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Family circumstances required that Shawn and I travel from North Carolina through Virginia to West Virginia many times in 2018. We stopped often at the interstate rest areas in NC and VA for a break, a walk, and often a picnic. Both states are serious about the landscape at those facilities which include impressive wildflower plantings. Kudos to the highway planners and workers who make these gardens happen

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Examining Wildflowers at a NC Rest Area

 

Support the Monarchs (4)It was at the rest area in Alamance County, NC, that we discovered the sign touting the wildflower plantings as a Monarch Butterfly Sanctuary. Shawn snapped a picture, and I did a search to see if I might learn more. I stumbled across the North Carolina Wildlife Federation (NCWF) Butterfly Highway project, and knew we had to join. Our butterfly-focused garden became an official stop on the highway on October 6, 2018 and our sign was added as a Christmas gift from my daughter, Michelle.

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The Butterfly Highway Project, created in 2015 by (then) UNC Charlotte doctoral student Angel Hjarding, intends to educate people on the declining butterfly population (see The Plight of the Monarchs) and to recruit as many citizens as possible to join the cause by creating and maintaining butterfly habitats across the state. The program began in Charlotte in March 2015 with about 50 volunteers and by June 2016 more than 800 people had signed on statewide, tending plots from apartment balconies to 100-acre farms.[1]

Similar initiatives have begun in many states to educate property owners on the migration plight of the monarch butterflies. Given the lengthy journey to Mexico the butterflies need places to rest and refuel the same as weary motorists. Today’s mono-culture urban lawns, concrete expanses, and agricultural advancements, especially the wide-spread use of genetically modified crops, have removed much of the native milkweed plants, the only plant on which Monarchs lay their eggs and the only food the resulting caterpillars will eat.

Can an individual gardener make a difference?

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Certainly! Understanding the challenge the Monarchs face gives a head start in planning space in the garden to include milkweed. Plants may be found at a local garden shop, or milkweed is easy to start from seed. My garden is small, perhaps 200 square feet, and at present I have 3 varieties of milkweed as well as many other pollinator-friendly plants. I have to pick and choose the best performers, but I enjoy my status as a butterfly host so milkweed will always be present.

Where can I find space in my tiny garden for milkweed plants?
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Photo Courtesy of BASF

The chemical company BASF published a pamphlet, The Monarch Butterfly Research Project, which includes an informative diagram showing how a farmer might find space to include milkweed for the butterflies. That is the kind of thinking we must deploy in our gardens. The milkweed does not have to be the focal point. The butterflies will find the plant even if it is tucked in a corner.

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Asclepias curassavica growing happily in a large container.

As the NCWF site explains there is no minimum garden size required to register as a stop on the highway. Even an apartment balcony can provide some level of habitat for pollinators. GodPlantedAGarden has successfully grown milkweed (Asclepias curassavica) in containers which are easily moved to chase the sun as the growing season progresses. Be creative and think outside the garden bed.

The chosen garden spot for milkweed will need lots of sun, at least 6 hours a day. Most pollinator-friendly plants need that level of sun although I do see bees visiting the hostas in the shade garden.

Do I have to change the way I garden?

As stewards of the land, land we borrow from our grandchildren, our gardening techniques should always reflect a long-term outlook. NCWF tags these techniques as “sustainable gardening practices.”[2] I work to build my soil through organic methods such as making compost to apply to the garden. I avoid the indiscriminate use of pesticides or herbicides. Remember the chemical that kills the pests or the weeds also affects the pollinators and the earthworms.

How do I learn more about the Butterfly Highway Project?

Visit the North Carolina Wildlife Federation’s Butterfly Highway site. Registering a stop is free though at the time of writing the optional sign costs $25.

Now, do butterflies have a Fodor’s or Frommer’s travel guide, and what improvements can I make to gain a better listing?

[1] https://www.charlotteobserver.com/news/local/article85321452.html, accessed 1/11/2019

[2] https://ncwf.org/programs/garden-for-wildlife/butterfly-highway/join-the-butterfly-highway/, accessed 1/15/19