Drought Heavy On My Mind. Monarchs on Their Way

Swale Pond continues to shrink in the heat

I am getting nervous. There has been no rain, with none in the forecast. I’ve already begun to water some plants that are in drier soil and looking thirsty. The south rainwater tank is getting early use. We need a good storm. I would feel better if my two main tanks were filled, but recall, a defective part used in the professional rainwater install allowed thousands of gallons of water to flow away from the tanks instead of into them. Without them filled, I am unable to water everything that needs watering.

The Swale Pond is shrinking with absorption, evaporation and use by cattle and wildlife. It is the main deep source of water on the NW side of the ranch. We are still getting a little dew in the mornings, which helps the grasses. Mayflies, ants, honey bees, and fly pollinators are out and busy. Fortunately, it is still cold at night and in the morning. We had overcast skies the other day and no wind for some time, which also helps slow evaporation. The grasses are still green, but we are getting patches of brown where plants have died back with no other growth to take their place. The system here is teetering on the edge. On a good note, I saw a bald eagle a week ago Sunday. I saw another one in the Valley near my home. Both sightings were pure joy.

For the Future

I planted three big leaf maples last weekend. David helped with the larger trees given their weight. I purchased them before I knew I wouldn’t have water in the rainwater tanks. You may think, “Girl, you’re crazy. Your blog is filled with freak-outs about drought. You’re a nervous wreck. Why plant trees that require much more water than bushes or plants?” That is a great question. There are several reasons:

1. Trees can change an ecosystem. A biologist told me that due to their shade and function of bringing water closer to the top of the soil, more moisture can end up being present providing an important resource for other plants to thrive. Monarchs, and many other butterflies, often roost in trees to avoid predation, and rest.

2. Trees provide shade. This can help grasses and larger plants survive the worsening heat.

3. Trees are an important part of sequestering carbon. They uptake carbon from the air and push out oxygen.

4. Finally, these trees are more drought tolerant that most others. Ron Allen of Mariposa Native Plants and a UC Master Gardener said they grow in arroyos in much more arid Southern California.

I am going to give them more of a try. I planted three others last year in different places on the ranch. Grasshoppers ate two, and the cattle got to the other before I could get protection around it. This time, I purchased more mature trees, planted them closer to the house (thus my new water system), and built fencing around them the same day they were planted. I planted them in a shallow draw as opposed to an arroyo. Let’s see if all of these things make a difference. I would really love shade in this section of the ranch and another place for butterflies to roost. It is humbling to plant a tree – especially at my age. It is a true act of love to know that what you are doing is not necessarily for you. This tree will outlive me by many years providing shade, shelter, beauty and cool soil for generations to come.


New oak leaves emerge

Many things are early this year. The heat and sunlight have given cues to the plants and insects to start living their above ground, visible lives again. Most of the wildflowers are coming out all at the same time – not following their typical cadence. Given climate change and the lack of moisture overall, this may be a self-preservation thing. It also may be a good thing. I understand, from a monarch expert on the coast, that, as of this writing, the female monarchs are for the most part gone from the overwintering sites. They have begun their northeast journey to summer sites. This means they are on their way this direction. There is much danger – more than usual. The early departure during the heart of winter means that they can get caught in a cold snap and freeze. They also may get to certain locations before food is available. They will be passing through the largely toxic fields of the Central Valley during a time of dormant spraying of nut trees. It is a difficult passage, which I hope they will navigate successfully. I anticipate having more nectar for them in a couple weeks. Perhaps they will get here in mid March. I will keep my eyes open.

As I mentioned in my last blog, I am helping a team of scientists monitor for early emerging milkweeds. They are interested in A. Californica (and A. Cordifolia, which I’ve not seen here). So far, I have not see any of my native A. Californica emerge. I am seeing some of my potted and newly planted milkweeds emerge however (Indian milkweed and narrowleaf). I expect to see the A. Californicas emerge in late February or March. I just hope they will be large enough to entice monarchs to lay eggs.

Riparian Fence Nearly Done

Riparian fence at Odom Creek with brace post

Regular, long time readers of this blog will know that fencing has been the bane of my existence. So much effort, consternation and “ink” in this blog have been dedicated to discussing the protection of milkweed and nectar planting sites throughout the ranch. Oh my, so many different attempts, failures, and cow break-ins have been chronicled. Finally, I have gotten a professional to perform the long, arduous task of installing the riparian fence to exclude cattle from portions of the creeks. Say it with me…hip…hip…hooray. You will now be spared my fencing complaints and dejection!

Two of the many reasons for excluding the cattle from the creeks is to protect the water quality (see photos below) and prevent erosion of creek banks. High organics, from poop and pee, create excessive nutrients that algae feed on. Too much algae on the surface can prevent the transfer of life-sustaining oxygen into the water and make it less possible for fish and amphibians to live and less healthy for mammal and avian wildlife. Excluding cattle for a time also gives the ground an opportunity to rest and for me to see what grows without the impact of livestock. I am excited to see what happens. We will graze these enclosures after monarchs would have left and the native plants have seeded. We want the grasses to be grazed down for health of the ecosystem and fuel load reduction for wildfire.

The Joy of Walking the Ranch

There is the smell of life all around – growing grass, nectar from wildflowers, trees leafing, cold, moist air in the arroyos. The air has been clean and the temperature temperate. These are the days you live for, the days you want to walk the hills for miles, sit, breath, contemplate. Our life is so hurried. The shift to remote and online meetings has only encouraged the blurring of the boundary between home and work and the push to be even more productive since one need not travel to attend meetings and conferences. I heard from a colleague that she actually attends two meetings at once sometimes. We are reaching a breaking point as a society. We need to get back to connecting with one another, outside, in natural places, over food, to live once again.

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