Golf course offers pro tips for planting milkweed to help monarchs

Meadow Club in northern California is among the first golf courses to participate in a program engaging the golf community in conservation efforts for the beloved monarch butterfly.

Environmental Defense Fund and Audubon International staff visit the Meadow Club to see habitat restoration efforts underway on the course.

Monarchs in the Rough launched in January 2018 and has since enrolled more than 250 courses committed to planting milkweed and wildflower habitat, which the monarch needs to breed and feed.

The population of monarch butterflies has declined by more than 90 percent in the last two decades, and other pollinators have declined at similarly alarming rates. To change this trajectory, staff from Environmental Defense Fund and Audubon International decided to team up with a seemingly unlikely ally – golf courses.

Occupying approximately 2.5 million acres in the U.S. alone, golf courses are an untapped potential for habitat restoration, if managed appropriately. That’s where Monarchs in the Rough comes in, offering scientific expertise and technical support to help golf course superintendents and personnel grow habitat in out-of-play areas.

MonarchsintheRough.org provides an interactive map of participating courses and case studies highlighting restoration efforts.

But many golf course staff, including those at Meadow Club, are already well equipped with knowledge and experience from previous conservation efforts, and can offer lessons learned for other golf courses and individuals looking for milkweed planting tips.

A different kind of golf pro

Meadow Club’s director of golf course maintenance, David Sexton, and landscape manager, Carissa Brands, have been working for years to support monarch butterflies and other pollinators, and increase the overall sustainability of their 90-acre course.

In particular, David and Carissa have been focused on a 25-acre border area, where they have successfully established native vegetation by adding in roughs and turning off sprinklers. This natural, out-of-play area now contains nearly 8,000 square feet of milkweed stems that were planted alongside other native flowering plants.

Staff at Meadow Club planted showy and narrowleaf milkweed – two milkweed species native to Mount Tamalpais’ vernal pool ecosystem.

Here are three lessons David and Carissa have learned from experimenting with various milkweed planting methods:

  1. Start small and try different techniques to find out what works best for your specific environment before you try expanding the habitat. Careful site selection and site preparation are key for success.
  2. Plant milkweed habitat in areas with easy access to irrigation. At Meadow Club, getting enough water to the plants has been critical for establishment, especially during the dry summers of Marin County, California.
  3. Weed pressure at Meadow Club is high, especially when project sites are irrigated. To combat high weed pressure, plant milkweed seedlings rather than seeding directly . Meadow Club is able to grow milkweed and other pollinator-friendly plant seedlings in a native plant nursery on-site. Always try to plant native seedlings.

So far, Carissa and David have spotted at least one monarch butterfly and a variety of native bees and other butterflies – including a large group of California tortoiseshell butterflies that moved through the course and delighted golfers. As milkweed habitat sites mature, they hope to see more monarchs.

A butterfly resting on milkweed at Meadow Club.

Golfers enjoy the scenery

Responses from Meadow Club members have been overwhelmingly positive, thanks to course personnel’s efforts to inform members about the multiple important ecological benefits of planting native pollinator habitat.

"Ultimately, golfers leave happier for having spent time in a healthy, biodiverse environment."

The course highlights its environmental stewardship work in a monthly newsletter and hosts a guided spring walk to showcase restoration efforts throughout the course. Equally important are everyday interactions with golfers, in which staff educate members about certain plants or projects underway. This keeps members informed and is creating a course culture that encourages appreciation of native habitat and wildlife. Ultimately, golfers leave happier for having spent time in a healthy, biodiverse environment.

David and Carissa are currently planning an environmental day of work and fun, in which members will have a chance to plant 200-300 seedlings and learn more about sustainability on the course. With a bit of luck, participants will be able to spot monarchs as they work.

Meadow Club will continue its work to support monarch butterflies through the Monarchs in the Rough program, and to improve course sustainability and educate members.

To learn more, visit MonarchsintheRough.org

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