Our Monarch Butterfly Waystation Garden
Habitats for Monarchs
Monarch waystations are habitats gardeners in North American can create in their yards for Monarch butterflies and caterpillars.
Waystations provide Monarchs with safe places to feed and breed during spring and summer, before temperatures drop and they travel south. Waystations also provide temporary food and shelter for the butterflies as they migrate.
In the United States and parts of Canada, East Coast Monarch butterflies migrate to the Gulf Coast and northern Mexico every fall. On the West Coast, they migrate to southern California and Arizona.
Both before and during their flight, Monarch butterflies need shelter and food. Waystations provide both.
Here in Maryland, we created a Monarch waystation in our backyard, and it's been a wonderful experience. If you live in Monarch breeding areas that experience cold winters, you might enjoy starting a waystation, too.
Scroll down now to learn
- why you should grow a waystation
- the plants and seeds you'll need
- steps you can complete this fall for a waystation next spring.
Why Grow a Waystation?
Watch the Monarch Life Cycle
Our waystation began as a cutting garden, a 10 square foot area in an out-of-the-way spot in our backyard where, for one summer, I grew flowers solely to cut them for bouquets.
Although I liked the bouquets, I quickly realized that what I enjoy most about growing flowers isn't harvesting them but caring for them and observing the creatures they attract.
In waystations, Monarch butterflies lay their eggs, and the caterpillars that hatch from those eggs feed, grow, and eventually form chrysalises or cocoons from which Monarch butterflies emerge. As a waystation gardener, I've been privileged to observe the Monarch life cycle first hand, from egg to newly emerged butterfly.
Monarch eggs are small, pale and delicate while Monarch caterpillars look as if they're made of marzipan. Monarch chrysalises, on the other hand, are absolute jewels with polished, light green exteriors that darken as the butterfly inside develops. At the top of each chrysalis is a row of small gold dots.
Because the entire metamorphosis, from egg to butterfly, takes only a few weeks, it's repeated throughout the growing season. In this way, waystations are home to successive generations of Monarchs.
If you grow a Monarch waystation garden, you'll see the Monarch lifecycle up close again and again from spring into fall.
You'll also observe additional pollinators like bees, moths, and the other butterflies your waystation attracts.
So far, my favorite part of waystation gardening is watching Monarch caterpillars. They are fearless fellows, completely unlike the Variegated Fritillary and Common Buckeye caterpillars I've previously photographed. Monarch caterpillars raise their black filaments and rear up to challenge me when I take their photos. Sometimes, they act as if they're going to butt the camera.
I've captured very few good shots of Monarch butterflies. The crunching of my shoes on the gravel garden path sends them fluttering away. In contrast, I've taken numerous photos of Tiger Swallowtails, which were enormous this year, and let me get quite close to them with my camera as they feed.
Help Save the Monarch
An even better reason to grow a waystation is that it's beneficial to Monarchs.
Due to habitat loss and other factors, Monarch populations are dwindling. In fact, Monarchs are in such dire straits that they may soon have protected status in the United States under the Endangered Species Act.
As a waystation gardener, you'll join a multitude of other gardeners in North America who are working to restore the habitat Monarchs need to survive.
- Status of the Monarch Butterfly
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service began deliberations about placing Monarchs on the endangered species list in 2014 when the service was first petitioned. A decision on the Monarch's status will be decided December 15, 2020.
What's in a Waystation?
To be effective, waystations need a sufficient number of host plants (milkweed) and nectar plants (flowering annuals, perennials and biennials).
Like the Queen butterfly, Monarchs are "milkweed butterflies." In other words, milkweed is an integral, necessary part of their life cycle.
Monarch females usually lay single eggs on the undersides of milkweed leaves. The caterpillars that emerge from the eggs feed on the milkweed, shedding their skins as they grow. The caterpillars go through four instars (stages between molts) before forming the chrysalis from which they emerge as butterflies.
As Monarch caterpillars grow, they eat lots and lots of milkweed.
