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Save the Monarchs! How to Build a Butterfly Garden

In 2013 nature enthusiasts received news that the beloved and beautiful monarch butterflies had dwindled to their lowest population levels in twenty years. Currently, monarchs are close to earning endangered species status and protection. But the good news is that there is something we all can do to help! Restoring monarch habitats nationwide is one of the crucial steps to increasing populations and it's something anyone with a little outdoor space can tackle confidently - plus it's a fabulous and fun spring project for the whole family.

Help the Monarchs - Plant Some Weeds!

If you want to help restore monarch populations, which have dwindled about 90% over the last two decades, plant some weeds! OK, well it's a bit more complicated than that, but not by much. The federal government is encouraging individuals, communities and schools to plant native milkweed plants throughout the United States, a plant which monarchs depend upon for food, shelter and reproduction.

How Did Milkweed Habitats Disappear?

According to, "Milkweed has disappeared over the past 20 years with the rise of industrial agriculture and the spread of pesticide-resistant, genetically engineered crops, according to several scientific studies. In Iowa, for instance, milkweed covered half of farm fields in 1999; a decade later the plant was found on only 8 percent of the land." Overuse of pesticides as well as climate change are also contributing factors to loss of monarch habitats nationwide, which they depend upon each year as they migrate from Mexico following the winter.

How Can I Create A Milkweed Habitat for Monarchs in My Yard?

“The only way we can reverse this decline of monarch butterflies is through individual actions, through people turning their backyards into a more wildlife-friendly space,” said Miles Grant, the National Wildlife Federation’s senior communications director. And the good news is that that space can be as modest as a few square feet in an urban setting, to backyard gardens or large ones at schools, corporate complexes or in other community spaces. Choose a milkweed type native to your area. Depending upon where you live, a native milkweed exists and you can learn more about which one is best for your area by visiting the National Wildlife Federation online. Use this seed finder to locate seeds in your state. Though tropical milkweed varieties may be available at your local nursery, scientists have found that their longer blooming season can disrupt the butterflies' natural instincts to migrate at the end of the summer and could also contribute to some diseases dangerous for the species. 

Another way to get your native milkweed plant/seeds, is by joining the National Wildlife Federations Butterfly Heroes program. This option is great for those with children joining the effort. Visit this link, take a picture making the Amercian sign language sign for butterfly, and take the pledge. While supplies last, you'll then receive a butterfly starter kit for you and your family, which also includes a notebook for documenting your adventures in wildlife preservation, stickers and more.

How to Grow Your Milkweed

According to, milkweed plants are best started indoors so that the hardier seedlings can later be transplanted after they've had an opportunity to get stronger and more established roots undisturbed by weather and pests. When the seedlings have reached 3-6 inches, they are ready to be acclimated to outdoors and then transplanted. Wait for the danger of frost to pass, prepare the soil and plant. For detailed instructions on growing and planting your milkweed plant(s), visit

​ has the following tips for cultivating a thriving monarch butterfly garden:

  • Gardens should be planted in sunny spots, with some protection from the wind.
  • Gardens should include at least one milkweed species that is native to the area will provide food for monarch caterpillars.
  • A variety of nectar plants with staggered bloom times give butterflies and other pollinators a continuous food source. Include a combination of early, middle and late blooming species to fuel butterfly breeding and migration.
  • Herbicides and pesticides should be avoided, as they can hurt caterpillars and adults.

Additional tips on butterfly gardening can be found at the North American Butterfly Association's guide to butterfly gardening.

Enjoying Your Butterfly Garden

Plant it, and they will come! There really isn't much more too it and once monarchs know that your yard is a haven they will continue to return again and again. So sit back and enjoy the beauty of nature - from egg, to caterpillar, and chrysalise to butterfly, you and your family will be able to witness it all and in the process help save the monarchs!