Some Like It Hot-Tomatoes Do Not!

Every gardener that I talk to in the mid-Atlantic region is singing the same refrain “This has been the worst year for tomatoes that I can remember”. I second that!

A pitiful tomato plant in September

A pitiful tomato plant in September

Heat and humidity has hit us hard with extended periods of over 95 degree weather and the tomatoes are hating it. Climate change? Yes, the last month of July 2016 was the hottest on record according to NOAA dating back to when record keeping started in 1880. The average temperature for the globe was 0.87 degrees Celsius above the 20th century average. Go to State of the Climate from NOAA to see the statistics. There were 15 days of record-breaking heat in July. This is not good news for Tomato Central, the Mid-Atlantic region where I live.



According to Bonnie Plants, “Sizzling summer temperatures can bring your previously productive tomato plants to a screeching halt. When days hit 85°F to 90°F and nights hover above 75°F, tomato flowers often fail to pollinate, then drop — which in turn puts new fruit production on hold. The longer the heat lasts, the longer those tomato flowers will continue to hit the pause button. In short, hot weather can delay your tomato crop”. Tomatoes do not need bees to pollinate. They are wind-pollinated.

Tomatoes are mostly wind pollinated but benefit from insect pollination too

Tomatoes are mostly wind pollinated but benefit from insect pollination too

I am usually canning like crazy and making tomato sauce but that hasn’t happened this summer. I had a few times where I picked a large basket of tomatoes, but nothing like previous years when my kitchen counters are groaning under the weight of ripening tomatoes with my 20+ plants.

I am usually making sauce and canning tomatoes this time of year

I am usually making sauce and canning tomatoes this time of year

Canning up a storm

Canning up a storm

Tomato plants thrive in balmy sunny summer weather, but overly high temperatures stress the plant and slow production. Prolonged temperatures above 95 degrees cause water stress, fruit damage from sun scald and slow ripening. One of the few bright spots were my dwarf tomatoes that seemed to hold up better than the full size ones. I had two dwarfs that sizzled, but four of them did very well. Check out my post on Dwarf Tomatoes. I will be planting more dwarfs next year. Taking much less room and easier to care for, I really enjoyed growing these for the smaller plants but full-sized tomatoes.

Dwarf Mr Snow

Dwarf Mr Snow

Fred's Tie Dye Dwarf Tomato is a beauty

Dwarf Fred’s Tie Dye Tomato is a beauty

I kept a good straw mulch on the ground on my tomatoes; This one is Dwarf Mr Snow which produced like gangbusters

I kept a good straw mulch on the ground on my tomatoes; This one is Dwarf Mr Snow which produced like gangbusters

So, what is a gardener to do?

  1. Plant heat tolerant varieties like Heatmaster, Solar Fire, Summer Set, Florida 91, and Phoenix. These set fruit even when the heat climbs up to code red days.

  2. Mulch, mulch, mulch-This keeps the soil cooler by insulating the ground.

  3. Keep some shade on the tomatoes, especially in the scorching afternoon. Shade cloth covering row cover hoops works well.

  4. Stop fertilizing so the plant is not putting all its strength into new growth when stressed.

  5. Water-Any plant can handle heat better if it is well watered.

  6. Pick early and often. When temps consistently hit the 95-degree range, tomatoes tend to stop producing red pigments, which means typically red fruits may instead ripen to orange. I had this problem. I thought that I made a mistake and planted all orange tomatoes. Fruit left on plants may have some color on the outside, but may still be green inside. Pick any fruit already showing hints of ripe color and allow it to finish ripening indoors.

    This is the stage that I am picking them-showing some color

    This is the stage that I am picking them-showing some color

Tomato diseases hit hard when plants are stressed

Tomato diseases hit hard when plants are stressed

My strategy? I definitely will be on the lookout for the heat tolerant varieties next year. I already mulch and we had plenty of rain and my tomatoes have afternoon shade from a large tree. I am hoping for a cooler summer to continue enjoying my tomato sandwiches.

I want my tomatoes to look like this, nice and ripe

I want my tomatoes to look like this, nice and ripe

But I want to hear from my readers? How have your tomatoes been this year? Please let me know!

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The Monarch Diaries-Adult (Part 3)

A just released Monarch hanging out

A just released Monarch hanging out

My three part series on raising Monarchs.

Preparations for Pupating

Prior to pupating, the cats go on “walk-about”, trying to find the perfect spot to make their chrysalis. In the wild, they can travel up to 15 to 20 feet away in their search. Found in some odd places, the chrysalis might be on fences, flower pots, window ledges, benches, bird houses, siding- just about any structure in your yard or house.

Yes, this caterpillar is searching for a spot to pupate

Yes, this caterpillar has  found a place to pupate and is making a silk “button” to hang from

 After crawling around the caterpillar finds the perfect spot to form their silken button that attaches to hang in their prepupal “J”, prior to their last molting. The silk comes from the spinneret on the bottom of the head. After shedding its skin for the last time, the caterpillar stabs a stem into the silk pad to hang. This stem extends from its rear end, called the Cremaster. The beautiful gold dots that adorn the chrysalis are not known to have a function.

The cremaster is black and attaches the pupae to the structure

The Cremaster is black and attaches the pupae to the structure. The pupae on the left was just formed and is still soft, the one on the right has hardened

In the "J" position

For the last skin shed, the caterpillar makes it chrysalis and goes through the “pupa dance”, a process that only takes 3 minutes or less.

Relocating a Chrysalis

Sometimes the cats make a chrysalis in a place that isn’t safe, like on the Milkweed branch that they are eating. In a matter of days when the chrysalis completes the cycle, the Milkweed branch is dead and not sturdy enough to hold the chrysalis. Happening several times in my tomato tower, I relocated the chrysalis using some dental floss. Tying the dental floss around the black Cremaster, I relocated the chrysalis to hang at the top of the enclosure.

