Monarchs in My Garden, at Last
by Margaret Renkl
Contributing Opinion Writer
May 21, 2018
NASHVILLE — I was pretty proud of myself the spring I planted my first organic garden. It was the mid‑1980s, and I was a first‑year graduate student in creative writing, a program entirely unrelated to horticultural mastery. But I had taken a college course in environmental biology, and I knew the basics: The more chemicals you use in a garden, the more chemicals you’ll need in the garden. It’s a self‑perpetuating cycle, more reliable than the seasons.
At my house, companion planting — marigolds in between the broccoli, tomato vines encircling the spinach — would repel bugs the natural way. Any lingering pests would be dispatched by beneficial insects like ladybugs and praying mantises. One evening I watched happily as cabbage white butterflies flitted over silvery broccoli leaves. Those little white butterflies pausing in the gloaming on the water‑beaded broccoli made for a tableau of bucolic harmony.
It didn’t dawn on me that a) the cabbage white butterflies were carrying out the usual biological imperative of springtime, b) broccoli belongs to the cabbage family, and
c) the butterfly’s name references not only its color but also its host plant. Instead of broccoli, it turns out, I was raising cabbage white butterflies.
In time, I gave up trying to sort the damaging insects from the beneficial ones and started planting enough vegetables for both of us. Nearly three decades later, I gave up raising vegetables altogether. I was always rooting for the butterflies anyway, even before I read about the plight of the pollinators.
Four years ago, I pulled out the vestiges of my vegetable plants and put a pollinator garden in their place. It’s still an organic garden, even though my family isn’t eating what it produces, because chemicals are deadly to pollinators. Now my raised beds are full of native perennials that provide nectar for bees, wasps, skippers and butterflies, or serve as their nurseries: yarrow for painted lady butterflies, dill and parsley for black swallowtails, false indigo for southern dogface butterflies, loads and loads of white clover for the honeybees. The wasps and native bumblebees are gloriously busy in all of them.
Most of all, I planted as many varieties of native milkweed as my garden could hold — common milkweed and butterfly weed and swamp milkweed and purple milkweed — because milkweed is the host plant of the monarch butterfly, and in this age of Roundup‑ready crops, the monarch butterfly is in danger of extinction. In a contest for garden space, the head of broccoli I can buy at the grocery store for $1.99 a pound carries no weight against the mass extinction of an irreplaceable butterfly that can fly for thousands of miles and was once so numerous it filled the skies with gold. This year the monarch’s numbers are 30 percent lower than last year’s, and last year’s numbers were disastrous.
But no matter how many milkweed seedlings I set out from one year to the next, no gravid monarch female ever arrived to lay eggs on them. Last year I tried to jump‑start the whole process with mail‑order caterpillars, but I had no better luck with them than with the mail‑order ladybugs and praying mantises of decades ago, though for different reasons. The praying mantises thrived even if they didn’t save my broccoli plants, and all my mail‑order caterpillars died before they became butterflies. Maybe I hadn’t planted nearly enough milkweed to make a wild monarch take note of my little way station?
“How would you feel about cutting down that sugar maple tree in the side yard?” I said to my husband. “I might need to plant a whole field of milkweed.”
“You want to cut down a 70‑year‑old tree so you can plant a field of weeds?” he said.
Finally, I decided to take the same approach to my pollinator garden I had once adopted for my vegetables: I watered and I weeded, after a fashion, but mostly I let it go its own way. Any number of things might have killed those caterpillars last year. The beneficial tachinid flies that keep the larvae of cabbage white butterflies under control on broccoli plants are deadly to monarch larvae too. The beneficial lacewings that eat the aphids that eat squash and cucumbers are just as voracious for monarch caterpillars. Everything you touch in nature touches everything else. Even when you’re determined to do things right, there’s only so much you can control, and it’s not very much at all.
This year, the perennial milkweed came up right on schedule. I was reading a book on the back deck on Sunday afternoon two weeks ago when a flash of orange in the pollinator garden caught my eye. From a distance it could be mistaken for a monarch.
Of course it wasn’t a monarch. Four years of roundly rejected milkweed had taught me my lesson.
Still, could it be?
I walked over to take a look. And there, lifting herself barely above the green leaves of the milkweed, was a female monarch, pale and tattered, looking as though she had come a great distance. She was fluttering from plant to plant, completely ignoring the nectar‑filled flowers and pausing, just lightly, on one milkweed leaf after another. When I looked closely, I could see she was laying eggs.
Five days later, the eggs hatched. It took a magnifying glass to be sure, but there they were: on each leaf an infinitesimal creature with tiny black‑and‑yellow stripes and tiny black faces and tiny black waving antennae. By the time I found them, they were already eating, leaving behind pinprick‑size holes in the leaves. The milkweed leaves I had planted just for them.
Some of the images in these two NY Times articles have been chosen by this blogger.