7 Easy Fall Gardening Tips for your Butterfly Garden
The north winds are whistling, and the monarchs have left the butterfly garden. Even though you’ll miss these magnificent creatures, take heart in knowing there’s a chance you could see their children or grandchildren fluttering around your garden next spring.
In the meantime, there’s plenty you can do to prepare for next season’s butterflies. Fall planting plants can yield big returns for next season’s pollinators. If you miss that window of opportunity, you can also fall plant milkweed seeds.
These 5 fall gardening tips can help you end the season on a high note, and start next season right where you left off…
End of Season Checklist
1. Pull Out Annuals
It’s undeniably easier to do this in fall, while you still know exactly where everything is planted, and there are no nagging questions about what you’re really pulling out! You can also avoid doing drudge work in the cold mud next spring.
2. Rake Leaves
Don’t let piled up leaves delay the triumphant return of your light-deprived plants. Rake now to prevent your yard and garden from being covered by a musty (potentially fungus causing) blanket in desperate need of removal next spring.
Some garden bed leaves can be left until early spring as protection for overwintering native insects.
Your raking treasure can also provide protection for some of your most vulnerable plants by applying Tip 3…
3. Mulch Plants
Why go out and buy mulch when you can use the leaves you just raked? I typically wait until the ground is almost frozen before spreading leaves around our plants…but always mulch before the first major snowstorm!
If you’d like a more substantial mulch, try wood chips (we use cedar) or straw. Use pine bark only on plants that prefer an acidic soil ph level.
A few inches of leaf mulch (4-6″) keeps the soil temperature from going through extreme temperature fluctuations in winter and spring. These fluctuations could ultimately kill your precious plants, and steer the butterflies toward a more satisfying garden menu.
You can also mulch container plants with this method we use for mulching potted trees
4. Label Plants
Use garden plant labels and a weather proof garden marker to clearly label where your plants will return, or risk heartache from plant-pulling mistakes next spring.
find a weather proof garden marker pen
5. Take Cuttings
You can either take cuttings for tropical milkweed now, or you can overwinter potted plants indoors and take cuttings later.
You can also do this with other butterfly plants, but most milkweed/nectar options will require additional preparation with rooting hormone and immediate placement in a soil medium.
6. Harvest Seeds
If you’re lucky, your milkweed plants will produce a bounty of seeds you can harvest and plant this fall, this winter, indoors, or even next spring. Options are always a good thing:
How To Harvest (and Separate!) Milkweed Seeds
7. Cut Back Tropical Milkweed
In warm regions including south Texas, Florida, and Southern California, tropical milkweed is a continuous growing plant. This means they will harbor excessive amounts of OE spores and monarch-killing pathogens over time.
Cut back these plants to the ground in fall and winter to allow fresh, healthy growth to occur. I would also treat the soil with hydrogen peroxide afterward as suggested in this milkweed diseases post.
This can be done after the bulk of the monarch migration passes through or during a time of decreased monarch activity in your garden. If you want emergency milkweed availability, you can always stagger your cuttings and leave a few plants to cut back later…
Save for Spring?
Leave tender and late blooming perennials alone until spring. This further protects the plants from exposure to cold, and also allows other butterflies, moths, and wildlife a warm place to overwinter before coming back to life next spring.
Butterflies, including black swallowtails, overwinter in chrysalis form. These chrysalides were intelligently designed to blend in with nature, so you never know where they might be, until they reveal themselves as shiny new butterflies next spring.
Soil cultivation is not recommended for fall because earth worms will be ripe for the picking after you turn over the soil without adding new plants. Left alone, these beneficial worms loosen the soil, which helps your plant roots grow and thrive.
Once you get these easy fall gardening tips out of the way, you can fully turn your attention to thoughts of spring, and the hopeful return of magnificent monarch butterflies.
I’m looking for the solution for hydrogen peroxide to apply into the ground for fall clean-up.
Hi James, you can get info about gardening with hydrogen peroxide here
Can you take stem cuttings from balloon plants? None of mine that I grew from seed even flowered this season (SE Mi), let alone produced pods. Also I am wondering about first year native milkweed plants that I left in pots. I did put most in the ground a few weeks ago, but was wondering if I insulate the pots with leaf litter, will they come back in the spring? All the leaves on the potted natives have already dropped, and only a stem is left.
Thanks for the advice! Loving the blog!
Hi Matt, I have not been able to successfully root G. physocarpus in water, but you might try the instructions on this page for rooting in soil:
Starting Cuttings in Soil
Balloon Plant Info
I don’t think they would come back in spring even with outdoor insulation, but you’ll learn what’s possible through gardening experiments…good luck!
If I attempt to over winter balloon plant indoors, should I cut it back like you would do with tropical milkweed?
Hi Matt, I cut back everything to avoid bringing in stowaway bugs.
I live in western upstate NY and found a dead Monarch on my back lawn last week.
We had a slight cold spell (38 degrees) last night. Then it warmed back up.
Was this monarch in the process of migrating south ? Sad to find it like that.
Hi Tom, it’s possible this was an old monarch that had already mated, and not part of the migration generation. 38° F would not kill a healthy monarch butterfly.
I saw a Monarch today in Mt. Pleasant (Northeast Texas.) A freeze is predicted for tonight. Can it survive freezing temperatures? Do all Monarchs migrate south? Should I have caught it & kept it in a butterfly habitat inside until it warms up?
yes Regina, butterflies can survive freezing temperatures…especially if they are brief. I would not capture any monarchs and rerelease unless they are unable to fly.
Hi Tony, I live in Northeastern PA and need some advice on what I can plant now in the fall to be ready for spring…I am new to monarch butterfly gardening and would like to know what plants I should have in my garden….Thanks
Hi Angelika, it’s getting a bit late to plant PLANTS but if you do make sure to mulch them with leaves before your first big snow to give the roots some extra insulation. Check out this post for fall plating info:
Fall Planting Plants for a Head start on next season
I bought 2 butterfly milkweed plants. This is my first year trying to raise Monarchs. Sadly I never got any eggs. I never saw any sign of cats on them either. I live in Northwest Pennsylvania. I have a huge butterfly bush and had lots of Monarchs but nothing else. Is there a better milkweed plant that would work better? Plus is there certain areas that would work better to get the eggs?
Hi Doreen, Asclepias tuberosa is not a reliable host plant compared to others milkweed varieties like:
experiment by planting in different microclimates of your yard from full sun to partial shade…good luck!
Thank you Tony!
I read this article this morning and headed outside to some chores in the garden.
I happy to see 2 monarch feeding on the plants, but I’m worried they won’t be able to migrate. Temps upper 70s this week, but will drop next week.
Hi Vera, they will leave when it starts to get cold. Stocking up on nectar first should give them they energy they need for the long trip
Do you have to cut back non tropical milkweed ?
Hello Gayla, at some point, yes. In most regions, it dies back to the ground. The dead stalks and foliage can be removed in fall or spring.
Thank you again for having the monarch raising kits. I purchased this year and even shared one of cages with a fellow teacher. The monarchs arrived late here in North Carolina and I was still able to raise and release 18 monarchs from just two milkweed plants in my garden. This year I found my last caterpillar eating on butterfly weed plant. I am excited and planning for next year. Thank for all your info about fall cleanup !
Really easier to overwinter tropical milkweed or make cuttings from it than to plant the seeds? I do have quite a few plants in pots, and lots of seeds in envelopes.
Hi Poulin, it depends on your region. In Minnesota, we have a shorter growing season so fast-growing cuttings give us a nice head start.
I was out releasing our last two butterflies on Oct. 29 in Lebanon Ohio and saw a tagged release! We have two long parallel rows of butterfly garden in a sunny open field bordered by orchard trees. This tagged butterfly was cruising up and down the rows. Reminded me of a shark. I saw this for the first time once last week, a tagged butterfly (maybe same one).
He would not land for a picture but upon seeing another butterfly would attack it and appear to do battle with it until out of sight. Shortly he would return and cruise the garden again. Shouldn’t he be saving himself for the long cruise to Mexico? All the other butterflies seem gentle and passive. I say he, but cannot get close enough to tell if it is a he. So normal or unusual?
Thank You, Suzanne
Hi Suzanne, it’s possibly the butterfly is not a migratory monarch, or perhaps he’s just extra cranky. Monarch behavior is often a mystery ?
Once &,for all: do aphids harm directly in even indirectly, Monarch caterpillars? How about the red & black bugs?