Tying a knot around the stem or Cremaster and moving the chrysalis to a sturdy structure enabled this chyrsalis to transform

Tying a knot around the stem or Cremaster and moving the chrysalis to a sturdy structure enabled this chrysalis to transform normally

Using dental floss to hang a chrysalis

Using dental floss to hang a chrysalis

For more information about relocating chrysalises, go to Shady Oak Butterfly Farm. Just remember that you must hang the chrysalis so that it will form normally.

Prior to making a chrysalis, the caterpillar hangs in "J" and the antanae

Prior to making a chrysalis, the caterpillar hangs in “J” and the antennae go limp; This one made a chrysalis on a Milkweed branch and I had to move it



To witness Eclosure, the moments surrounding a butterfly’s emergence from its chrysalis, is magical, no matter how many times you observe it.  The only way to do that is to have the chrysalis in captivity, where you can monitor its progress and not miss the miracle of metamorphosis. It is extremely hard to catch this happening in the wild as once it occurs, it only takes about 3 minutes from start to finish.

 I missed this one happening. But it still was clinging to the chrysalis, so it just occurred minutes ago

I missed this one happening. But it still was clinging to the chrysalis, so it just occurred minutes ago

Eclosure normally occurs in mid-morning. You will notice the chrysalis darken after about nine days (typical of females) or ten days (typical of males), right before the butterfly emerges. Immediately prior to this, the chrysalis darkens to almost black. Bright orange wings begin to show through the chrysalis covering.

 For a great image of the Monarch chrysalis as it ages and changes color, go to Spica’s World.  

Eclosure is close when the chrysalis turns transparent

Eclosure is close when the chrysalis turns dark and you can see the coloration of the butterfly wings

The excitement builds as you watch and wait for the butterfly to emerge. Typically in early-to mid-morning, the chrysalis’s transparent skin cracks around the head at the bottom. The butterfly pushes it open and drops its abdomen down, still clinging with its legs to the empty shell.


When the butterfly first emerges from the chrysalis, it has stubby little wings and a plump body. Fluid from the body pumps into the wings, expanding them to full size in a few minutes. After the wings have fully expanded, the butterfly discharges waste products that have built up during its dormant period. A couple of hours later the wings are dry enough for the butterfly to take its first flight, usually a short one to the nearest tree. As a fully grown adult, it is now ready to mate and to spawn a new generation. You can tell the sex at this time very easily.

A male Monarch with black dots on his wing

A male Monarch with black dots on his wing which contain pheromone sacs that drive the females crazy!

Releasing the butterflies is always bittersweet as this generation that comes of age in September is most likely going to make it to California or Mexico for over-wintering. They have a long journey ahead of them. For more information about their journey, go to The Monarch Diaries, Part 1.

Three Monarchs who just emerged and will be released

Three Monarchs who just emerged and will be released

One of my just released Monarchs clinging on to my hair

One of my just released Monarchs clinging to my hair

If you are interested in learning to tag Monarchs, go to The Butterfly Farm.

Learning to tag with the Monarch Teaching Network

Learning to tag with the Monarch Teaching Network


Next up: Bad Year For Tomatoes





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The Monarch Diaries-Caterpillar (Part 2)

As the cats get older and plump, they become eating machines

As the cats get older and plump, they become eating machines

Larval Stage (Caterpillar)

Continued: The Monarch Diaries-Rearing Monarchs from Egg to Adult (Part 2)

Adding fresh Milkweed leaves to the container and cleaning up the gooey frass (poop) is a daily task that only takes a few minutes.

Lots of caterpillars munching away produces a lot of poop!

Lots of caterpillars munching away produces a lot of poop!

As the cats grow larger, shedding their skins, I transfer them to a slightly bigger container with fresh leaves. Clear salad mix receptacles that you buy at the grocery store make great containers at this stage.


Baby cats-I cut up the milkweed leaves and place them in a plastic container lined with a paper towel and fresh leaves for them to eat


Milkweed-Eat & Grow

When the cats reach about 3/4″ inch long, I put them in with the “big boys” in the tomato cage tower that is full of several types of freshly cut Milkweed branches stuck into water bottles. To keep my Milkweed from immediately wilting, I use a flower arrangers trick-flaming the cut ends so that the milky sap stops flowing. I use a small propane torch, like one that you would use for creme brulee. A match doesn’t cut it. It just isn’t hot enough to sear the ends to stop the sap which will make the branch wilt.

The Milkweed on the left has not been flamed

The Milkweed on the left has not been flamed


Flame the ends of Milkweed with a propane torch to stop it wilting

All it takes to keep your cats happy and healthy is a good supply of milkweed, because that is all that they eat-nothing else! Eat and grow is the primary goal for the caterpillar. The Monarch butterflies nectar on many types of flowers, but the caterpillars eat only Milkweed. There are lots of kinds of Milkweed, but it must be Asclepias, which is the Latin name for Milkweed. Go to Milkweed Guide to see great pictures and descriptions if in doubt. Growing Milkweed around the country to fuel the Monarchs is really vital to the Monarch survival and people are starting to grow it everywhere. Check out Got Milk…….Weed to read some amazing facts about this essential ingredient to raising Monarchs.

Aphids are always on Milkweed leaves and are voracious and reproduce like crazy

Voracious Aphids are always on Milkweed leaves and reproduce like crazy

Milkweed is a source of food for many insects, most notably aphids and Milkweed bugs, which I wash off carefully before bringing inside. I don’t want anything else to be eating my collected Milkweed-just my caterpillars!


Milkweed bugs covering Milkweed seed pods


Monarchs complete almost all of their growth during the larval stage which lasts from 9 to 14 days, during which time they undergo five larval instars or skin shedding. Before molting, the cat will become very still. If you catch this right after it happens, you can see the skin and then they eat it!


