First Monarch Butterfly Sighting, Saving Seed from California Poppies, & an Unfortunate Contaminant

Monarch Butterfly!
Monarch Butterfly Sighting
The first monarch butterfly we've seen at our garden in about 20 years. Hooray!
The first monarch butterfly we’ve seen at our garden in about 20 years. Hooray!

Today I let slip a little scream of excitement when I spotted the first monarch butterfly here in our garden–at least the first one I can remember in the two decades we’ve been at our current location. Growing up in the Midwest many decades ago, we used to see Eastern Monarchs all the time. But as you probably know, both the Eastern and Western Monarch Butterfly populations have declined over recent decades.

I followed the monarch at a distance, so as not to scare it off, and saw it in a flight dance with another. This was a happy dance occasion for me too. I hope they will find the new butterfly garden, replete with new showy milkweed plants, and decide to lay some eggs there.

You can record your sightings of monarchs, milkweed and caterpillars at: Western Monarch Milkweed Mapper

Please note that I believe it is illegal to capture, breed, and handle monarchs in California and probably some other places, unless you have a special collection permit. I’ve seen this hotly debated, but it makes sense to me that this is due to possible increased risk of disease in captive situations and lower migration success. See Monarch Joint Venture.

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As far as I’ve gleaned, the best thing we can do to help is plant whatever species of milkweed is native to our area as well as provide an ample supply of nectar plants. The orange-flowered tropical milkweed is often available, but not recommended in our area, for example (I have one, but I’m learning to switch over to native milkweed). See this great info in Sunset magazine. Pesticides and climate change also impact the monarch population.

See Xerces Society for more info on monarchs.

While this year’s numbers from Mexico and the western U.S. are steps in the right direction, they still indicate a severe population decline in both the eastern and western population over recent decades, and with a long way to go to recover this species. Western monarchs have declined by more than 95% since the 1980s, while the eastern population has declined by over 70% in the last three decades.

In the Veggie Garden
The deer are among the critters that seem especially hungry this year. Our deer fencing around the veggie garden is in a state of … um… neglect.)

The veggie garden is a mixed bag so far this summer. Some vegetables are doing well, others are taking heavy hits. Perhaps the drought is making all the critters hungrier than usual? It’s been an onslaught of damage all spring and summer so far, with earwigs, birds and deer eating so much more than usual. We’ve replanted some crops several times.

The yacon is a real survivor and is doing well though. If you are not familiar with yacon, it is originally from the Andes, produces edible tubers with possible health benefits, and is relatively easy to grow. Read more here. Harvest after the first frost, and do so gingerly, as the tubers break easily. They can be eaten right away, but they may sweeten more if left to cure, unwashed, in a sunny spot for a week or two.

Horse manure may have contaminated the organic garden with herbicide

Another setback happened, or so I suspect, due to some free local horse manure we used. I rarely use untried outside amendments, but alas, I forgot why and did it again. We put the manure on about half of our tomatoes (luckily they were in isolated containers). Those tomatoes are all but dead now and the ones without are thriving as usual. The symptoms look like aminopyralid contamination, which is a broad leaf herbicide that is used on livestock rangeland. Unfortunately, it can pass through the digestive tract to the manure, and can be in hay or straw. Using that manure or straw mulch in the garden can damage garden plants. I doubt the nice people offering the free manure even knew of this contamination, as they thought it was “clean”. Tracing it back to the original source can be difficult.

We also spread some around the orchard and though it has since been raked away from the trees, I’m concerned for their health and how long it stays active. According to Washington State University Extension, “Aminopyralid breaks down by microbial metabolism in the soil; chemical analyses of grass treated the previous year suggest that the compound breaks down to low levels one year. Levels of aminopyralid in forage crops with applied contaminated manure should decrease to non-detectable levels over 1-3 years.”

I garden organically, which I often forget to mention just because I’ve been doing it so long I really don’t think about it much anymore. We normally keep our garden inputs to a minimum because we’ve had issues before. Many years ago, a local and normally reputable source for community compost also found that their product had become contaminated with clopyralid–another herbicide. People brought in contaminated green waste for composting there and thus it ended up in the final product. We had to learn the hard way that time too.

If you are concerned about an amendment, this site explains how to do a test, a “bioassay”, to check for contamination. Basically, start some seeds like tomatoes or beans in two small containers with basic seed-starting mix. Add the amendment in question to one of them and mark it. Tend to them with water and wait to see the results (this could take several weeks). If the amendment one has curled leaves or doesn’t sprout at all, and the other is normal, it suggests contamination.

