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Gardening with heart: creating space for the Monarch

I don’t often stop when I’m driving to take pictures of people’s gardens – but something caught my eye in a small front yard on a busy Toronto street that had me braking in to the next driveway and dashing back with a camera.

It was a narrow strip of a bed, defined by a paved path up to the front door on one side, a driveway on the other, and completely filled with Common Milkweed (Ascelpias syriaca), its dusky pink flowers just now coming into bloom.

This, I thought, is gardening with heart. Milkweed once grew across North America, hosting the astonishing annual migration of the Monarch butterfly from Mexico to Canada. It takes six generations to get from south to north in a summer, and while the Monarch (like all butterflies), can get nectar from a wide variety of plants, the Monarch (like all butterflies) lays its eggs on one specific plant, or family of plants, which its larvae (caterpillars) have evolved to be able to consume.

For the Monarch, any member of the Milkweed family is a good host. But the advent of glyphosate (Roundup and other brand names) has removed the native Milkweed from our agricultural landscape. Combined with urban sprawl and other forces driving natural habitat eradication, the result has been a catastrophic decline in Monarch numbers in just the past decade. What a tragedy if our grandchildren will not be able to observe the wonderful sight of a grove of trees with Monarchs hanging from every branch, as used to happen very recently at Pelee, Thickson’s Woods and many other gathering points before the autumn trek across Lake Ontario.

Urban gardeners like the one whose lovely flowerbed stopped me in my tracks are rising to the challenge of providing the host plants that Monarchs need to make their miraculous trip. It won’t be enough but it signals the way forward. Municipalities and state and provincial governments need to step up and use their resources to plant life-giving Milkweed in parks and along road medians, and farmers need to make space for the wildflowers that support not only Monarchs, but the pollinators they need. There are accounts on the internet of how in areas of China, orchards have to be pollinated by hand because the bees and other pollinators have been eliminated.

Yesterday morning, I observed young sandhill cranes feeding between rows of young corn. In the afternoon, I saw a tractor driving the same field, spraying some formulation over the plants. What will that do for the young cranes, I wondered.

But I don’t discount the challenges faced by farmers. A friend persuaded her husband to buy seed that wasn’t treated with neo-nicotinoids – the chemical that has been determined by overwhelming evidence to have been responsible for devastating hive die-offs over the past few years. The crop became infested by wireworm and he had to replant. Needless to say, he was not amused. But if the precautionary principle was in effect here, and neo-nics were banned, as they are in Europe, it would be a level playing field for all, and it wouldn't be up to the individual farmer to weigh the ethics of the situation against narrow profit margins and tough competition.

We don’t pay enough for our food – preferring to buy cheaper from across the globe. Case in point: Ontario strawberries are now in season and this is a banner year, they are exceptionally flavourful. But many supermarkets are offering deeply discounted (and tasteless) California strawberries, discounts that are directly aimed at our growers who have a few short weeks to get a return on the hard work in their strawberry fields. Buy Ontario - and let's all start finding space for Milkweed.
Coming up: I will be bringing some of my plants to the Library Garden Tour and will be set up outside the Midland Library on Sunday July 12 from 9 am to 4 pm.  

- 1 July 2014 at 01:05pm

When creating a new flower garden a few years ago, I decided to leave a few milkweed plants on one side of the garden for the Monarchs. I have only ever seen one Monarch caterpillar on the plants, but the whole of my garden is being taken over by wind-borne milkweed seedlings and underground roots extending metres from the original colony. I'm now battling to control this weed. I would not advise anyone to plant it in their garden. It should be used only in natural, wild areas where it can spread without causing any problems.
- 4 July 2014 at 07:26am

Good points, June - Common Milkweed needs control - as in this Toronto garden where it was contained on all sides by hard surfaces. I had to work hard to eradicate it from a bed where it self-seeded. On the other hand, Rose Milkweed or Butterfly Weed do not send out runners nor do they seed prolifically.
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