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Migrating monarchs: Terraces at Los Altos residents offer refuge with native garden

Zoe Morgan/Town Crier
Gary Cooper inspects a Cleveland sage plant in the new butterfly garden at The Terraces at Los Altos. Cooper, along with Bill Fanning and Claire Taylor, recently created the garden.

Every so often, there’s an uproar from Los Altos residents about flight paths over the area. But there’s one flight path no one will complain about – that of the monarch butterfly.

In fact, residents of The Terraces at Los Altos are providing a small reprieve for the butterflies on the insects’ 2,000-mile journey to Mexico.

“We’re in the pathway of the monarchs, whose numbers are dwindling,” said Terraces resident Bill Fanning, who helped create a California native plant garden not only to attract migrating monarchs, but also birds, bees and other insects.

According to the Center for Biological Diversity, the monarch population has decreased more than 80% in the past 20 years. There has also been a decline in pollinators.

So when a parcel of land remained untouched after The Terraces completed its $100 million renovation in 2017, it made sense to utilize it in a beneficial way, replacing tired shrubs and rose bushes with native plants.

Fanning and Gary Cooper, whose apartment is near the garden, and their neighbor, Claire Taylor, were well equipped to handle the project.

Fanning, who undoubtedly has a green thumb, had just attended a lecture on native plants by Garden Club of Palo Alto member Eleanor Laney and landscape designer Judith Schwarz. Taylor is a member of the California Native Plant Society. And Cooper is good at research.

Pre-retirement, Fanning was a pharmacist; Cooper, a research chemist; and Taylor, a software engineer. But they all have an affinity for nature.

‘Moral’ gardening

Over several months, Fanning, Taylor and Cooper worked with Schwarz, a native plant specialist at SummerWinds Nursery, to plan the butterfly garden and clear and prepare the soil. Last fall, the first plants went in the ground – nectar plants such as salvia and manzanita and host plants like milkweed.

For a splash of color among the garden’s perennials, Taylor planted some pink clarkias, a showy annual whose post-bloom seeds might germinate in the garden next year.

She is a champion of native plants like clarkia because of their beauty.

There is a plethora of “beauties” from which to choose because California has more native plants than any other state in the nation.

“It’s a biodiversity hotspot,” said Schwarz, who calls planting California natives “moral” gardening. “They are so smart and logical, unlike roses, which are needy.”

Although Schwarz has nothing against roses, she calls them eye candy.

“They’re like Hollywood – all bling and no substance,” she said.

Despite a request for roses, there aren’t any in the butterfly garden. But a request for lilacs led to planting a blue-flowering California lilac (ceanothus), which is a host plant.

The garden is eco-friendly, featuring a drip irrigation system that evenly and efficiently distributes water. Cooper keeps tabs on the soil with a moisture meter.

The majority of the plants are drought resistant, which means they will require less water and maintenance as they grow and mature.

Even though the plants have tripled in size since October, “it’s still a baby garden and just starting to wake up,” Schwarz said.

“The idea of a butterfly garden is attractive to a lot of people. I think it’s going to be popular,” Taylor added.

Try this at home

Inspired to create a native plant garden to attract the birds, bees and butterflies? Here are some tips from Schwarz.

• Pick a quiet, sunny area.

• Choose appropriate plants. The California Native Plant Society’s website ( is your go-to guide. Or consult your local nursery.

• Plant both host and nectar plants. Among “home run” choices are California buckwheat, yarrow, ceanothus and manzanita.

• Prepare and amend the soil with a small amount of organic fertilizer.

• Do not use weed cloth.

• Planting methods are dependent on the soil. At The Terraces, because of the compacted soil, cactus mix was placed at the bottom of the hole. Next, the root ball was placed in the hole, covered with mulch, and then soil.

• Do not use blowers anywhere near the garden area.

• Deep water every other week.

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