Gardens of the Cross Timbers: Time to help the monarchs

Becky Emerson Carlberg
Snow of hail stones around the lighthouse

Asteroid 1998 OR2 passed four million miles (16 Earth-Moon distances) from Earth early Wednesday morning. Could you feel the breeze? Although it was about 1.25 miles wide and 2 miles long, our naked eyes could not see the slow-moving “star.” This asteroid makes an oval orbit around our sun every 3 years and 8 months. Telescopes have been catching spectacular images, right down to the asteroid’s hills, ridges and Covid19 mask!? The deflection of atmospheric debris from the front of the rolling rock resembles a mask on the asteroid!

The typical storm season in Oklahoma begins late March and lasts through August. Our atmosphere provided all kinds of entertainment last Tuesday. Seven o’clock in the morning weather balloons had been released in Oklahoma, Arkansas and Missouri. Loaded with all kinds of instruments, these high-altitude helium or hydrogen-filled sacks could soar aloft 25 miles. Each had an attached small radiosonde which measured winds, temperatures, pressures, and humidity. Some weather balloons, minus radiosondes, are launched specifically to determine upper level winds and cloud heights. This data keeps meteorologists on their toes and helps direct the storm chasers in the field.

Through much of the afternoon the cap, several thousand feet above our heads, prevented the shallow layer of warm, moist air from ascending higher. No storms. If the cap broke, severe storms could rapidly fire up.

Radarscope showed the first biggie storms erupted in Kansas mid-afternoon. Bands of cloudy nothingness crossed Oklahoma from north to south as temperatures increased. Soon a storm line formed, concentrating much of its energy in the northeastern part of Oklahoma but its tail angled southwestward past Moore. My house was clipped by a roiling, grumbling storm that which hit after 7 pm, delivering eight minutes of pea to grape-sized hail and ¼ inch of cold rain. The dazzling electrical show continued to the southeast blown by a northerly cool breeze.

Meanwhile, as the weather did its thing, I scrolled through e-mails and noticed one from Monarch Watch. The milkweeds are ready to ship.

I began the process of acquiring milkweeds early in 2019. Thirty-two Asclepias tuberosa plants (Orange butterflyweed), 50 Asclepias verticillata (Whorled milkweed) and 64 Asclepias viridis (Green milkweed) were ordered from Monarch Watch. The milkweed restoration program is about creating quality habitat for the Monarch butterfly. Monarch Watch was supplying free milkweeds (shipping and handling extra) as part of a grant award. This fit my non-existent budget just fine. Two growers of native milkweeds were close: Baldwin City, KS and Georgetown, TX. For other regions, milkweeds were being cultivated in Groveland, FL, Encinitas, CA, and Brodhead, WI. No doubt our milkweeds would come from either Kansas or Texas.

The attached directives included review of invoice and planting directions. Eight weeks after the milkweeds discover they were not in Kansas or Texas anymore, a follow-up survey was to be completed.

The little milkweeds were destined for the Deep Fork Audubon Native plant area of the Japanese Peace Garden (JPG). Oklahoma Baptist University students and volunteers had been lined up to help. I soon received a ‘heads-up’ notification saying there was a delay in milkweed development. Cool wet weather was playing havoc with the milkweeds. The next message stated the nursery milkweeds were not ready to ship this spring. Plan for possible fall shipment. That didn’t pan out either.

The milkweeds are now being prepped to travel to Shawnee. My volunteer team is on-hold, currently sheltering-in-place somewhere. Nevertheless, the plants are coming in May. The new Native Plant Arc will join the Deep Fork Native Plant area, making available two sites for the milkweeds.

A new set of milkweed planting instructions have arrived. DO NOT THROW AWAY PLANTS WITH APHIDS OR NO LEAVES. THIS IS NORMAL. Got it. When the milkweeds arrive, they should each be given a drink, but not planted since they need a few days R&R. The soil in both native gardens is composed of heavy dense clay. What lies within the soil who knows, but pools of oil, asphalt, concrete and other unique things have been uncovered throughout the JPG. It was, after all, an abandoned Naval Training Airfield that had been leveled with fill and never properly prepared as a garden. Pretty terrible ground for delicate, maintenance-demanding big box store pansies, but these native plants might consider it a challenge and rise to the occasion. Over the years many transplants have withered and died in one or two seasons, even with careful tending. Green milkweeds have volunteered in the Deep Fork Audubon plot. Maybe they know something we don’t. The airport and entire Japanese Garden are located right below a main Monarch migratory route.

Milkweeds require full sun and most prefer well-drained soils. We’ll overlook this. The plant hole needs to be only slightly larger than the pot. Use a trowel or plug bar. Plug bar? When I googled plug bar, I discovered an assortment of power strips, surge protectors, an array of juice bars and something called the Dibble bar, a long metal rod with a T-handle at one end and a mini-shovel/spike at the other. Yes, the Dibble bar would be a great tool to use in the JPG. Or an auger. Or sticks of dynamite.

Toss in a little compost or slow-release plant food into the hole, position crown of plant at ground level and cover with soil. Tamp. Water. Mulch, but don’t use wood chips. Darn it. That’s the only mulch I have at the JPG.

Plant the milkweeds in clusters of 3 to 4 of one species and space the plugs 12 inches apart. Intersperse with the natives. A Monarch habitat is not complete unless it also has nectar sources for the adults: coneflowers, asters, sunflowers, native cranesbill, asters, blazing stars, compass plants, ironweeds and several species of goldenrods.

We are so set for goldenrods. The entire arc of the new native plant site is lined with goldenrods transplanted from two separate gardens. Last year the goldenrods planted by Sister City student delegates were pulled out days later by an overzealous weeder who knew nothing about native plants. By the time the deed had been discovered, it was too late to transplant other goldenrods.

With luck, a few Master Gardeners might be willing to venture out from their safe houses and help plant milkweeds. The JPG soil has a notorious reputation for being more than difficult, but this is a worthy cause. 2019-2020 numbers of overwintering Monarchs in the forests of central Mexico dropped to 53% of the numbers the previous year.

My green milkweeds are about to bloom. I watched as one ragged Monarch, probably from Mexico, flitted from one plant to another looking either for nectar or the right plant to lay her eggs. Monarch survival depends on us.

Chip Taylor writes for Monarch Watch Blog. His latest entry is April 20th 2020.

Becky Emerson Carlberg, graduate of Oklahoma State (Plant Pathology) is a teacher, artist, writer as well as certified Oklahoma Master Gardener and Master Naturalist. Contact her at