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May 242011

Monarch munching on goldenrod (Photo: EnviroZine/Environment Canada)

Monarch butterflies can be found in every continental state in America. Seven states have even named the monarch their “state insect,” according to the Environmental Defense Fund. That’s good news for those who would like to create a backyard space to attract monarchs as they make their way north or south for their long annual migrations.

The first step is a to do a little research to learn what monarchs and other butterflies are fluttering around your community. Books can provide information, but lepidopterists (people who collect and study butterflies and moths) or butterfly organizations in your area also will have details.

An important component of a butterfly-friendly garden is milkweed. For monarchs, it is the primary part of their caterpillar diet, and it’s the only plant that they lay their eggs on. The eggs become tiny caterpillars, then bright green cocoons and, after a short time, newborn butterflies. (Resist the urge to touch!)

There are many varieties of milkweed and even though farmers or others may see it as an unpleasant weed, its blooms have a lovely fragrance and without it, monarchs may hang around for some nectar, then likely keep moving. Milkweed attracts other types of butterflies and hummingbirds. The plant is also known as butterfly weed or pleurisy root.

Butterfly garden (Photo: The Butterfly Site)

Another essential butterfly magnet is nectar from a mix of flowering plants, perennials and annuals. That nectar gives the monarchs a carbohydrate boost to stay the migratory course.

Monarchs like a variety (that means a colorful garden for you) and native plants are best (neighborhood monarchs prefer regional cuisine). In return, butterflies perform a great social service: They pollinate plants.

Local garden clubs or county extension services should be helpful in suggesting the elements for a successful butterfly garden. Also, nurseries and garden shops in your community may be able to provide the native varieties of milkweed and flowers to make a monarch feel at home. Look to the Internet to buy milkweed seeds from companies like the Natural Fibers Corporation in Illinois or Butterfly Encounters in California. (Be sure to ask about which variety grows best in your plant zone, or check zones on the USDA milkweed webpage.) The Butterfly Farm also sends out seeds, for free, with a donation to the monarch cause.

Providing a drink is easy. Monarchs like to sip the moisture from a wet gravely, sandy or muddy shallow hole in the ground to get extra nutrients they can’t get from flowers. Don’t make the puddle too deep, just a few inches, but remember to keep it moist.

Now you can start watching. They fly best when it’s warm and even hot, and if the temperature is cooler (below about 75 degrees Fahrenheit) they’ll sit on plants to soak up some sun. They will posture or perch as courtship rituals.

There are many Web sites with monarch and general butterfly gardening information. Here are a few:

Monarchs on milkweed (Photo: Drake University/Save the Monarch

The North American Butterfly Association, The Butterfly Website (which lists many butterfly societies around the world), Monarch Butterfly Journey North lists butterfly gardening Web sites and climate zone information.

Butterflies and Moths of North America is stuffed full of details on attracting monarchs and creating a butterfly garden, as well as ways to help the monarch cause.

Gardens with Wings is a pretty and colorful guide to bring butterflies into your back yard, complete with a box that you can enter your zip code into for detailed information specific for your part of the country.

Other sites to check out are Monarch Watch (and their “Waystations” page); The Butterfly Site and Monarch Butterfly. Butterflies and Moths of North America, a part of the Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center site, has a searchable database of butterflies and moths of the U.S and Mexico, and it includes dynamic distribution maps, photos, species accounts and checklists.

May 242011

Soil enriched with organic materials will improve the toughest, dry dirt.

By Harriet Blake

Count yourself lucky if you live in a part of the country that has rich organic soil. Dirt in the Midwest and Mid Atlantic states tends to be easy to work with, while soil in warmer, drier Southwestern states requires some help. However, even if you live in an area with hard-to-work clay soil, there’s something that will enrich your dirt: organic matter, or compost. You can buy compost products at area garden centers, but consider taking advantage of what falls from your area’s trees. They provide free organic matter every fall.

Composted matter improves soil structure and drainage, says Texas A&M extension horticulturalist Keith Hansen. Compost also “promotes better root growth and increased absorption of rainfall and water, and helps reduce runoff, pollution and the loss of essential plant nutrients,” he said.

Soil organic matter helps a garden thrive. Good soil, as described in Organic Gardening from Rodale Press, has a high amount of organic matter, a loose, crumbly texture and a dark brown color. Organic additions to your dirt will make plants resilient, bigger and resistant to bugs and disease.

