Gophers 16 – HB 5

North Plot December update. Lost two more plants to gopher predation.

Spring will be almost a complete start-over. Of the 21 original plants, I have lost 16. Most lossess have been due to gophers. I lost two of my largest, strongest plants to gophers a couple weeks ago. The three other plants have been spared so far, I think, because they had already curled up and gone dormant. It is a theory anyway. Next spring, I will be using metal mesh bags. In my other plantings, the commercial baskets have prevented plant loss. I wonder if the gophers found weak points in the bottom of the baskets we made – even though the ends were tightly connected with wire.

Rain clouds looking east.

The rains began at the end of November. This means that the plots no longer need me to hand water them. I will be capturing more rain water for next year. Tank 1, adjacent to the North Plot, still has water in it from last winter. We used only a few hundred gallons of the 2500 gallons in there. Tank 2 also adjacent to the North Plot is empty. Tank 3, adjacent to the South Plot, has only 100 gallons remaining. We will be hooking up piping to the tanks at the next break in the weather. Just because the plants go dormant does not mean the work stops.

Now the North Plot is Attacked

Gophers “disappeared” two milkweeds in the North Plot

Either the chicken wire holes are too big too, or there was a weakness in the construction of the baskets. I was devastated when checked on my North Plot to find holes in the center of two baskets where healthy, happy milkweeds once were. The gophers are trying to get into the others too – so far, unsuccessfully. I see holes and mounds adjacent to all the other baskets as well. Next year, we will be planting them in metal mesh and see how that holds up.

A healthy milkweed in the North Plot surrounded by evidence of gopher attempts at intrusion.
A milkweed in the North Plot begins to shut down for the winter.

Several of the remaining plants are beginning to die back for the winter. The daytime temps have been unseasonably warm, but the nighttime temps have been fairly cold – in the 50s. I continue to water, per Ron’s instructions, to ensure the root system has enough moisture to be able to come back next year.

Some hope. A stick emerges in the South Plot where most baskets were infiltrated by gophers.

With the new gopher attack in the North plus the attrition I’ve mentioned on this blog previously, it brings down my milkweed census in the North Plot to 5 visible plants. In the South Plot, there was only one visible plant until yesterday. This little guy (photo above) emerged from the soil. This was one of the baskets where there was no hole, but the plant was clipped from above. As Ron said, milkweed roots are alive under the soil even if the plant looks dead or there is just a stick above ground. Hopefully, the gophers don’t get this little guy. I may try to dig it out and place it in a new chicken wire basket. I will need to ask Ron if that kind of shock during the Fall will kill it.

Below are the latest species map updates:

North Plot status
South Plot status

Decimated by Gophers

Dark cells are disappeared plants.

It has been very sad to watch my healthy, gorgeous milkweeds disappear one by one. The cages built for this plot had too big of holes to offer the best protection from underground creatures. I spoke to Ron about this, and he will have more plants to restock in the spring. The Showy on the east side appeared to be eaten but not pulled out from below, which means we have a chance that its roots will be established and regrow next spring. The others appear to be completely “disappeared” – attacked from underground.

Less attrition. I’ve reclaimed the Woolly Pod the cow tore out!

The North Plot is doing much better. David and I used chicken wire we had laying around to build the baskets. There are gopher holes but no attrition thus far. Some good news – the plant that was pulled out by the cow, it appears to be regrowing. I have changed the cell from gray to white to indicate survival (see plot map above).

Just like with farming, you can only do the best you can. Every season is a learning opportunity and has a new foe. Some years are good, some devastating. There are no guarantees, but we must try.

9-30-19 Plant Update

Gopher hole in the middle of a basket.

There has been some attrition. Mostly, some of the plants just transferred hard and never grew. In three other cases, there were some preventable errors. An industrious gopher got through one of our homemade baskets and got a milkweed (see above photo). Ron (The UC Master Gardener milkweed expert) thought the gophers would not like the bitter taste of the plant and leave them alone. Unfortunately, the gopher not only tasted the roots, but the entire plant disappeared! To Ron’s credit, he wanted us to use gopher baskets “just in case”. This probably prevented more loss. Thanks Ron! In another case, I drowned a plant after leaving the rainwater hose on too long. Finally, as described in my last post, a friendly cow came along and attempted to graze a plant – then spit it back out. Although I replanted, I am not sure it will survive.

