Catching up: Youth Leadership Council

It suddenly got cold in New York City. It’s a good time to remember what was going on in the garden this summer. One story we love to share is here (by Barbara Cahn):

This summer, our garden participated in the Youth Leadership Council, a program run by the city to engage high school and college students in volunteer work. Between April and the end of July, we hosted a group of students from around the city, most of whom had never gardened before.

Barbara and some of our students are inspecting their plants.

Our member Dr. Eileen Ain generously lent her plot to the group for the summer so that the students could get their hands dirty and grow their own vegetables and herbs.

Sara Jones taught them how to prepare the soil and plant lettuce and beans from seeds, and tomatoes, peppers, cucumbers, chard and basil from seedlings. Our students even grew potatoes in a laundry basket!

The little plants got their markers, and the map shows where everything is. The “Enemy Territory” contains mostly harmless peonies.

The YLC members mapped the plot, made labels for the vegetables, and cast mosaic stepping stones to make a path. They learned to maintain the plot by weeding and watering, composted the weeds, sieved the finished compost and put it back to fertilize their plants. They also came to know the garden’s honeybees and butterflies.


New stepping stones line the path between tomatoes and Iris and basil plants. The potatoes are in the baskets seen in the back.

Several garden members taught mini-workshops in making sun prints (Erica Uhlenbeck),  hydroponics (Karin Kiontke), vertical gardening (Sarah Blakeley), drip irrigation (Jen Sloan), meditation (Eileen Ain) and seed saving (Barbara Cahn.)

The YLC students learn about hydroponics (growing plants without soil; most of your “baby kale”, “baby spinach” and “baby lettuce” is grown this way) and collect seeds from Barbara’s kale plants.

At the end of the program, the students harvested the produce they had grown, and turned it into salads, cooked dishes and desserts, and we invited gardeners and neighborhood residents to a party to celebrate the season.

Yummy cherry tomatoes and healthy kale are ready to harvest.

Party with food made from the harvested veggies: cucumber salad, pasta with pesto from our own basil, a salad bowl with lettuce and tomatoes from the student’s plot, of course the little potatoes, and to drink mint-strawberry lemonade. The lady in black is Eileen, who allowed the students to grow all of these goodies on her plot.

In August, we attended a graduation ceremony at the United Nations, which had the theme “Migration and Agriculture.” The students made a pretty poster and gave a presentation on how this theme relates to our work.

Graduates and teachers of the Youth Leadership Council at the UN on August 23.

For us, this was a valuable experience. Eileen puts it this way: “We have all learned so much and are thankful that we have become trail blazers to solving a global need for fresh, healthy food. Seeing the graduates at the UN gave me hope. Yes, I would give my plot again.  It was a vibrant summer with gardeners giving wonderful young New Yorkers tools for life. We are all in gratitude for these experiences in our community garden.”

We were very happy to welcome these students into our garden and hope they will be able to use their gardening experience in the future.

From pupa to butterfly

Today, our monarch emerged from his chrysalis, 11 days after he pupated (and yes, it is a he, I learned in the meantime how to distinguish males from females as pupae and adults).

For the longest time, the chrysalis looked pretty much unchanged on the outside. It remained bright green with its lovely golden spots. The amazing transformation that was going on inside was very well hidden. After a week, one can see the developing antennae and the proboscis on the belly of the chrysalis. On the side, there are some veins that look like the veins on the adult wings. However, even 10 days after the monarch had pupated, there was still no hint of the color that the adult would finally take on. This is, in the morning of the 10th day, the chrysalis was still green. In the evening, some hints of orange and black were shining through.

The chrysalis formed on September 22nd (see previous post). From the outside, it did not change much for many days. On the belly side (top row right two and bottom row left two photos), one can see the developing antennae, proboscis and legs. Here was the only place, where any other color besides green was showing. Then, between morning and evening of October 2nd, the marking of the adult inside of the chrysalis began to appear. I assume that the pigments were made earlier, but they were hidden inside of the chrysalis to keep it well camouflaged until the night before it was ready to hatch.

