As I walked through our Minnesota wildlife garden this late September day, I was happy to see so many bees and a straggler monarch butterfly that fluttered in for a pre-migration meal.
Later, I also spied a hummingbird enticed by our fresh array of flowers.
These precious pollinators were stocking up on nectar for migration and hibernation. As I watched them dance from flower to flower, a moment of realization came over me…
The monarch was fluttering between tropical milkweed flowers and two patches of zinnias. The hummingbird was most interested in our coral porterweed, and the bees couldn’t get enough of the red and yellow collarette dahlias.
All 3 of these important pollinators were enamored by our numerous patches of verbena bonariensis. This was the first year we’d cut it back, and the blooms are still full of sweet nectar, as evidenced by the bounty of bumble bees hanging from each flower head.
Have you noticed that all of the aforementioned plants are annuals (depending on your region) or non-native plants?
An advantage of including non-invasive annual plants to your landscape is that many of them bloom until first frost. These flowers are a welcome sight for late migrators and bees stocking up before hibernation.
Another advantage to adding annual plants is that many of them bloom the entire season. This means they’re pollinator-ready 24/7 during garden season.
Most native perennials have a specific bloom period, and that doesn’t always coincide with the pollinators travel itinerary….especially with extreme weather patterns becoming more frequent!
Many of our native plants are currently providing seeds for hungry birds like goldfinches. There are still fading flowers on some, but the majority are finished producing nectar.
October bees and butterflies can still stock up on nectar before settling down for a long winter’s nap. The more energy reserves they have, the likelier they’ll survive until next spring. And in case you’ve been living on a deserted island without your smartphone…we need all the pollinators we can get!
Proponents of native-only gardening argue that exotic plants will be passed over by pollinators and can’t support the ecosystem. Based on years of gardening experience and talking to other gardeners , I have found the exact opposite to be true.
Before I’m attacked by the natives, I’m not here to promote pulling out all your native plants and going on an exotic garden adventure. In fact, our garden has many late-season natives that we grow and love. (asters, Boltonia asteroides, gaillardia, Conoclinium coelestinum, goldenrod, etc.)
Here are some of the annual flowers that are still putting out nectar filled blooms for our remaining pollinators:
1. Tropical Milkweed (click link for more info)
A scientist once suggested to me that by planting this, the monarchs could potentially stay too late and freeze to death. They could be confused by seeing viable milkweed and lay eggs on it. Even with viable milkweed, the monarchs finish utilizing tropical as a host plant by the first couple days of September. This still gives them plenty of time to finish metamorphosis and migrate south.
However, I still have many monarchs using tropical milkweed for nectar through September…this suggests that milkweed viability is not a cue for migration in cold weather climates. No frozen monarchs in five years is proof enough for me.
I do suggest that northerners raise migration monarchs indoors when the low temps go below 55°, because cold temps slow down metamorphosis.
Some have suggested that too many monarchs don’t finish the migration to Mexico because of tropical milkweed in places like Florida and Texas. I think the solution to this is fairly simple…
If you grow tropical milkweed in these places, cut it back to the ground so it can’t be used by monarchs over winter. If you’re not willing to do that, than don’t plant it. Simple enough?
2.<< click to buy this superior dwarf butterfly bush
Our only butterfly bush that survived last Minnesota winter. This dwarf butterfly bush maxes out between 3-4 feet and blooms all season long, if you deadhead. Last season, I had monarchs using this for nectar in early October.
This is labeled as a non-invasive butterfly bush. I have never heard complaints about this species taking over a garden. If you’re concerned, keep a close eye on it, and keep up with deadheading.
If you’re not willing (or able) to do that, then butterfly bush may not be a good option for you. This variety was also created to be more cold hardy. I’d have to say they succeeded after it survived the 10th coldest Minnesota winter on record!
There is a lot of misinformation floating around the internet about butterfly bush, and it’s often from people who don’t grow it themselves. Don’t get your facts from fear mongers.
3. Mexican Sunflowers (Click the orange link for more photos)
After surviving an early August hailstorm, these flowers came back with a vengeance. They were a monarch favorite during the migration and they’re still in full bloom this late September for bees, moths, and other butterflies.
4.(Click to find seeds)
For awhile, I was beginning to doubt this sleeping giant would bloom. But it has spread late season magic across the garden. There are small pollinators and bumble bees all over it! The hummingbirds love it too…
It was supposed to grow to 4 feet tall, but it easily doubled that…which is probably why the balloon plant (milkweed) behind it is only 3 feet tall this season. Balloon plant is a late season milkweed for monarch egg laying, but I’ve recently found that monarch females seem to prefer its close relative.
5. Zinnias << 5 big zinnias for your butterfly garden
This year we planted the tall state fair mix and benary’s giant which were a big hit with both swallowtails and monarchs. They are currently being used by bees, hummingbirds, and migrating monarchs.
6. Verbena bonariensis (click to see more photos)
By cutting back spent blooms at the beginning of August, we still have lots of verbena blooms as we enter October. Verbena also reseeds during the season for even more blooms.
7. French Marigold (click to find seeds)
The French marigold is a favorite annual of gardeners across North America. In many gardens they are the first flowers to bloom and the last fall survivors. Bonus points for repelling those pesky oleander aphids
Many people have asked why we are still seeing a good number of monarch visitors in a year when many have yet to see their first. I believe the answer comes down to diversification…of both milkweed and nectar flowers. Native and non-native.
If you choose to buy in to the fear mongering that non-native plants are destroying the ecosystem, that is your choice. And if you’re someone that wants to throw down seed and let mother nature do the rest, native gardening probably is your best option.
But, if you’re someone who likes to spend more time in your garden and you’re willing to take responsibility for non-native plants, there is an opportunity to take your garden to a whole new level, attracting both new and familiar pollinators.
So next time you’re wondering where all the monarchs (and other pollinators) are, think about whether there’s something more you could be doing to support them.