Monarch Watch, an organization dedicated to the study and conservation of Monarch butterflies, recommends at least two types of milkweed per waystation and about a dozen milkweed plants. Monarch Watch also recommends the plants be closely spaced to provide protection from predators for the eggs and caterpillars.
Our Monarch waystation has five types of milkweed, four of them native: common milkweed (A. syriaca), swamp milkweed (A. incarnata), whorled milkweed (A. verticillata), butterfly weed (A. tuberosa), and tropical butterfly weed (A. curassavica), a non-native plant.
Having various types means that the caterpillars have a steady supply of leaves, as each kind of milkweed develops on a different time schedule.
Our orange milkweed, for instance, germinated later than the common milkweed but bloomed the earliest and the longest. Our first-year common milkweed plants didn't bloom at all, probably because the Monarch caterpillars preferred their leaves over the others, and stripped the plants repeatedly throughout the growing season before they could set blooms.
Although any milkweed will do for your waystation garden, it's best to choose at least two milkweed species that are native to your area.
Native plants have adapted to the area over time. As a result, they are easier to grow and care for than non-native plants, which may be less impervious to the pests, diseases, and other environmental issues that persist where you live.
Also, native milkweed will be on the same timetable as the Monarch, coming to the end of its life cycle when temperatures drop rather than continuing to bloom— and potentially encouraging Monarch butterflies to tarry when they should begin migrating.
We opted to grow one controversial non-native milkweed in our waystation, tropical milkweed, also called Mexican milkweed, because I really love its tall, upright stems and showy orange-red flowers. When grown out of its native region, however, tropical milkweed can be problematic and requires careful monitoring. I wouldn't recommend it for everyone.
How much milkweed should you grow?
Monarch Watch recommends each waystation contain about a dozen closely spaced milkweed plants.
Seeds or Plugs?
Purchasing milkweed plants can be pricey. I recently pitched in with a friend to buy a flat of common milkweed from MonarchWatch.org's Milkweed Market for the community garden where we volunteer. We opted to buy plugs because as volunteers we have little control over when and how much the gardens are mulched, and we worried our seeds and seedlings would be smothered.
The flat of 32 plugs from the Milkweed Market cost $74 and arrived in October rather than in the spring due to hot temperatures that prevented on-time shipping. By the time they arrived, the plugs were essentially root stock. If the stock takes root, we should have a nice patch of A. syriaca in the garden next spring; however, if we'd realized what we were getting, we probably would have dug up milkweed roots from the established milkweed patches in our own gardens and transplanted them for free.
Growing milkweed from seed is less expensive than purchasing milkweed plants.
You can buy seed at reasonable prices online or in gardening centers.
You can also collect milkweed seed yourself, remove the floss, chill it in the fridge for a month, and then sow the seed in late winter or early spring.
I direct-sowed seeds purchased from and Seed Needs as well as seeds I collected, and ended up with three nice beds of milkweed. Even the common milkweed germinated well, which surprised me because it's known to have low germination rates. I credit our success to how we prepped our waystation beds, which is described below. Outsidepride
Milkweed Species You Might Try
Clasping flowers and wavy leaves
Wide leaves, bumpy seed pods
Rare; orange flowers and lance leaves; grows in marshes, swamps, tidal areas
Grows in rocky, dry shade areas in high altitude areas
Green Comet Milkweed
Green flowers and wavy foliage; loved by bees; prefers dry, rocky soil
Orange Milkweed, Butterfly Milkweed, Butterfly Weed
Orange showy flowers, no milky sap; likes full sun or part shade
Drooping flowers like a lilac; prefers meadows and cool areas
A rare species; grows in woodlands
Very rare; wavy leaves; grows in sphagnum bogs
Grows naturally in dry woodlands and fields; smooth seed pods and waxy white flowers
likes wet, sunny areas; narrow leaves, pink flowers
Has needle-like leaves like rosemary, flowerheads look like boneset; grows naturally in dry, rocky areas
In addition to milkweed, waystations must have nectar plants. Nectar plants are flowering plants that produce the food (nectar) Monarch butterflies and other pollinators eat. These may be a mix of perennials, annuals and biennials.