Hi Joy, aphid infestations harm the milkweed. They aren’t monarch predators, but they could affect monarch health by taking nutrients from milkweed or spreading diseases. At this point, there are still more questions than answers. Here’s a few strategies for dealing with aphids:
Stop Aphids from taking over your milkweed
I found spraying my tropical milkweed with Windex turns the aphids black and they rinse off easily. I assume you wouldn’t want to do this if eggs or cats are present.
Labeling your plants is nice to have in any type of garden. This way you never forget what goes where, and when you need new seeds you know which ones you will actually need. Like if you have flowers that regrow, then you know which didn’t regrow this year.
When you are drawing up your garden plan, make a list of the plants and flowers that you are going to put in each plot. This is a good time to make a list of the tools that you do not have. It is also helpful to check the tools in your garden shed and discard tools that have become damaged or need to be replaced.
Hi Tony! Love your blog, I’ve learned quite a bit since I came across your site last night.
I have a concern and cannot seem to find any answers, no matter what search term I use:
we live in Los Angeles County, and only now are we beginning to see fall weather. We had a plant in our front yard that I had no idea was Milkweed ( we have lots of tropical Milkweed) I believe some people have some interesting nicknames for it, such as “Hairy Balls.” I was looking at it a few days ago, and low and behold there were around 5 Monarch Cats happily chomping away. As of today, 2 have successfully become Chrysalis, one Chrysalis we found on the ground, top open 🙁 ‘, and it looks like a few more will be turning in the next day or so.
The forecast, beginning this evening, is for very strong Santa Ana winds, gusting up to 60mph at time. Would it be best for us to bring the remaining Cats inside as well as the Chrysalis’?
Also, I now know we should cut back the Milkweed in order to discourage any further breeding but what should we do when the current Monarchs emerge, just hope that they will find their way to a migration point?
As is pretty obvious, we’re very new to this, and are worried since we know how much in danger the Monarch population is.
Thanks in advance
Hi Ellen, welcome to the fascinating world of raising monarchs! Yes, I would bring in caterpillars and chrysalis in if there are going to be 60mph winds. As for releasing adults, put them outside when it’s at least 60 degrees and sunny. Here’s more info:
Releasing Monarch Butterflies
I have problems with oleander aphids and planted marigold tegetes around the base of my physocarpus. The m. tagetes is now loosley intertwining amongst various branches of the swan plant and because aphids find the smell intolerable they no longer consider it a viable host plant. Hopefully, this inntervention has no adverse effects for propective egg laying monarchs or eggs already presenting.
Interesting Pam, it’s hard to imagine tagetes would have much of an effect on the aphid population since marigolds are short and physocarpus is tall (plus some aphids can fly). Marigolds shouldn’t have any effect on monarch eggs or larvae…adults even sip nectar from it when preferred nectar plants aren’t available.
What are those oval black and orange bugs on my milkweed plants and do they cause any damage to the plants ?
Hi Kathy…milkweed beetles, milkweed bugs, and milkweed leaf beetles will all eat milkweed to varying degrees. Personally, I let them stay in the garden because they are part of the ecosystem. We had an uptick in milkweed beetles for a while this season, but then the birds came and gobbled them up…if they weren’t there, would they have eaten monarchs instead? Removing wildlife from your garden can have unintended consequences, so unless something is totally taking over your milkweed, your best defense is milkweed diversification and planting several patches around your yard and garden…good luck!
I have a purple milkweed that has 3 pods on it that have not begun to crack open. The pods are very pale but are not yet dry. We are getting our first hard freeze tonight. Should I pick the pods or leave them on the plant?
Hi Dana, I just took cuttings from our balloon plants (A. physocarpa) with the pods still attached and placed them in a vase indoors, which gives seeds more time to develop. You might try this with purple milkweed too. Good luck!
Hi Mary, once I started tropical cuttings, I quit planting seeds. How much you benefit depends on your location. In the northern plains, overwintering can give you mature, flowering plants up to 2 months longer than if you started from seed. Cuttings grow faster too, so all you really need to bring in is one plant to start a decent patch. I typically bring in 2 or 3.
Is it really easier to overwinter tropical milkweed or make cuttings from it than to plant the seeds? I do have quite a few plants in pots, and lots of seeds in envelopes. Starting with seeds seems simpler to me than keeping the potted plants happy all winter, but if there is an advantage to keeping the old plants alive, I might try it.
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