Some great news: I found some growth on one of the plants that transferred hard and never grew. That was exciting – although it decided to grow just as the season is winding down and the leaves will begin to drop (see the photo below). A main lesson from this is to keep watering. I kept watering all of the plants/basket areas even if they looked dead or had disappeared.

New growth at the base of a milkweed stem.

Below are the planting plot maps I created with dark gray cells for those I’ve lost – or at least think I’ve lost. I give a status on some of the plants.

Overall, I am happy. I knew there would be some attrition, but had hoped it would be minimal. Cannot wait to see if the butterflies choose to have babies in these patches!

Passed the Grazing Test

Cow just outside the second gate.

One of the ladies came for a visit inside the enclosure that separates our house and yard from the rest of the ranch. David and I do this to protect our vehicles, equipment and, frankly, prevent all the flies due to cow pies from being too close to the house. I often will leave the enclosure gate open when I am home to facilitate easier ingress and egress in our daily life. My thinking is…I will know the cows are around before there can be any trouble. I have dogs after all! Well, that plan is not always accurate.

Yesterday, this lovely lady entered the enclosure. We have lots of tall yummy grass that popped up from the summer moisture and rain while we were gone. My garden is often a draw as well. Whatever the enticement, she was inside the enclosure. Yet again, my dogs were useless in alerting me. I looked up from my computer, and there she was – peacefully eating the grass on the east side of the house in plain view outside my slider.

Now that I had my eye on her, I let her eat for a little while. As dusk began to fall, I gently herded her out with the help of my lab Beatrix (Yes, she sometimes can be useful!). After shutting the gate, to a low groaning sound, which is “cow talk” for disappointment, I checked on the milkweed. She did not touch the South Plot. She did impact the North Plot, which was closer to her entry point. Fortunately, she did not trample the entire plot. The cow did try to graze one of the milkweeds. I know this because one was torn out – a real healthy one too! The plant lay in its entirety near where it was pulled. It was clearly unpalatable to her!! It took just the one taste evidently to keep her from pulling out the rest.

There appeared to be some roots left on the plant. I quickly replanted it and gave it some more water. I hope that the roots will take, and it will grow again. I looked today, and the plant had gone from healthy, full and green, to wilted and sad. It was still firm in the ground, but that could just be from my recent packing of the soil. I would hate to lose another one.

Overall, this happening is beneficial. I needed to know if the cows would leave them alone. Milkweed is toxic to sheep and not good for other livestock. On a cattle ranch, to do this work, the plants need to be unpalatable to the animals so they do not get sick, and so the butterflies will have intact habitat. I am very excited that the plants will be left alone!

The cow and her friends beginning to aggregate, hoping for the gate to be open.
The dogs getting water after they perceived a job well done.

New Growth

New growth spotted on a Mariposa Narrow Leaf in the North Plot.

Hurray! One of the shriveled up milkweeds has new growth. This gives me higher confidence that the other shriveled plants that are very firmly standing have roots that are alive and growing. Hopefully, this means that I’ve only lost three in the North Plot. I lost two in the South Plot – one from my own negligence. This leaves 16 healthy (mostly) growing plants. I think this is a good start.

I also got all of the nectar plants into the ground. They are settling in. The weather turned cooler last night with a nice icy bite to the air. I wonder if this means that the opportunity for growth is leaving with the heat. There was also more moisture on the soil this morning. We will see how the plants navigate this change.


Sunrise at FeatherField looking to the northeast.

Most days, I am up before the sun. Especially in the summer, it is helpful to get my outdoor chores complete before the searing heat of the day. We had some cloud cover this morning, which made for a spectacular sunrise.

Milkweeds provide the “nursery” for the monarch butterfly larva, but they need nectar plants for food. There are many good plants that provide this food source, and I plan to provide a diverse grouping for them to choose from. Because we have a lot of heat and light left in the season, I decided to start some nectar plants so they are established for the spring.

Nectar plants, and some herbs, in raised bed ready for planting.