Nectar is a watery concoction with a sugar content anywhere from 3 to 8 percent. In addition to the sugars fructose, glucose and sucrose, nectar contains small amounts of proteins, salts, acids, and essential oils from the plants that produce it. Monarch butterfies and other pollinators need a steady supply of nectar to thrive.
Waystations should contain two types of plants: host plants and nectar plants.
To provide a continuous supply of nectar, it's important to have blooming plants in your waystation garden from early spring through early fall.
Our waystation garden had pansies, snapdragons (Antirrhinum majus), hollyhock, bee balm, boneset (Eupatorium perfoliatum), cardinal flower (Lobelia cardinalis), marigolds, speedwell (Veronica) and black-eyed Susan (Rudbeckia hirta) to ensure an abundance of continuous blooms. The milkweed will bloom, too. In our waystation, tropical, whorled and orange produced the most flowers.
Roses, devil's walking stick and a butterfly bush are also adjacent to our waystation, and we had two volunteer nectar plants the butterflies enjoyed, rue and dill.
Additionally, a raised herb garden containing lavender, basil, chives, oregano and thyme is about two yards away from one section of our waystation.
Some Waystation Annuals You Might Grow
Cosmos is easy to start from seed. It comes in a variety of colors. It's usally about 5 ft. tall but shorter 2-foot varieties are also available.
Here in Maryland, lantana is an annual. If it's happy, it will grow as big as a bush and develop woody stems by the end of the season. Yellow and orange varieties as well as reddish-pink varieties are available at most greenhouses.
Marigolds have a pungent aroma and produce nematodes that are good for the soil. They are easy to grow from seed. I sow them in the fall.
Spider flower is a tall plant that, if not pruned, will grow to five feet or more. It produces pink, white, or purple flowers and readily self-seeds.
Cheerful and easy-to-grow from seed, zinnias come in a variety of colors and heights. Their flowers are wide and flat, a good landing pad for butterflies.
This award-winning book, which provides an overview of 23 butterflies common to North America, features beautiful photos of butterflies at every stage of development as well as photos of their host and nectar plants. It's a great resource for both adults and children, and it's been invaluable to me as I strive to grow more "butterfly plants" in our landscape.
How Big Should a Waystation Be?
Monarch Watch also recommends that waystations have at least 100 square feet (combined) of host and nectar plants.
To this end, I expanded our original cutting garden into two 3-foot by 16-foot parallel beds with a gravel walkway between them. I also added additional nectar plants to an adjacent 5-foot by 12-foot bed containing swamp and common milkweed (Asclepia incarnata and A. syriaca).
This fall we're adding another 3-foot by 16-foot bed using the trenching method described below.
A truly effective Monarch Waystation will be at least 100 square feet.— Monarch Watch
What's the Best Location for a Waystation?
Site your waystation in a full sun location. Both milkweed and nectar plants need to receive at least six hours of unfiltered sunlight each day to grow well.
I would also recommend an out-of-the-way location. We placed ours in our backyard behind a fence and away from the street where the county sometimes sprays for mosquitoes.
Some Monarch conservation programs encourage gardeners to turn their regular flowerbeds into waystations by incorporating milkweed into them. I think this is a bad idea for most people for several reasons:
- The waystation is going to get ugly.
Monarch caterpillars are going to strip the milkweed of leaves. They're also going to leave frass behind— in other words, piles and piles of caterpillar poop. Moreover, you'll probably want to allow your waystation to go to seed so that you can collect the seed. Again, this is not particularly pretty.
2. Another reason to set your waystation apart is because milkweed is an herbaceous perennial with a thick, spreading root system. Plant it one year, and you'll have it again the next year in the same location, as well as several feet away in places you may not want it.
3. Also, you should not use herbicides or pesticides or any other chemicals in or around your waystation. So if you are, for example, growing roses near your waystation, you'll have to be an organic rosarian.
4) Finally, your waystation will attract lots and lots of pollinators, including bees and wasps. Placing it in a bed that gets lots of foot traffic means that you're potentially exposing yourself, your family and your guests to stings.
