Raising Monarchs: Get Started, Plant Milkweed

Last year I became obsessed with monarch caterpillars, which led to lots of blog posts! Now I’ve got friends asking me how they can raise monarchs at home so I’m going to write a couple simple ‘tutorials’ to help folks get started. Please note that I am not an expert but I will try to explain the basics clearly as I share some of my techniques, successful and otherwise, and also provide links where you can learn more. This post tells you a bit about attracting monarchs to your garden by planting milkweed. At the bottom are links to a few favorite sites where you can find milkweed for your home garden.

Tiny Baby Monarch Cataerpillar (1st Instar)
Tiny Baby Monarch Cataerpillars (1st and 2nd Instar)

I started raising monarch butterflies last spring and it is hard to imagine ever stopping. I don’t know why it is so addictive but I was hooked the moment I spotted my first caterpillar. Well, to be honest, I almost squished him because I had just gotten the milkweed from the nursery and wasn’t expecting babies so soon. Lucky for both of us I got down on hands and knees for a close-up and that’s when I noticed his little stripey pants. So cute! It seems the eggs were already on the milkweed when I bought it so within a week I was loaded up with freshly hatched cats. I can’t find an egg pic at the moment so I’ll just tell you they are tiny little white bumps that appear magically after a mama monarch visits your garden.

Monarch Caterpillars love Tropical Milkweed
Monarch Caterpillars love Tropical Milkweed

First, to raise monarchs you need to attract them to your garden. They lay eggs only on milkweed so providing this food source, or host plant, for their caterpillars is the first step. There are lots of native varieties so plant those when possible. You can order seeds or starts online or find a local nursery that does not use any pest control (some organic pesticides like bt will kill caterpillars). If your milkweed has an abundance of orange aphids, congratulations! Your milkweed is safe for caterpillar consumption. Monarchs will be attracted to your garden by the scent of the milkweed. If you also have nectar flowers they’ll stick around.

lots of monarch cats

Chances are your local nursery will be selling Tropical Milkweed. There is a heated debate going on regarding the use of this non-native species in home gardens and whether it helps or hurts monarchs. I am not a scientist but my personal feeling after reading quite a lot about it is that while tropical milkweed is not ideal, it is better than nothing. In order to reduce the potential risk of spreading disease or preventing monarchs from migrating I cut my milkweed to the ground in the winter. If you want to know more, there is plenty of information from all sides to be found online.

I took perverse pleasure in raising monarch caterpillars in this "Monsanto" box (it's actually an Italian winery, but it's makes the point)
Mama Monarch laying eggs. I took perverse pleasure in using this “Monsanto” box for my milkweed

Monarch caterpillars eat A LOT. They eat and poop constantly and one caterpillar can devour an entire 15″ plant. I learned this lesson the hard way last year, returning to the nursery at least five times to purchase more plants! Even so I had some seriously stressful moments when I did not have enough food. I have started hiding plants inside an enclosure so they don’t end up with more eggs than they can handle until they’ve sprouted sufficient new growth. The good news is that milkweed grows quickly.

Milkweed is quickly reduced to sticks by a handful of caterpillars
Milkweed is quickly reduced to sticks by a handful of caterpillars

So you need lots of milkweed but you also need to decide how far you want to go with ‘raising’ them. If your goal is simply to provide habitat and let nature take its course you can plant and be done. Just that is a big help to the monarchs, who are struggling due to the destruction of milkweed along their migrations corridors.

If you want to protect the cats from predators and disease or bring chrysalides indoors to watch them eclose as butteflies it gets a bit more involved. I will tackle that in future posts. For now, go get your milkweed planted!

I don't recommend handling the cats too much but they're kind of irresistible!
I don’t recommend handling the cats too much but they’re kind of irresistible!

Here are some links where you can find your native milkweed species, order free seeds, and purchase seeds and plants online:

Monarch Joint Venture – create monarch habitat  or Find Your Native Milkweed Species

Live Monarch: Free seeds

Monarch Butterfly Garden: Find native species and seeds

Monarch Watch Milkweed Market: Order Plants

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6 Comments Add yours

  1. Barbara Dutra says:

    Thank you, Sherri! I’m going to start hunting for milkweed tomorrow!

    Can you get the caterpillars anywhere??

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    1. Sheri Fox says:

      Hi Barbara, there are places online to order eggs and cats but I’ve never done it. Where you are I bet the monarchs find your milkweed soon enough! They’ll lay eggs from now thru late fall. Check local nurseries that keep their milkweed outside, they probably come with free cats 🙂 Keep me posted!

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  2. Kathy Sturr says:

    Common milkweed took up residence in my front sidewalk – as it has now spread and grown to the point of making entry to the house difficult, I spread the pods in a new location last Fall. I’m curious as to whether or not I’ll see Milkweed there coming up soon – I certainly hope so! I may just try raising some of these beauties as we may sadly see live to see their extinction, but I have hope that gardeners will save the world!

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    1. Sheri Fox says:

      I bet you will see lots of milkweed once the snow clears! It does great when cold stratified, I think that’s why it doesn’t grow as well here from seed. I agree we home gardeners can help! I know people releasing a hundreds each year. I’m hoping they will rebound now that awareness has grown. Every little bit helps. Oh and thanks for the seeds!!!

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Kathy Sturr says:

        Yay! You got them! Looking for milkweed and spring – might be easier to find a perfect house ha ha.

        Like

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