If you’re thinking about starting a monarch butterfly garden, this is the year to get growing…the future of the majestic monarch migration could depend on it!
If you’ve been missing monarchs recently, a large part of the problem can be blamed on the crashing butterfly population. A wicked trifecta of herbicides, habitat loss, and extreme weather is making it impossible for the monarchs to catch a break.
I’m sure you’ve heard the saying the first step is always the hardest. I think it’s especially true when you’re not sure where to begin. When starting a monarch butterfly garden there are many points to consider, and those first decisions will have a big impact on your eventual butterfly garden success…or failure.
But even if you’ve already made unfortunate decisions creating your garden, it’s never to late to assess your situation, and make a course correction that will guide more butterflies into your garden.
I’m here to help you get down the basics, so your butterfly garden gets off to a flying start. If I was starting a new monarch butterfly garden, these are the essential tips, tools, and techniques I would implement to start seeing more monarchs this season.
If you have any questions after reading this post, please post them in comments at the bottom of this page. Now, let’s get your garden started…
Assess Your Situation
Before you start creating your monarch butterfly garden garden, it’s important to research some basic info to help guide your garden decisions.
1. Where do monarchs live?
Check out this helpful global distribution map to make sure it’s possible to get monarch butterflies in your region.
If you’re in the western U.S., check out western butterfly garden resources.
2. When are monarchs usually in your in your region?
Sightings maps from Journey North reveal where and when monarch sightings are reported. They even have archives of past seasons.
3. Discover Your Zone
The USDA has created a plant hardiness zone map to let you know what plants are appropriate to plant in your region. Some plants outside your zone can be treated as annuals.
4. Soil Conditions
Not all plants require the same soil conditions, but many butterfly plants prefer well-drained soil that’s rich in organic matter. Compost is an excellent additive for increasing organic matter in your soil. For plants with uncommon soil requirements you can amend the soil in that area, or consider potting the plant. Research soil requirements for all your plants. This gives you the best chance to grow thriving plants!
5. Sun to part Sun
While many sources say a butterfly garden should receive full sun, experience has shown me a variety of conditions is optimal. Some plants grow better in partial sun, and the butterflies may need refuge from the dog days of summer. Let’s say “mostly sunny with a side of shade.”
6. Light Breeze
Butterflies prefer areas with little to no wind. Make sure your garden isn’t a wind tunnel or the butterflies may blow right on by.
7. Make a plan
A butterfly garden plan doesn’t need to be anything elaborate, but think about some important details before grabbing your shovel.
- If you want to explore butterfly garden design layouts, try searching butterfly garden design layout images online, and then cater a plan to your specific needs.
- Do you plan to expand?
- How much time will you spend on your garden? (this will determine garden size and plant choices)
- Read this post for a full list of things to consider before starting your school butterfly garden (much applies to home gardening)
- Planting a field for Pollinators? Click here for more info
If you need more ideas and inspiration for your butterfly garden, sign up for our 100% free butterfly tips newsletter.
Make Way for Milkweed
Milkweed is the cornerstone of a successful butterfly garden and planting a mix of both native and non-invasive annuals will entice more monarchs to enter your garden gates. These varieties are utilized as both host plant for caterpillars and a nectar source for butterflies.
Tip: all milkweed varieties should be planted in groups of at least six plants. Otherwise, there is a good chance your monarch caterpillars will run out of milkweed!
1. Asclepias incarnata (swamp milkweed) offers pretty pink blooms and a sweet vanilla scent. It’s native across most of the US and parts of Canada:
2. Asclepias speciosa (showy milkweed) has deep pink, fragrant flowers with a star shaped white center. It’s native to the western half of the US and Canada:
3. Asclepias curassavica (Tropical Milkweed) serves double duty for the monarchs. It’s reported by many to be one of the most popular species for egg laying females. It’s also an extremely popular nectar source for late season monarchs in our northern region.
4. Ascelpias tuberosa (butterfly weed): this is a popular native milkweed grown throughout North America. While it’s reported by many to be a popular nectar plant, there are conflicting reports about whether monarch mamas bypass its rough, sapless leaves for smoother varieties.