Note: If you find yourself with a paucity of tomato plants, it’s possible to propagate them by using the side-shoots! See this bit in Gardener’s World.

Saving seeds from the California Poppies in your garden

This was the first year I saved seed from the California poppies in the garden. Every winter, I scatter California Poppy seeds out in the fields during the winter rains. I don’t do any prep on the soil nor tend to the poppies in any way. I buy the seeds from Harmony Farm Supply. The poppies in my garden are at the seed-setting stage now and I found this excellent video from Climate Ready Home for collecting them. (Although I harvested in a messier way that she did.) 😉

A bit about Phytolacca americana, aka Pokeweed

The lavender harvest is over now, and we are applying ourselves to other tasks, like repainting an outbuilding, building a new garden bed, tidying, weeding and always so much else. One weed that we deal with here is pokeweed. It’s native to much of the U.S. but not native to California. When it first showed up here, I was taken with its beauty and the fact that the cedar waxwings seem to love it.

Upon researching it, found it further intriguing. As this site says, “Pokeweed has an extensive history for being used as a food, medicine, herb, dye for clothing, ink for writing, colorant for wines, and much more. Although used for food, extreme caution should be used, as the entire plant is poisonous causing a variety of symptoms, including death in rare cases.” (If cooked properly, it can be eaten. See here. I’m not advising it!)

Despite its intrigue, we quickly found out it is also very invasive and develops a massive root that requires sawing to remove. I think if we didn’t work to remove them, the whole five acres would be a forest of them quickly. Weed them when small to save yourself hard labor later on.

Some flower photos to wrap it up

I often start these garden blog posts planning on mentioning a few simple things, but, in my usual long-winded and compulsive fashion, eventually find myself at the end of what seems to be a long chapter. Maybe other bloggers need to teach me how to shut the F up! 🙂 In begging forgiveness, I leave you with some pretty flowers in the garden now at high summer. Hope you are all well! ~lisa

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9 thoughts on “First Monarch Butterfly Sighting, Saving Seed from California Poppies, & an Unfortunate Contaminant

  1. There are excellent instructions on seed saving on the site www, which you might find interesting. I am saving more because seeds are so expensive and, as the realseeds page points out, by saving from plants which thrived in my garden I am selecting for the characteristics which work here.

    1. I’ll check that out! I’ve been too lazy to save seeds much. Must do better. Motivated since the pandemic and occasional scarcity! Yes, how wonderful to select for characteristics that work well!

  2. Please do not abridge your posts! They are always so interesting. The photographs of the Monarch butterfly is great. It would be exciting to think you might get them breeding in your garden. Such a pity about your horse manure. We can pick up free compost at some local municipal waste disposal depots as you can drop of garden waste there and they compost it. When I first heard about this I thought “Great”, then I took a second to remember that gardeners can be bad polluters. Some of your plants look so exotic (but also beautiful) to me. like the Pokeberry and the waxwing. I think worse than invasive weeds are invasive plants that you plant yourself. Amelia

    1. Awwww… this warms my heart so much. Thank you Amelia! 🥰 Yes, it was so exciting to see the monarch. I went out to see if there were any eggs on the milkweed but I didn’t find any. But I’m hopeful. … Yes, it was a great disappointment about the manure. So glad we didn’t put it in all of our garden beds! I just hope the fruit trees will be ok. They are already struggling with the drought and the hungry deer. I love those cedar waxwing birds too — such a sleek outfit they have! And, it’s hard to see from the photo, but the tips of their tails are bright yellow, as if they dipped them in yellow paint! I hope you are able to stay cool today during the heatwave you are having there. Your home has stone walls I believe you said before? I hope they are providing a reasonable temperature to take refuge in. Hope your bees are doing ok. Stay cool and hope milder weather returns soon! -lisa

  3. A late catch up for me at last! Gosh I am shocked to hear about the contaminated manure, I hadn’t even thought of that possibility but it definitely demonstrates how important it is for us all to look for sustainable sources – for everything! Amazing news re the Monarch butterflies, it is incredible that your garden is a host to endangered species. Hope the veg harvests pick up, sounds like you’ll be repairing that deer-proof fence soon 😉 And finally, love those flower photos – the water lilies look incredible.

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