- Author: Melissa G. Womack
If you have seen a butterfly native to Orange County fluttering its wings along a flowerbed searching for nectar, chances are the same species has been found in the garden of UC Master Gardener volunteer Heather Hafner. But that wasn't always the case. For more than two decades, Hafner played professional volleyball on the sunny beaches of Southern California. If it wasn't for a related sports injury, she might have never been introduced to the adventure of attracting butterflies and pollinators into her garden.
While recovering from surgery, Hafner decided to refresh her landscape and visited a local nursery. Slowly shuffling down the aisle and waiting for help she overhead an employee at the nursery showing a customer a monarch egg on the underside of a leaf. Captivated by the possibility of taking home a butterfly for her garden, she optimistically purchased the plant with a monarch egg and patiently waited.
After learning about the many challenges monarchs face to survive, Hafner quickly began to explore how to support monarchs and other butterflies in her garden. She watched videos, read books, and attended workshops and events with the UC Master Gardener Program of Orange County. Hafner was determined to learn everything she could about what butterflies are native to her area and how to build a habitat to support them. Then she got to work. Her goal is now to provide a larval host plant for as many local butterflies as possible.
Her small garden in Irvine, Calif., offers a food source for more than 30 kinds of butterflies. "If I can't eat it, or it's not food for a butterfly – then it doesn't go into my garden," says Hafner, "For me to give up real estate in my garden, I want to know that it is serving a purpose and supporting local butterflies and other pollinators."
She has planted many host plants and trees for almost every type of butterfly found in Orange County. Some of her plants include pipevine, passionvine, hollyleaf cherry, fennel, rue, popcorn cassia, figwort, monkeyflower, Snapdragon, lupin, licorice, California lilac, penstemon, puellia, California buckwheat, bladderpod, and deerweed. She specializes in milkweed (Asclepias) and propagates 12 kinds from seed with differing soil, soil temperature, stratification, and watering requirements. Like any gardening journey, it has been a series of wins and losses.
Her passion for butterflies brought her to the UC Master Gardener Program in search of native plant propagation techniques. Still, she also knew she wanted to make a larger impact in her community and encourage others to help build pollinator habitat in their landscapes. Hafner was accepted into the UC Master Gardener Program of Orange County and completed her training in 2019.
As a UC Master Gardener volunteer, Hafner first focused a large part of her volunteer efforts on the propagation, orchard and youth garden teams. Today, she serves as the co-lead of the youth demonstration garden at the South Coast Research and Extension Center (REC), where they are installing a monarch conservation exhibit with the three native milkweeds and some non-natives to show how non-natives can be responsibly used (cut them back when natives go dormant). Her goal is to help conserve the Western monarch butterfly, which is dwindling in numbers.
She quickly fell in love with the beauty of a diversified garden. "I love monarchs … but my garden wouldn't be the same without the diversity of the other butterflies and pollinators," says Hafner. While not all butterflies arrive at the same time, they are all welcome in her garden.
For the past year, Hafner has expanded her volunteer efforts and used skills from her professional career as a teambuilding facilitator to help improve the diversity of the Orange County program's volunteers. Being a trained facilitator helped her recognize who was missing or underrepresented in the program, which is primarily white and female. She ran a comprehensive outreach campaign to help recruit new volunteers that included geographical, ethnic, economic and chronological age diversity. She called newspapers and community centers in the corners of Orange County to recruit volunteers who were more representative of the people the county serves. Her recruiting efforts and strategy resulted in the county's largest and most inclusive class (58 trainees).
Hafner was most proud of the fact that the program in Orange County now has members who speak 10 languages: Vietnamese, Mandarin, Korean, Spanish, Urdu/Hindi, Portuguese, German, French, Italian and Farsi. These new UC Master Gardener volunteers will create presentations in their native language for outreach into their communities. "I think it's important that UC Master Gardener volunteers represent the community we live in," says Hafner, "and I think this year we delivered on that."
The UC Master Gardener Program is proud to recognize Heather Hafner as a 2021 Gardener with Heart for the impact her volunteer work is making in her community. "Without Heather's incredible contribution, our first virtual UC Master Gardener training class simply could not have happened," says program coordinator Randy Musser, "and our program in the future will benefit greatly because of its new, more diverse members."
Gardeners with Heart are nominated by local county leadership for their stewardship of the UC Master Gardener Program during the pandemic period, their diversity equity and inclusion leadership, and their digital superstardom.