A Monarch Butterfly Garden is a great way to experience nature from the comfort of your home. The orange-and-black winged beauties of the natural world are a special creature to enjoy. They remind me of my childhood, I was always so excited to see one and I still am.
Growing up in the Midwest, seeing a monarch ride the thermal waves meant warmer days ahead. After a cold, harsh winter, it brought a sigh of relief. Singing birds, monarch butterflies, and the sweet smell of flowers blossoming, spring is here.
Creating the monarch butterfly garden of your dreams is easy to do, and can be done with only a few items. It doesn’t take much to give them a little sanctuary of their own. Plus, who doesn’t want more butterflies in their garden?
Life Cycle of a Monarch
The life cycle of a monarch butterfly consists of several stages. Before reaching adulthood, they must survive the egg, larva (caterpillar), and pupa (chrysalis) stages. They live for an average of two to six weeks, except for the last migrating generation; which we will talk about more in a later section.
A female monarch will lay about 100 to 300 eggs during her lifetime. The eggs are about as big as the tip of a ball point pen, and are a cream/light-yellow color. Monarchs will only lay their eggs on the leaves of a plant called Milkweed.
After an egg is laid, it takes about 3-4 days to hatch and then the baby caterpillar enters the Larva stage.
Once the babies hit the larva stage, they are fast-growing. They eat tons of milkweed each day at this stage. They also poop a lot, I mean, it is everywhere. You will know you have caterpillars if your milkweed has vanished and you find tons of little poo everywhere.
In this stage, they also shed their skin at least five time before they can move on to chrysalis. This is called molting. They need to do this in order to make room to keep growing. You probably won’t see any molts in your garden because they usually eat it.
This is when big things start to happen. The larva stage is complete, and the caterpillars are ready to become a beautiful monarch butterfly. Each caterpillar wanders to find their own perfect spot to form their cocoon.
Once formed, it will be a bright green color with some gold markings. They are lovely. As it gets closer to emerging, the chrysalis will become clear and you can see the pattern on their wings through the chrysalis.
The egg turned larvae, turned chrysalis, and is now an adult butterfly. Once at the adult stage, it’s time for them to lay eggs of the next generation. This cycle happens over and over and over again, and then ever-so-suddenly — winter is coming.
The last generation of butterflies have not developed their ability to reproduce yet. They are in what’s called a reproductive diapause. They are not able to lay the next generation before the frost. It’s time to head to safety in California, Florida, and the Sierra Madre Mountains in Mexico.
The Monarch Migration
Monarchs are known for their great migration each year from the US & Canada to Mexico. Some butterflies travel up to 3,000 miles on their journey. They are the only species of butterfly (that we know of), that does a two-way migration just like birds do.
Eastern North American monarchs start heading south in late August. Each group of butterflies take a different flight path to their destination. When they are heading to Mexico, all the migrators eventually end up on the same flight path in Central Texas.
While on the way, tens of thousands cluster together at night to stay warm in the forests. They usually finding a large tree where they can all fit together and be warm all night long.
When they arrive, they spend the winter in Mexico. Finally they can rest after the long trip and develop their ability to reproduce by early spring.
Did you know? The monarchs that migrate to Mexico are the only generation that have a life span of up to 9 months. The previous generations earlier in the season only live for about 2-6 weeks.
In late March, it is time to start heading back to North America. It can take up to 3-4 generations of butterflies before they reach Canada and the Northern US.
This happens year after year, and each summer we are blessed to see them in our yards.
I find it so incredible that year after year, these butterflies find their way to Mexico. They have never been before — only generations before them have. Yet the evolutionary force inside them is so strong, they know the way.
Unfortunately, the migrating butterflies are in trouble. There has been a loss of natural habitat along the migration trail due to pesticides, infrastructure building, disease and more.The loss of milkweed, the most important plant for the monarch, is threatening the species.