There are more than 20,000 kinds of soil in the United States, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, but the three basic types are clay, sandy and loam. The differences arise from an area’s climate, topography, parent material and biological factors (plants, animals, micro-organisms and humans).

Clay and sandy soil require additional organic material, such as compost or peat moss. Loosen up the soil by tilling or using a spade. Tilling compost, especially into clay soil, is essential before putting in a landscape, says Daphne Richards, a county extension agent with Texas A&M.

“Organic matter in the soil breaks up those hard, compacted clay lumps and allows air and water to flow through the soil, while also feeding beneficial microorganisms.” For already-established lawns that require “amending,” she suggests applying compost annually as a thin top dressing, allowing the grass to grow up through it. Clay soil takes a long time to absorb water, so water it slowly. The USDA advises watering only as fast as soil absorbs the water.

The addition of organic material in sandy soil also keeps water from running through the soil too quickly, which allows plants to absorb more moisture.

Loam soil, which is considered the best, is a combination of sand, silt and clay. It absorbs water easily and has the ability to retain it for plants to use later.

Bed preparation is key to any good landscape, according to landscape architect — aka the Dirt Doctor — Howard Garrett. “Without good bed preparation,” he says, “plants will struggle.”

Garrett recommends first removing unwanted vegetation. Get rid of weeds and grass, and toss

Dry or sandy soil needs a boost from organic matter you till into it.

them into a compost pile. Don’t till the soil when it is wet, as this will eliminate air spaces that are important to good soil life, he said.

It’s important to raise beds to promote drainage. Moistening the soil before planting is key, but don’t make it so wet that the soil becomes muddy. For a new bed with no grass or an existing bed, Garrett advises adding 4 to 6 inches of compost, organic fertilizer, volcanic rock sand or powder and dry molasses. Then rototill, fork or air spade to an 8-inch depth. For a new bed located in a grass area, the existing sod should be removed to about 1½ inches and then add all of the above plus horticultural cornmeal. (Cornmeal can stop the germination of weed and grass seeds in the mix.)

After the beds are set, take pot-bound plants and gently loosen their root balls, taking care not to tear the root system. Dip the balls into water and put them into moist plant beds.

Adding compost tea – a low-strength natural fertilizer — is effective on many pests or problems, including black spot on roses. The plants should be set so the top of the root ball is even or just a bit higher than the soil level. When a plant sits too high, its upper roots dry out.

Make sure you add 2 to 3 inches of organic mulch after planting. Annuals and perennials need a thin layer of compost, while shrubs and ground cover benefit from mulch made of native tree trimmings.

Once your dirt is established, maintain its health by watering at the right time of the day, using the right fertilizer, mowing and using natural alternatives to keep pests away.

Watering in the early morning or night is best, as water evaporates when you use it during the day. Don’t water when it’s windy, so you can direct the water where it’s needed.

Fertilizing is important because plants need nitrogen (for healthy green growth); phosphorous (to help roots and seeds develop and avoid disease); and potassium (to allow root development and prevent disease). If applied correctly, these nutrients are absorbed by the plants and very little is absorbed by ground or surface water.

Because soils differ, having your soil tested to find out what type of fertilizer is needed is a good idea. Your local or state extension service should be able to help.

Remove weeds, fertilize when soil is damp, then water again to get fertilizer to roots.

Remember to fertilize when dirt is damp, then water again after the application. This helps the fertilizer go directly to the roots instead of remaining on top of the soil where it can be blown away or washed away by rain.

When mowing – you’ve heard this before – leave the clippings on the lawn. They will decompose and provide natural nutrients for the grass. Also, don’t cut the grass too short during hot weather – you won’t need to water as much.

Natural alternatives for pesticides save money and are, of course, better for the environment. Spraying plants with non-detergent insecticidal soaps, garlic, hot pepper, a teaspoon of liquid soap in a gallon of water, used dishwater or a strong stream of water will help remove insects from your vegetation.

Also consider including plants that naturally kill bugs among the flowers in your garden. Some of these are mint (kills ants and aphids); onion (kills bean leaf beetles, spider mites and mice); garlic (kills flea beetles); French marigolds (kills root knot nematodes); and prostrate rosemary (kills slugs).

Everyone in the organic gardening movement can’t say enough about composting. The Dallas-based Clean Air Gardening news site notes that adding compost not only improves soil fertility but provides food for microorganisms to keep soil healthy and balanced. Nitrogen, potassium and phosphorus are made naturally by the feeding of microorganisms.

