I am thrilled to be part of the Northern Arizona University’s Milkweeds for Monarchs project, whose mission is to use citizen volunteer gardeners to assess the suitability of a range of region-appropriate milkweeds in home gardens and determine their utilization by monarch butterflies in mid and high elevations in Arizona.
As most people know, monarch butterflies can’t survive the cold climates of North America, and so make an annual journey down to Mexico and the southern United States every fall, then return in the spring. Their life cycle begins with the laying of eggs on their spring migration north and continues through out the summer. The larvae hatch and feast solely on milkweed.
The population of these once-common, iconic orange-and-black butterflies has seen a rapid decline of nearly seventy percent in the past two decades. One reason is that the heart of monarch breeding range is the agricultural areas in the midwest where milkweed plants have given way to corn and soybean fields. According to the Center for Biological Diversity, it’s estimated that monarch butterflies may have lost more than 165 million acres of habitat — an area about the size of Texas — including nearly one-third of their summer breeding grounds in the past 20 years.
In late fall, instead of mating and laying eggs, monarch butterflies spend their time drinking nectar and clustering together in nighttime roosts in preparation for their long journey south. Arizona is one of their flyways, passing through on their way south in the fall and returning in the spring. Fifteen years ago, no one thought a significant number passed through Arizona. But since they began tagging them, scientists know they pass through and end up in Kino Bay, Sonora, in the mountains of Mexico and in California. The Canelo Hills south of Patagonia and the entire Sonoita area are hot spots for monarchs though they are found throughout the state, including Grand Canyon National Park. See article.
According to the NAU project, the monarch breeding season is complicated in Arizona because of variable elevations and associated plant communities and many climatic microsites. In the Desert Southwest there are more than 40 species of milkweed which is more than 50% of the total diversity of milkweeds in the continental US. Arizona has the second greatest diversity of milkweeds next to Texas. A common garden experimental design is used, which means planting the same milkweed species in similar physiological condition and from the same genetic source in each of the experimental gardens.
Update: It’s a white-lined sphinx moth.
This insect was but a blur of motion to our human eye. My husband had to photograph it with his telephoto lens at high shutter speed to see it. But is it a butterfly or a moth? The following excerpt gives us a clue:
During rest, the tube-like feeding structure of the butterfly (i.e., the proboscis, equated to a “tongue”) remains coiled tightly against the head. However, when the butterfly moves to feed upon the nectar of a flower or something akin, the proboscis unfurls to extend downward into the flower’s center. https://asknature.org/strategy/proboscis-unwinds/#.WQOcvFPyvBI
So I guess that’s what this is–a butterfly and not a moth. But more importantly: What a tongue!
We travelled south to the San Carlos indian reservation near Globe in early March to see the fields of poppies.
Next we went to a baseball training game in mid March. The route from Sedona into the valley was stunning.
Now in Sedona, at 4,500 feet, the wildflowers have gone, well…wild.
Okay, so every time I get an idea to plant something, I have to stop and think: will rabbits eat it? Javelina? Deer? They say that rabbits will eat anything if they are hungry enough. Javelinas seem to be a bit more particular. They wander through my yard and nibble on the volunteer grass and such. I have seen deer in the yard, but not lately. But alas, neither rabbits nor deer nor javelina will eat the prickly pear cactus or the cat claw bushes. No, they only seem to be interested in the things I want to plant and enjoy like wildflowers.
Then there are the packrats, or desert wood rats. I have tried to adopt a philosophy of live and let live for the most part. I have a small fenced in area of the yard that I want to keep critter free so that I can grow my veggies unfettered. The rest is open to whatever critter chooses to visit.
But packrats are another story. As I was cleaning my garage, I found a nest, so I know they are around. What is really disconcerting is the fact that they are known to get into the engine of your car and chew up the wiring. So I tend to be extra vigilant concerning these critters like always keeping my garage doors closed.
A few days ago, my son and I were cleaning out the last of the rubbish pile left by the contractors. There was a lot of wood mixed in with chunks of concrete—branches, twigs, etc. Having studied permaculture, I flashed on an idea of building a hugelkultur raised garden bed. I piled the wood up, filled it with soil and compost, and chortled at my cleverness.