And then, on the next morning at 7:00 am, the chrysalis was all orange and black and the pattern on the butterfly wings inside were clearly visible. One hour later, the butterfly was out. Like the formation of the pupa, the hatching of an adult monarch takes only a few minutes. This time, I missed it (rats!) although I checked on him again and again. One moment, he was still a pupa, a little later, he was hanging down from the transparent shell of his chrysalis and had already unpacked his wings.

Here he is, a perfect, beautiful adult monarch, drying off his wings moments after he hatched.

I will keep him safely at home for one more day so that he can harden out completely. If he gets hungry, he has some honey water to drink. Tomorrow, he’ll be send out into the world and off on his voyage to Mexico.

More on monarchs

Over the last weeks, the tiny little monarch larvae in our garden grew and grew. And they ate a lot! Some of our milkweed plants look pretty sad with few leaves remaining and their tops chewed off. But what do we care? We are happy that our monarchs are thriving. When we checked on one milkweed stand last week, we found half a dozen larvae munching away. The biggest ones are now at the fifth and last larval stage. They usually sit on the underside of a leaf that they clipped slightly at the stem so that it hangs down and conceals the big caterpillar.

The beautiful monarch caterpillars. A second stage larva on the left and two 5th stage larvae. The one in the middle sits under the leaf that is cut so that it hangs down and hides the larva that eats away on the tip of the leaf. The caterpillar on the right has perhaps already started to wander.

These big guys were usually gone the next day. But we didn’t have to worry about them. When these caterpillars are ready to pupate, they enter a wandering phase during which they leave their food plant and look for a secure place to enter the next stage of their life, the pupal stage. Despite searching carefully, we did not find a chrysalis (this is what the pupa is called) in the garden.

To possibly observe the pupating process and to see the chrysalis, I took one of the biggest caterpillars home and then with me to work. I gave him (or her, of course, we can’t tell the sex of a caterpillar) a bouquet of fresh milkweed leaves and waited. The first night and much of the morning, he methodically chewed away on leaf after leaf. Then, while I was attending a series of talks, he decided that it was time to wander. And he somehow wiggled himself out of his cage — oh boy! After searching the entire office twice, my colleague found the caterpillar crawling on the underside of her desk on the other side of the room. These guys can run! Back in a more secure cage, the caterpillar went home with me again.

The caterpillar in his cage (a beaker) has used silk to attach himself to a leaf. He  is getting ready to pupate.

Over night, he settled on a leaf and was now attached with his rear end, hanging head down. He was no longer wandering, but he was still moving, curling and uncurling, and at times he trembled a little as if he was shivering. My butterfly-expert colleague informed me that this monarch was now in the pre-pupa stage. We had no idea how long this stage would take, but it was definitely time to keep an eye on him. Finally, a little after noon, the pre-pupa got a little shorter, uncurled completely and the caterpillar skin split on its back side to reveal the blue-green surface of the pupa underneath. I was so lucky to look at him just this moment. What happened next took all of 2 minutes and 30 seconds and I caught it on my cellphone camera. (A Thank You to all engineers who made this possible.)

Monarch chrysalis are amazingly beautiful with their lovely blue-green color and golden specks. What is going on inside is even more wonderful. Over the course of ten days or so, the larva will completely disintegrate and regrow as a butterfly. It is a privilege to get a chance to observe this metamorphosis, even if only from the outside.
Of course, I hope that I will also catch the moment when the butterfly emerges from the pupa. In any case, I will take a picture before we send him on his way to Mexico. You will see it here.

The chrysalis on the next day


Two generations of monarchs

This year, we have been planting a lot of milkweed. We wanted to attract monarch butterflies; not the nectar-hungry fall visitors but mothers who look for suitable food for their babies. Monarchs eat nothing but milkweed, and they are on the decline because less and less milkweed  grows along roads and agricultural fields. Gardens can come to the rescue, and we tried to do our part.

Some of our milkweed plants

All summer long, we were looking out for monarchs. Finally, a few weeks ago, they arrived. Most days, we could see a few butterflies hovering over the garden and sipping nectar from zinnias and buddleia.

Monarch on the butterfly bush (Buddleia).