Top Nectar Plants
Now that you’ve satisfied those hungry caterpillars, here are some nectar plants to give your garden instant butterfly appeal:
This native perennial unleashes pink blooms in mid-late summer that monarchs, other butterflies, and bees go wild over. I’ve heard positive reports on several species including Eutrochium purpureum (sweet joe pye weed) and Eutrochium maculatum’gateway’ (spotted joe pye weed), which we grow in Minnesota.
Reported across North America to be one of the most popular annuals for attracting monarchs, hummingbirds, and other precious pollinators like this sulphur butterfly:
3. Buddleia davidii (butterfly bushes)
These beautiful, long blooming perennials attract monarchs, hummingbirds, and many other butterflies. There is an ongoing (exhausting) argument about where these plants are invasive, and where they’re considered safe for planting.
For all the controversy, there are only two states in the Pacific Northwest where butterfly bush has been prohibited as an invasive species.
In recent years, sterile and non-invasive varieties have been created to allow butterflies (and gardeners) to enjoy these nectar flowers without the risk of crowding out native plants. I am suggesting two of the non-invasive varieties that I know attract butterflies.
Buddleja Buzz is compact, non-invasive and it attract butterflies. It’s also supposed to be more cold hardy for the north. It’s the only variety we’ve planted that hasn’t succumbed to Minnesota winter. Colder climates should mulch with leaves in fall, take fall cuttings, or overwinter to insure your crop.
Buzz comes in a variety of vibrant colors including purple, sky blue, white, hot raspberry, and more. Grows to 4 feet.
b. Buddleia davidii (Miss Molly Butterfly Bush)
This proven winner is also a non-invasive variety that butterflies love. It’s as close to a true red as butterfly bushes get. It’s a mid-sized variety that tops out around 6 feet. Gardeners I’ve talked to give Miss Molly rave reviews for both appearance and the power of attraction…
A tall verbena variety growing up to 6 feet. Frequently visited by monarchs, hummingbirds, bees and other pollinators. Has the potential to become invasive in warmer regions. A great annual for USDA hardiness zones 4-7!
5. Lantana camara (Ham n Eggs or Miss Huff)
Lantana camara is a tender perennial in the southern US. It’s also a popular annual for colder climates. It flowers all summer long, attracting monarchs and other pollinators. There are many different colors and cultivars.
If you want a hardier variety (cold hardy to zone 7) that attracts monarchs try Miss Huff. Most lantana varieties will attract butterflies, bees, and hummingbirds. Grape lantana is a trailing variety that tiger swallowtails can’t stay away from in our garden.
One of the top nectar attractor for monarchs I’ve seen. We have had as many as 60 butterflies in our patch at one time. Don’t substitute with another species of liatris or you’ll miss out on all the monarchs!
Tip: Plant at least 10 liatris together to host an amazing late summer feast for the butterflies.
For a full list of native and annual nectar flower options for your butterfly garden, visit our Butterfly Plants Resource Page
Potted plants save space and allow you to bring the butterflies closer for convenient viewing. We pot mostly tropical plants, so we can easily bring them indoors to overwinter…
This lets you start the season with large tropical plants! Lantana plants grow well in pots if you’re looking for ideas. You can also pot small perennials like May Night Salvia.
Containers are widely available locally, but if you’re looking for high quality, affordable containers check these out
Memorial Butterfly Garden
Many butterfly gardens are created as lasting tributes to someone special that is no longer with us including parents, military members who made the ultimate sacrifice, and children that have left this earth far too soon.
Butterflies represent positive transformation and freedom. Some believe that butterflies are the souls of the dearly departed fluttering in to say hello, and that they miss you too!
An additional idea for a memorial butterfly garden is to have a garden stone with a special tribute to the person that inspired your garden:
Monarch Watch is a non-profit organization that conducts research that promotes the conservation of monarch butterflies. Waystations are community-created monarch habitats throughout North America.
By registering and creating your own waystation, you’ll be helping the monarchs recover from devastating population loss over the past decade. I’m proud to own registered waystation #3972. I hope you too, join this dedicated community of monarch enthusiasts.
Starting a monarch butterfly garden is an exciting journey that yields great rewards if you’re patient and persistent. Start with the basics, and when you’re ready, I’m here to help take your garden to the next level.
Do you want to know more about attracting monarchs to your garden doorstep? Get more details in my 5 star rated butterfly gardening book: