, ironweed, agastache, eupatorium, liatris, salvia and buddleia will be in bloom; a veritable butterfly smorgasbord. Soon after, asters, heleniums and seedheads of panicum will take over until holly berries appear to hold the fort through winter along with coneflower and monarda seedheads.
Butterflies, bees, hummingbirds and songbirds are our special guests. You too are invited to observe the first batch of caterpillars. The little globes found on dill and bronze fennel were butterfly eggs. So on the last days of school before summer we headed to the garden with hand lens and magnifiers and spotted three little caterpillars with a white band across their middle. They may be larvae of the Black Swallowtail butterfly. As they grow larger we will be a better able to identify them and know what butterflies (or moths) they will morph into.
The garden at PS188 is meant to be a learning environment, an oasis and one more stop over spot for many generations of butterflies and hummingbirds. It is to delight curious children in Coney Island (a community that has grown on me) for generations to come, even the ones starting a new phase in their lives by proudly heading off to middle school. I will miss them. I root for those brainy, zany kids on their journey and for the monarchs too. Rah! Rah! Rah! Cheers!