May is for Monarchs!
How to Build a Monarch Habitat

by Tiara Chapman

Tiara Chapman

In the past two decades our State Insect, the monarch butterfly, has lost 165 million acres of habitat– that’s an area about the size of the Lone Star State itself.  In terms of food security, one in every three bites of food we eat is provided by a pollinator (like a monarch) doing its job in the ecosystem. Making sure pollinators have ample access to native food sources and host plants to support their offspring is not only important to the environment, it’s important for our plates!

Supporting pollinators, like monarchs, is as easy as planting a flower. You can help monarch conservation efforts right from your own backyard by creating a garden full of nectar-producing plants and milkweed they will love and visit year after year.  Check out our step-by-step guide to building a monarch habitat below.

Several Monarch Butterflies resting and feeding on tall yellow flowers in a field. Photo: IrinaK/Adobe stock photo
Several monarch butterflies resting and feeding on tall yellow flowers in a field. Photo: IrinaK/Adobe stock photo
  • How much room do you have? 

Whether you have 5 acres or a 5-foot balcony, creating a butterfly garden and making great monarch habitat is possible for just about any outdoor space! A healthy butterfly garden needs 3 things: good soil, good sunlight, and access to water. If your site has soil with heavy amounts of clay (i.e., the soil packs down in the rain and forms a thick mud) you may want to use containers, build a raised bed, or mix in compost into the bed to help loosen it. Most of the nectar-producing plants that adult monarchs love require full sun. On a bright day, note how much sunlight the area where you want to plant is exposed to. Be sure the area gets at least 4 to 6 hours of sunlight a day. Your plants (or seeds) will need a helping hand settling into your landscape so you may want to pick a site close to a reliable source of water, whether that be a garden hose where you water by hand or an area equipped with irrigation. 

  • Choose the right plants

Monarch caterpillars need milkweed to grow into adult butterflies. And they need a lot of it! and a typical caterpillar will grow to about 2000 times their hatch size before forming a chrysalis. Some great milkweed species for these very hungry caterpillars include the Antelope Horn milkweed, Asclepias asperula, and Green milkweed, Asclepias viridis.

Finding milkweed plants and seeds can be difficult. Thankfully our Conservation Partner, the Native Plant Society of Texas, has a special program to help you source local nurseries with NICE plants for monarch habitats! Their Natives Improve & Conserve Environments (NICE) Native Plant Partner program educates the public on the value of native plants as well as partners with local nurseries and wholesalers to ensure native plants are available for purchase.

For more information about sourcing, growing, and propagating milkweed, our Conservation Partner, Monarch Joint Venture has a vendor map and guides that will help you build a perfect monarch habitat! Click here to check out their resources.

Adult monarchs are less particular about their food sources. They are attracted to any nectar-producing flower, so while you are at a NICE nursery, be sure to ask which blooming plants are best for your area. However keep an eye out for perennials that will bloom in the spring, summer, or fall. Some great examples include lantanas, butterfly weed (Asclepias tuberosa), salvias, verbena, yarrows, and goldenrod. No matter what remember, if you start with Texas native plants you’re guaranteed to end with a successful butterfly garden!

Green milkweed in bloom Credit: Tiara Chapman
Green milkweed in bloom Credit: Tiara Chapman
  • Plot out your plant layout and get digging!

Now that you know what you want to plant and where it should go, it’s time to get outside!

You’ll need a few tools to get started:

  • Shovel or garden hoe
  • Hand trowel or hand shovel 
  • Gardening gloves
  • Water hose
  • Mulch

Depending on what part of the state you live in, you may be planting directly into the ground, using raised beds, or growing in containers. Our partner, the Native Plant Society of Texas has an ecoregion map of Texas and plant lists for each area that you can use to decide the best way to plant your garden. Click here to check it out!

A repurposed wheelbarrow used to make a beautiful butterfly garden. Credit: Buchanan's Plants
A repurposed wheelbarrow used to make a beautiful butterfly garden. Credit: Buchanan’s Plants

If you are planting in a raised bed or container, prepare the bed by filling the space with a 50-50 mix of compost and garden soil. Next, take your garden hose and lightly spray down the soil so that it is evenly moist.

If you are planting directly into the ground, preparing the bed will require two additional steps:

First, remove the existing vegetation from your garden space. Take a shovel or a garden hoe and outline the entire area where your habitat will be. Then use those same tools to remove all the vegetation from the area. Working in sections, scrape along 2-3 inches deep into the ground and dig up the grass with its root structure.

Shovelful of turfgrass. Credit: Adobe Stock
Shovelful of turfgrass. Credit: Adobe Stock
  • Next, you can use a tiller to break up the ground or plant in holes dug individually.    

Now that the bed is prepared for planting, arrange your plants along the space the way you want them. It’s important to give them room to grow out and up, so read the label instructions to ensure proper distancing. Aesthetically, you can place taller growing varieties along the edge or in the center depending on your view of the space, and plant milkweed in the interior so it won’t be as noticeable when caterpillars chew them down. With your hand trowel, dig a hole as deep as the plant’s original plastic nursery container. Take your plant out of that container and gently loosen the root structure over the hole you dug.

Carefully hold the plant by its base in one hand, centered on the hole and level with the ground, where the roots are lying in the center of the hole. With your other hand or hand shovel, fill in the space with the excess soil. Once the hole is filled, press down around the base of the plant so that the roots make good contact with the soil. Once finished planting everything, give your new monarch habitat a good soaking with the garden hose. Lastly, add a thick layer of mulch to keep the garden hydrated as it gets established. 

  • Get creative

You can level up your monarch habitat in a few different ways! Incorporate some nature art with a natural fairy lodge house. Those structures make great supports for monarch chrysalises. Give pollinators a break from the Texas sun by adding an insect watering station. The habitat is a living ecosystem, so keep a video journal of what you planted, how it performed over the year, how many monarchs you noticed in it, and other details that will help it grow and thrive. For inspiration and more ideas for your garden, make plans to visit our Conservation Partner, the National Butterfly Center during their October 2024 Texas Butterfly Festival!

 Fairy house in a forest constructed out of twigs, bark, and pine boughs. Credit: Coastal Maine Botanical Gardens
Fairy house in a forest constructed out of twigs, bark, and pine boughs. Credit: Coastal Maine Botanical Gardens
  • Certify your habitat

Our Conservation Partners would love to celebrate what Texans are doing to help monarch butterflies! Click the links below to learn more about how to add your efforts to national databases that amplify how we do conservation in the Lone Star State.       

Monarchs nectaring on Gregg's mistflower Credit: Tiara Chapman
Monarchs nectaring on Gregg’s mistflower Credit: Tiara Chapman

Learn more and become a Texas Monarch Steward
Our partner’s program, the National Wildlife Federation Monarch Stewards Certification in Texas will equip you with the skills and knowledge to create native gardens for monarchs, to educate and inspire others to conserve monarchs, and to even become a Monarch Citizen Scientist if you want!

Our vision is for every business and every Texan to participate in conservation and for Texas to be a model of collaborative conservation for the world. 

By using this how-to guide to create monarch habitat, not only are you making their journey that much easier, you are also bringing us one step closer to achieving our vision. Together, we are rising to the challenge of natural resource conservation and helping our State Insect, the monarch butterfly, take to the skies once more!

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