7 Tips for a Successful Monarch Butterfly Pollinator Garden

A monarch butterfly prepares to fly after emerging from its chrysalis.

Story and Photos by Levi Novey

Last year my family and I set out to create a pollinator garden specifically with the goal of helping monarch butterflies. While we had gardening experience, we had never aimed to create habitat for monarchs using milkweed, their host plant. Here are some of my biggest tips based on our experience:

1) Select the best type of milkweed for your space.

If you didn’t know there is more than one species of milkweed, you are not alone! Picking from the diversity of species can be overwhelming initially, but there are websites to help. Although there are lots of options, the truth is that you probably are only going to have 3–4 primary native types that are easily available to you in your region.

Things to consider:

  • What grows natively in your area or region
  • The amount of sun where you are planting (sunny, shady, in between)
  • Soil conditions (dry, wet, in between)

I found this website to be one of the most helpful for my own gardening plan. But please also read this important information about tropical milkweed.

Ultimately, we planted four types of milkweed, but mostly the variety known as common milkweed. My personal gardening approach has always been to experiment with planting where I want to and see how things go. But I do consider the factors that might help or doom my project. Foolhardy perhaps, but in this case our project mostly worked out.

The garden wasn’t much to look at initially when planted in late April. Squirrels, birds, rabbits, and chipmunks all took turns digging up or knocking over the seedlings, so it required some daily care to keep things growing right.

2) You need more milkweed than you think.

One of the biggest mistakes people probably make in gardening for monarchs is not getting enough plants. One or two milkweed plants probably won’t do. Remember that this is what the caterpillars will solely eat for several days. While numbers vary, one study indicates that on average 28.5 stems of milkweed are needed to produce one migratory monarch. Remember that milkweed plants can have multiple stems, but this is still probably more plants than you were originally thinking.

A bee enjoys the nectar of swamp milkweed.

Locate milkweed and how many plants you need

Where are you going to find all of this milkweed? You can try local stores, nurseries, nature centers, local garden club sales, or order seeds and plants online. You might discover that milkweed is not as readily available as you would think it would be, because monarch butterflies are so awesome, right?

I ended up negotiating with a vendor at a local native plant sale and bought all of the remaining common milkweed seedlings he had. Later I ended up buying several swamp milkweed plants that were already flowering to bolster the immediate appeal of the garden. Are you thinking I was impatient? Guilty as charged. But it was worth it! The swamp milkweed plants ended up being the “Main Street” of our garden. They were the cool place to hang out. Bees, butterflies, ants, flies, and other insects all wanted to see and taste what the fuss was about.

Following swamp milkweed, New England aster was the next most popular nectar plant in our garden.

3. Don’t Stop at Milkweed, Plant Other Nectar Plants

You need a lot of milkweed. But you also want to make sure that adult butterflies and other insects have flowers to feed them nectar. Choosing native species is my recommendation. Also choose plants that flower at different times of the year (early spring, late spring, early summer, late summer, early fall, late fall) so that something in the garden is always visually appealing to you and the wildlife you are trying to attract.

Get a diversity of nectar plants to go with the milkweed. Make sure that they are native species and check when they bloom.

That being said, I’ll admit it: the fantasy I had of a butterfly paradise where butterflies were constantly flying around and impressing the neighbors was a far cry from the reality of what our garden was like for most of the summer. So getting this balance right should pay dividends, if you want to see butterflies and other insects more often in your yard. I might have underestimated the number of nectar plants I needed to complement the milkweed.

While they are beautiful, milkweed bugs soon appeared and took over our garden.
They really enjoy each others’ company and it leads to big families.
A closeup of a milkweed bug cluster. Numerous clusters like this one were all over our plants at one point.

4) You will likely have to deal with pests.

Monarchs and other butterflies will not be the only animals that like your garden. We dealt with both aphids and an overabundance of milkweed bugs on our plants. After seeking advice online, we took action in a variety of ways, including brushing off the insects manually from time to time, spraying them with soapy water, and releasing ladybugs we bought online to eat the aphids.

Make a plan to protect your investment and deal with pests and infestations at different stages of the garden’s growth.

Ladybugs devour aphids that invaded our garden.

If you’ve invested time and money in your garden, you will struggle like we did to stand by as other insects benefit from your efforts. Leading me to…

By mid-July our garden looked terrific and was close to what we had envisioned!

5) Be realistic with your time and budget.

In all honesty, gardening for monarchs can be expensive and time-consuming. Unless you have incredible discipline, you will probably get lazier like we did in the later summer months with maintenance tasks associated with your pollinator garden. You will also need to water your garden in the early stages quite a bit, which could run up your water bill. I am going to try using some seeds this year in one part of my yard and see if nature takes care of itself. Maybe we’ll get lucky. Perhaps you could too! But like most things in life, my guess is that effort pays off.

6) Be patient and enjoy all of the other insects that enjoy the garden!

By the middle of the summer, I really began to think we had failed with our garden. We did not see any monarch caterpillars until early September. This might have been because of where we live on the migratory route of monarchs (Northern Virginia). Another explanation could have been because we did not have enough flowering and nectar plants to attract monarchs to our garden.

One of the few monarchs we witnessed visiting our garden during August. We did not know if these adults were laying eggs.
Success! In September we found six caterpillars that were enjoying tasty meals of milkweed.

Our pollinator garden eventually had six monarch caterpillars, but it was just as enjoyable to observe all of the other insects that used the garden along the way! I love taking photographs, so it provided me with hours of entertainment throughout the year. Finishing out the active season with the monarch caterpillars and their successful metamorphosis was the icing on the cake.

Ants form an interesting circle on a leaf. Numerous butterflies dropped in.
It’s really tiny, but look at the beautiful design and colors of this leafhopper.
A sweat bee with a beautiful metallic green color.

7) Recruit your neighbors to join the fun!

A sequence of photos shows the metamorphosis of an individual monarch over 14 days. The chrysalis becomes black and translucent in the moments right before the adult monarch hatches.

After having success this past year, I’m feeling greedy now. Why aim to make just our yard a butterfly paradise when we could have a whole neighborhood of monarchs?

Many people are not aware that monarch butterflies are in trouble and have such a unique, fascinating life cycle. Getting the opportunity to watch the metamorphosis of any butterfly species is awesome, but because monarchs migrate such long distances, they are a standout.

My guess is that your neighbors will probably want to get in on the action too. If they are skeptical, you can also lead them to our popular story: “Sharing Milkweed, Not Myths.” Offering your monarch gardening tips and wisdom will go a long way in helping to make your neighborhood an even more awesome place to live.

This is the monarch that hatched shown in the photos above. We were so proud to have helped this monarch and five others on their journeys!

As a U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service employee who gets to work on our monarch conservation initiative, I wanted more first-hand knowledge of what it takes to successfully create and enjoy monarch habitat in my own yard. Our website has resources about monarchs which provide a good overview on the butterfly, as well as an overview of how to build a pollinator garden. However, like me and my family, you can only know whether it works once you’ve dived into the trenches of monarch conservation yourself. Hope that you find these tips to be useful and good luck!

Levi Novey, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service International Affairs Program