Gardening for Monarchs in Oakland, California

By Miya Saika Chen

Miya Chen Photo

“Prolific and unprecedented egg-laying in Oakland this year,” my friend and founder of the Pollinator Posse, Tora Rocha, exclaimed as I relayed my latest monarch butterfly pursuits. By late September my kids and I raised more than 100 monarch butterflies in our garden–from egg to caterpillar to chrysalis to butterfly. Last week I found a chrysalis hanging from our outdoor hose faucet. We’ve shared monarch eggs with friends and family to raise all over Oakland, which is especially fulfilling during such an uncertain and stressful era of the shelter-in-place and global-COVID-19-pandemic.

I wrote a previous article after my first year of gardening for monarchs, which describes the soul nourishment that it provided. 

If you’ve felt the magical, orange fluttering around you or on your walks, and if you want to create a pollinator haven for bees and butterflies, it’s easy! You can do it in a porch container garden, hanging baskets from your window, or in a yard of any size. We are spending a lot more time at home, often with our kids and loved ones. Creating a pollinator garden provides innumerable delights for people of all ages, which, for me, provides daily therapy and preserves my mental health.

Which plants should I grow? 

Fritillary butterfly and caterpillar on passion flower host

Think of plants in two categories: host plants (for caterpillars) and nectar plants (for butterflies, bees, and hummingbirds). Your pollinator garden should have both. Host plants attract butterflies to your garden to lay eggs. Many butterflies are very particular about their host plants. For example, I planted several varieties of monarchs’ host plant: milkweed (asclepias). I also planted fennel, host plant for anise swallowtails, and passionvine, host plant for gulf fritillaries. All three of these butterflies constantly flutter around our garden throughout the spring and summer, which is truly delightful. Nectar plants attract all sorts of bees, butterflies, and hummingbirds. If you allow them to fade and go to seed as the summer progresses, little birds come pick at them, and those flowers will reseed and come back the following year. 

Anise swallowtail butterfly and caterpillar on fennel host plant

Here are some pollinator garden staples that have worked well for me in Oakland. Plant the seeds from October to April

For more plant choices check out the Pollinator Posse’s plant list and for winter-booming nectar plants for native bees, check out Tora’s list at Annie’s Annuals.

Caring for Monarchs

Monarch caterpillar on milkweed and monarch butterfly on Mexican sunflower

The most important thing to do for monarchs (in addition to fighting the climate crisis and protecting our environment) is to plant milkweed. The plant was in decline until home gardeners began planting them, and due to heroic conservation efforts by groups like Monarch Watch, Monarch Joint Venture, and Xerces Society. Monarchs are on a generational migration journey, and milkweed provides vital habitat to lay eggs for the next generation to go fsrther along the way.

If you want to go a step further and raise monarchs in a protected environment, I suggest setting up an enclosure (like this) and putting milkweed stems in a vase inside. The caterpillars eat voraciously, so be prepared with a lot of milkweed. The whole process, from egg to butterfly emergence from chrysalis, takes about six weeks. After the butterfly emerges from its chrysalis and fully dries its wings, you can release it into the wild. Maybe you’ll be lucky enough to feel its wings lightly brush against you, blessing you with #MonarchButterflyMagic and changing your view of the world.

Miya Chen photos

Miya Saika Chen is an Oakland native. Her adventures in monarch-raising and pollinator-gardening are documented at https://www.instagram.com/norwoodbutterflygarden/.