Food Sources and Habitat
Milkweed is important because it is the only food source for the monarch larvae. And it’s the only place adults will lay their eggs. Caterpillars eat tons and tons of milkweed when they are growing in their larvae stage. If they don’t have enough milk weed, they will not be able to make it to their chrysalis stage.
Why Do Monarch Larvae Only Eat Milkweed?
Monarch larvae only eat milkweed because it is also their defense mechanism. There is a mix of chemical compounds in milkweed which makes them poisonous to predators.
Milkweed contains a cardiac poison that affects vertebrates (or animals with a backbone). So when predators ingest the caterpillar full of toxins, it can be fatal.
What Do Adult Monarch Butterflies Eat?
Adult monarchs do not eat milkweed at this stage of life. Now, they are reliant on the nectar of flowers. They source their nectar from a variety of different flowers.
I will dive deeper in this topic in a section below.
Do Monarch Butterflies Drink Water?
Yes, but they prefer to soak water up from places like rocks, dirt, mud, etc. There is a term for this called Puddling.
What is Puddling?
Puddling is when a monarch butterfly drinks from puddles or moist soil. They do not drink pure water, for good reason. Most of their nutrition comes from nectar, but they are missing some key minerals. Minerals and salt not found in the nectar can be found in the soil or puddles that they puddle in.
Where Can I Find Monarch Butterflies?
Well, to be broad, you can find monarchs pretty much anywhere you can find milkweed. Whether it be on the side of the road, in a park, or in your backyard — if it’s the season and there is milkweed, you bet you can find some eggs.
More specifically though, monarchs are found in North America (USA and Canada), Mexico, South America, and the Caribbean.
In the Eastern and Western parts of the US, you can find monarchs from May to the end of August. They don’t stay long, so enjoy it while it lasts. Although if you’re in the southern part of the US like Florida, monarchs will hang around all year.
How to Create Your Own Monarch Butterfly Garden
Now that you know more about monarchs than the average person, it’s time for the fun part! Finally, you get to make your own monarch butterfly sanctuary. My garden has provided me with so much joy since I started it, I hope yours will do the same!
Why Should I Have My Own Monarch Butterfly Garden?
Whatever your reason may be, a monarch butterfly garden is always a great idea. It’s awesome for helping the environment and great for your mental health!
Giving monarchs a place where they have a one-stop-shop for everything they need can be crucial. Imagine flying around all day, hungry, thirsty, and exhausted. Then you stumble across milkweed, nectar flowers, native plants, a puddling station, and a warm basking spot at your disposal. That will be one happy butterfly.
What You Need to Make Your Own Monarch Butterfly Garden:
– 6-10 milkweed plants
– Nectar flowers (organic, chemical-free)
– Native plants (organic, chemical-free)
– A planter saucer, shallow dish, or bird feeder
– Small bag of sand
– 1/2 cup compost, organic chemical-free soil, or natural sea salt
– Flat rock, brick, or tile
– Water (preferably non-chlorinated)
Where Should You Plant Your Garden?
Any sunny or partly shaded area will be a great location for your monarch butterfly garden. If you take care of the plants well, more than likely the monarchs will come. I would also recommend putting it in an area that is not very windy.
What Are the Best Plants to Attract Monarchs?
Like I mentioned before, milkweed is crucial to the survival of monarchs. They also need nectar plants when they reach adulthood. Native plants are also a great choice to include in your garden.
I would like to mention that it is important to only use plants that have not been sprayed with chemicals or pesticides. Big box stores will usually spray their plants. I recommend supporting your favorite local nursery for the plants you will use in your monarch garden.
Milkweed (Different Types of Milkweed)
There are over 100 different varieties of milkweed in the US. It depends on your location and what you can find, in order to know what you should get. However, they only really like about a fourth of the milkweed species.