I am starting with a red and a purple salvia, a petite butterfly bush and marigolds. There are some herbs and alyssum included because I couldn’t resist when I was at the nursery. The marigold is an annual. It still has some blooming time left, and I am hoping it will self seed so it comes back next year. The other nectar plants are perennials. They will establish (I hope) and stay. I’ve grown all of these before, but Hornitos is rough country in which to have a garden. For various reasons, including the lengthy drought and grasshopper infestations, I’ve lost them over the years.

The plants will be planted in the fiberglass raised bed due south of the South Plot of milkweed. I have used that raised bed for my garden most years. It was formerly a tomato hauler that goes on the back of trucks. You see them all over the Valley during tomato season. I had a large hole dug and then filled it in with dirt, carefully, since it is fiberglass and can puncture or crumple. This way, I was able to keep the gophers out without having to make multiple raised beds over wire mesh.

I also plan to seed sunflowers in the raised bed and along the interior fence line due north of the North Plot in November and again in February, so there is time to germinate and have a continuous supply of nectar.

Sunflower seed heads gathered from large groupings in Mariposa County.

I love sunflowers! I am so excited that they are a preferred source of nectar for monarchs. I have been stopping along the roadways sniping off some of the sunflower seed heads. I choose only very large groupings of sunflowers to harvest from so I do not impact the plants ability to reseed in its place. I know I am also sharing with the birds. It is important to be thoughtful about all our relations and their needs as opposed just to mine.

In time, I will add other nectar plants to create a nice grouping. Grouping the plants close (not crowded) offers the butterflies more security. Monarch Watch has good information on these nuances and more when starting a butterfly garden.

Success and Some Set-Backs

September 2, 2019

South Plot. Sacramento Narrow Leaf.

I check the plants daily. The South Plot looks great. Last Friday, when I was watering from my rain water tank, I got distracted and left the water running. It overflowed the trough and flooded the milkweed plot. When I remembered, I was horrified. The plot is sloped with a berm at the the bottom where I placed the showy milkweed since they like it a little more wet than other species. One of the showy milkweeds was completely submerged! The ground was completely saturated. I was out there bailing and trying to redirect the water. Finally, covered in mud, I had gotten most of the water away so the plant was no longer submerged. I can only hope that I did not kill its roots and that it will grow back next year. I was so mad at myself.

Showy milkweed that was submerged 3 days later.

I did learn some lessons from that horrible error. One, I should not delay in getting a real hose with nozzle for that tank (instead of a hose that was butchered by gophers, so no connection for a nozzle. ). Two, and most important, the other plants appeared to really like the soaking. The South Plot is really happy as compared to the North Plot.

North Plot. Mariposa narrow leaf.

The North Plot is not doing as well. I lost the special Madera woolly pod within a day of its being planted. It never seemed to take to the transfer. The two showy milkweeds seemed to transfer ok, but withered within a couple of days. Finally, one of the Sacramento narrow leafs is just a stick. It is standing straight up stiff, so I will take that as a good sign that it is just part of the change to dormant status. Ron said that the roots can be alive after the leaves have all fallen. I hope that all of them got some root growth and will come back next year. I am theorizing that the later planting of the North Plot, which was two weeks after the South Plot, is the largest contributing factor to their lower success.

The plants in the North Plot looked a bit toasted today, so I gave them some extra water. Maybe I should soak the ground with 200 gallons of water like the South Plot!

North Plot. Mariposa narrow leaf looking a little bit toasted.

The Mariposa narrow leaf pictured above had its roots stuck to the peat at the base of the pot. When I transferred it, I had to peel the roots out of the pot. I though, “This little guy isn’t going to make it. It is going to be too traumatized.” I was wrong! This little guy is one of the plants doing the best. It looked a bit toasted today, but again, I don’t know if it is transferring to dormant status because it was in a pot longer than the plants in the South or if it just needed more water. I decided to provide more water just in case.

Adding a Second Patch – August 24, 2019

The North Plot looking northwest.

Ron sent me an email saying he had more milkweeds available if I wanted to plant more. I said, “Yes!” Lately, I have the sense that I am now an addict to building butterfly habitat, and Ron has become my supplier. Fortunately or not, the Fall is a time when the milkweeds go dormant. They begin to loose their leaves and just leave a solitary stick behind. The North Plot will be my last planting until the Spring.