This guy just molted and is getting ready to eat his skin

I try not to handle them at all, especially during this vulnerable stage as the larva spins a silk thread to keep attached to the leaf.  From hatching to pupation, monarchs increase their body mass about 2000 times!

By the time they are ready to pupate the caterpillars become these pudgy clown-like eating machines. So, move them to a large enough enclosure so that they can move to a flat surface, stick, or other hard surface to attach their chrysalis which is their last skin molting or instar. I place sticks in my cage to give the cats added surface area for the chrysalis.


I added some sticks to the tower for additional areas to attach a chrysalis

 Making a Caterpillar Tower

Tomato cage enclosure

Tomato cage tower

As soon as I saw this ingenious enclosure at my workshop by The Monarch Teacher Network, made out of a tomato cage, black tulle, and clothes pins, I was hooked. Taking only a few minutes to slap together and tall enough for Milkweed plants, this was a great solution to keeping the cats contained while being able to observe them. Directions are below.

Directions for Monarch Tower

  • Buy a tomato cage with 4 rings. I used one that measured 14″ in diameter and 27″ from the first to the last ring in length. Cut half the length off of each protruding tine and bend the legs at the base inwards.

Start with a four ring metal tomato cage

Start with a four ring metal tomato cage, a 54″ square of tulle and some clothespins

  • Take your 54″ square piece of tulle and knot one end and pull that over top of your tomato cage.

Tulle pulled over the cage

Tulle pulled over the cage

  • Laying the cage on the side, clothes pin the tulle to the bottom ring of the cage pulling it taut. Using needle and thread, overcast stitch the tulle firmly to the bottom ring of the cage. Almost there!

    Using clothes pins to fasten the bottom of the tulle, use needle and thread to overcast stitch the tulle firmly to the bottom ring

    Using clothes pins to fasten the bottom of the tulle, use needle and thread to overcast stitch the tulle firmly to the bottom ring


    Overcast stitch the excess tulle to the bottom ring

    Overcast stitch the excess tulle to the bottom ring


  • Using 3 clothes pins, fasten the overlap area of the tulle on the side and place your cage on top of a pizza box base. If you aren’t a pizza lover, cut a piece of cardboard to fit the base.

    Use a cardboard base and set your Milkweed into a water bottle

    Use a cardboard base and set your Milkweed into a water bottle


  • Set up your cage on the base and it is ready to fill with your milkweed plant or cuttings. Tall enough for plants and lots of caterpillars, they will travel to the top when they are ready to pupate. This setup is easy to see through and clean, essential when you have lots of plump cats eating away.

    Change out your Milkweed when the caterpillars eat most of it

    Change out your Milkweed when the caterpillars eat most of it


I had a few cats die after turning black caused by a bacterial disease. This is upsetting but part of  life. I removed these as soon as I spotted them to stop any spread of infection to others. Be sure to clean and rinse your milkweed before using and clean your cage thoroughly every day to increase your caterpillar survival rates. If you notice a caterpillar looking sick, remove it from the others immediately. Once your caterpillar gets sick, there is really nothing that can be done. You can euthanize by placing in a ziploc into the freezer. For more information on caterpillar diseases, go to 7 Common Monarch Diseases.


Blackened caterpillar from disease

 Next Up: The Final Journey to An Adult Monarch Butterfly

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The Monarch Diaries-Rearing Monarchs Egg to Adult (Part 1)


Monarch on Mexican Sunflower

Incredible Journey

Monarchs always amazed me with their unique migration, over 3000 miles in some cases, which seems an impossible task for such a delicate creature. The only butterfly that makes a two-way trip, Monarchs are unique in the animal kingdom. Unable to survive cold winter temperatures, the Monarch has evolved to make this incredible trek to over-winter in warmer climes, such as Mexico and southern California. Using a combination of thermals and air currents, Monarchs sense when it is time to travel and know where to go even though the migrating generation has never been to the distant over-wintering sites.

Primary Monarch overwintering sites

Primary Monarch overwintering sites


Map from USDA Forest Service

Monarchs travel along one of three major routes and investigators think that a combination of directional aids such as the magnetic pull of the earth and the position of the sun among others guide them. Monarchs can travel between 50-100 miles a day and it can take up to two months to complete their journey. Traveling only by day, Monarchs roost at night high up in trees to rest before warming up in the sun to continue their journey. A distance of 265 miles in one day is the longest recorded distance of a Monarch! A great website to track the migratory happenings of Monarchs and other animals is Journey North. Citizen Scientists record their observations all over North America to show the movements of animals north in the spring and south in the fall in real-time.


Many teachers include Monarch rearing in their science curriculum in Elementary school but I missed the opportunity in school and wanted to do it myself at home to observe the incredible transformation that these creatures go through. How can such fragile creatures make a 3,000 mile journey to an unknown location and remain there for months, mate and then return to the north to start new progeny?


Several chrysalises hanging in an enclosure at my house


Monarch rearing has been on my “must try” list for several years and a two-day Monarch workshop put on by MonarchTeacherNetwork got me motivated and ready to go. Milkweed growing, enclosure instructions, Monarch activities and games, healthy practices of raising, and release ceremonies were all covered in simple, easy to follow directions with added field trips to meadows full of Milkweed and a butterfly house. After the intense two-day workshop, I felt fully prepared to set up my own Monarch raising operation at home.


Demonstrating milkweed in water tubes to keep it fresh at Ladew Topiary Gardens with MonarchTeacherNetwork

Showing us how to feed Monarchs JuicyJuice

Showing us how to feed Monarchs JuicyJuice

Different types of Milkweed laden with Monarch eggs were scattered around the room

Different types of Milkweed laden with Monarch eggs were scattered around the room

We each made our own Monarch cage out of tomato cages and tulle

We each made our own Monarch cage out of tomato cages and tulle

We learned how to make a Monarch enclosure for adult Monarchs also

We learned how to make a Monarch enclosure for adult Monarchs out of 2 embroidery hoops, clothespins, and tulle

Spicebush Swallowtail caterpillar-We toured the butterfly house at Ladew Topiary Gardens to see other larval stages of butteerflies

Spicebush Swallowtail caterpillar-We toured the butterfly house at Ladew Topiary Gardens to see other larval stages of butterflies

Practicing tagging Monarchs

Practicing tagging Monarchs


We went on a meadow hike at Ladew and I photographed this little guy who just molted his skin

After gathering some eggs from the meadow walk at Ladew I was ready to begin. Start with the eggs!

Egg Stage

This is where it all starts-Monarchs mating

This is where it all starts-Monarchs mating

For more information on Monarch Raising, go to Monarch Watch.

The hardest part of raising Monarchs is finding their tiny single creamy-white eggs which are smaller than pin heads. Carrying a portable hand lens on an overcast day makes it a little easier to spot the eggs in the field. If you observe Monarchs swooping in and landing on a Milkweed, there is a good chance that she just laid an egg.

I found this egg on the upper side of a leaf

I found this egg on the upper side of a leaf

Monarchs tend to lay their eggs singly on the underside of freshly grown leaves of Milkweed, hidden from predators and directly on their food supply for best survival rates.

Caterpillars are easy to spot with their big bold stripes: the eggs are much harder to spot

Caterpillars are easy to spot with their big bold stripes: the eggs are much harder to spot

The butterfly glues the egg on the leaf surface so that it adheres even through a rain storm, but predators find the eggs a tasty treat. The first egg for me was hard to find, but subsequent ones much easier once I knew what to look for. The likelihood of a Monarch surviving the egg and larval (caterpillar) stages is less than 10% in the wild. For great tips on finding eggs, go to How to Hunt, Gather, and Protect Monarch Eggs . This site gives great information on where, when and how to look.

Smaller than a pin head, eggs can be tough to spot

Smaller than a pin head, eggs can be tough to spot

After locating an egg, I note what type of Milkweed they were attached to and remove the leaf or branch and add it to my “nursery enclosure”, a small plastic container with holes poked in the top. Taking only 3 to 5 days to hatch, watch your eggs carefully as the caterpillar can emerge, eat their egg shell and will move on to fresher leaves pretty quickly. When the top of the eggs turns dark, hatching is imminent.


Adding some extra Milkweed leaves will keep the tiny caterpillars busy when they hatch. You could also place tulle or pantyhose over the top to keep any wandering minuscule caterpillars inside. Lining the container with a moistened paper towel makes cleanup of the “frass” or black gooey caterpillar poop easy and adds some moisture to their environment. Once inside the house, air conditioning tends to dry the air out for the caterpillars and a light mist from a spray bottle of water helps. I clean out the plastic container every day as the frass can bring in pathogens that can harm the caterpillars.

Itty bitty caterpillar with black head

Itty bitty caterpillar with black head

After the eggs hatch in about 4 days, the tiny caterpillars are no larger than 1/16 of an inch long. They are delicate and easy to overlook as you handle the Milkweed leaves, so move carefully when you are changing out old for fresh leaves.

Next:  Part 2-Larval Stage and How to Make a Tomato Cage Enclosure

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Easy Tomato Tart

Dealing with the deluge of delicious tomatoes in August is always a challenge. Recently I served this amazingly simple tomato tart that used up at least 5-8 large tomatoes and got rave reviews. The amount of tomato usage in a recipe is always paramount for me when I am looking at a counter top laden down with ripe ready-to-use tomatoes.


Different tomato varieties


2 medium onions caramelized in olive oil

1 package puff pastry, defrosted

1/4 c mayonnaise

5-7 ripe tomatoes, all colors

1 wedge of Cojita cheese crumbled to make 2 cups and some grated cheddar

1  small package of Feta cheese, crumbled

salt, pepper, dried thyme and oregano to taste

cut strips of fresh basil

Caramelize 2 onions in olive oil until brown. Slice 5-8 large tomatoes 3/8″ thick and let drain for about a half hour. Place both pieces of defrosted puff pastry in a jelly roll pan, press firmly. Spread 1/4 cup of mayonnaise on top of the puff pastry along with most of the caramelized onions. Sprinkle cheeses, cojita and cheddar, on top. Overlap tomato slices to cover the entire pan and press lightly into pan. Sprinkle feta cheese, herbs, salt and pepper. Add reserved onions and bake at 350 degrees for 40 minutes until golden brown. Let cool about 15 minutes before slicing. Serve with basil strips.

Here is a step by step version:

  • Slice two medium onions thinly and slowly saute the slices in olive oil in a saucepan until caramelized. Stir the onions every few minutes to get an even brown color.


  • Defrost a package of puff pastry which should contain 2 sheets. Lay out on a jelly roll pan(cookie sheet with short sides) and press to cover the bottom and side. If you want, you can spray a light mist of cooking spray on the pan first.


Press puff pastry on the bottom and sides of the pan

  • Spread mayonnaise on top in a thin layer. I didn’t measure this, but it probably was about 1/4 of a cup.


Spread mayo on top thinly

  • Spread the onion on top of the puff pastry, reserving some for the top.


Spread your caramelized onions on top of the puff pastry

  • Sprinkle 2 cups of crumbled or grated cheese (I use cojita cheese which crumbles nicely) and cheddar on top the onions.


Sprinkle cheese on top of the onions

  •  Now for the tomatoes. I used different colors of tomatoes and sizes for variety. Slice them about 3/8″ thick and leave them on the cutting board to drain slightly.


Slice your tomatoes

  • Arrange your tomatoes in the pan, overlapping slightly and press them down lightly.


Overlap the tomatoes covering the entire pan

  • Sprinkle some more cheese (I used crumbled feta), salt, pepper, and dried thyme and oregano. Add the reserved caramelized onions.


Sprinkle the top with herbs and cheese, and reserved onions

  • Bake for 40 minutes at 350 degrees until the edges brown. Shredded basil placed on top was the finishing touch. Let cool before cutting. It is also delicious cold.


Add some shredded basil to serve


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Rearing Monarchs – Start With Milkweed


Full grown meadow with lots of nectar plants and milkweed around my beehives


A Monarch nectaring in a Joe Pye Weed flower

Rearing Monarchs at my house was one of my goals this year. But I needed a ready source of milkweed to hand as I knew they were voracious eaters of this specific plant. A meadow of grass and goldenrod surrounded my three bee hives and I decided to plant nectar plants and milkweed in the grassy area, backed up with the goldenrod which is an important source of late nectar.


A field of Goldenrod backs up my beehives

Trolling the byways as I walked my dog for Monarch caterpillars on milkweed is not the same as having milkweed plants in my back yard. “Plant it and they will come” is so true-you just need the room to plant your milkweed and nectaring plants. Popping out the back door while preparing dinner to check for eggs, caterpillars, and milkweed made it much easier for me.



Take it section by section

Start Early

Late February was my starting date when I had time that was not taken up with other garden duties. First lay out your area with paint or a hose. I targeted an area about 15 feet wide by 60 feet in front of my bee hives to provide my bees with lots of floral sources and loads of milkweed for the Monarchs that I hoped would visit. Saving old newspapers all winter prepared me for the day when I started laying it down directly on top of the turf. Wet the newspaper so that it clings to the ground surface without flying away in the wind. A convenient hose to water everything down as you place the newspaper down is essential. I used at least 5 layers of newspaper to kill any underlying turf.


Potting soil bag

Go Section By Section

Using about a dozen bags of potting soil, I added a thin 1 to 2 inch layer on top of the newspaper to hold the newspaper layers firmly to the ground. Mulch is also an option. I progressed one section at a time as the newspaper could dry up and blow away if you leave it too long exposed. After leaving this sandwich sit for about 8 to 10 weeks, the turf underneath was mostly dead and the newspaper was almost rotted through so that I could plant through it. When I gathered my plants for the meadow, I planted directly through the soil and newspaper layer into the underlying soil.


Spread topsoil on top of the newspaper


Early in the spring, I gathered perennials in quarts and plugs to plant. Different varieties of of milkweed were planted among the other perennial plants to give a long season of bloom time, from early in the season to late. I planted all my milkweed transplants that were started in February into the ground at the same time. Go to Planting Milkweed to see how to start milkweed from seed. Weeds started growing, but I let them in! This wasn’t a manicured groomed perennial border and I didn’t bother the weeds that popped up.


Planting Milkweed inside in February


Newly planted perennials planted in the meadow, backed up by goldenrod

In early May, after danger of frost was over, I broadcast mixes of different seeds that were pollinator friendly in the open spaces. Mixing together many seed packets made a diverse mix and I sprinkled these on top of the soil and firmed it down with a hoe.


Mixing lots of seed packets together

Firm the seeds into the soil with a hoe and water lightly

Firm the seeds into the soil with a hoe and water lightly

Next Step

Now I have a great little meadow which is a nectar source for my honey bees, as well as for other pollinators. And a great area to pick milkweed to bring in to feed my Monarch caterpillars. Watering in the spring is the only maintenance that I had to do until the plants rooted in and started growing. I left it alone after the initial planting and watering and have enjoyed the flowers that popped up all season long. To see what types of plants that pollinators seek out, check out Plant These For Bees.


Milkweed in the foreground with other perennials and sunflowers



The meadow is growing in nicely in July

Next Up: Rearing Monarchs


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Butterflies are flying everywhere in my yard, swooping, basking, and fluttering like graceful ballerinas in a ballet. Observing the butterflies visiting my flowers and trying to catch them with my camera is easy to do with digital technology and for many people has turned into a hobby-butterflying. To make it more likely to capture them in my lens, I did some research about their habits and floral preferences.


Swallowtail inserting its proboscis into Phlox

More than 765 species of butterflies occur in North America, north of Mexico, according to the Fish and Wildlife service. Butterflies are very sensitive to weather as well as the caterpillars that turn into butterflies. Eggs and caterpillars in the hot weather hatch and grow more quickly, so here in Maryland, August is the ideal time to view butterflies. But what are the best practices to attract butterflies to your garden? And where can you go to see different species if you don’t have a garden?

Disney flower and garden 2014 156

Queen butterfly on tropical milkweed



‘Black Beauty’ Lilium is the top draw for butterflies in my garden

Colorful flowers attract butterflies which rely on the sugar-rich nectar for food. Small patches of blooming plants lure butterflies and concentrate them in a small area. When my ‘Black Beauty’ lilies bloom in August, when the greatest number of butterflies are active, I can observe dozens at a time congregating in a small 5′ x 5′ space. For a great source of Black Beauty Lilies, go to Old House Gardens. A great source of Heirloom bulbs, this is one of my all time favorites.

Host Plants for Larval Food

Many people forget that butterflies require plants that serve the needs of all life stages of the butterfly. The insects need places to lay eggs, food plants for their larvae (caterpillars), places to form a chrysalis and nectar sources for adults. Adults are often found near their larval host plant. Why not support the entire life cycle of the butterfly?


After planting milkweed in my garden, Monarch caterpillars appeared

Carry a plant identification field guide to find host plants if you go out in the field and/or plant the larval food plants in your garden. Milkweed is an easy larval food plant to start with. Go to Got Milkweed…….? post to see the benefits of this plant. For a list of host plants, go to Host Plants. I always include Asters, Sunflowers, Dill, Fennel, Parsley, Coneflowers, and Passion Flowers in my garden as common host plants.


Beautiful Passion Flower is a host plant to spiky bright orange Gulf Fritillary and Variegated Fritillary caterpillars munch the plants on their way to becoming butterflies.


Life cycle on monarch with milkweed

Other Attractants

Some butterflies rarely or never visit flowers and visit things like animal dung, dead animal remains, rotting fruit, or tree sap. Especially in rainforest understories, where flowers are hard to find, butterflies will instead eat the liquids from fermenting fruit found on the forest floor.


Owl butterfly feeding on fruit

Moist Soil or Gravel

Many butterflies gather at mud puddles or stream banks to drink water and take in various nutrients like salts and minerals. Often when I hike on my local “Rail Trail” covered with gravel, I see butterflies swooping in and settling on the moist gravel.



Cut-throughs for power lines are a good spot to view butterflies

Forest trails, waterways, woodland edges and power line cuts can attract diverse species of butterflies and become natural movement corridors for traveling butterflies. Adult butterflies use these for long distance migration, or to locate mates. I often go to a power line cut outs to see different species than what frequents my meadow and gardens at home.


Clouded Sulphur butterfly seen in my yard

Warm Weather

Cold blooded creatures, butterflies remind me of snakes and lizards who seek out the heat of the sun for warmth, and that is exactly where you will find them. When the sun comes out, butterflies magically appear. Living for a fleeting 2 to 4 weeks, butterflies are interested in doing only two things-eating and reproducing.

Gulf Fritillary on Zinnia

Gulf Fritillary basking on Zinnia

Here are some tips that will help you observe and understand butterfly behaviors and hopefully catch a good picture with your phone or camera!

Quick, darting little skipper butterfly on Zinnia

Quick, darting little skipper butterfly on Zinnia


Butterfly Pic Tips 

  • Butterflies love the sun and need heat from the sun to warm their bodies, so you will see fewer butterflies on a cloudy day. Instead choose a sunny warm day with a slight breeze.

  • Butterflies are slower in their movements in cooler temperatures so you probably could catch them ‘basking’ in the sun at lower temperatures. Butterflies need an ideal body temperature of about 85ºF to fly. Since they’re cold-blooded animals, they can’t regulate their own body temperatures. If the air temperature falls below 55ºF, butterflies remain immobile, unable to flee from predators or feed. When air temperatures range between 82º-100ºF, butterflies can fly with ease. Cooler days require a butterfly to warm up its flight muscles, either by shivering or basking in the sun. And even sun-loving butterflies can get overheated when temperatures soar above 100ºF, and may seek shade to cool down.


  • Watch where you stand when observing butterflies so you don’t cast a shadow that could scare them off. Move slowly with no abrupt movements

  • Ditch your tripod-with a moving target, the tripod is useless



  • Butterflies fly more often at 9:30 to 12 in the morning and 2 to 3:30 in the afternoon

  • When I see a butterfly alight on a flower, I press the shutter on my camera which can take up to 11 frames a second. At least one of those many pictures that you snapped will be a winner.

Monarch basking

A basking butterfly perches with its wings outstretched in a patch of sunlight to raise its internal temperature. This is a great time to get a good picture of them

  • Butterflies don’t have any chewing mouth parts, but eat by sipping nectar, through their proboscis. The proboscis is found curled neatly on the lower side of the head when not eating. When a butterfly eats, the proboscis extends like a straw which they insert deep into the flower to suck up the nectar, a behavior called ‘nectaring’. When eating they will circle around a flower for seconds at a time, making sure to drain all the nectar.

Curled proboscis

Curled proboscis

  • Male butterflies are found “puddling”, sipping at the moisture in puddles or wet soil. They are also benefiting from the salts dissolved in the water which increases a male butterfly’s fertility.

  • Butterflies lay their eggs on the specific host plants and are very particular in finding the perfect plant to do this.  I am always looking at my host plants to see if I can find eggs or caterpillars. A plant stripped of leaves is a good sign of caterpillars.


    A tussock moth caterpillar munches on milkweed

Black Swallowtail caterpillar feeding on parsley plant

Black Swallowtail caterpillar feeding on parsley plant

Skipper butterfly on lily

Skipper butterfly on lily


  • Butterfly wings are transparent. Formed of layers of chitin, a protein that makes up the insect’s exoskeleton,  thousands of tiny scales  cover the wings which reflect light in different colors. Moths and butterflies are the only insects to have scales. Sometimes you can take advantage of this property and photograph butterflies with sunlight shining through their wings.

Transparent wings of a swallowtail

Transparent wings of a swallowtail

  • Butterflies taste with their feet. Taste receptors on a butterfly’s feet find its host plant and locate food.  A female butterfly lands on different plants, drumming the leaves with her feet to make the plant release its juices. Spines on the back of her legs have chemo-receptors that detect the right match of plant chemicals. When she identifies the right plant after visiting at least several choices, she lays her eggs. I follow a butterfly for a long time, hoping to catch her in this behavior to snap a picture.

Swallowtail on Mexican sunflower

Swallowtail on Mexican sunflower

  • Within about 10-12 feet, butterfly eyesight is quite good, so move carefully. Anything beyond that distance gets a little blurry to a butterfly. Butterflies rely on their eyesight for vital tasks, like finding mates of the same species, and finding flowers on which to feed. In addition to seeing some of the colors we can see, butterflies can see a range of ultraviolet colors invisible to the human eye. The butterflies themselves may have ultraviolet markings on their wings to help them identify one another and locate potential mates.

Swallowtail on Zinnia

Swallowtail on Zinnia

  • Lots of hungry predators are happy to make a meal of a butterfly. Some butterflies fold their wings to blend into the background using camouflage, rendering themselves all but invisible to predators. Others try the opposite strategy, wearing vibrant colors and patterns that boldly announce their presence. Sometimes you have to look very closely to spot a camouflaged butterfly or moth.

The brightly colored Monarch is toxic to predators because of a chemical that it ingests from eating milkweed

The brightly colored Monarch is toxic to predators because of a chemical that it ingests from eating milkweed

Plant nectar rich flowers and host plants for a steady parade of colorful butterflies to visit your garden. Go to Plant These For the Bees for ideas on plant choices which work with many pollinators. Tithonia, or Mexican Sunflower, Zinnias, and Lilies are my all-time favorites for butterfly attraction and watching.

Skipper butterflies on Dahlia

Skipper butterflies on Dahlia

Bee Skep poster, go t

Bee Skep poster, go to Etsy Store The Garden Diaries

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From Plot to Plate-Squash Sex in the Garden


Oven fried squash blossoms served with a blue cheese dipping sauce

My last post on Squash Birth Control showed you how to decrease your squash harvest. But how about if you want to increase your harvest? Maybe you only have one plant to work with and you want to eat squash every night? It is easy to increase your odds of growing fruit as each squash plant bears male and female flowers and you can use this to your advantage without the help of pollinators. You become the pollinator!


An early morning harvest of squash blossoms, mostly male, but a few female ones

Most gardeners look at their squash plant blooming and see tons of flowers and start making plans for all that squash, pulling out recipes for squash bread and zucchini cake. Over the next week, you see with chagrin the blossoms fall off, some with small squash attached and wonder why? In reality, most of the flowers are male flowers and produce no fruit and pollinate the much fewer female flowers.


An open female flower and a fertilized one that is starting to grow a squash fruit

Learning to distinguish between male and female flowers on the vine will help you figure out what your true harvest will be. Both male and female flowers occur on each plant and pollen from the male flowers has to make it to the female by way of insects or hand pollination. This is where the gardener can lend a helping hand.

The video below shows a snapshot of morning activity of flying insects in my squash blossoms. I have three hives so there is always lots of visiting bees to my flowers. But everyone doesn’t maintain bee hives and you can increase your odds of your squash flowers getting pollinated even in an urban situation by simply hand pollinating.


Here you can see the difference: The female flower on the left with the enlarged center, the pistil, and the male flower on the right which carries all the pollen grains

The first week or two it is normal for the blossoms to fall off as only male flowers are produced and then the female flowers start opening. For pollination to occur you need bees- native, bumble, or honey bees and other insects, or a handy Q-tip!  If there is a dearth of bees, pollination is a lot less likely to occur, but not to worry- this is very easy to do yourself.


Removing all the flower petals from the male flower, touch the pollen bearing anther to the stigma of the female flower

Simply take the petals off of a male flower and use the ‘brush’  or exposed anther and brush it against the stigma of the female flower thus transferring the pollen manually and ensuring that the female flower grows a fruit. You can also perform this with a Q-Tip very easily in the vegetable plot. I prefer to fertilize directly with the male flower and go to each female flower that I see, brushing the anther against the stigma of the female flower. Fertilization is necessary for fruit formation. If fertilization does not occur, the ovary  or little squash will wither away. The squash flower below on the right has successfully been fertilized and is starting to grow.


On the bottom left is the male flower; top middle is a female flower; bottom right is a female flower that has closed up, pollination has occurred and the squash fruit is starting to grow

Male flowers greatly out number female ones and I take advantage of this and pick baskets of male flowers for recipes. Of course to cut your harvest, simply remove the fewer female flowers which can also be used in recipes. Just remember to cut off the center part, the stigma bearing part, as this can be tough. For recipes, check out Squash Birth Control-Squash Blossom Recipes.


A bee and a cucumber beetle in a squash blossom

Here is one of my favorite recipes-Oven Fried Stuffed Squash Blossoms. Instead of messy deep-frying, I like to cook them at a high temperature in the oven. Serve with a dipping sauce, like a blue cheese mix.


Baked stuffed squash blossoms ready to eat




Mix all your ingredients in a bowl


Stuff cheese into blossom


Blossoms all stuffed,ends twisted, ready for breading


Breaded and ready to pop into the oven

Posted in Cooking in the garden, gardening, vegetable gardening | Tagged , , , , , , , , | 3 Comments

Squash Birth Control- Squash Blossom Recipes

Pizza with squash and blossoms attached and grille corn-Yum!!

Pizza with squash and blossoms attached and grilled corn-Yum!!

If you never have eaten a squash blossom, go down to the nearest farmers market and pick up a bag and try them out. Even better grow a few plants in containers or in a garden to pluck them fresh off the plant. They are a wonderful addition to summer menus. I grow squash, not only for the vegetable,  but for the flower. And when you pick the young squash at a certain point, you get both the veggie and the blossom, and that is the best of both worlds.

Picked fresh from the garden

Picked fresh from the garden

To eat them, I slice the squash in half and fry them up, put them on pizza, stuff the blossoms with goat cheese, and make latkes or fritters.  You could also cut them up into ribbons or a chiffonade and drape on top of a pasta dish. There are countless ways to enjoy the yellow trumpets that emerge from the plants all summer. Here is a great pasta dish using blossoms: Pasta with Squash Blossoms.


Pick the blossoms first thing in the morning

Also, consider this as birth control for squash. It reduces your yield tremendously when you really don’t need another 20 zucchini or yellow squash cluttering up your refrigerator. when the squash comes in, it is an avalanche!


Big variety of summer squash

The trick is to catch the squash when it is only a day or two old, has the blossom attached, and is still tender. Or just pluck the blossom before it is fertilized and starts a tiny squash.

Young squash with flower still attached

Young squash with flower still attached

The blossom is pretty fragile so carefully snip it off, and I like to give it a quick rinse as insects like to lay their eggs on the blossom, namely squash bugs and ants. Bees seem to get drunk on the pollen inside the flower and it is fun to watch them. Place the blossom in the fridge wrapped in damp paper towels for no more than 24 hours to use in your favorite recipe.


Early morning is the best time to pick them before the heat of the day wilts them. Shake out any bees that spent the night curled at the base and collect as many as you can. I use both winter and summer squash blossoms and have taken out flowers from my fridge that still have buzzing bees in them that awaken when taken out into warm air. So, be careful about examining them carefully first.