Then in the middle of the night, which is when I have my most profound thoughts, I flashed on a horrifying thought. Packrats! Had I just created the most perfect habitat for them? Maybe, maybe not. But I couldn’t take the chance. So that afternoon, I took my heap apart and arranged to have the wood away hauled away with the rest of the construction detritus.
Meanwhile, I had a beautiful bed of topsoil mixed with compost and thought about creating a wildflower garden. Now, I had to think about those other critters. Would they just come along and eat whatever I planted? I decided to do an experiment. I planted just of few of three types of plants they say the critters won’t eat—iris, salvia, and California poppies. Then I waited and watched. Two days later, the iris and salvia were untouched. But the poppies were annihilated. Lessons learned…
Drip irrigation, which is very commonly used in Sedona, is sometimes called trickle irrigation and involves dripping water onto the soil at very low rates (2-20 litres/hour) from a system of small diameter plastic pipes fitted with outlets called emitters or drippers. Being a dye-hard do-it-yourselfer, I like to do as much of the work (with the help of a son or two) as possible. That way, I control how it is done and understand the system.
However, there were some obstacles to achieving my goal. To begin with I didn’t have a clue how to install a drip irrigation system. So I studied the information online and consulted with several local experts—the owner of Rain Dance Water Works, free-lancer Larry Anderson, and a plumber who was working on a remodeling project at the house. From these sources, I was able to develop a plan that addressed some major issues: connecting to a water source, defining irrigation zones, identifying an purchasing the pipes, fittings, and emitters.
A major issue was how to connect the system to the water supply. The most common method described online involved tapping an outside faucet and using a battery operated timer. I consulted with my experts around town and all of them were of the same mind: BAD IDEA. Luckily for me, the plumber was able to identify the water stub-out that was provided for the irrigation as part of the original construction of the house. I then contracted a professional to install the head assembly and an electronic timer.
The next issue was identifying zones. Experts recommend that you before you begin to design your drip irrigation system, it’s best to start by making a sketch of the areas that you want to water, including your plant types–shrubs, trees, ground cover, flower beds, vegetable gardens and containers. Our plot was six tenths of an acre.
Did I know what I planned to plant on the entire plot? Of course not. But with Larry Anderson’s help I was able to define the zones in my critter-free area and a few other areas of the plot. The plan included options for expanding the system as and when needed. For the moment, zone 1 includes potted plants on and around the patio. Zone 2 includes the vegetables in the raised garden beds. Zone 3 includes bushes and ornamental plants like lavender, salvia and rosemary that have low water requirements and once established will require supplemental water during long dry spells. Zone 4 includes native plants in the rainwater garden and elsewhere that, once established, will not require supplemental watering.
Once my son and I had a plan, we purchased the tubing for four zones from Rain Dance Water Works and installed the tubing. Note that I needed to install the system well in advance of actual planting in order to avail myself of my son’s labor. Now it’s time to begin planting. How it comes together will be another interesting project.
Water is a precious commodity in the high country desert. Sedona averages about 18 inches per year. This compares to places like Illinois, which gets 37 inches per year. Thus, many landscapers in this region advocate xeriscaping, a landscaping method developed especially for arid and semiarid climates that utilizes water-conserving techniques: selecting plants that have very low water requirements, using drip irrigation, and harvesting rainwater with rain barrels, etc. In addition many such landscapers opt for gravel mulches in and around the plants.
This all sounded like a rational plan to me, until I began reading some of the permaculture literature, which argues that the cheapest place to store water is in the ground. Thus they advocate the creation of a garden that captures, holds, and recycles water. This is done using five complementary techniques: building organically rich soil, contouring the landscape to catch the water and direct it to where it is needed, planning densely to shade the soil, and mulching deeply. (Gaia’s Garden: a Guide to Home-Scale Permaculture, kindle edition.)
The challenge for me was the notion of contouring the land to catch the water in order to direct it where it is needed. My critter-free zone is flat as a pancake. I know, I know, there is no such thing as a perfectly flat area. That’s what the literature claims. Well folks, my patch of land really is flat as a pancake. So creating berms and swales that followed the contour of the slope of land wasn’t an option.
