One of the most magical moments in my garden came during an afternoon several years ago. I don’t remember the season, although I do remember that it was a sunny, warm day, and I stepped outside of the house into the open, graveled area where my wife and I park our cars. The air was full of dragonflies, zooming and swooping, their wings glittering in the sunshine. It was as if I’d wandered into a cloud of jewels. Christine Cook told me recently that probably what I experienced was what she called “hilltopping.” This behavior is a preparation for migration south in the late summer or fall. Who knew that dragonflies migrate? Christine does, and a lot of other details about their life histories as well. She has been watching dragonflies ever since she was a girl and they used to roost beside her while she was gardening. She would admire their cellophane wings and iridescent bodies and was fascinated when they would shoot up into the air, then return to their perch to devour the insect they had caught.
This childhood interest bloomed into a true fascination as Christine grew up to design and install natural habitat gardens for clients all over Connecticut and farther afield, under her company name, Mossaics Ecological Landscape Design. Over the years, she has designed and installed several landscapes specifically intended to attract dragonflies. If that sounds esoteric to you, consider that dragonflies are one of the few insects so intriguing that every child (at least, every child who explores the outdoors) learns their name. With their brilliant colors, prehistoric appearance and habit of eating mosquitoes — as many as 100 per day — dragonflies are well worth cultivating as garden wildlife. Especially since, according to Christine, attracting them is relatively easy.
The first necessity is a pond, and this can be large and elaborate or as small and simple as a plastic- or rubber-lined kit purchased online. Once installed, the pond should be lined along the bottom with an area of sand, an area of mud, and an area of gravel. This creates a variety of habitats that will support the greatest diversity of immature dragonfly larvae, or nymphs, which may live in the water for just a couple of months or up to 12 years before emerging and flying off as adults. Arrange some large rocks around the edges of the pond’s bottom, too, to create sheltered nooks, as many female dragonflies like to lay their eggs in such spots.
Then, after filling it with water, the pond should be inset with aquatic plants in containers. Ponds a couple of feet deep can accommodate native water lilies (Nymphaea odorata) at the center; the lily pads are a favorite egg-laying spot of some species of dragonflies. In shallower ponds, or at the shallow edges of deeper ponds, place containers of emergent plants, such as blue flag iris (Iris versicolor), pickerel weed (Pontederia cordata) and broadleaved arrowhead (Sagitaria latifolia). The sub-surface parts of these plants create havens for the dragonfly larvae, and later the larvae may crawl up the leaves and stalks when they are ready to emerge as adults.
Place a few flat rocks on the pond’s rim to serve as roosting spots for adult dragonflies. (The rocks also help to conceal the upper edge of the pond’s liner.) Then excavate a very shallow ditch around the pond’s perimeter just beyond the rocks and plant it with moisture-loving plants such as sedges and rushes to serve as a miniature wetland; some dragonflies prefer that habitat. Make sure there are a few shrubs and trees nearby, as some dragonflies, especially the females, like to roost in bushes, and still others roost in the tree tops.
Just the names of the dragonflies suggest their appeal. Christine spoke to me of yellow-legged meadowhawks, of the eastern amber-wing, blue dashers, the twelve-spotted skimmer and black-tipped darters. Who wouldn’t want such colorful wildlife in their gardens?
For more detailed information about creating dragonfly habitat, listen to the recording of my recent conversation with Christine Cook. You’ll find links on Berkshire Botanical Garden’s website at www.berkshirebotanical.org. Click on “Learn” and then “Virtual Learning.” Or go to my website, thomaschristophergardens.com, and click on “Podcast.”
Be-a-Better-Gardener is a community service of Berkshire Botanical Garden, located in Stockbridge, Mass. Its mission, to provide knowledge of gardening and the environment through a diverse range of classes and programs, informs and inspires thousands of students and visitors each year. Thomas Christopher is a volunteer at Berkshire Botanical Garden and is the author or co-author of more than a dozen books, including Nature into Art and The Gardens of Wave Hill (Timber Press, 2019). Be-a-Better Gardener is syndicated in 19 print and online publications, reaching 250,000 readers. Tom’s companion broadcast to this column, Growing Greener, streams on WESUFM.org, Pacifica Radio and NPR and is available at his website, https://www.thomaschristophergardens.com/podcast.