Understanding how to make and use compost is good for everyone. With landfills overflowing, composting provides an alternative to throwing away organic waste. Why toss away materials when they can be used to help your garden and lawn grow and thrive?

May 242011

The Asian long-horned beetle is a serious invasive species threat. It has the potential to destroy America's hardwood trees, including maples, ashes, willows and elm trees. (Photo: USDA)

According to The Nature Conservancy, we can all play a huge role in helping detect forest pests and prevent their spread by paying attention to the trees and forests around our homes and nearby natural areas while gardening, hiking and performing our other outdoor activities.

“More often than not, the presence of an invasive insect or disease that has spread to a new area of the country has been detected by a concerned member of the public,” says Faith Campbell, a senior policy representative in the Conservancy’s Forest Health Program. “If we can better educate people about these non-native pests, the chances of controlling them will dramatically increase.”

Imported trees and shrubs, as well as untreated crates and pallets, can have harmful hitchhikers, such as beetles buried in wood or tiny mites on the leaves of a flowering plant. These pests can kill trees in neighborhoods and parks, choke farmland, and devastate forests. Remarkably, new non-native plant pest introductions are detected at a rate of one every 12 days, adding to the burden of the more than 450 damaging tree pests already established in the United States.

“There are many tree species in the forest now that are suffering from attack by pests, including the beech, which produces nuts that feed bears, turkey and many other types of wildlife, and the hemlock, which creates majestic, cathedral-like, old growth forests that many people cherish,” said Gary Lovett, senior scientist, Cary Institute of Ecosystem Studies. “The loss of these tree species creates ripple effects that ramify through ecosystems and affect our own lives.”

Here are some of the invasive insects and diseases that are currently threatening trees and other plants that live in forests and other ecosystems across the country. These pests can be contained or mitigated if new outbreaks are detected sufficiently early:

Non-Native Pest Threatened regions and trees/plants
Thousand cankers disease Most of the East, from Pennsylvania south to Alabama and west to Iowa and south to Texas: walnut trees
Sudden oak death The entire Southeast: rhododendrons, camellias, viburnums, and oak and beech trees
Laurel wilt & ambrosia beetle Coastal Southeast: redbay trees in coastal regions from North and South Carolina to Mississippi; Florida: avocado groves
Gold-spotted oak borer Southern California: coast, live & black oaks
Asian longhorned beetle New England, Mid-Atlantic, and Great Lakes states: many deciduous trees, including maple and birch
Emerald ash borer New England, Mid-Atlantic, Great Lakes, and Plains states: ash trees
South American cactus moth The entire Southwest from Texas to California: flat-padded prickly pear cacti
Harrisia cactus mealybug The entire Southwest from Texas to California: saguaro, barrel, and other columnar cacti

Become familiar with the insects and diseases that are threats in their region by using the many online resources available, such as or

The Nature Conservancy recommends that if you notice an insect or tree disease you don’t recognize, take a photo or obtain a specimen of it, and compare it to Web site photos of the suspected pest. Or take the photo or specimen to a county agriculture extension office, local nursery, or a state agricultural office to obtain help with its identification.

If you believe you have found a new outbreak of an invasive pest or pathogen, contact your state department of agriculture to find out where to send a sample of it and how it should be packaged to ensure nothing could potentially escape during shipment. For a listing of all the USDA-APHIS state plant health director offices, visit and click on “Report a Pest or Disease” on the far right menu.

The Nature Conservancy and the Continental Dialogue on Non-Native Forest Insects and Diseases has launched an educational campaign to encourage careful planting and to support stronger regulation of plant imports that result in better protection of America’s trees from harmful foreign species. Learn more at:

May 042011

From left: Frisco Environmental Education Coordinator Jeremy Starritt, Liberty High senior Kaitlin Cox, Frisco High senior Nicole Martin and Frisco Environmental Services Manager Pippa Couvillion outside the Environmental Services office. Image:

By Bill Sullivan

With graduation just around the corner, many high school seniors still wrestle with the big question: What am I going to do with the rest of my life? It’s not exactly a trivial issue, and many will need a few more years of experimentation, trial, and error before any kind of real answer might reveal itself.

For those who already have a better idea of what the future might hold, Frisco Independent School District offers a friendly nudge in the right direction: The Independent Study and Mentorship program.

For the spring semester of 2011, seniors Kaitlin Cox (Liberty) and Nicole Martin (Frisco High) have benefitted from the mentoring of Frisco Environmental Services Manager Pippa Couvillion and Environmental Education Coordinator Jeremy Starritt. Both Cox and Martin are interested in environmental issues, so what better starting point than the city’s award-winning program?

