Filling your garden with butterfly plants creates an inviting, beautiful space welcoming to helpful pollinators. But have you considered attracting monarch butterflies specifically to your garden? These orange-and-black beauties feed on milkweed nectar to fuel reproduction, therefore laying eggs and producing even more monarch butterflies—all while simultaneously pollinating your garden plants. Every summer, monarchs migrate from warmer weather in the south to the north. (Some make it all the way to Canada!) Follow these tips to make your garden a monarch pit-stop on its trek.
Milkweed, Milkweed, Milkweed
Planting milkweed remains the easiest and best thing that the average gardener can do to help monarchs. It is the most essential building block of a proper monarch habitat; it's where the butterflies lay their eggs and the only thing that the caterpillars will eat. Look for plants in the Asclepias family (such as Asclepias syriaca, Asclepias speciosa, Asclepias incarnata, or Asclepias curassavica, depending on what region you live). Native species of milkweed are always best because that's what monarchs would be naturally seeking as they migrate through your area. Get your plants from a reputable grower (one who grows without using commercial pesticides or fertilizers), or start them from seed yourself.
Keep It Chemical-Free
It's no secret that the widespread use of insecticides and herbicides has contributed to the decline of the monarch population (as well as critically endangering other important pollinators). Pesticides, especially, are non-discriminatory, and when you spray them to kill one type of insect, you kill them all. Butterflies are especially susceptible to chemicals, so it is beyond crucial to avoid the use of any toxins in your monarch habitat. Implement rigorous organic gardening practices by turning to organic pest and weed control methods, fertilizers, and soils.
Nectar-Rich Food Sources
Adult monarch butterflies will need more than just milkweed to feed on (while the caterpillars devour the entire plant, the adults drink the nectar from the milkweed flowers). Fill your garden with as many nectar-rich flowering species as possible, planning for early, middle, and late bloom times to ensure that there is a constant supply of seasonal food. This will help to draw in monarchs and has the added benefit of attracting all sorts of butterflies and pollinators to your garden space. Some plants to consider (depending on your region) include: joe pye weed, lantana, liatris, echinacea, flowering sages, verbena, buddleja, monarda, rudbeckia, and yarrow. And, of course, milkweed.
Many ornamental flowering species are fantastic for attracting monarchs and pollinators, but the more native plants you can incorporate into your landscape, the better. Monarchs depend upon finding a diverse food supply, not only during the spring and summer when they are breeding, but also into the fall and winter when they are migrating. While ornamentals thrive during the spring and summer, most do not during the colder seasons. This is where flowering native plants are critical. Indigenous species are perfectly adapted to provide a succession of timely, nectar-rich blooms from spring to winter. The bonus? Native plants require almost no maintenance to survive because they've been growing in your environment long before you came along.
Keep It Colorful
Monochromatic garden designs are a lovely aesthetic, but they may not actually be as attractive to pollinators as a multi-hued design. The more colorful a garden is, the more inviting it is to butterflies. But don't just diffuse color evenly through the design scheme; group your plantings so that there are large drifts of each color. This helps butterflies and other beneficial insects (and especially those tired migrating monarchs) by giving them an easy visual target, and by providing a multitude of nectar-filled blooms within easy reach.
Water and Mineral Sources
Butterflies (especially males) typically obtain extra moisture and essential minerals through a behavior known as puddling—this happens in particular during periods of drought and high heat. They will find damp surfaces, such as soil, sand, rocks, or decomposing material (wet from dew, rain, or irrigation), and suck the liquid from it. This is why having a pond, fountain, or other typical garden water feature is not quite adequate; butterflies need dampness more than standing, deep water. Even a ground puddle is probably too deep; you will only find them puddling around the edges of it.
If your garden doesn't naturally include sunny puddling spots, you can easily create a butterfly puddling pool by filling a shallow dish with chemical-free soil, sand, and/or low, small rocks. Place it in a spot that gets full sun, near your nectar plants, and keep it moist by watering it every day, or set it up where it will receive a bit of daily water from a drip system. Add minerals periodically by sprinkling a bit of salt or an organic matter such as compost or decomposing fruit (in small amounts, never enough to pollute the area).
Butterflies are cold-blooded and rely on the warmth of the sun to maintain their body temperature. This is why you will only see them active during the warmest parts of the day. Placing flat, smooth rocks and other heat retentive materials in sunny parts of your garden will give them a warm place to rest and recharge. Additionally, damp rock surfaces provide a place for butterflies to puddle and draw out essential minerals while simultaneously warming themselves.
It's also important to surround your monarch garden with protective plants. Trees, shrubbery, and vines with strong, woody stems and dense, durable leaves work perfectly for this; anything sturdy that the butterflies can weather a storm beneath. This also just happens to be the sort of plant that is ideal for monarch caterpillars to seek out and pupate on; they'll roam sometimes as far as 40 feet from their host milkweed searching for a secure place to build their chrysalis. You'll stumble across these gold-flecked, bright green beauties in the most random places, like under the eaves of roofs, along trellises, underneath hanging pots, tree branches, and flower stalks. They turn clear just as the butterfly is about to hatch—you can see the dark butterfly coiled inside!
Always be on the lookout when you are moving things around in your yard or clearing brush/branches. If you find a chrysalis that is too exposed (they're very susceptible to predation) or is in danger of being damaged, gently relocate it. Many monarch lovers will collect chrysalises and relocate them to self-contained monarch habitat kits to let them develop and hatch in fully-protected peace.