Helping monarchs and other pollinators

Written by Doug Oster on .

blog 6inch 20140511dohomemonarch4Here are some tips to help monarch butterflies and other pollinators. Photo by Doug Oster

The monarch butterfly is struggling. In this segment from Pittsburgh Today Live we learn what plants can help the species along with other pollinators.

Here's a link to the video

Monarch butterflies are in trouble.

Studies in the Mexican forests where the butterfly spends winters show a sharp decline in population, especially over the last three years. This year, the butterfly covered only 1.65 acres of woodlands compared with 2.94 acres last year, according to Monarch Watch. The species covered almost 51.81 acres at its peak in 1996.

There are many reasons for the troubling statistics, including habitat destruction in Mexico and severe weather conditions that have affected the butterfly’s favorite plants. Genetically modified crops, which can resist the herbicide Roundup, have also been an issue. Spraying does not affect GMOs but it kills weeds such as milkweed, which is the butterfly’s host plant.

In spring, Monarchs make a spectacular migration from Mexico to North America and return in the fall. On both journeys, they need host plants and nectar plants to feed on.

Advice for gardeners is simple: Plant milkweed everywhere. There are four major types:

Tropical milkweed (Asclepias curassavica) — Grown as an annual here, it’s planted toward the end of May and succumbs to frost at the end of the season. The tender leaves make a great food source for the larvae and the flowers provide nectar for the adults.

Swamp milkweed (A. incarnata) — a perennial plant that will come back each year. It does like wet soil but will also grow in average garden soil despite its name. The pink blooms are beautiful and fragrant, too.

Common milkweed (A. syriaca) — Also perennial, it spreads through underground runners and will thrive in full sun and average to poor soil. The flowers are purplish with a sweet aroma.

Butterfly weed (A. tuberosa) is shorter than the other two perennials with deep orange flowers that appear in summer.

There are also other plants which help the monarch at the end of the summer to get ready for the migration south.

Showy goldenrod (Solidago speciosa) is beautiful, clump-forming (and) extraordinarily polite. It has beautiful majestic strong spikes of yellow and it’s super late-blooming.

Liatris, also known as blazing star, blooms in July and August. Any of the cultivars will work, but meadow (Liatris ligulistylis), prairie (L. pycnostachya) and rough blazing star (L. aspera).

Asters that attract the butterfly include sky blue (Aster oolentangiensis), New York (Symphyotrichum novi-belgii) and white (S. ericoides). New England aster (S. novae-angliae).

The Audubon Center for Native Plants and Audubon Nature Store at Beechwood Farms Nature Reserve are at 614 Dorseyville Road, Fox Chapel (15238). Information: (412)-963-6100 or They sell four different types of milkweed and have a very limited supply of free seeds for common milkweed. They are also holding a “Marvelous Milkweed” native plant workshop July 11, 1-3pm at Beechwood Farms and July 12, 2-4pm at Succop Nature Park.

Monarch Watch is a great web site devoted to saving the butterfly.

The Million Pollinator Garden Challenge asks gardeners to create pollinator gardens and register them. It’s fun, easy and important.


Join the conversation:

To report inappropriate comments, abuse and/or repeat offenders, please send an email to and include a link to the article and a copy of the comment. Your report will be reviewed in a timely manner. Thank you.

In search of the elusive blooming hydrangea

Written by Doug Oster on .

invincibelle spirit'Invincibelle Spirit' is nearly indestructible and blooms every year reliably. Photos by Doug Oster

It's no secret to most gardeners that hydrangeas can be fickle bloomers in our climate. Hydrangea macrophylla is the most common variety, often called the mophead hydrangea. Improper pruning is one culprit, don't start cutting then unless you know what you're doing. That type of hydrangea puts on buds right after blooming. Trim those off and you've just removed next year's flowers.

Two tough winters have took their toll also, freezing out the buds.

native hydrangeaNative hydrangeas are the toughest of all.I grow lots of different varieties, some bloom reliably and others, not so much. Oak leaf hydrangeas (H. quercifolia) are cool and flower consistently for me. As do a few different H. paniculata plants.

There are a couple others though which are almost indestructible. 'Invincibelle Spirit' (H. arborescens) is the first pink 'Annabelle' variety. Not only is it tough, purchasing a plant helps people with cancer. One dollar from every 'Invincibelle Spirit' sold goes to breast cancer research.

