Creating a Monarch Friendly Home Garden

Monarch caterpillar eating swan plant (milkweed) leaf

Thinking about making your garden a more monarch friendly? It’s currently prime time for monarchs in our part of New Zealand, and today kicks off our monarch mini-series. Over the coming weeks, I’ll share activities (and learnings) from our own monarch friendly garden. Specifically, we’ll be posting about making your garden a welcoming place for monarch butterflies to lay eggs and grow the next generation. First up, we’ll look at the planning and preliminary planting stage.

Monarch butterfly feeding on flower

Attracting Adult Butterflies to the Garden

Butterflies, Babies, or Both?

The primary focus of my monarch garden is raising babies, but before you can have caterpillars you need adult butterflies. Preferably, healthy reproducing adult butterflies. The types of plants that adult monarchs enjoy are commonly enjoyed by many other varieties of butterfly, as well as bees and other pollinators. Bonus!

If you want to encourage transient monarch butterflies, but don’t want the joyful hassle of caterpillars, skip the swan plants.  Monarch females lay their eggs exclusively on suitable varieties of swan plants and milkweed. This gives their offspring immediate access to their preferred food source. No swan plants means no eggs or caterpillars. You may be less likely to see butterflies, but you can still try to attract transients with other plantings.  

Creating a Garden for Adult Butterflies

Monarch caterpillars are all about their swan plants, but adult butterflies have a very different diet. They love a nectar-rich flower garden. Nectar gives butterflies the energy required to fly, mate, and lay eggs. To encourage the presence of monarchs (and other beneficial insects), you can create a butterfly-friendly garden. See our post on gardening for bees, birds, and butterflies for ideas.

Benefits for Baby Monarchs

Everyone likes a good feed! The more healthy happy monarchs there in your area, the more likely you are to successfully attract an egg-laying female monarch (or several) visit your swan plants and lay eggs. Now you’re on your way to raising babies!  The butterfly garden will also provide a safe place for your laying females to rest and refuel between egg deposits. Monarch females often flutter away for breaks between laying, sometimes stopping for refreshments. And who could blame them?

If you’re successful in having eggs hatch and caterpillars grow into adult monarch butterflies, the garden will also provide a starting point for your newly hatched butterflies. After eclosion, the garden will be a place to feed and rest before setting off on their adventures.

Monarch butterfly on flowering shrub

Growing Swan Plants (Milkweed) for Monarchs

Planting swan plants (milk weed) is like lighting up a giant monarch homing beacon in your garden. Grow it and (as long as you have butterflies in your area) they will come.  It is the essential element for encouraging monarchs to lay eggs in your garden and for feeding hatched caterpillars.

There is a detailed post on growing swan plants (milkweed) for monarchs in our archives, so I won’t repeat the details on selecting and growing milkweed here. I will share a few note on how we try and keep up with our very hungry guests!

Planning Swan Plant Planting Locations

Caterpillars are VERY voracious eaters. It takes a lot of food to foster young caterpillars from egg to chrysalis. It’s better to have an oversupply of lovely leafy swan plant than to have starving caterpillars. On the flip side, munched up plants aren’t very pretty. Look for a position where they’re somewhat discrete or can be masked with foreground plantings. 

Our in-ground plants are scattered in groupings around the periphery of the large potager area of our garden. It’s visually sheltered, but also frequently visited and tended, so a great fit. Potted plants are a little easier to manage through ugly spells by moving positions, if needed.

Pots vs. In Ground Plantings

We’re lucky that climate and conditions allow a lot of flexibility on what we grow and where. I’ve found having some potted plants very useful, but they do require significantly more watering and attention than in-ground plants during summer, and are more vulnerable as our temperatures cool.

To help with supply vs. demand, we currently keep separate groupings of milkweed. Some plants are openly available to female butterflies for egg laying (the nursery), but one area is often fully insect netted for added safety (the caterpillar buffet). We use a combination of in-ground plants and pots for the nursery, but I prefer using in ground plants for the buffet where possible. In my garden, these are usually substantially larger than the potted offerings. They’re also less vulnerable to fluctuations in ambient conditions which can affect the milkweed and sap for feeding.

Swan plant (milkweed) growing in pots

The Nursery (Egg Laying and Hatching)

The nursery/buffet approach supports natural attraction, egg laying, and hatching of caterpillars, but also imposes a degree of control on numbers and increases the probability that some will make it successfully to become butterflies. We allow all of our caterpillars to remain outside using protective covering to reduce predators.  To maximise egg-to-butterfly success, some folks like to raise caterpillars indoors, especially in less favourable climates and conditions.

At any given time, a portion of our plants aren’t netted unless we’re worried about food shortages. This allows female butterflies open access for laying, and allows us easy access to check for eggs and young caterpillars. It does, however, leave those eggs and caterpillars vulnerable to predators. 

This accessible nursery group of plants includes both in-ground plants and potted milkweed. We can move the potted plants around the garden if/as needed to further disperse the plants (reduce pest/predator risks, increase egg-laying appeal, etc.). It’s very handy to have some mobility/flexibility for egg-laying control, food reserves, transporting caterpillars, and more.

The Buffet (Caterpillar Development)

If I’ve netted to deter pests, the netted swan plants are no longer accessible for laying and becomes a VIP caterpillar buffet. Some of our young caterpillars are relocated from the hatchery to the netted caterpillar buffet to gorge and grow in safety. For netting, I currently use a Popadome mesh garden tent with a fine insect mesh overlay. This covering prevents additional egg laying in the buffet area. It also helps to protect the lucky relocated caterpillars from the majority of our local predators. Check out our post on monarch caterpillar pests and predator protection for the full details.

Swan plant (milkweed) growing under insect netting

Netted Swan Plants and Caterpillar Care

Netting makes it a trickier to keep the plants fed, watered, and clean (caterpillars are messy guests), but the tent-like structure is pretty accommodating and easy to open, shift, or lift completely when needed. To prevent overcrowding and reduce the risk of disease, periodic pruning is also needed.

Good news on the pruning front, though. Swan plant cuttings are long lasting and caterpillars seem to munch as happily on healthy cuttings as they do plants. When I remove healthy growth to encourage plants to bush out or prevent plants in the netted buffet area from outgrowing their coverings, I often put cuttings in water and keep them briefly with the food plants. As an added bonus, the cuttings will often (in my experience) set roots, which I can plant to expand our supply or gift to others.

Creating a Monarch Friendly Home Garden

You might also enjoy: