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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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!
Here are some links where you can find your native milkweed species, order free seeds, and purchase seeds and plants online:
Live Monarch: Free seeds
Monarch Butterfly Garden: Find native species and seeds
Monarch Watch Milkweed Market: Order Plants