My dad told all kinds of fantastical stories when I was a kid, and I believed all of them. To this day, I can’t drive past a “Watch For Falling Rock” sign without thinking about the Native American hero named Falling Rock, who disappeared in the desert and was never seen again. If I had kids, I would tell them stories about dragonflies, something about how a magic spell of some sort turned big-eyed, prehistoric beasts into delicate winged creatures that really like water.
I’m not sure exactly when dragonflies started inhabiting our gardens. But these days, they are as nearly as ubiquitous as the butterflies and bees used to be just a handful of years ago. Perched on plants or flitting around from one place to another, the brightly colored creatures are as unreal as seahorses and endlessly interesting to watch. They’re also beneficial carnivores, capable of eating hundreds of mosquitos in a single day.
Attracting dragonflies to your yard is easier than you might think. The most crucial thing to provide is a water source, and even the simplest water feature will do. It’s also important to include a diverse mix of plants, trees and shrubs that can provide cover; offer places to mate and lay eggs; and draw in insects that hungry dragonflies can munch on. But before I go into more detail on how to invite them, here is a bit more that you might not know about these interesting creatures.
What Are Dragonflies?
Dragonflies really do have prehistoric roots. More than 300 million years ago, they were among the first winged insects to evolve. While today’s dragonflies have wingspans that range from about 2 to 5 inches, some dragonfly fossils have been found to have wingspans of more than two feet. That is frightening enough. But the thought becomes absolutely terrifying when you consider that the aquatic insects belong to the insect order Odonata, which is Greek for “toothed one,” referring to dragonflies’ serrated teeth. When they eat, dragonflies most often snatch flying insects in midair, tear them into bits, smush the bits into a ball and chow down.
Look closely and you’ll notice that dragonflies can look quite different from one another. That’s because the insect order Odonata also includes damselflies. Generally smaller than dragonflies, damselflies have slim bodies and eyes that are separated and somewhat protruding rather than flat and centered on their heads.
It’s easiest to tell the two relatives apart by looking at their wings when they’re resting on something, which damselflies do more often than dragonflies. Dragonflies rest with their wings flat and parallel to the ground while damselflies hold their wings pressed together over their backs, like a butterfly. An estimated 5,000 to 6,000 dragonfly and damselfly species have been identified worldwide, and about 140 species can be found in Minnesota. Go here to learn more and see photos of some our state’s dragonflies and damselflies. To hone your dragonfly identification skills, check out Stokes Beginner’s Guide to Dragonflies by Blair Nikula, Jackie Sones and Donald and Lillian Stokes.
Most dragonflies and damselflies need water throughout their entire lifecycle. Every species has its own requirements for things like water quality and the types of aquatic vegetation on which they prefer to lay their eggs—though they also lay eggs in the water. In their larval stages, when they are known as nymphs, the insects spend months, sometimes years, living underwater before emerging as adults.
Adding a pond to your landscape is sure to bring on the dragonflies. If you have the space and resources to do that, choose a spot that gets at least five hours of full sun in an area that’s somewhat sheltered from winds, especially from the north. If possible, create a pond with varied depths so there are shallow areas near the edges and a depth of at least two feet in the center. Larvae will be safer from predators like raccoons in the deeper parts of the pond. Because fish feed on nymphs and eggs, it’s best not to include them in ponds where you’d like to encourage dragonflies to breed.
Stock the pond with water-loving plants, including submerged plants for females to lay eggs on and tall emergent plants for nymphs to climb up when they’re ready to slough off their last larval exoskeleton and transform into flying adults. Adults will also use emergent plants when they stop to perch and scan for potential mates or food sources. There are several submerged plants (also called oxygenator plants) to choose from, but a few good options are: anacharis (Egeria densa), fanwort (Cabomba canadensis), hornwort (Ceratophyllum demersum) and wild celery (Vallisneria sp.).