Then I read about rain gardens. Their function is to intercept rainwater runoff from impervious surfaces (e.g. sidewalk, street) by capturing it in shallow basins and allowing it to seep into the ground and irrigate associated plantings, thus reducing runoff and soil erosion. The central feature to all rain gardens is the capacity of the design to optimize available rainfall by keeping it in the landscape and directing it to where it can be used by the plants and stored in the soil. (http://cals.arizona.edu/backyards/sites/cals.arizona.edu.backyards/files/b09spring_pp9-10.pdf)
This notion seemed a perfect solution to my problem. I had had a gutter installed on a large stretch of roof that, at the time, drained into the gardening zone. This water needed to be directed away from the foundation. In addition, the soil, though rocky, was native clay, which had good moisture and nutrition retention. In fact, on that flat patch of land, it became quite saturated. This is fine in its natural environment, but would be likely to become compacted if walked on it or worked it over too much.
So I have opted for a couple of strategies. Where I placed the raised garden beds, I ran a run-off ditch along one side to help keep this area less soggy. I then applied a mulch of decomposed granite over it with the hope that I can work in the gardens without overly compacting and compromising the clay soil as I walk in this area.
But then, the water from the ditch needed to go somewhere. And, as I said, there is no slope to work with. To this end, my son created a large rain garden that is only some three-four inches lower than the surrounding area. It is flat, so that the water spreads evenly across its surface. The ditch carries the rainwater from both the gutter and the area where raised garden beds are located to this depression, dropping one inch per eight feet.
This bit of landscaping was extremely labor intensive. Just digging a shallow area about forty feet in diameter required the removal of an incredible amount of stones. These stones were what we used to line the run-off ditch.
The principle of this rain garden is that the water seeps into the ground within twenty-four hours. Anything in access of this amount had to be allowed to run off. Once plants have been established, their roots will help draw the moisture into the ground. We waited for a heavy rain to test our design. As hoped, even after a very heavy storm, the water had disappeared within the 24-hour period. We celebrated with a glass of wine and a lot of whooping and laughing.
In the next few months (and years), I will plant native grasses and other plants in and around the rain garden. There isn’t much information about what plants works best in a rain garden in Arizona. Native grasses are said to be able to withstand occasional wet feet, like the plants that thrive in arroyos. Plant selection for the edge, where there is good drainage, will be much easier.
In one of the few publication I have found, written by Kathryn Hahne of the University of Arizona Cooperative Extension, Pima County, (http://cals.arizona.edu/backyards/sites/cals.arizona.edu.backyards/files/b09spring_pp9-10.pdf), the gardener will have to learn by trial and error. So that’s what I will be doing, a reporting on my successes and failures on this blog.
The technique called “Keyhole Garden” is beautiful, simple and productive. It can be adapted to the specific needs of the gardener. One of the basic ideas is that it provides easy access with minimum path-to-bed ratio – a “least path” design. The horseshoe-shaped beds are sized so you can easily reach the entire area standing in the keyhole. (http://garden.menoyot.com/?p=83).
I can’t say why I was so enamored with the concept, but there you have it. I wanted one. The question was how would I construct it? I reviewed the many designs online. Most of them are made with stones or cinderblocks, but somehow, this style didn’t “go” with the rest of the garden area.
Since I had two rectangular raised garden beds, I thought something in a similar style would be cool. Once again, I had my son there to help me. We had leftover material from the construction of the fence, 21-inch cedar posts, and corrugated iron sheeting from a roof that we had removed because of the extensive rusting. So we got out a pencil and paper and worked out the angles to piece together seven panels made from the iron sheets and attached to the cedar posts.
Neither of us has any experience in construction, but we weren’t to be deterred. At Home Depot, a man showed as some adjustable-angle aluminum brackets. We were in business. We then worked out the angles for the mitered frame on top. We used what tools we had–a circular saw–to cut the boards. We built the whole thing on the patio, then moved it to it’s final resting place. The result was a somewhat crudely built, but functional keyhole garden that fits with the rest of the garden.
Rocks, rocks and more rocks! I swear we have more rocks than soil on our little plot of land. Clearly digging up all those rocks, tilling the soil and adding amendments to create a little vegetable garden would be a backbreaking job. Permaculture literature advocates no till gardening. The idea is that gradually, the addition of compost and dirt will work on the existing ground, creating fertile soil with lots of worms and organic matter to retain water. But…what if the ground you are working with is chock full of rocks?
The only solution I could see was to grow my vegetables in raised beds. Of course. We had materials left over from the construction of the fence and some iron sheets left over from the installation of a roof over our porch.