How to Make New Beds for Your Waystation
To create a dedicated space for our Monarch waystation, we used a method recommended by Laura Mason Ziegler in her books Cool Flowers and The Easy Cut-Flower Garden. It's the same method we used to create the cutting garden that we expanded into our waystation. One of the best aspects of this method is that it practically eliminates weeding.
First, measure off your bed. I made ours 3 feet by 10 feet. Then mow the turf (or whatever's growing where your new bed will be) very short. Next, place heavy cardboard or plastic over the mown area and weight it down. I used cardboard and kept it in place with rocks.
When the vegetation under the cardboard has died, remove the cardboard and shovel off about two inches of the soil. This is a key step because it not only removes the dead roots but also the weed and grass seed in the soil. So that the top layer of soil wouldn't go to waste, I added it to our composter.
The next step is the most labor intensive: digging a trench in the bed and placing the soil in a wheelbarrow.
Once you've dug the trench, use a pitchfork or some other tool to crack open the subsoil. Next, fill the trench with about 3 inches of compost topped by dry fertilizer. (We used cow manure and dry fish fertilizer.)
The last step is to take the soil you removed earlier and finish filling up the trench.
You'll have some soil left in your wheelbarrow, which you can use to fill holes in your yard or add to your composter.
After filling our trenches, I spent some time over the next few weeks, as weather allowed, breaking up the clods so that the soil was fine and crumbly.
Fall is a great time to create a new bed in this manner. You can immediately sow some seeds. For example, I direct sowed marigolds, boneset and hollyhock in the fall. Later, in very early spring, after I chilled the milkweed in the refrigerator, I direct sowed those seeds as well as cardinal flower.
Below, are several types of milkweed seedlings in our prepared beds. (I tried to sow them in separate sections, but it was very windy that day.) You can see that I thinned them (but not much so that the Monarchs would have cover) and mulched to discourage weeds.
I had very little weeding to do throughout the growing season because I'd removed the top layer of soil and mulched. This was a real blessing since weeding would have disturbed the Monarchs.
Cool Flowers and The Easy Cut-Flower Garden by Lisa Mason Ziegler both offer practical tips for creating flowerbeds. Additionally, Cool Flowers includes recommendations for growing cool season annual flowers like snapdragons. The Easy Cut-Flower Garden provides suggestions for warm season annuals like zinnias.
If you grow milkweed, you'll attract not only milkweed butterflies but also milkweed bugs, both large and small. It's inevitable.
Large milkweed bugs (Oncopeltus fasciatus) are herbivores that eat milkweed plants, including the seeds. Small milkweed bugs (Lygaeus kalmii) eat milkweed and sometimes other creatures, including Monarch caterpillars.
Removing them, or at least most of them, is as easy as wiping them off with a damp paper towel when they're in their soft-bodied nymph stage.
Try not to kill the small milkweed bugs you find in your garden. Their presence in the ecosystem is important!— Monarch Joint Venture
You could also leave them alone. Not only are they are fascinating to watch, but they are also part of the little habitat you created when you planted your Monarch waystation.
Monarch Joint Venture (MJV), a partnership of government and civilian organizations dedicated to protecting Monarch migration, recommends inaction. I like that idea, too.
In addition to milkweed bugs, your waystation will attract many pollinators, including butterflies other than the Monarch. This was the first year I'd seen Zebra Swallowtails in our yard. They are gorgeous!
Our waystation also attracted many Eastern Tiger Swallowtails and Black Swallowtails. Dill is one of the host plants for the latter, which deposited eggs on the single volunteer dill plant in our waystation.
Because our waystation contained lots of snapdragons, it also attracted Common Buckeye butterflies. Snapdragons are their host plants.
So along with Monarch caterpillars, we had Swallowtail and Buckeye caterpillars in the garden, all munching away.
And then, late in the season, the waystation exploded with Tussock Moth caterpillars.
Another wonderful surprise.
This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.
© 2019 Jill Spencer