I've got them all over the garden, they even bloom in the shade. The flowers are smaller without full sun, but there's plenty of them. I grow them in front of white 'Annabelle' hydrangeas. These varieties can be cut to the ground at the end of the season as they bloom on what's called new wood. The buds are formed in the spring, flowering in early summer.

The toughest of all hydrangeas is the native variety which also shares the arborescens name. It likes the grow at the edge of woodlands and has a beautiful white flower. My woods are covered with them, they need nothing from the gardener and happily provide flowers every summer. If you'd like to try one, check out Sylvania Natives in Squirrel Hill.

tight native hydrangeaNative hydrangeas don't ask anything from the gardener, but will happily bloom every year.


Join the conversation:

To report inappropriate comments, abuse and/or repeat offenders, please send an email to and include a link to the article and a copy of the comment. Your report will be reviewed in a timely manner. Thank you.

Beautiful blue allium is a welcome garden surprise

Written by Doug Oster on .

blue allium 3Allium caeruleum sports sky blue flowers only a couple of inches across. I planted 50 bulbs last year and was surprised to see them bloom. Photos by Doug Oster

I love surprises, and there's nothing like them in the garden. This is Allium caeruleum, I found a bag of 50 bulbs cheap at the end of the season last year at Hahn Nursery.

I'd never heard of the variety before, but fell in love with the photo on the bag. I filmed a segment for Digging with Doug all about discovering the tiny bulbs and getting them planted.

blue allium 1Like most things I do in the fall, the job was forgotten until I peered over the edge of the pool after a day planting in the garden. The perennial bed was filled with bright, sky blue flowers which filled my heart with joy. That's what surprises do, don't they.

I jumped out of the pool, ran in to get my camera and photographed the pretty blossoms.

Since the bulbs were so small, they were easy to plant and hopefully will come up year after year.

Alliums are from the onion family and there are lots of different shapes, colors and sizes.

Most are planted in the fall and are perennial, emerging in May and June to put on a show.

Planning for fall planting alliums can be done now. Take a look at your garden and decide where a few of these flowers could brighten up a spot or two.

They love full sun, but will bloom with five or six hours of bright daylight.

Now I have to think about where the next surprise will be blooming.

blue allium 2



Join the conversation:

To report inappropriate comments, abuse and/or repeat offenders, please send an email to and include a link to the article and a copy of the comment. Your report will be reviewed in a timely manner. Thank you.

Million Pollinator Garden Challenge, make a difference with your garden

Written by Doug Oster on .

blog hummingbird moth 0908Phlox is easy to grow and brings in lots of pollinators like this hummingbird moth. Photo by Doug Oster

There are lots of great plants which help pollinators. Here's information from The National Garden Bureau on the Million Pollinator Garden Challenge which is asking gardeners to plant pollinator gardens and register them.

Here are just some of the plants I grow to help pollinators- Milkweed, phlox, zinnias, coneflower, Joe Pye weed, asters, goldenrod and many more.

In an unprecedented collaboration, dozens of conservation and gardening organizations, including National Garden Bureau, joined together to form the National Pollinator Garden Network and launch a new nationwide campaign – the Million Pollinator Garden Challenge. Designed to accelerate growing efforts across America, the Network is launching the Challenge in support of President Barack Obama’s call to action to reverse the decline of pollinating insects, such as honey bees and native bees, as well as monarch butterflies. Representatives of the Network joined First Lady Michelle Obama at the White House garden, which includes a section dedicated to support pollinators, to formally launch the Challenge.

The Network is challenging the nation to reach the goal of one million additional pollinator gardens by the end of 2016. 

Any individual can contribute by planting for pollinators!

To tackle these challenges, the Network is rallying hundreds of thousands of gardeners, horticultural professionals, schools, and volunteers to help reach a million pollinator gardens over the next two years.

Every habitat of every size counts!

From window boxes and garden plots to farm borders, golf courses, school gardens, corporate and university campuses. Everywhere we live, work, play and worship can, with small improvements, offer essential food and shelter for pollinators.

It's easy to register your pollinator habitat!

 “National Garden Bureau supports gardens of all types, done by any type of gardener for any reason and gardening for the health of pollinators is a priority for NGB and our members,” said Diane Blazek, executive director of the National Garden Bureau. “We are thrilled to be part of the National Pollinator Garden Network and look forward to the day we reach one million pollinator gardens registered in the Million Pollinator Garden Challenge.”

