Did you know that, with just a little effort and the right plant choice, you can be part of helping our Western Monarch (scientific name Danaus plexippus plexippus) and other butterfly species survive and even flourish, after years of population declines?
The Monarch is beloved because it’s big and showy (have you ever seen a eucalyptus grove full of monarch butterflies? If not, take a look at this video.
The news on western Monarch populations has been bad for a while. “Monarch Butterflies Drop Stuns Scientists” was the SF Chronicle front-page headline on January 17, 2019. The story covers the results of the winter 2018 monarch count in 213 forested groves in California this last winter. The results are alarming: the count showed an 86% drop from a year ago, a 99.4% drop since the 1980s, and “...an all-time low for the Pacific Coast, where an estimated 10 million monarchs once blanketed trees from Marin County to the Baja California peninsula…”.
Eastern Monarchs overwinter in Mexico and migrate north through the eastern United States. They had a much better year. The number of Monarchs that overwintered in Mexico was more than twice as large as the prior year. Something to celebrate, certainly, but the long-term trend is not as rosy. The total population is still only about ⅓ of what it was two decades ago.
It's not just Monarchs that are threatened; many other butterfly species have seen steep population declines or even gone extinct in the recent past. Dr. Arthur Shapiro, Professor of Evolution and Ecology at UC Davis, is one of the world’s leading butterfly experts. He’s been monitoring butterfly populations in California since 1972. In this interview, he notes that what is happening to Monarchs is also happening to many species in our state, due to the “...large loss of habitat and habitat connectivity, and the [landscape] is increasingly becoming more butterfly-sterile.”
Among the Lepidoptera species that have seen steep population declines in the past 10-20 years are the beautiful blue-and-black Pipevine Swallowtail (Battus philenor), the Callippe Silverspot (Speyeria callippe callippe), the Mission Blue (Icaricia icarioides missionensis), the San Bruno Elfin Blue (Incisalia mossii bayensis) and the Bay Checkerspot (Euphydryas editha bayensis). Battus philenor, for example, has nearly disappeared due to loss of habitat for Pipevine (Aristolochia species), its larval host plant.
But there’s hope! Thanks at least in part to active efforts to create habitat corridors, Eastern Monarchs had a much better year in 2018 than Western populations. The number of Eastern Monarchs that overwintered in Mexico was more than twice as large as the prior year. The total population is still only about ⅓ of what it was two decades ago, but human actions have made a big difference in the sustainability of Eastern Monarchs over the last few decades.
Here’s where you come in. Read on for actions you can take to help our Monarchs survive and maybe even rebound.
The Xerces Society for Invertebrate Conservation, an international nonprofit organization that protects the natural world through the conservation of invertebrates and their habitats, tracks monarch populations. They offer a Western Monarch Call to Action plan to help the monarch population bounce back:
Visit their web site to read more about this plan and learn how you can get involved if you want to.
There are some steps you can take in your own garden to help Monarchs survive:
If you do plant milkweed, be aware that not all milkweed is alike. Native California species such as Narrow-leaf and Showy Milkweed go dormant in the winter. This encourages the butterflies to migrate as they normally would. Tropical Milkweed does not go dormant, blooming through the winter. This can encourage Monarchs to stick around (hey, plenty of food here, why take that dangerous journey?)
When Monarchs don’t migrate it can cause build up of a bacterium that weakens the developing insect as it transforms from caterpillar to butterfly. OE (Ophryocystis elektroscirrha) is a protozoan parasite that infects butterflies in the Danaus species group, those that host on milkweed. In the US, OE affects Monarch (Danaus plexippus), Queen (Danaus gilippus), and Soldier (Danaus eresimus) butterflies. When butterflies don’t migrate, OE within the population can become quite high. As a result many caterpillars are infected and the adult butterflies are weakened or even killed.
To make a long story short: it’s preferable to plant native milkweeds. If you do plant tropical milkweed in your garden, be sure to cut it back in September. Keep it cut back until the spring, to encourage Monarchs to migrate south during the winter months.
To make a long story short: if you’re feeling blue about the environmental news that we’re bombarded with every day, there’s no better cure than to get into action to help make our own piece of the planet a little bit healthier. Monarchs, and all the other pollinators, need our help so they can continue to bring us fruits, vegetables, fibers, and a host of other plant-based products that bring pleasure, nutrition and healing to our lives.
Find sources of milkweed
How to grow milkweed
In an earlier post we talked about including food for pollinators to your garden. Along with making food available, one of the best ways to make sure your garden is pollinator-friendly is to incorporate shelter by adding grasses and host plants -- trees and shrubs -- planted in a layered fashion, as in the picture below.
Pollinators can find shelter in grasses planted with perennials, debris piles or decaying logs, and in trees and shrubs. Choose mostly native grasses and plant both cool and warm season varieties. Wait until late spring to cut them back, to allow pollinator and butterfly eggs to hatch. The meadow shown here is planted with different varieties of grass to make sure some are always green, no matter what the season.
The picture below is a great example of a pollinator habitat garden spot, with many flower shapes, grasses, and dry-stacked stone that offers nesting and hiding places.
If you need to remove a tree, it can still add value to your garden; just use the wood in your landscape for pollinator habitat. You can lay large branches or the trunk into a garden bed as a feature; you can also make a debris pile from the smaller branches in back areas where they won’t be visible. Both will be much appreciated by native bees, lizards, and other beneficial garden inhabitants.
Last but not least, make sure fresh water is available to pollinators at all time. Water is life! At MGDC we make water available to pollinators in ponds, dragonfly ponds, muddy and wet garden areas, stacked stone fountains, and the Living Fountain greywater purification system.
Be aware that the slippery surfaces in bird baths are not usable by most butterflies, birds and bees. A bowl of pebbles in water is an excellent way to make water available in your garden!
Provide food for bees, birds, and butterflies by incorporating plants that offer them nectar, seeds, berries, and pollen. The first thing to think about is adding flowers; flowers are not only beautiful, they also offer food for native pollinators, birds and butterflies. Flower shapes that attract pollinators include:
Compositae - daisy-shaped flowers - because the center of the blossom is actually several individual flowers that they can gather nectar from all at once. The flowers in the picture below are Layia platyglossa, commonly known as tidy tips.
Flowers with “landing pads,” known as a Umbelliferae, are similar to Compositae in that they have many small flower clusters to drink from. “Landing pad” flowers include yarrow, lantana, verbena, and milkweed. The picture below shows several varieties of yarrow.
Pollinators also like the umbrella-shaped flowers from plants such as dill, parsley, carrots, and Queen Anne’s lace.
Trumpet-shaped flowers like Penstemon and Mimulus allow butterflies, bees and hummingbirds to seek nectar from deep down in the throat of the flower.
The focus of our next few posts is on pollinators and how we can help them thrive. The transfer of pollen in and between flowers of the same species leads to successful seed and fruit production for plants, ensuring full-bodied fruit and a full set of viable seeds. Loss of pollinators means many plants can’t reproduce at all, with catastrophic consequences up and down the food chain.
The economic cost of pollinator loss is also high: globally, the annual value of global crops directly affected by pollinators is between US$235 to US$577 billion, according to the Food and Agriculture Organization of United Nations. According to the USDA, “Three-fourths of the world's flowering plants and about 35 percent of the world's food crops depend on animal pollinators to reproduce.
More than 3,500 species of native bees help increase crop yields.”Most of the plants grown for food, beverages, fibers, spices, and medicines depend on pollination to produce the goods on which we depend. Just a few of the foods and beverages produced with the help of pollinators include: apples, blueberries, chocolate, coffee, melons, peaches, potatoes, pumpkins, vanilla, almonds, and tequila. Without pollinators, our plant food options would be few and dull, just grains and greens.
Three-fourths of the world's flowering plants and about 35 percent of the world's food crops depend on animal pollinators to reproduce. More than 3,500 species of native bees help increase crop yields.
Human survival is intimately linked with many species of insects, especially pollinators. Unfortunately for them, and for us, huge areas of pollinator habitat have been and continue to be destroyed due to land development and large-scale, corporate forms of agriculture. As human populations grow, we eradicate crucial food and shelter sources for pollinator species in order to build homes, shopping centers, schools, industrial parks and agribusiness - the business of agricultural production, which includes agrichemicals (fertilizers and pesticides), breeding, crop production, distribution, farm machinery, processing, seed supply, and marketing and sales. The reduction in habitat areas, especially over the past 20 years, has resulted in a large decline in pollinator populations all over the world.
Agricultural areas in particular have had a huge impact on pollinator populations. As small farms continue to be consumed by giant agribusiness corporations, loss of habitat occurs as corporate farms convert large areas of land from a mixed group of crops and plant cover into a monoculture where only one type of plant is allowed to grow. This lack of diversity in rural areas is detrimental to all kinds of pollinators.
Finally, the increased use of pesticides, as well as the increased toxicity of modern pesticides, further diminishes the ability of pollinators to thrive. The irony of this situation is that farmers need to pay beekeepers to move their bees onto the farms in order to pollinate food crops. Bees that travel across the country to serve as pollinators tend to be weaker. These weaker, stressed bees are believed to be a part of what is leading to colony collapse disorder.
