Q: I planted several milkweed plants on the edge of a butterfly flower garden and some have now sent up additional plants within the garden itself. Will this be a problem in the garden itself it there are a number of them? Or should I keep them in number?
— Marty, Great Barrington
A: For several years I attempted to include common milkweed and swamp milkweed in our butterfly gardens and a pollinator/butterfly patch. Last summer, I offered NatureWatch readers swamp seedlings. This year, in addition to a smaller number of swamp milkweed that I have kept in control, common milkweed has become a weed that we constantly need to keep in number. It is a “weed." This year, I will keep milkweed flowers seeding under control and remove unwanted plants! We are allowing a few plants on the peripheral and in a couple of “butterfly patches.”
Q: When I was mowing my lawn today, I noticed my birdhouse, which is on a pole in the backyard, has a new hole in the roof. It is about the size of a knot in the wood and so my first thought is that a knot had fallen out, although later I began to wonder about that. It always seemed that it must get pretty hot inside that little box on a bright summer day, with just the one hole on the side for ventilation. Now there is extra ventilation — but also a source of rain getting in. Do you think I should patch up the new hole, or leave it as is?
— David B., Pittsfield
A: I would place a cover not a plug to cover the “new hole in the roof” or, if you like, raise a piece of wood to cover the new hole raise say 1/4 inch to allow additional air. After all, some bluebirds have houses in rotted fence posts or rotted trees that may allow some rain.
As for butterflies coming to our gardens, just recently, the mints are the only plants attracting tiger swallowtails to their purple-blue prolific blossoms right now. Soon we will have others, including monarchs, I hope very soon.
Q: You have written about the crazy worms last year, and I read online recently about 15 states having them. And I want to know more about them here, but first I would like to about our usual ones first. Perhaps you can [describe] a little about the usual garden ones, and what our robins feed for foods first and another time write about the crazy ones.
— Phil B., Pittsfield
A: Earthworms are all around us, or should I say, beneath us. Few of us go looking for them unless we are planning a fishing trip. Common as they are, they were not always here. In fact, the common earthworm or nightcrawler arrived in America with the Pilgrims and early settlers. Most native earthworms had died may many thousands of years ago, when North America was covered in ice.
Most of us have seen earthworms at one time or another, especially in the springtime when we have lots of rain, the ground warms up and robins are very hungry. Who hasn’t watched a robin hopping over a lawn, turning its head this way and that? It is listening for the sounds of a plump worm just below the ground. The worm is in its tunnel and even though it doesn’t have ears or hear as we do, it can feel the noise a robin makes as it hops over the soft grass! Robins feed on numerous creatures besides earthworms and many of the following insect larvae or grubs, caterpillars, snails, and other critters found in the ground. They also eat crickets, grasshoppers, spiders, various beetles, and many other insects. They eat various berries including blueberries soon to ripen and mulberries, and I watched them eating winterberries through the winter months this past year. They also eat holly, and they like it. They also eat crabapples, and in wilder places chokecherries, hawthorn, wild grapes, and other vine fruits.
Many earthworms will go deeper into the earth to escape, a few won’t, and they are the ones that get caught by the robins.
A worm doesn’t have legs or arms but does have tiny hairs that help it move or help keep it safe in its tunnel. Sometimes, Robin Redbreast doesn’t have to hunt earthworms, especially after a rain when they can be found on top of the wet ground. People use to think worms came out following a heavy rain so they wouldn’t drown, but that isn’t true. Earthworms do not have lungs to fill with water but get air through their moist, slimy skin.
Watch a worm move sometime and you’ll notice that the pointy end moves forward. That is its head. You won’t find any eyes; earthworms are blind, but somehow, they can sense light. They try to avoid light, and usually come out of the ground only at night when it is cooler and moister than during the daytime.
There are many different kinds of worms in the world, and not all are robin size. One kind from South Africa is over 20 feet long. Another, found in Australia, is 12 feet long. Some kinds of earthworms never get longer than one inch.
Earthworms are, some say, friends of farmers, and say they help gardeners mix the soil and make fertilizer for plants to use, and of course, the crazy worms, to what I have learned, are not friends of anyone’s yard or garden!