A few emergent plants to consider are: corkscrew rush (Juncus effuses), dwarf horsetail (Equisetum scirpoides),dwarf papyrus (Cyperus isocladus), blue flag iris (Iris versicolor) and parrot’s feather (Myriophyllum aquatic).
More Water Ideas
Don’t have room for or want a pond? How about a small rain garden or bog garden? Or maybe a water container garden made from a half whiskey barrel, galvanized tub or anything else that’s handy and can hold water will work well. Use the same plants mentioned above to create your container water garden, which should be located in a sunny spot. For detailed instructions on creating container water gardens, see my article on the subject in the May/June 2013 issue of Northern Gardener.
If all of that sounds like too much work, take the easy route and just add a water feature like a simple fountain. We created a few small fountains for our yard using inexpensive pond pump kits that we bought on sale at a local big-box store combined with a galvanized tub or livestock troughs. Be aware that pond kits don’t always come with filtration systems that are adequate enough to handle outdoor debris. So you may want to do what we did and buy an additional filter box that will filter the water before it enters the pump.
Place your container where you want it, put the pump in the bottom of the container and use a rock or brick to hold the cord in place. Next, drape the cord over the edge of the container and use another rock to secure it on the ground before directing it toward a power source. Fill the tub with water, flip the switch and your gurgling fountain becomes a magnet for dragonflies and damselflies. Adding plants will hasten their appearance, but it isn’t necessary. Basically, if you have a water feature, they will come.
Plants for Every Purpose
The plants that you choose for your landscape are nearly as important as the water you provide. Dragons and damsels will use ornamental grasses, shrubs and trees planted within a few feet of a water source as perching sites and to help them hide from predators like birds and spiders. Flat rocks placed around the edge of a pond, water container or fountain will become places to rest and bask in the sun. And although midges and mosquitos make up the bulk of their diet, you’ll see more of these meat-eating beauties if you plant flowering perennials that entice beetles, wasps, moths and other small flying insects that become their prey. (Yes that does include some bees and butterflies.)
Bee balm (Monarda didyma), black-eyed Susan (Rudbeckia hirta), black snakeroot (Actea racemosa), blanket flower (Gaillardia), cardinal flower (Lobelia cardinalis), catmint (Nepeta), coneflower (Echinacea), Culver’s root (Veronicastrum virginicum), golden Alexander (Zizia aurea), goldenrod (Solidago canadensis), Helenium, Joe-pye weed (Eupatorium fistulosum), Liatris, Phlox, Russian sage (Perovskia atriplicifolia), speedwell (Veronica), Salvia, swamp milkweed (Asclepias incarnate) and yarrow (Achillea filipendula) are all great choices.
Ensuring A Safe Haven
Like bees and butterflies, dragonfly and damselfly populations around the world are in decline in part due to pesticides. Studies have shown that the widely used neonicotinoid pesticide, imidacloprid, is particularly toxic to the aquatic insects, as well as other water-dwelling species. So if you want to attract dragons and damsels, do your best to steer clear of pesticides and other chemicals that may be harmful. And if you’ve got one of those bug zapper things to help control mosquitos, put it away because it will zap the dragonflies too. Don’t worry. In a very short time, those hungry little carnivores will thank you by keeping mosquitos in check all on their own.
A version of this article appeared in the 2014 September/October issue of Northern Gardener magazine.
It’s nice when something gross turns out to be useful (like how sheep sweat, lanolin, makes chewing gum softer). So I’m happy to report, in answer to a reader’s question some time ago, that, yes, Eurasian watermilfoil harvested from area lakes can be used in helpful ways, including as a soil amendment, fertilizer and even mulch.
First, though, if you’re not sure what Eurasian milfoil is, it’s that stringy, slimy plant that those big, blue boat harvesters remove from the lakes every summer. First detected in Minnesota in Lake Minnetonka in 1987, it is an invasive aquatic species that has spread to waterways across the state. The plant produces thick mats on the surface of the water and tangled stems and masses below, making it difficult, if not impossible, to swim and boat enjoyably. It can also disturb aquatic ecosystems by displacing native aquatic plants.