Click here to shop for pollinator-friendly plants from NGB Members.

It's a simple two-step process:
1) Plant pollen or nectar rich plants
2) Register your pollinator habitat here

Additional steps you can take to make your area more pollinator-friendly:

  • Provide a water source
  • Situate your garden and/or plants in a sunny area with wind breaks
  • Establish continuous blooms throughout the growing season
  • Minimize the impact of pesticides
Full list of National Pollinator Garden Network partner organizations:
Learn more at and join the discussion on Social Media through the hashtag #PolliNation.

Join the conversation:

To report inappropriate comments, abuse and/or repeat offenders, please send an email to and include a link to the article and a copy of the comment. Your report will be reviewed in a timely manner. Thank you.

Rolling Stone's keyboard player is champion of the environment

Written by Doug Oster on .

blogmain20150615hohomesleavell2Chuck Leavell is keyboardist and musical director for The Rolling Stones. Mr. Leavell is also a passionate environmentalist.

By Doug Oster / Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

When the Rolling Stones come to Heinz Field on Saturday, [June 20] fans will focus on lead singer Mick Jagger. But the musicians will be watching keyboardist and musical director Chuck Leavell.
Mr. Leavell will be focused on the music, though his mind may occasionally wander to another place -- the woods.
“Trees and parks are the most precious type of resource we have,” he said in a phone interview. “They clean our air, they clean our water and let’s not forget they’re natural, organic and renewable.”
blog620150615hohomesleavell4His musical career came first. Mr. Leavell began touring as a teenager. In 1972, at 20, he joined the Allman Brothers Band, playing on many of their greatest hits. He formed the jazz fusion band Sea Level and played with some of the greatest musicians of our time, including George Harrison and Eric Clapton. He’s also released six solo albums.
But in 1981, while on the road with the Fabulous Thunderbirds, his life took a turn. He and his wife Rose Lane inherited 2,900 acres in Atlanta when her grandmother passed away. They looked at many options for the land and decided sustainable forestry would be its best use. Mr. Leavell studied hard between gigs, completing a correspondence course from the Forest Landowners Association and Georgia Extension Service so he could properly manage the plantation, which became Charlane Plantation.
A year later, Mr. Leavell became a member of the Rolling Stones and has been touring and recording with the band ever since. His love of the land goes back to childhood, growing up on 8 acres in Montgomery, Ala., where his father plowed the garden behind horses.
“I just remember how beautiful it was living in the country -- how dark the sky was at night and how bright the stars were.”
Summer days seemed endless as he would go down to the creek and play with his sister. “That feeling of being close to nature just stuck with me all through the years.”
Mr. Leavell is also a prolific author, writing “Forever Green: The History and Hope of the American Forest;” his autobiography, “Between a Rock and a Home Place,” “Growing a Better America” and a best-selling children’s book, “The Tree Farmer.” The book was inspired by Richard Louv’s “Last Child in the Woods” and tells the touching story of a tree farming grandfather taking his grandson on a journey of discovery through the forest.
“There is a disconnect with children and nature,” Mr. Leavell says.
In 2009, he co-founded the environmental website Mother Nature Network with Joel Babbit.
“We did it mainly because we saw there was a void of really good information concerning all things environmental,” he says.
WebMD was their model. He wanted a site that was “all-encompassing, easy to understand, easy to navigate, accurate and non-political.” The site receives 8 million visits per month and continues to grow.
Since the release of his first book, Mr. Leavell has become an outspoken advocate for the environment. “We need to be focusing on renewable energy -- solar, wind, electric and hybrid vehicles.
“Growing a Better America” offers ideas for smartly managing growth and development here and abroad.
“We have 320 million people in this country alone and that’s just such a tremendous amount of pressure on all of our natural resources,” he says, using Charlane Plantation as an example.
“We want to make sure we are planting, managing and growing more trees than we’re harvesting.”
It’s his part in a much larger effort that affects everyone, he says
“Growth is an issue that’s not going away.”If we don’t answer that wake-up call now, we’re going to be in trouble.”

For more information about Mr. Leavell or to read his travel blog as he explores the world with the Rolling Stones, go to

blogfire620150615hohomesleavell1Mr. Leavell conducts a controlled burn at Charlane Plantation.

Join the conversation:

To report inappropriate comments, abuse and/or repeat offenders, please send an email to and include a link to the article and a copy of the comment. Your report will be reviewed in a timely manner. Thank you.