Out of the hundred species of milkweed, monarchs strongly prefer the following:
- Clasping Milkweed
- Western Sand Milkweed
- Spider Antelope Horns Milkweed
- Mexican Butterfly Weed
- Engelmenn’s Milkweed
- Narrowleaf Milkweed
- Tall Green Milkweed
- Swamp Milkweed
- Broadleaf Milkweed
- Oval-leaf Milkweed
- Plains Milkweed
- Purple Milkweed
- Fourleaf Milkweed
- Showy Milkweed
- Narrow-leaved Milkweed
- Sullivant’s milkweed
- Common Milkweed
- Butterfly Weed
- Redring Milkweed
- Green Comet Milkweed
- Green Milkweed
Any of these species are a great choice for hosting monarch larvae.
When it comes to nectar plants, not everyone has access to the same plants in their area. A flower you can find in Florida, you might not be able to find in South Dakota. It all depends.
There are some great resources to help choose nectar plants based on location. These guides were created with information from technical reports, monarch researchers, botanists, research datasets and more.
Find what nectar plants you should add to your garden based on location:
- Southern Plains
- Rocky Mountains
- Maritime Northwest
- Inland Northwest
- Great Basin
Native plants, like nectar plants, are also location-based. This is great tool that will tell you the native plants in your area. All you have to do is type in your zip code, it’s super easy.
Now that you know how to decide what plants you need in your garden, let’s talk about some of the other essentials.
Provide a Water/Mineral Source
Like I mentioned before, monarchs puddle. To set up a puddling station, you can do it a few different ways.
If you don’t have a lot of space, you can use a saucer for the bottom of a flower pot. You can use anything that will hold about an inch of substrate.
You could also use a bird bath if you have one lying around.
Now, you can add some sand to the bottom of your container. You only need about an inch or so. The reason we need sand is because it is great at holding moisture. The butterflies won’t get many minerals from the sand, so we have to add some other sources of minerals. You can either add some compost, chemical-free soil, or natural sea salt to the sand. Mix it up a bit with your hands and pat down lightly. Now, pour about 2 cups of water over the mixutre, or just until moist. You don’t want it to be soaking wet, just moist.
There you have it, the perfect puddling station.
Provide a Basking Spot to Warm Up
Monarchs need to be warm in order to fly, so providing them with a heat source is ideal. A flat rock is always a good choice for a basking spot. You could even use a piece of tile, wood, or whatever you can find that will absorb a little heat in the sun.
Arranging Your Monarch Butterfly Garden
Once you have gathered all your materials for the garden, it is really up to you how to arrange it. I keep everything relatively close together and they hang out in the same spot for a bit. If you would like to see activity all over the yard, you could spread it out more.
I have had great success with a 5’x8′ patio that is partly shaded. I see a monarch at least 5x a day here in Florida. Sometimes, if I’m lucky, there will be two or three hanging out at the same time.
I hope you learned a thing or two about the beautiful monarch butterfly. They are truly fantastic, and we should make every effort to help them thrive.
Once you create your garden, you may receive a bounty of baby caterpillars all over your milkweed. More than you know what to do with. You have the option to raise them yourself, or let them go off on their own when they’re ready to make their chrysalis. If you would like to learn how to raise a monarch caterpillar, I will be doing another post about that soon, stay tuned for that.
It is really fun to watch them go through their life cycles. It is also a great science project for the kids, and they can definitely learn a lot from this activity.
All the monarchs really need are milkweed of any species listed above, nectar plants, a puddling station, and a basking rock.
With those items, you’re sure to attract monarchs to your garden. Sit back, relax, and watch the show.
“U.S. Forest Service.” Forest Service Shield, www.fs.fed.us/wildflowers/pollinators/Monarch_Butterfly/migration/.
U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. “The Monarch Super Generation and Their Phenomenal Migration.” U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, www.fws.gov/midwest/news/SuperGeneration.html.
“U.S. Forest Service.” Forest Service Shield, www.fs.fed.us/wildflowers/pollinators/Monarch_Butterfly/habitat/.
“U.S. Forest Service.” Forest Service Shield, www.fs.fed.us/wildflowers/pollinators/Monarch_Butterfly/biology/.