I chose this area solely because of its proximity to another 2500 gallon rain water catchment tank. Both the North and South plots are also close to trees, which are needed for butterflies to roost.

Again, I dug holes and made wire baskets. I started at 5:30am to beat the sun. This time, though, my wonderful husband, David Raboy, jumped in to help me make the baskets. That is the part that takes the longest to do, and with the heat forecasted to be nearly 100 degrees, I welcomed the extra set of hands. Ron dropped the plants off around 9am. He was generous and provided me an 11th plant – a special milkweed species he found in Madera County. The pressure was on to make sure the plants were nicely in the ground to give them the best chance at a life here in Hornitos.

Heather watering the last milkweed plant to go into the ground. North Plot looking to the northeast.

I closely replicated the process that Ron and Bev showed me two weeks before. I was doing most of the work this time, and I did not realize how sore my back would be. It was worth it! All 11 plants were tucked into their holes in baskets by noon. It was searing hot. When I returned to the house my husband said, “You look like toast!” Indeed, my brown skin was about three shades darker. The sign of a morning well spent!

Several of the plants did not look like they would survive the planting. As Ron had pointed out, they were starting to go dormant, and inside pots is not their preferred place. I desperately hope that they will perk up and be as healthy as the South Plot plants. This patch is the one I am most concerned about.

Map of North Plot plantings.

Helping the Monarchs Survive

I read an article last April about how the monarch butterfly population had diminished by 90%. This shocked me. Although I know that many living things have it tough due to rapacious human behavior, I was not aware that this incredible butterfly was in such decline. They are magical, beautiful creatures that spend generations migrating from locations in Mexico through California and up to the far north of the US. Why was this happening? Habitat loss and pesticide use were two major reasons given in the article.

After reading the article, I thought, “How can I make a difference?” So, I did some research and found that my beautiful ranch, FeatherField, is along the monarch migration path! After all, I live in Mariposa County, and Mariposa means “butterfly” in Spanish. My ranch is also within the traditional lands of the Yokut and just west of the Ahwahneechee – Southern Sierra Mi Wuk people, whose word for large butterfly is toj un.

Getting Started Right – August 10, 2019

Ron and Bev after planting the South Plot with Heather – August 10, 2019

Ron Allen is a UC Master Gardener. I knew Ron and his spouse, Bev Andolora, from other civic clubs in town, but did not know they were talented gardeners. They have also started a business, Mariposa Native Plants. I learned about their love for Milkweed at the Butterfly Days event in Mariposa town, at which they were vendors. Mariposa has this event the first weekend of May each year to celebrate butterflies. It was there that I revealed my thought about establishing a large monarch habitat and asked if they could be my plant suppliers. They had germinated just enough for me to have a good start.

Ron had quickly developed a reputation locally as the “milkweed” guy among the Master Gardener’s group. He has been able to successfully germinate tricky seeds and turn them into healthy plants. I knew I was working with the right people.

Ron explained that I would need to group 9 to 10 plants together of varying species to be most effective. They should be spaced at least 1.5′ apart from one another and have a source of water to establish them over the next two years. They would need to be watered once per week until the rains begin.

The South Plot looking east.

I chose an abandoned 4×4 raised bed as my first site just to the south of my home and adjacent to a 2500 gallon rain water collection tank. Prior to their arrival, I moistened the dirt and dug 10 holes at least 1.5′ apart.

Ron and Bev recommended that we also make gopher baskets in which to plant the milkweed seedlings as an “insurance policy” against a possible gopher attack.

Heather and Ron planting as Bev captures photos.

We planted in the morning to avoid the heat. We made baskets out of metal fencing and carefully planted each seedling in the basket and packed local dirt around it. We packed the dirt tightly on top. The seedlings ranged in age from 1 year to 2 years old. We planted four species. Their common names are: Showy Milkweed, Woolly Pod, Sacramento Narrow Leaf, and Mariposa Narrow Leaf.

Map of South Plot plantings.

After the seedlings were planted, we gave them a good watering (1 gallon per plant). I water them once per week.

I am so excited to be a part of the solution. I plan to plant sunflowers and other flowers to provide nectar for the butterflies once they emerge from their cocoons.

For more information on monarch butterflies, visit the Monarch Watch website.