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.
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.
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»
I just want to take a minute to update my recent post, “In Search of Plants That Won’t Harm Bees.” I’ve now had the chance to talk with Bachman’s CEO, Dale Bachman, as well as John Daniels, Bachman’s vice president of production, about how the company is dealing with neonicotinoids (neonics), a class of pesticides that is harming bees.
As of 2014, while various entities continue to research the role neonicotinoids play in the decline of bees, Bachman’s has decided to take the “precautionary step” of removing all neonicotinoid products for home use from their shelves. That includes imidacloprid, a popular neonicotinoid pesticide used for all sorts of things like rose and lawn care, as well as to protect trees from emerald ash borer. (Of course, homeowners can still buy these products elsewhere and hire professionals who use imidacloprid to treat ash trees.)
They have also stopped using neonics in the production of Bachman’s-grown nursery stock and outdoor plants, which means most of their shrub roses and perennials will be neonic-free along with some annuals. As for plants from other suppliers, they are currently talking with vendors about discontinuing the use of neonics and Dale and John says the outcome may cause them to rethink some of their suppliers. Even as they said that, though, they stressed that the neonics issue is much more complicated than it may seem — a fact that becomes more and more clear to me as I interview people on this topic.
For example, in many instances neonics and other pesticides are used in compliance with regulations regarding moving plants and the potentially invasive pests they may harbor across state lines. In the case of large-scale suppliers, discontinuing the use of neonics will mean switching to other pesticides that will come with their own problems and consequences. For now, shoppers looking for neonic-free plants at Bachman’s should seek out a salesperson for help locating plants the company has grown since implementing their new policy.
Take a deep breath. Buying plants at places that many of us like to shop is going to take more work and patience than usual if we want to help bees. If you start to feel frustrated about the slow pace of change, remember that we are part of the problem. Gardeners have come to expect perfect plants on store shelves, so every entity in the plant supply chain has done everything in its power to kill every bug and wipe out every disease imaginable to make us happy. Moving away from chemical treatments that harm people, pollinators and the planet will be costly and difficult for those who care enough to do so. And we’re going to need to learn to live with more mites, aphids and other things than we’re used to. Who’s in?