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.
For me, the words “neighborhood sweep” bring to mind the busting up of meth labs and prostitute rings, or maybe less dramatically, a big litter cleanup day in which everybody pitches in. But on Friday, we got a letter from the City of Minneapolis Department of Regulatory Services Housing Inspection Services Division advising us that we were being cited in response to a NEIGHBORHOOD SWEEP (yes, all caps) for the “conditions” of the gardens along the sidewalk on one side of our house. Failing to correct the NUISANCE CONDITIONS (perhaps they should be cited for errant use of all caps) could, they advised, result in the city arranging to do the job one way or another at some future date.
What were those nuisance conditions, you ask? Fall flowers, mostly New England asters and a couple of varieties of golden rod, but I admit that a few black-eyed Susan’s and blackberry lilies also ran afoul of the law by encroaching here and there on the public sidewalk. Growing primarily in our boulevard gardens and heavy with seeds, in the case of the lilies, and blooms in the case of the rest of the flowers, the plants were indeed lolling out onto the walkway an inch or two in a few places.
And there was one rogue aster leaning out at an awkward angle at about fourth-grader height. We also have a river birch in our yard and its wispy branches, which we routinely trim, are at least six feet above the sidewalk. The rule, we now know, is seven feet.
Even with all of this mayhem and out-of-control bramble, two people could have handily pushed a couple of shopping carts or strollers side by side down the walk and been brushed only slightly, if at all, by plants. There are no fat shrubs hogging space or heavy, low-hanging tree limbs threatening to bump heads or poke eyes out. So while it is understandable that in a civilized society we need to have rules about things like keeping public sidewalks clear, this citation seemed outside the bounds of reasonableness to me.
Our neighbors can attest to the fact that we spend a lot of time pulling weeds, pruning and trimming plants, and just generally working hard to keep our yard looking good and out of people’s way. We’ve never had anyone complain about problems getting down the sidewalk. Honestly, people walking by often go out of their way to stop and tell us how much they appreciate the peaceful pocket of nature we’ve cultivated in the city.
Families stop to watch the bees, butterflies and dragonflies flitting from plant to plant. We answer all sorts of gardening questions, and have learned a lot from other gardeners too. People as far away as several blocks often stop to tell us that we’ve inspired them to start their own gardens, and many of us share seeds and plants.
It pained us to cut down flowers that bees and birds were actively feeding on last weekend because rules are rules. And I couldn’t help wondering how many other gardeners had been cited and were experiencing the same thing. So I want to ask whoever is listening, what can we do as a city to rethink rules that require a level of obedience from nature that simply isn’t possible while ensuring that our sidewalks remain safe and traversable? For every person whose day is made brighter by urban gardens, and every creature, especially pollinators, that seeks those gardens out for habitat, it’s a question we need to consider.
Every year I promise my husband that I will cut down on the number of tomato plants in our backyard, but I never do it. I can’t. There are so many varieties that I feel I can’t live without: Sun Gold, Black Krim, Green Zebra and Speckled Roman, to name a few. And then friends always foist tomatoes on me that I just can’t refuse because I can’t say no to a plant that needs a home, and I’ve got room, right? Happily, some of those unexpected tomatoes that crowd our back patio often turn out to be amazing, like the Bloody Butcher heirloom tomatoes my friend Naomi gave me this year. (The name alone made them irresistible, and they’re tasty too.)
The trouble is, come September we have prepared all manner of tomato dishes, given tomatoes away to friends and neighbors and our countertops are still loaded with bounty. I’ve tried various methods of preserving tomatoes for later, making sauce—lots of sauce, and freezing. (I’m too lazy to can.) But I wanted to try something new this year and my friend Sarah suggested roasting them. Boy was she right. Roasting is easy, fast and the result seems like something that will be much more enjoyable in the middle of winter when fresh tomatoes are just a memory.
Here’s how you do it. Pre-heat your oven to 275 degrees. Cut tomatoes into halves or quarters, depending on their size. You want something about the size you would use in a salad. Lay the pieces flesh side up on a baking sheet lined with parchment paper. Don’t crowd them together too much, and make sure the baking sheet has a rim on it or you’ll have tomato juice all over the inside of your oven.
Roast the tomatoes plain or spice them up by adding fresh or dried herbs like basil, oregano, thyme or rosemary. You can also add garlic, chopped or as whole cloves, if you like. Before placing the baking sheet in the oven, drizzle the tomatoes with olive oil and sprinkle them with a bit of salt and pepper. Sarah says the longer you roast them the better, which means a minimum of three hours, but five or more will give you a more complex, caramelized flavor.
What you end up with varies depending on how watery your tomatoes were to start with. Drier varieties look and taste a lot like sundried tomatoes. While those that have more water, most heirlooms fall into this category, will be crinkly and delicious, but softer. Let the tomatoes cool on the tray and then put them in freezer bags in portions you can use when making pizza, soup, pasta, sauces or whatever you like in the winter. If you like to give food as gifts, freeze some of your roasted tomatoes in mason jars of various sizes, or just give the jars filled with tasty goodness away right away.
I love the longer shadows and golden light that come with September. But I can hardly believe that summer is nearly over. It went by so fast, though I did manage to get to a few garden tours.
Here are a few of the photos I took of some of the lovely moments along the way.
Let’s start with paths.
And now for water features, large and small.
Comfy sitting areas.
And things I just like.
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.