Monarch butterflies are among the most fascinating of nature’s creatures. Yet, because of climate change, global warming, excessive use of herbicides, and illegal logging in Mexico, the monarch butterfly population is declining. Over this past summer, I have realized that I can harness my efforts in my New Jersey garden to help increase the monarch population, and in this article, I want to share what I have learned about butterfly gardening, and I will outline how other people  can turn your their own gardens into monarch breeding grounds, too.

My garden is a heavily planted Cottage Garden, which is a natural-looking, free-form style of gardening. While cottage gardens might make those who prefer formal gardens shudder, cottage gardening has been around at least since the Renaissance, and cottage gardens are ideal for doubling as butterfly breeding grounds.

Which Comes First, the Butterfly or the Egg?

Many people know that monarch butterflies lay their eggs on milkweed plants, and they might assume that if they simply buy a milkweed plant, they will have turned their garden into a monarch breeding habitat. But that is not entirely true.

Step 1: Begin with a Garden that is Filled with Nectar-Rich Flowers

It is true that milkweed plants are the essential food for monarch caterpillars, but adult monarchs are initially attracted to a spot that is filled with nectar-producing flowers. When it is time for a monarch mother to lay her eggs, she will only lay them on milkweed plants, but the rest of the time, adult monarchs need flowers that are rich with nectar.

Butterflies love to sip from butterfly bushes, and I always have a butterfly bush in my garden, and I also have a Chaste tree, which is like a large and prolific butterfly bush that has clusters of blue flowers.

Butterflies also love to sip the nectar of coneflowers or echinacea. At the end of the post, I’ll include a plan that names the plants needed for a Butterfly Garden. In the following video, you see bees sipping nectar from the zinnias that are blooming next to one of my milkweed plants

Step 2: Be Sure that Your Garden Has Flowering Plants for at Least 3 Seasons

In a cottage garden, a large variety of plants are crowded together and are allowed to grow as naturally and as freely as possible. Vegetable and flowers are often grown side by side, and because the flowering plants are close to each other, pollination is simple. In my cottage garden, something is blooming almost all year long, and because butterflies breed and produce caterpillars several times during the gardening season, they require nectar-producing flowers as long as nature will permit. At the end of the post, I’ll also include a 3-Season Flower Garden Plan.

Step 3:  Be Sure that There Are Plenty of Milkweed Plants in Your Garden.

I Grow Several Types of Milkweed

Swamp Milkweed is a hardy perennial in most garden zones, and you can plant it in your garden and leave it there over winter. I have the Incarta variety of swamp milkweed [above photo], and it is pink. Another variety of swamp milkweed is more purplish.

North America’s native milkweed crops are not as prolific as they once were.

 

Monarch caterpillars must eat milkweed leaves and by the time that the season’s final generation of butterflies are hatched, my first milkweed plants were no longer blooming. The caterpillars don’t need the blooms. They only eat the milkweed plant’s leaves. During the winter, I will bring my tropical milkweed plants inside, and will take cuttings from them to create new milkweed plants. In order to stagger the blooming season of my milkweed, I will try to stagger the starting time of the new milkweed plants.  If I have milkweed blooming over an extended period of time, I have the milkweed nectar to attract the adult butterflies to a plant that will also be an appropriate place to lay their eggs, but it is more important to have milkweed leaves for the caterpillars.

 I also grow tropical milkweed in planters that I take inside for the winter.

Early in the spring, I bought a tropical milkweed plant. The plant was about 3’tall, and it was already blooming, and I paid $30.00 for it.  The cost of the plant almost scared me away.

Image result for hummingbird tropical milkweed

For the first month or two, I only noticed hummingbirds and bees feeding from my tropical milkweed plant, but late in July, I began to notice that monarchs were hanging around, too. I never saw many monarchs assembled together, and they never hovered very long.  In fact, I was disappointed by my monarch community, and I simply gave up on the idea of butterfly gardening and quit watching my milkweed plant.

By the end of August, however, I noticed that my milkweed seemed to be dying. It had lost most of its leaves, and then I spotted my first monarch caterpillar.

Step 4: Be Sure That You Have Water for Your Adult Monarchs to Drink

In the preceding video, you see caterpillars in my garden and also a monarch chrysallis that has formed.

Before they enter the chrysalis stage, the monarch Bbutterfly caterpillars suspend themselves upside down from a silken cable that they spin

On September 3, 2017, I noticed that one of the caterpillars had moved into the hanging, J-like position. On Septer 5, 2017, that caterpillar was encased in his chrysalis.

Monarchs mate several times each summer, and they normally live from two to six weeks. However, the last of the season’s butterflies are born stronger, and they live long enough to migrate thousands of miles to Mexico, where they spend their winters. Although milkweed has been in my yard all summer, it appears that the butterflies did not reproduce in my garden until the last of the season’s matings. By that time, the milkweed blooms were gone, and I only had milkweed leaves. My main nectar-producing flowers in late autumn are asters, zinnias, and perennial cranesbill geraniums. To effectively breed monarch butterflies, you will need to plant a 3-season garden that is filled with the kinds of flowers that butterlies like and you will also need plenty of milkweed leaves all season long.

©Jacki Kellum September 10, 2017

Better Homes and Gardens provides free garden plans, check out their plans for a butterfly garden and for a 3-season garden.

Free Butterfly Garden Plan from bhg.com

You don’t have to follow this exact plan, but if you grow these plants in your garden and if you plant them closely, you will have butterflies.

Notice that the plan calls for a water source. I have several birdbaths and a pond in my garden. The butterflies frequent my birdbaths more than the birds.

This plan calls for Butterfly Weed, which is not the same thing as Tropical Milkweed. I suggest planting Butterfly Weed and buying a Tropical Milkweed, too. The Butterfly Weed is hardy, but the Tropical Milkweed will not withstand winters in most of the USA.

=

Free Butterfly Garden Plan from bhg.com

You don’t have to follow this exact plan, but if you grow these plants in your garden and if you plant them closely, you will have butterflies.

Notice that the plan calls for a water source. I have several birdbaths and a pond in my garden. The butterflies frequent my birdbaths more than the birds.