According to Paul Skawinski, an outreach specialist with UW-Extension Lakes Program who’s also involved with the Wild Ones Central Wisconsin Chapter, about 130 species of butterflies, including the monarch, can be commonly seen in Wisconsin. Add in the species that occasionally fly in from elsewhere, and that number goes up to over 150.
Each of those species is unique in its own way, but they also all share something in common: to survive, they need access to the plants that fulfill their specialized feeding habits, especially as caterpillars, Skawinski said March 2 during a Wisconsin Monarch Collaborative webinar.
Monarchs, for example, are reliant on milkweed for egg-laying, and it’s the only thing monarch caterpillars can eat. A variety of other flowers provide nectar for adults throughout the year, Skawinski said.
Monarchs also need pesticide-free spaces to be able to survive, he added.
But without access to the right habitats, monarch populations can decline and have declined steeply, with bird and bumblebee populations declining likewise.
As lawns became the social norm and an accepted symbol of wealth, according to Shannon Davis-Foust, a senior lecturer at UW-Oshkosh and a mentor for the native plants organization Wild Ones Fox Valley Chapter, it became increasingly hard on monarchs and other butterflies and pollinators to find the plants they need.
Still, there’s plenty that pollinator enthusiasts can do to help out. A native garden, regardless of how much space is available, can provide a place to start.
Regarding the best place for a monarch garden, Skawinski said they can “really go anywhere.”
That could be in places that are hard to maintain as lawn, in front of windows or patios for better viewing or near downspouts where they can soak up water, Skawinski said.
Sunny locations are preferred, Skawinski said, but part-shade is suitable for attracting monarchs, too.
He encouraged planters to plan ahead for their gardens and think about the attributes they want from their gardens, whether it be privacy, stormwater capture, beautification or maximum attraction of butterflies.
Some of Skawinski’s favorite monarch-attracting plants are butterfly milkweed, red/swamp milkweed, meadow blazing star and asters.
Davis-Foust advised gardeners to keep in mind that “you’re not selecting plants just for you.” Instead, think about which plants will provide the most benefits for the pollinators, she said.
Soil type, moisture and shading, as well as local ecotypes, should also be considered when selecting native plants, she said.
Before planting can be begin, though, a site for the garden needs to be properly prepared for the plants. Options to prepare a site for a monarch garden include smothering the location with items such as black tarp or cardboard or digging or using a sod cutter, depending on time availability and preference.
After preparing the site, Skawinski advocated for adding a thin layer of weed-free compost or potting soil to prevent block light from weed seeds, reducing competition for the garden plants and giving them a faster start.
Beyond compost, Davis-Foust advised not to bother with fertilizer in the native gardens.
Gardeners can also choose to start their plants from seeds or plugs, with each method having benefits and drawbacks that may be reliant on the specific garden being planted.
Plants for native monarch gardens can be found through a variety of sources. Local Wild Ones chapters and the Native Seed Network have resources available, and the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources also maintains a list of Wisconsin native plant nurseries.
When it comes to planting that garden, Davis-Foust recommended following the acronym BRASH: Borders for a sense of order; Recognize the rights of others; Advertise what you’re doing; Start small; and Humanize.
As for maintenance, Davis-Foust advised to “choose your battles wisely.”
Some weeds are more tolerable than others, Davis-Foust said, noting that those classifications may differ between perspectives. Among those Davis-Foust found more tolerable were crab grass, ragweed species and mustard species. On the other hand, she found quack grass, oriental bittersweet, buckthorn species and Canada thistle to be less tolerable.
Techniques for maintaining the native garden include mowing, burning, and pulling, Davis-Foust said, although some options are better suited in certain circumstances than others.
If using herbicides to maintain lawn next to a native garden, Davis-Foust said, gardeners should be aware of herbicide drift that may cause damage to the native garden.
Grazing, when done by wild animals, aphids, other insects, etc., can also harm a native garden, Davis-Foust said, but controlled grazing can be beneficial tool for invasive species control.
Plant disease, such as powdery mildew and yellows phytoplasma, should also be watched for in the gardens, Davis-Foust said. Plants infected with yellows phytoplasma, a bacterial disease, are recommended to be removed, she said, while powdery mildew is natural as far as she knew and didn’t require her to do much with it.
For more information on creating monarch butterfly habitat in Wisconsin or about the Wisconsin Monarch Collaborative, visit wimonarchs.org. The full webinar can be watched at youtu.be/_RZ1x5ycaOk.