Acres of watermilfoil are removed from Minneapolis’ Chain of Lakes annually by the Minneapolis Park and Recreation Board’s mechanical harvesters. The machines usually cut off the top 3 to 4 feel of the plant, which can grow up to 15-feet long (super spooky to swim through). If you walk the paths around the lakes, you’ve probably seen (and smelled) piles of it onshore or at the boat launch.
Too Much Trash
Rachael Crabb, the Park Board’s water resources supervisor, says that once the milfoil is harvested, it’s dumped in small piles in a designated spot to dry out. Though terribly unwieldy when wet, milfoil is much easier to handle once it shrinks and composts down a bit. Until recently, the Park Board stored drying milfoil at a site at Fort Snelling. This worked well for the forestry division because whenever they needed to add organic matter to a soil mix, they could just take some from the piles.
The only problem, says Crabb, was—trash. In the lakes, all of that tangled milfoil acts like a magnet for all manner of garbage that winds up in the water in one way or another. Trying to separate the trash from the drying piles was time consuming and inefficient. So, last summer, the Park Board started looking at other options and found that the Minnesota Landscape Arboretum was happy to take the milfoil off their hands. “It’s a trek out there, but it’s the best option we have right now,” Crabb explains, adding that the first delivery is scheduled for later this year.
Soil Building and Mulching
As it happens, the arboretum has been using milfoil from the Lake Minnetonka Water Conservation District as a soil amendment for about a decade. “After it dries and turns into a nice compost, we usually use a manure spreader to put it on the research fields in November,” Peter Moe, director of operations and research, told me. In addition to supplying a bit of nitrogen, the milfoil makes a good amendment because the organic matter helps loosen the arboretum’s clay soil, improving its water-holding capacity and fertility.
In addition to being a good source of free organic matter, Moe says milfoil harvested from area lakes is desirable because it doesn’t have any weed seeds in it. “It’s such a valuable material, even if there is some trash to deal with, we would be very happy to have whatever the Park Board delivers,” he explains. “Our soils here in Carver County are very difficult to plant in if you don’t have enough organic matter, especially in the spring.”
It’s not a pretty sight, but Eurasian milfoil can be used as garden mulch (if you don’t mind the fishy smell as it dries). While researching this story, I talked with several gardeners who’ve tried it successfully. But here’s the thing, because it is an invasive species, it’s not a good idea for all of us to go running down to the lake to collect Eurasian milfoil for our gardens. Seeds and fragments could easily end up in waterways and spread the problem. In fact, Crabb pointed out that the interconnected storm sewer network could even transport milfoil to lakes that aren’t yet infested with it.
While it would of course have been best to keep Eurasian milfoil out of our waters, now that it’s here, it has proven to offer a few benefits. Even where there are thick milfoil mats on the surface of the lake, there are areas where native plants with low light requirements can grow intermixed with the milfoil stems below. Eurasian milfoil also helps make lakes clearer by keeping sediment settled out and using up dissolved phosphorous that would otherwise become food for algae.
And although native plant communities are always preferable to an abundance of Eurasian milfoil, thick milfoil growth can provide good habitat for young fish, as well as protection from large predators. “Milfoil has a more difficult time dominating where a diverse community of native aquatic plants is growing,” says Crabb, who, as part of her job, does aquatic plant surveys of Minneapolis Park and Recreation Board lakes. “We found 10 or 15 native species in Lake Calhoun a couple of years ago, so there are still a few areas in the lakes where native plants have been able to thrive, which is really amazing and a good sign that the lake is healthy even though we have Eurasian Milfoil,” she says.
My husband Mike and I were disappointed this spring when a Robin couple suddenly stopped building a nest above our back door and skedaddled for what we presume were more private spaces. Our friends Sher and Sarah were much more fortunate. Under the shelter of their front porch, robins built a nest, settled in and had a big family. Every spare minute, Sher and Sarah watched the robins coming and going with worms and other indiscernible food items that they dropped, and sometimes stuffed, into the four babies’ upturned beaks before hurrying back out for more.
All the jostling and wing flapping and cheeping was mesmerizing to watch, and they sat out on the porch quietly observing as often as they could. Sher is a freelance photographer, so she carefully climbed a ladder to get a shot when she could without disturbing the robin family. I want to share some of Sher’s photos with you because they’re beautiful, and they also offer a glimpse of something most of us never get to see, especially up close.
Here’s a good piece of gardening advice. If someone says that they have a ginormous amount of a certain plant and they want to give you some, RUN AWAY.
With few exceptions, if a plant has taken over that person’s garden, it will take over yours too because it is evil—or invasive—whatever you want to call it. It doesn’t care. In fact, it may employ trickery to try to get you to take it home and plant it.
That’s definitely the case with creeping bellflower (Campanula rapunculoides). Even if you don’t know the name, you’ve probably noticed this horrible-to-the-core plant because it’s tall and showy with pretty purple bell-shaped flowers. It’s also everywhere that it can possibly get a foothold, especially this year because the plant likes moist soil and we’ve had so much rain.
Native to Europe, creeping bellflower was actually introduced to North America as a lovely new ornamental (I’m not sure when) and it quickly became popular with unsuspecting gardeners. In fact, I frequently see this plant on tables at plant sales or potted up and sitting on the sidewalk outside of people’s houses with a “Free” sign on it. (To be fair, it isn’t invasive everywhere like it is here in the Midwest.) The problem is, creeping bellflower has a very strong and extensive root system so it spreads quickly and will easily take over your garden and choke out other plants.
It’s also hard to get rid of. I’m not a big fan of chemicals, and they don’t work very well on bellflower anyway, so I’m going to explain two non-chemical ways to kill this miserable plant. Basically, you can dig it out or smother it. I often do some of both. No matter which way you go, it will take years to eradicate this flower-weed creature. Or, like me, you may just get to the point where it’s at least tamed enough that you can cope with ripping out a few of them each year.Read More»
I generally try to avoid writing a lot about the same issue for fear of boring people to death or seeming like a nutter who can’t stop ranting about one thing or another. In the case of neonicotinoid pesticides, though, I’ve received so many calls and emails on this topic since I started writing about it a few months back, I feel like updates are wanted and needed. So I’m going to go with that feeling and tell you more about what I’ve learned lately in hopes that this will help answer some questions you may have now that you’ve likely learned more about this issue too.
First, here’s a quick recap for those who don’t yet know about neonicotinoids. Neonics, as they are often called, are a class of pesticides that have been linked to the decline of bees, particularly honeybees, over the last decade. Because they are safer for humans than some other pesticides, neonics have become widely used in the nursery trade as a pre-treatment for annuals, perennials, shrubs and trees. They are also found in many of the common pest control products gardeners buy off the shelf and use every day for everything from Japanese beetles to emerald ash borer. (Neonic pesticides include: imidacloprid, acetamiprid, clothianidin, dinotefuran, nithiazine, thiacloprid and thiamethoxam.)
Now that studies have shown that small amounts of neonics can harm bees feeding on the pollen and nectar of treated plants while larger doses can kill, more and more gardeners are making it a point to stop using products that contain neonics and to shop for plants that haven’t been treated with the pesticides. I’ve heard from a lot of people who have called, visited and emailed garden centers and nurseries locally and nationally asking about the use of neonics.
Stories vary widely with some places eagerly sharing their plans to discontinue their own use of neonics and to seek out suppliers who will do the same. But I’ve also heard reports of a fair amount of denial and defensiveness. What you need to know is that it isn’t enough for a retailer to say THEY are not using neonics any longer on the plants that they grow. You also need to know whether the plants they get from outside suppliers are neonic free. Getting that information will take willingness and time on the part of the nursery and from what I’m hearing, it’s clear that not everyone is putting in the effort.Read More»