Gardening Matters

As comedian Gilda Radner, speaking as her character Roseanne Roseannadanna, used to say on the old Saturday Night Live show, “If it’s not one thing, it’s another.”

We have already heard in recent years about the problems besetting our pollinating bees. Colony Collapse Disorder (CCD) has been causing honeybee populations to decline precipitously in the last decade. The reduced population of these bees threatens the very heart of our biological system.

Without bees and other pollinators, our food supply and our whole plant system will cease to exist. The plants and all who depend on them will have to find other food sources or, to put it bluntly, starve to death. And when I say “all who depend on them” I mean you and I, all our animals and all other people.

Recent news now reports that monarch butterflies, another major pollinator of our plant life are threatened with seriously declining populations.

Monarchs are one of the most common of our pollinators. Their habitat covers all of the US, extends into Canada in the north and all the way to Columbia and Venezuela in South America. Their diet consists entirely of nectar from milkweed plants. It is the loss of milkweed plants that is driving the decline of these important pollinators.

The health of our population of monarch butterflies in measured by how many acres of land they occupy in Mexico where they stay during the winter.

The monarchs arrive in Mexico and land by the thousands on each tree. It really is an interesting sight.

From 1994-2014, the area in Mexico occupied by migrating monarchs averaged 15.8 acres. However in the last ten years (2004-2014) of that average, the occupied area has slipped to an average of 8.7 acres.

That’s a whopping 45 percent loss.

In 2012-2013 the area of forest occupied by monarch butterflies in Mexico was just 2.9 acres, its lowest level in two decades.

The Monarch Watch organization has estimated the loss of U.S. milkweed- growing habitat in the USA between 1996 and 2012 to be 261 million square miles. That is almost the entire area of Texas or the entire area of Minnesota, Iowa and Wisconsin + Illinois combined. That’s a lot of land and a lot of lost habitat.

One major factor behind the decline in milkweed plants is the hugely increased use of herbicide- resistant seed for corn and soybeans. The use of ethanol in our gasoline supply has greatly encouraged the planting of additional acres of corn.

Fallow fields, hedgerows and field boarders have been home to milkweed plants for years. Now these land resources are being plowed and planted with corn and soy seed that has been treated to resist the effects of herbicides such as glyphosate (e.g. Roundup®.)

The use of these herbicide-resistant seeds means that farmers can mass spray herbicides (e.g. use aerial crop spraying) on their growing crops to control weeds. One of the weeds that is regularly killed off is our monarch-friendly milkweed plant.

The decline of the monarch population, when combined with the widely reported decline of our honeybee population from Colony Collapse Disorder, should be seen as quite foreboding. If things get bad enough the only living things will be those gross looking tube worms at the bottom of the ocean.

I really (really, really) don’t like to indulge in doomsday predictions, but this is serious stuff and something that each of us can do something about, even if in a small way.

Consider buying a packet of milkweed seeds and planting them in a sunny corner of your yard. The flowers come in a wide range of colors from yellow through orange to rose, mauve and white. They are easy to grow. You and your children or grandchildren will enjoy watching them grow and seeing monarch butterflies flock to them this summer.

And you’ll save us from having to eat those horrid tube worms. I think I’d rather just go ahead and die than do that.

Jeff Coghill has been gardening in DeKalb County for more than 30 years and has probably killed at least one of each kind of plant he has tried before getting another one to thrive. He is a gardening volunteer at the Dunwoody Nature Center and works closely with members of the DeKalb Master Gardeners group. He can be reached at

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