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.
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.
It’s spring in Minnesota and that means male frogs and toads are out singing sweet songs to all the ladies. My husband Mike and I were fortunate enough to come upon a wetland filled with song the other day while on a walk with our dog, Lily. We recorded what we heard and posted it so you can enjoy it too.
Why does life need a soundtrack? I wonder this all the time because, as you’ve probably noticed, you can’t buy groceries, shop for clothes, pump gas, eat a meal, ride an elevator or even go to the bathroom without some sort of musical accompaniment. Why is that? Are the designers of public spaces worried about what will happen if we are left alone with our thoughts? Do they suppose that we don’t have thoughts?
Or is it that people think we need music in order to conjure up the appropriate emotions for a given situation? This thought came to mind last week when my husband Mike and I were visiting my family in Arizona, and we took a short sightseeing cruise with my dad. We had just taken our seats aboard the Dolly Steamboat for an hour and a half nature cruise around Canyon Lake when the peaceful sound of paddlewheel against water was drowned out by Enya’s 1988 hit “Orinoco Flow.” Booming out of the boat’s crackling speakers, the song was both fittingly epic and completely cheesy in a not altogether disagreeable way. But why not enjoy the sounds of nature on the nature cruise? we groused to each other.
Touted on the brochure as Arizona’s “Junior Grand Canyon,” Canyon Lake feels like an almost surreal oasis in the middle of the otherwise rocky, dry and cactus-filled Sonoran Desert. And it is, really, since the man-made lake was formed in 1925 when the Mormon Flat Dam trapped water from the Salt River. The steep canyon walls are the main attraction on the tour, and the boat’s captain explained how many of the rock formations we could see were the result of volcanic eruptions dating back as far as 15 million years. We brought along binoculars, hoping to see some bald eagles but, instead, we spotted several bighorn sheep defying gravity as they made their way along the face of the cliffs.Read More»
“I think my garden looks great in winter, especially after a fresh snowfall.” That’s what Cindy, a reader in Wisconsin, said in an email she sent to me last week. As proof, she attached this magical, postcard-worthy photo of her yard.
As you can see, she is absolutely right, and I wrote her back right away to say so, and to ask permission to post the photo on my blog. Cindy wasn’t trying to boast. I think she just wanted to remind me that there’s more to winter than smashed ornamental grasses, buried outdoor furniture and yellow snow. And she did concede that, “It’s a little easier to landscape for winter in the country than in the city,” which it is for a variety of reasons.
Still, while urban dwellers like me aren’t likely to experience the kind of snowy backyard wonderland that our more outlying counterparts do, her kind note did motivate me to try to see more beauty in what has so far been a pretty ass-kickingly tough winter. So, let’s not focus on the loveliness of my own backyard, which includes this focal point by the driveway.
Instead, behold this amazingly cool Christmas tree made of sphagnum moss and potted orchids and bromeliads that I saw at the Minnesota Landscape Arboretum last week.
Outside at the arboretum and down by the lake near my house, there are these sights to behold.
Back inside where it’s warm, there’s fern frost on the bathroom window.
And a kitty sleeping on the dining room table in the sun.
Many, many thanks to everyone who took the time to send kind notes and words of wisdom after reading my last blog post about my broken teeth. I’ve already put some of your suggestions into practice and, I have to say, I’m feeling a little bit more relaxed already. In fact, I got the idea for this post the other day while sipping tea and looking out the window at the heaps of snow and ice in our backyard rather than running all around doing whatever it is I do all the time.
Yes, fellow gardeners, as the magazines tell us, tis the season for enjoying all that “winter interest” we’ve created by following advice to plant things like colorful red-twigged dogwoods and unusual evergreens in a landscape bedazzled with sturdy structures and planters overflowing with cute pinecones and twigs and whatnot. Everything looks so lovely in those glossy photo spreads. But we who garden in parts of the country where actual snow falls, not just a fairy dusting but, say, 10 inches or so, fairly often, followed by icy rain and slush, know the truth about winter interest. In the absence of photo stylists, props and camera crews, it simply doesn’t exist.
Don’t get me wrong; snowy gardens are beautiful, just not in the way magazines portray them. But let’s pretend for a minute that there is a magazine willing to run a winter story that tells it like it is. Articles could offer tips on things like how to spread fresh snow around the yard to obscure all those frozen yellow dog pee circles. A short sidebar might be: “3 Strategies For Chipping Frozen Poo From Snowbanks.” I’m sure a lot of us could submit photos that readers could relate to. Here are some of mine, and I’ve even written captions.
Have you got some “winter interest” photos to share? If so, please email them to me and I’ll post them!