Open the flower, and snip off the stamen in the center as this can be tough.

029 (2)

At this point, you can stuff them with goat cheese or just batter and fry them. They are sublime as a pizza topping. My favorite treatment though is Squash Latkes/Fritters.

Squash blossom latke recipe

Squash blossom latke recipe


Chop them up- I like the squash chunky

Chop them up – I like the squash chunky

Make your batter

Mix your batter

Add Chopped squash to batter

Add chopped squash to batter

Mix together

Lightly fold veggies into batter

Drop by spoonfuls into hot oil

Drop by spoonfuls into hot oil

Fry 3 minutes on each side

Fry 3 minutes on each side

Ready to eat

Ready to eat


Posted in Cooking in the garden | Tagged , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

Healthy Fruit-Infused Water

Cucumbers, mint, stevia, and lemon scented geranium are steeping in my pitcher

Cucumbers, mint,  stevia, lime, and lemon-scented geranium are steeping in my pitcher

It is hot here in Maryland and I am trying to quench my thirst with something healthy, no calories and with ingredients ready to hand – infused water. Its beneficial hydration in every refreshing sip!  If you often work outside like I do in the summer, there is nothing better than to whip up one of these infusions and relax with iced glass in hand. A good way to use left-over herbs and odds and ends from cooking, these additions can add pizzazz to your liquid diet.

Keep It Simple

When I feel the urge, I scout the flower and vegetable beds for something flavorful that I can throw into water to steep for a couple of hours. A variety of candidates will jump out at me, depending on the season. Stevia (the sweet herb substitute), cucumber, fragrant herbs, raspberries, blueberries, and mint are always welcome. Three or four items are usually enough to infuse a delicious flavor to my fresh well water. But something as simple as sliced cucumber and crushed mint leaves will do the trick.

From left to right - mint, cucumber, scented geranium, lime, stevia

From left to right – mint, cucumber, scented geranium, lime, stevia

Best Practices

  1. Be sure to wash off any chemical residue and dirt first. I garden organically, and know there is no chemical residue on my produce, but be sure to wash dirt and insect debris off. You don’t want any surprises…… like a Japanese Beetle floating in the mix!

  2. Use cold or room temperature water. Hot water can make things like berries fall apart.

  3. Springing for a fancy infuser pitcher isn’t necessary. Just use a clean glass or food grade plastic container.

  4. Cut up or smash (muddle) berries, squeeze citrus juices and use the leftover rind, tear up herb leaves, and throw in some edible flowers like beautiful blue borage for color.

  5. Infuse the flavors for about 2 hours at room temperature and then place in the frig to stop any unwanted bacterial growth.

  6. Keep the infused water up to 3 days in the refrigerator. I like to remove citrus, such as limes, and lemons within a couple of hours, as they can start tasting bitter. You can strain out any small flowers or pieces of fruit before drinking.


    A water-glass with a built-in infuser



    Stack your ingredients in firmly to release juices

Wash and add your selections to your fresh water and keep it at room temperature  for a couple of hours and voila’, you have those expensive flavored waters that you have paid a lot of money for.

A way to get rid of all my cucumbers!

A way to get rid of all my cucumbers!

One combination that I have tried is raspberries, lemon,  stevia, lemon balm, and lemon grass. The citrus notes give the water a refreshing zing and the raspberries stain the water a pale pink, kind of like pink lemonade. The stevia gives a sweet note to the water, but isn’t necessary. My stevia herb which is a natural sugar substitute, is growing like a weed, and I want to use it. The lemon grass is easy to use by ripping off a clump from the main bunch, stripping the leaves off, and slitting the fragrant stem to release those lemony oils.

Are there any benefits of infusing fruits/herbs instead of purchased flavored drinks? Yes!


Herbal concoction

1) Flavor-Your home-made infused water will taste bright and tangy and full of flavor. I have taste commercially prepared flavored waters, and they can taste watered down and flat. Even infusing water for a scant 15 minutes tastes better than purchased waters.

2) Appearance- Wow-a huge difference from purchased flavored water! You are more likely to eat and drink something that is beautiful and colorful.

3) Calories & Health- No calories are in infused water. But purchased ones can have added artificial and non-artificial flavors and sugars. Staying hydrated is important for your health and what better way than to drink a batch of sugar-free infused water instead of soda all day long?

4) Preparation- Easy and quick to prepare with ingredients on hand and from your garden.


Blue Borage flowers add color to this mix of lemons, scented geranium, mint, and cucumbers


Gatherings from my garden

Flavor Ideas

Fruits and Vegetables

apples •  blackberries • blueberries • cantaloupe • carrots • celery • cherries • cucumbers • fennel • grapefruit • grapes • honeydew • kiwi • lemons • limes • mangos • nectarines • oranges • peaches • pears • pineapples • plums • raspberries • strawberries • tangerines • watermelon

Herbs, Spices, and Florals

basil • borage • cilantro • cinnamon • cloves • ginger root • lavender • lemon verbena • lemongrass • mint • rosemary • thyme • parsley • rose petals •  vanilla bean

Great Combos to Try


Raspberry, lemon, and mint is my go-to infusion when raspberries are in season

Cucumber, Mint, and Raspberry

Orange, Mint, and Blueberry

Watermelon, Mint, and Lemon

Strawberry, Lime, and Cucumber

Raspberry, Vanilla, and Rose Petals

Blueberry, Lavender, and Borage

Kiwi, Cucumber, Honeydew and Honey (Yes, the honey is adding calories here, but hey, I’m a beekeeper!)

Cantaloupe, Mint, Raspberries

Raspberries, Lemon, Lemon Grass, Stevia, Lemon Balm

Lemon, Mint, and Raspberries

Rose Geranium, Stevia, and Mint


Rose Geranium, Stevia, and Mint



Posted in Cooking in the garden, Edible plants | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments