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Milkweed bug adult and nymphs
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Update: Native plants, pollinators, and the elusive low maintenance garden

In May I wrote about my quest to renovate a flower bed in my landscape, converting it to include lower-maintenance plants-- specifically native plants and plants that attract pollinators.

As the summer draws to a close, I'm happy to report that most of the plants are doing well, with a couple of exceptions.
In the interest of full disclosure, I will admit that I started out strong as far as watering my new native/pollinator garden regularly when we didn't have rain in an effort to get the plants established. As time went on though, my watering efforts slacked considerably. I don't think I watered at all the second half of July.

One of the Roman Chamomile plants I added died, which was not really all that surprising since I have had bad luck with this plant in previous years. I have a "3 time" rule with plants in my garden-- I have to kill them at least three times before I give up on them. So the Roman Chamomile will probably get planted at least one more time at my house.

It's amazing how well plants grow once you remove competition from weeds, or in my case the herb garlic chives.  Remnants of perennials I had planted years before-- Monarda 'Fireball', Coreopsis 'Baby Sun', mums, Asiatic lilies, Sedum 'Golden Carpet', Echinacea 'Tomato Soup', Prairie Smoke (Geum triflorum) and Gaura 'Siskiyou Pink' all took off and dramatically increased in size and vigor once I removed all the garlic chives surrounding them.

As the summer progressed, I was fascinated watching the communities of insects attracted to my new garden bed. Of particular interest to me were the insects that appeared on the four different species of milkweed I planted (Common Milkweed (Asclepias syriaca), Butterfly Weed (Asclepias tuberosa), Swamp Milkweed (Asclepias incarnata) and Tropical Milkweed (Asclepias curassavica)). I witnessed large numbers of different bees, butterflies and other winged insects stopping by to sip on the sweet nectar of the flower clusters. The insects that have taken up residence on the plants themselves are quite interesting as well.

Although I have seen a couple of monarch butterflies in my yard, I have not seen any signs of monarch butterfly larvae on any of the four milkweeds.  In recent weeks, populations of bright orange and black milkweed bugs (Oncopeltus fasciatus) have grown substantially. So have the numbers of bright yellow aphids on the milkweeds. I have since learned these bright yellow pests are Oleander aphids (Aphis nerii), a non-native aphid introduced to the U.S. from the Mediterranean region.

Interestingly enough, although this aphid is said to prey on the Oleander plant (hence the name), they have not touched the potted Oleander plant I have that sits less than two feet from the nearest milkweed plant.

Depending on your point of view, one can consider the milkweed bugs and aphids to be "bad" bugs potentially detrimental to milkweed, warranting control measures. Or one could look at them as part of the ecosystem that includes milkweed and just part of the natural ebb and flow of living systems.

One writer I came across made the argument that our backyard landscapes are by nature out of balance, and she felt that milkweed bugs and oleander aphids were worth controlling no matter what. Personally, after observing these pests over the last few weeks, I think I fall somewhere in the middle.

I wasn't going to do anything at all about the Oleander aphids, until I noticed that on the tropical and swamp milkweed (both of which should still be flowering now) the aphids had effectively sucked all the life out of the flower buds above where they were clustered. What was left of the flower buds was brown and clearly dead.

One of the most recommended ways to control the Oleander aphid is to blast them off with forceful spray from the garden hose. I attempted this with limited success. I was able to remove a good amount of them, but I'm sure I could have removed other beneficial predators like lady beetle or lacewing larvae. I also could have potentially washed away monarch butterfly larvae, defeating one of the big reasons I planted the milkweed in the first place.

I have concluded that I will spray the aphids off when I see the numbers are high enough to damage sections of the plants, but otherwise I'll leave them be. After all, another one of the reasons I planted milkweed was because of their low-maintenance reputation. If I now have to remember to wash the plants off every few days, they are no longer low-maintenance in my book!

As far as the orange and black milkweed bugs go, most sources recommend just chalking them up as one of the members of the milkweed ecosystem. They do feed on the seed pods of milkweed, which may hamper efforts to save seed if that is something you are attempting. But there may be a silver lining to their feeding on milkweed seed pods-- this limits the numbers of viable seeds produced by the plant, which curtails milkweed's "weedy" reputation in the garden. Milkweeds are much less likely to reseed profusely when there are large numbers of milkweed bugs inhabiting the plant.

Overall I'm extremely pleased with how my conversion to a low-maintenance bed of native and pollinator plants has performed. I look forward to seeing this bed mature and prove its low-maintenance reputation in the coming years.

The new pollinator-friendly perennials and annuals I planted gave mixed results:

· Geranium 'Max Frei'—low mound of finely textured leaves and purple flowers; tons of flowers for the month of June, but very sporadic flowering since July. Other Geranium cultivars in my landscape are still flowering heavily. The cultivar 'Roxanne' is a standout performer.

· Knautia 'Red Cherry'— low mounding perennial with tufted red flowers held high on slender stems; some sources say this plant is drought tolerant, some say it needs moist soil; I haven't watered these plants since at least mid-July and they continue to be covered in flowers.

· Phlox 'Starfire' and 'Double Hitter'—pink flowered tall phlox; flowers in June were spectacular

· Baptisia 'Vanilla Cream'—new yellow-white cultivar reportedly as hardy as the purple-flowered species; this plant looks the same as when I planted it, which is not unusual for this spring-flowering perennial. I expect it to be a bit bigger next spring, and really make a statement in the garden by its third or fourth spring.

· Roman Chamomile, Chamaemelum nobile— low growing perennial species of popular herb used for tea; one of two plants died this season.

· Swamp Milkweed, Asclepias incarnata—leaves are much more narrow than Common Milkweed; prefers average to moist soil; despite no extra watering in the latter half of July and a bumper crop of the common milkweed pest Oleander aphid, the plants are thriving.

· Tropical Milkweed, Asclepias curassavica 'Silky Scarlet' and 'Silky Gold'— red and yellow flowered cultivars not hardy in our Zone 5b climate; these have not grown as vigorously as I had expected, but their flowers are beautiful and unique.

· Cleome 'Rose Queen'— large (4') annual with arching pink flowers some describe as appearing spider-like; these plants crashed and burned in my garden, although I have had great luck with other cultivars in the past. I will definitely attempt to grow these plants again.

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