But were they interested in our milkweed? This week, we discovered telltale holes in the leaves of some milkweed plants. Milkweed is very poisonous. Only few specialists can eat it. Among those specialists, only monarch caterpillars chew holes into the leaves. And indeed: on the underside of leaves with fresh holes sat the tiniest monarch caterpillars, unmistakable with their black, white and yellow warning colors.

The turned-over milkweed leaves reveal tiny monarch caterpillars. A first instar larva on the left, a second instar on the right. These babies need to go through 5 larval stages before they are ready to pupate.

These little caterpillars are likely the 4th generation of Monarchs this year, and if they grow up, pupate and metamorphose into butterflies, they will be very special. Different from their parents and grandparents, these monarchs will not mate and lay eggs right away. Instead, they will go on an long journey all the way to Mexico, where they spend the winter in a tree together with thousands of other monarchs. In spring, these butterflies will fly back north to find newly grown milkweed. Then, they will finally mate and lay eggs. Their children will fly further north and may reach New York and Canada. By late August and September, the great-grandchildren of the overwintering monarchs are adult. We think that these are the adults in our garden right now.

There is plenty of milkweed around, the days are warm and still fairly long. Therefore, this generation of monarchs is still reproducing. Two days ago, w could even observe a mating pair. When looking carefully, we also found their small yellowish green eggs on the underside of many milkweed leaves.

Monarchs remain still when they are mating. This pair stayed on the zinnia for at least 10 minutes. (Photo: Ellen Reznick)

A monarch egg is not much larger than a poppy seed. The larva that hatches from this egg is equally tiny.

If it stays warm, it may take just a bit more than a week for the little larvae to be ready to pupate. And in another 10 days, the adult monarchs could emerge. That is, if everything goes well. Even though monarchs are as toxic as their food plants, they still have many enemies who can tolerate the toxins, including ants, wasps and spiders. We cross fingers that some of our baby monarchs survive, become adult and embark on their amazing  journey to Mexico.

More information about monarchs is found on this wonderful website by the University of Minnesota.

Bees and honey

Did anybody wonder what is going on with our bees?
As a recap: in May, the bees swarmed. We were lucky to capture the swarm and start a new hive with it. The old hive should have made a new queen after its old queen had left with the swarm. This is how bee colonies multiply. However, when we checked a little later, there was no sign of a queen and no brood in the hive. That was bad. A beehive without a queen must soon perish as the unemployed workers get old and die one after another. To remedy this situation, we moved some frames with eggs from the swarm hive into the queen-less hive. We were hoping that the workers would grow some of these eggs into new queens. That was at the end of May.

On August 17, a hot and humid day, the hives looked like this:

Our beehives on a hot day in August. The “swarm hive” is on the left, the old hive on the right. The bees are outside because it is too hot in the hive.

The hive we were concerned about is on the right. There were lots of bees! And these could not have been the old bees from May. During summer, honey bee workers live only for 6 to 7 weeks. All of the worker we saw in August must have been born after mid June. This means that this hive had indeed a new queen! And not only that: she was really productive and her workers were very busy. We suspected that the entire hive was full of bee brood and honey. With lack of space, it got uncomfortably warm inside the hive. That is why so many bees were outside. This phenomenon is called “bearding” and is not unusual on a hot day.

For us humans, it was time to steal some honey and make room in the hive. On a cloudy and cooler day, our beekeeper friend Ray came over to help as we opened both hives to check for honey. The top box of the right hive was heavy with beautiful light-colored early summer honey. We harvested all 10 frames and gave the bees empty frames to work with. The other bigger hive had also a lot of honey, but the bees were not quite done with filling all of their honey comb. Here, we took 4 frames.

Modern beehives are carefully designed so that bees only build honey comb on the frames that can then be easily removed and replaces without destroying the hive. Any extra space, like underneath the frames as seen on the left picture, is filled with extra honey comb. We extracted lovely light yellow honey that tasted like linden nectar. Here, it is drained from the spinner through a mesh sieve (to keep out wax) into a big bucket to be jared later.

Yesterday, we met again to extract the honey. We got about 2.5 gallons of honey with a nice mild floral flavor. Meanwhile, The bees remain busy and we hope that we can take more honey later in the year.

Busy bees bringing nectar and pollen.