Early Fall Watch for the Supergeneration of Monarchs

These are the first instars (stage) of monarchs. If you have milkweed, keep an eye out for them. These will be the supergeneration that lives 9 months.
These are the first instars (stage) of monarchs. If you have milkweed, keep an eye out for them. These will be the supergeneration that lives 9 months.

No one appreciates the Greatest Generation more than me. Those folks who fought in the World Wars, came home, and got right back to work and family and community. But today’s column is dedicated to another generation that I admire, the supergeneration of monarch butterflies.

The monarchs you see after reading this article today, are very special ones, these are the ones who will make that 4,000-mile trek to the forests of oyamel trees in Mexico to overwinter. The other three generations of monarchs, live about a month each, but this butterfly, that weighs less than a paper clip, navigates the geography and the weather to migrate to Mexico to sustain their species.

Why is this important to the Will County gardener? Because our landscapes are part of the lunch box for these amazing migrants. By late August, many of our flowers look as tired, as we do from all the watering and weeding we have to do. But it is important to reflect on just what your garden has to offer right now and particularly through September for our pollinator friends.

Look at your garden and see what is blooming now. We are in high prairie season, so many of our natives like coneflowers, black eyed susans, and liatris are still blooming strong. But several people commented to me how early these native plants started blooming this year. Late June for many. So, what, did the coneflowers do, skip a month when they turned their calendar?

No, Mother Nature did. We started having the dog days of summer two months early this year.

So, can you keep your perennial flowers, that are hard-wired genetically to bloom for only a specific period each year? Yes…and no. How is that for a political (yet, correct) answer. Can you make a peony bloom in the fall? No. Well, not unless you cut off the budded stems in May and kept them in the garage fridge. (Yes, this really works!)

But you can sometimes, if the weather cooperates, extend the length of time you can get additional blooms can happen. It is all about the deadheading. No, not the kind of deadhead like following the hippy-dippy Jerry Garcia band of the 1960s, but rather cutting off the spent blooms to encourage new blooms.

The goal of plants is to make more of themselves — propagation of the species. Plant or animal, that is how nature works. When we leave the seed head on a plant, whether it is a daffodil in the spring or a coneflower in late August, and that seedhead is allowed to mature and dry, the signal goes to the perennial that their work is done for this year. The have reproduced viable seed that can go forth and prosper. So they start to shut down.

If, however, you go through and clip off spent blooms as soon as the blossoms fade, the signal goes to the plant that they did not have successful completion of propagation, and they need to start over and send up more flowers.

This only works for some perennials, and it is not an eternal extension of bloom time. But as long as the weather holds out, you can extend that beautiful bloom time. But as the weather changes, if you are a gardener who supports winter wildlife, you will want to let the rest of those seedheads come to fruition as they are an important winter food source for the birds.

But when it comes to those annuals in your garden — the zinnias, marigolds, cosmos, salvias and more –deadheading should remain a regular chore as late into fall as you can take. Remember the restaurant analogy of the garden: No blooms, no food for the pollinators. You can either use pruners or, my choice, a nice sharp thumbnail to pop off all of those spent annual flower blooms. Keep watering and fertilizing too (only for annuals) to keep the pollen coming.

There are a few early-fall garden tasks you can also start to add to your to do list. Many people pull up their vegetable crops that are still producing once their table, freezer and pantry are full. Consider sharing that bounty of your garden with a local food pantry. They never have enough fresh, unprocessed foods.

There is still time to squeeze in a few fall vegetables into the garden. Planting carrots, beets, lettuce and other greens now, will reward you with the sweetest crops late into fall.

And the way our winters have been all but absent, with a little frost protection, you may be harvesting these delicious veggies long after the monarchs have set up their snowbird homes in Mexico.

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