In addition to learning about waste management and recycling, Cox and Martin also have conducted interviews with other professionals in and around Frisco, including a meeting with Mayor Maher Maso. By the time the two graduate, the ISM program will have provided valuable insights into their fields of interest while allowing them to polish their social, networking and interviewing skills.

The program, approximately 10 years old, is available in all FISD high schools. Prospective ISM students go through a screening and interview process that weighs criteria such as grades, teacher evaluations and coursework. This year, approximately 110 students participated, according to DiAnn Hill, who heads up the program for Centennial and Liberty High Schools.

Those who make the cut can choose from a wide range of topics, from dance and fashion design to politics and chemical engineering. Even if they might be leaning toward a different career, students have the option of picking and pursuing a subject in which they have a strong interest. FISD then helps them connect with mentors in the community who are willing to donate time and share their expertise in a given area.

“It’s a wonderful program where kids can make a career choice and find their way through what that all might mean,” Martin said.

It’s also a lot of work, and not for everyone.

“It’s not a typical high school class,” Cox said. “It’s something you have to want to do.”

Nicole Martin

Martin wants to be a chemical engineer with a basis in mechanical engineering.

“I want to create technologies that will be more environmentally friendly, more sustainable and more efficient,” she said.

By Martin’s count, Couvillion took her to interview about a dozen people in and around Frisco.  The extent of the City’s commitment to environmental concerns was a revelation.

“I didn’t realize how much the program had grown under her leadership,” Martin said. “It was incredible to see how much we actually recycle in this city.”

The experience affirmed her interest in trying to make a difference in changing the way people view waste and recycling.

“It’s so ridiculous how we have all these incredible technologies that blow people’s minds away, but we still throw our trash in big heaps and cover them in the ground and hope that in 10 years or so we won’t have to deal with it,” she said.

“Everything we throw away is made of something usable. At some point, we did use it. And there are materials in there we could make usable again. So why are we just throwing it away?”

The youngest member of her graduating class, Martin originally hails from California but spent her high school years in Frisco. She has decided to attend Brigham Young University in the fall and credits the ISM program for helping develop her poise, confidence and people skills.

“The most incredible thing I’ve learned from it is the ability to communicate with people and understand business etiquette,” she said. “Before this, I did not like talking to people. I did not like giving speeches or interviewing or anything like that.

“Once I was in the program that completely changed. I had interviews for scholarships, and I was totally unafraid. I could go in there and say whatever I needed to say without any sort of reservation.”

Kaitlin Cox

A summer spent in Colorado during her early teens inspired Kaitlin Cox to think about the environment.

“It was being around all that beauty and all those people trying to preserve it,” she recalls. “When I came back here, it was something I wanted to try to make happen everywhere.”

Like Martin, Cox says the ISM experience has helped validate her career choice. She isn’t sure whether that will take her into working with a city, joining a nonprofit, or venturing into politics, but environmental issues are definitely in her future.

Cox also stresses the boost ISM has given her in terms of personal development.

“Being in this program has made a huge difference,” she said. “I remember going into an interview, and I was really shy, really nervous. I stuttered a lot and repeated things.

“Having this experience really helped me get past all that.”

DiAnn Hill credits FISD for having the vision to see the value in such a program a decade ago.

“Every time I talk to students such as Kaitlin Cox and see the excitement in their eyes when they discuss what they are learning and the experiences provided them by their mentors, I fall in love with this program all over again,” she said.

Currently, Martin, Cox and their fellow ISM students are wrapping up their internships and preparing for their final presentations, which begin the week of May 23. That involves setting up a room at school and giving friends, family and teachers a detailed briefing on their ISM experiences and what they have learned.

Students also have to provide their own catering: For a trial run in January, Cox opted to bring fondue.

“It was a hit, so I’ll probably do that again,” she said.

The fondue, she expects, will be the easy part.

“It’s a fun night,” she said, “but I’m a little nervous about it, too.  It’s pretty stressful.”

Next up, she plans to attend Colorado Christian College in Denver, where she hopes to become involved with the school’s new recycling program. Her ISM experience, she believes, will make her more focused and ready to succeed.

“Most of my friends don’t really know what they want to do,” she said. “This program makes you think a lot. You’re going to college knowing what you want and what you don’t want.

“It’s going to make for an easier transition.”