Fortunately, it’s easy to incorporate pollinator habitat into our own gardens. By adding food, shelter, and water to the garden, we can improve conditions for pollinators, and help ensure that food sources are secure for future generations. We’ll talk more about how to add these things to the garden in the next few posts. In the next post, we'll talk about ways to add food for pollinators to your garden.
Water makes up about 70% of the planet’s surface, and approximately the same percentage of the human body. Water is everywhere. In order to survive, we need it to be available, and we need it to be clean.
During rainstorms, we’ve all seen our streets fill with water as it moves over the asphalt surfaces and runs into storm drains. Here in the Bay Area, rain water runs from our roofs, driveways and streets, down storm drains, and into the San Francisco Bay. Not so bad, you might think, the Bay needs water to keep it filled, right? The truth is, as the water flows over rooftops and paved surfaces, it picks up all of the pollutants that have accumulated on them, including dirt and dust, gas and oil from cars, and pesticides and fertilizers from our gardens and lawns. All of these sediments and poisons end up in the San Francisco Bay, polluting it every time it rains.
In a natural environment that water would stay on the land, filtering into the ground where it would be purified through plant roots and soil. A typical roof can catch thousands of gallons water every time there's a rainy day -- but we waste this valuable resource when we don’t create conditions that allow the water to remain on the land where it falls. And the pollutants carried in water that moves over impermeable surfaces before entering our waterways without first filtering through soil eventually affect the health of the entire local watershed and beyond - and our health as well.
Fortunately, there are many ways that we can harvest the water that falls on our property, and keep it there for a more ecologically useful benefit. The first way is simply to remove non-permeable concrete surfaces so that water can percolate back into the soil and recharge the groundwater in a healthy way. In addition, the water that we keep out of the storm drains makes the soil we garden on more saturated, and most importantly reduces the need to add water. Another way is to harvest the “greywater” that comes out of our washing machines, bathtubs, and showers.
Seasonal water storage is another way to harvest rainwater, and at Mariposa, we do seasonal water storage with a thing we like to call Dragonfly Ponds.
Dragonfly Ponds are one of our favorite ways to harvest water. These water features capture the rain that falls on your roof by redirecting your downspout to deposit rainwater directly back into the ground rather than piping it out to the street. By retaining this water, Dragonfly Ponds create a water source for pollinators, particularly dragonflies. Rainwater is moved to a depression in the garden that’s filled with drain rock and decorative gravel. Water collects in the depression, the pit fills, and over the next few days the water drains back into the earth. This action of filling and draining, paired with grasses planted around the pond, creates the kind of muddy grassy conditions that dragonflies like to lay their eggs in.
This dragonfly pond also serves as a fire pit.
The benefits of a Dragonfly Pond include the addition of another layer of habitat to your garden, which in turn attracts flora and fauna that need it. In addition, the water that would have flushed pollution into the Bay is now recharging the groundwater table, and keeping water fresh and clean for the health of future generations.
Next up: how to make your garden a place that pollinators will love
One challenge we face with every garden we create is, what can we build into the design to make sure the garden is not only beautiful, but also a regenerative place of abundant life? All life on earth needs food, shelter and water. We create food and shelter with the plants, but we also need to create spaces where water is accessible to birds, butterflies and bees, in order for them to build a home in your garden.
All gardeners know that gardens need water to stay green and lush, but the past several years of on-again-off-again drought mean we've had to think hard about the amount of water we use - and about how we can cut our water usage back. To make being water wise even more urgent, many municipalities have incentive-based and/or tiered-cost programs to encourage homeowners to reduce their water usage in the garden. It has become expensive to irrigate a garden, even on a small plot of land, using the more conventional irrigation systems.
Plants need water to survive and to provide their environmental benefits of food and shelter for our native pollinators. At Mariposa, we discourage the trend toward limiting plant choices, creating arid gardens, and taking away the elements that create life in the garden; that is not the way to improve the health of the environment for plants, pollinators, OR humans. Transpiration, or the movement of water vapor from plants to the air to form clouds is essential to a healthy water cycle and to a healthy planet. Arid gardens may look modern and stylish and require little water, but a suburb filled with plots consisting of succulents and gravel will contribute to disruptions in the regional water cycle and can actually exacerbate drought conditions by making the planet hotter and drier!
The water cycle needs transpiration of water vapor from plants to remain healthy.
