The Pollinator Program

Western Monarch Butterflies have declined in population in California from millions to less than 2,100. Scientists fear they will soon be extinct. Butterflies, like bees, are pollinators and are needed in the food production cycle.

Monarch caterpillars only eat milkweed. A couple of years ago we found some asclepias fascicularis (narrow leaf milkweed), a monarch, and monarch eggs on our ranch in Livermore. So, with a grant from the Xerces Society and other funding managed by the Alameda County Resource Conservation District (RCD), we are working with the RCD and the Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) to increase the milkweed and other pollinator attracting plants on our ranch in an effort to help save the Monarchs.

The Plants and Plantings — Fall & Winter 2019

In November 2019 we started the project by planting 200 asclepias speciosa (showy milkweed) rhizomes in three different locations on our ranch. Merry’s daughter Whitney, Susie’s husband Troy, and our friends from the NRCS and RCD helped us plant the rhizomes. One of the locations where the rhizomes were planted was next to the ranch headquarters. Another location was along the banks of a seasonal creek. The third location was on a hillside above the vernal pools on the ranch.

In December 2019, we received a Monarch kit from Hedgerow Farms that was specific for the northern California inland region that contained 1,400 milkweed and pollinator attracting plugs. The kits contained the following:

  • 200 Asclepias speciosa (showy milkweed) plugs
  • 400 Asclepias fascicularis (narrowleaf milkweed) plugs
  • 200 Monardella villosa (coyote mint) plugs
  • 200 Solidago velutina ssp. Californica (California Goldenrod) plugs
  • 200 Symphyotrichum chilense (California aster) plugs
  • 200 Verbena lasiostachys (western vervain) plugs

On a cold day in mid December and with the help of the California Conservation Corps, RCD and NRCS employees, and our friend Shelli Goodrich, we planted all 1,400 plugs in the same three locations where we planted the rhizomes.

Spring of 2020

The area we planted next to the ranch headquarters was to be irrigated. We fenced that area in to keep out the cattle and deer. In the spring the weeds began to grow over the plantings, so we painstakingly weeded the area a few times to allow the plants to grow. Later we laid out cardboard and covered it with wood chips to keep down the growth of the weeds.

Summer of 2020

During the winter of 2019 and spring of 2020 we received very little rain and the plants that were in the areas that were not irrigated were very fragile. In the summer of 2020 we had weeks of temperatures in the high 90° F and low 100° F. With the help of our cousin Wendy, master gardener Diane Dovholuk, and our friends from the NRCS and RCD, we tried hand watering these sites a few times, which was very labor intensive. Unfortunately, the weeks of high temperatures took its toll on the fragile plants. We had hoped that the showy milkweed rhizomes and some of the other plants would recover during the fall rains, but the rain never came. We are still optimistic that we will get rain in the winter and some of the plants will recover.

The plants in the irrigated garden flourished. In August while most of the plants were blooming in that garden, a western monarch was spotted! We have seen many other varieties of butterflies and bees in this garden. We were on the lookout for western monarch caterpillars, but did not see any.

Fall of 2020

In September of 2020 we found that several of the showy and narrowleaf milkweed plants had been infested by milkweed beetles and oleander aphids. We applied a dish soap solution with a spray bottle to kill the pests. The solution we used was 1 tablespoon of dish soap to 1 quart of water. The solution for larger infestations is 5 tablespoons of soap per 1 gallon of water. The dish soap should be throughly mixed with the water and then poured into a clean spray bottle.

Winter of 2020

In December 2020 we received a partial flat of asclepias california (California milkweed). Having received less than an inch of rain during what should be our rainy season, we had to wait to plant this milkweed. We were also fighting a losing battle with a gopher that had been eating the narrowleaf milkweed in the irrigated garden and we didn’t want to lose these plants to this pest.

After discussions with our friends at the NRCS and RCD, Susie and her husband made gopher guards to place around the California milkweed that would be planted in the irrigated garden.

We are currently researching methods to irrigate the California milkweed that is to be planted outside of the irrigated garden.

After we had a few inches of rain, we felt confident the rest of the California milkweed could be planted. We planted the California milkweed on February 13 in two sites, both on southern exposure hillsides. Both of the sites were near sources of water so that they can be watered periodically. In the photos you will see the California milkweed rhizome, Nancy planting the rhizome in a gopher guard, Nancy and Troy digging the holes, and Susie, Troy, and Jackson watering the milkweed.

Ten days after the planting, the California milkweed was breaking through the soil.