This winter we've had a pretty good year for rain, but the specter of drought still hangs over the state of California, threatening to return. Using water wisely is always a good practice, no matter what the rain gods bring us, and the threat of drought is fundamentally related to the need to combat climate change with methods that promote sustainability and regenerativity.
To paraphrase Hamlet, to irrigate or not to irrigate is not the question. Instead, we need to improve the source of the water that we use in our gardens. Water harvesting and greywater reuse are two of the primary ways to conserve by keeping water on your property instead of pulling more from the municipal tap. In the next two posts we'll show you how you can implement simple water harvesting and greywater techniques to continue to irrigate your garden, without using additional water bought from the city.
Does your outdoor space give you joy? Does it allow you the opportunity to connect to the natural world?
Or is it a source of worry, an expensive responsibility, a time-consuming chore?
If you lean more toward the second feeling than the first, you're not alone. When we lead busy lives, spending time in the garden becomes a taxing chore. It can seem like there's always something to do, and not enough time to get it done.
When we first meet our clients, many of them are overwhelmed by their outdoor spaces. Our goal is to help create enjoyable gardens for our clients, where they can relax and settle into a relationship with the natural world. A garden that hold life, such as a diverse array of butterflies, birds and bees, as well as a myriad of colorful plants that bloom year round, is one that can relax our minds, and calm our fears.
Building gardens with an eye toward creating places that invite butterflies, birds and bees is commonly known these days as habitat gardening. Habitat gardening is about building and maintaining gardens by designing them through a way that creates serene spaces full of life, color, beautiful scents, and fresh air. As a bonus, this kind of garden requires less maintenance than traditional gardens because its design works with, rather than against, nature.
Habitat gardening is also about taking a critical look at the standards of both the landscaping and agricultural industries and questioning what we as homeowners and garden makers can do to improve the environment, improve our health, and improve our communities by taking better care of our local environment and the living beings who depend on it.
As a firm with thirty years of experience in designing, building, and maintaining gardens based on permaculture and ecological design principles, we've learned how to create and sustain ecologically beneficial gardens that are also beautiful, inspiring places for human beings. The pictures below show one of our client's gardens before and after; at Mariposa, we want everyone to have a space like this, that takes the stresses of the day away by providing a garden that is teeming with life, one that allows you to connect to the natural world.
We want to share our expertise and knowledge of how to build ecologically inspired gardens with homeowners and members of the gardening community in this blog. Starting one garden at a time, we are working to restore and regenerate the health of our local and even our global environment. We’d love to start a conversation with readers, too; feel free to use the comments to tell us your opinions, experiences, learnings, successes and failures.
Next up: How to design your garden with nature in mind.
Before and after photos show the change from traditional to habitat garden at this Oakland home.
March is a time of year in the Bay Area that sees a fluctuation in temperatures and in precipitation. This year, we were lucky in January to see so much rain, and then to have a warm and dry February. This brought out the blooms. When it comes to blooming, at Mariposa, we love to see as much late winter and early spring bloom as we can. Not only is it beautiful, after the cold grey days of December and January, but it is also important for our winged friends, the butterflies and the bees. Blooming flowers provide nectar and nourishment when the weather starts to get warm and the pollinators emerge from winter dormancy.
Fuschia thymilfolia is an excellent garden performer. It keeps its flowers year round, and provides nectar to a host of pollinators, including bumblebees and hummingbirds. In addition, it does well in dry shade. Often, trying to find plants that work in dry shade is a gardener’s dilemma.
Cerinthe is a flower that will readily reseed itself in your garden. It’s lovely blue flowers are one of our first blooms of the year. Bumblebees and honey bees will be glad that you’ve planted it, as it is blooming right when they start to actively forage again.
Lantana is blooming in my garden right now, however, I normally think of Lantana as a summer bloomer. Maybe it is the effects of the drought that has it blooming out of season. At any rate, it is blooming, and I have seen several bumblebees visiting during our warmer days in Late February.
Ceanothus is one of my favorite late winter and early spring bloomers! It’s beautiful soft blue flowers make it a true gem in the garden. The heavenly and faint scent send me swooning every time I leave in the morning, as I have a full blooming Ceanothus ‘Ray Hartman’ blooming right outside my front door. The bumblebees love Ceanothus, and on a sunny day, one can see several of them working the deep blue blooms.
The fairest of all Early Spring blooms is the lovely Ribes sanguineum. It’s graceful plumes of pink flowers are truly lovely to behold. Right now, in many parts of the Bay Area, they are at their peak. Enjoy them while you can. Once the flowers have faded, they will produce currants that are loved by our local birds.
Andrea Hurd, founder of Mariposa Gardening & Design.