In the Garden: Fight isn’t over to help monarchs, and here’s how to do it | Home & Garden

Gardeners across Nebraska and the United States reacted with dismay after the International Union for the Conservation of Nature listed the monarch butterfly as endangered.

Many people have been working hard to make their landscapes more pollinator friendly, so it was a blow to see that the iconic insect still is in such peril.

But Nebraskans, like many others across the country, are determined to be guardians of their land — and not just gardeners. We asked some local experts for a refresher course on attracting and sustaining all pollinators.

Getting started

You don’t have to turn your entire yard over to pollinator habitat, but the more you have, the greater chance of attracting bees and butterflies.

You can start small, says Scott Evans from the Nebraska Extension in Douglas-Sarpy Counties. A 10-by-10-foot plot will work. Then just convince your neighbors to do the same.

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“Having an island of pollinator plants in a sea of non-pollinator plants will not serve them as well as a whole area of plants,” said John Porter of the Nebraska Extension. “You can think of it as a pollinator corridor — it is hard for the pollinators to get to your garden if they don’t have a path to get there.”

By starting small, it won’t be so labor intensive either.

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A tree provides a rest stop for these monarchs flying through Rowe Sanctuary in Gibbon, Nebraska.

Plant the right stuff

Milkweed is the food source for the larval stage of monarchs, but the adults need nectar from a variety of flowers. So have lots of blooming plants as an option in addition to milkweed, Porter said.

While buying native plants that flourish in their home environment is a big trend, don’t get stuck on thinking that they all have to be native plants. Research shows, Porter said, that monarchs and other pollinators do best when there is a variety of plants available, including introduced species.

“Plus, these plants have been developed to thrive better in the urban ecosystems we create in our landscapes than many natives do,” he said.

Some of his must-haves are common, butterfly or swamp milkweed for larvae and adults, zinnia for adults, salvia, goldenrod, lantana and cosmos.

Anne Trumble, organizer of the Migration Station in Papillion, says her five favorite pollinator plants are common milkweed, rattlesnake master, prairie thistle, purple prairie clover and large beardtongue.

Jonathan Nikkila of Kearney, an insect enthusiast, has a huge garden. His favorites are purple prairie clover, rattlesnake master, asters, ironweed and Joe Pye weed. Nikkila also uses native grasses (switchgrass, bluestem, grama, etc.) to add structure.

Plant in groups of at least three

“Make sure you have blooming plants every season — spring, summer and fall — because monarchs start showing up early and are around all summer,” Nikkila said. “Pay particular attention to late summer and fall when they need to stop and fill up for their migration.”

Avoid hybridized “natives” that won’t attract pollinators, such as double flower coneflowers. The double flowers might not have the pollen/nectar that the insects need, so limit their numbers.

“When I am at the garden center I pay attention to which plants the insects are visiting,” Nikkila said. He has better luck with plants he’s sourced at local, independent garden centers and not big box stores.

Evans said a recent study showed that it’s best to plant milkweed along the edge of the garden away from nectar-source flowers.

“They believed that it provided less predation on the larva,” Evans said.

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A group of monarchs on a tree at the Rowe Sanctuary during the fall migration. 

It’s more than plants

Habitat is important and includes things such as water sources and resting areas.

A shallow dish with rocks or marbles full of water allows pollinators to drink safely. Trees, shrubs and large plants give butterflies and other pollinators resting areas to stay safe while taking a break.

Don’t forget that there’s lots of other butterflies and pollinators out there.

“The habitat is usually the same, but some larvae are obligated to feed on specific plants,” Porter said. “For example, I have a lot more black swallowtail butterflies because I grow fennel and dill, and other related plants that the larvae eat.”

Curtail pesticide use, including herbicides, fungicides and insecticides, Evans said. Delay fall cleanup well into mid spring.

“Many of our insects will use dead plant material for shelter,” he said.

Don’t wait for spring

You can get started on your new bed now.

Begin by covering the area you want to turn into a garden bed with cardboard to kill off the existing vegetation. Just remember to remove the tape from the cardboard. An added bonus: worms love it.

“Some perennials can be planted in the fall and do well, but they are often hard to find,” Porter said. “If you are ordering plants from an online retailer, you can often get them for fall. But if you are buying locally your best options will probably be available in the spring.”

If you do wait until spring to plant, you have all winter to dream of what you’d like to put in your plot and collect seeds. Oftentimes, fellow gardeners will share.


A monarch on an anise hyssop.

Grass won’t disappear

Nikkila says turf has its place. He has plenty around his house for his children and social activities.

However, few native insects utilize a traditional American lawn, he says, which you also need to cut, fertilize and water.

“There are lots of examples of beautiful lawns that use less non-native cool season grasses or none at all,” he said. “In the back think about a larger hard-scaped area for entertaining surrounded by flower beds full of beautiful perennial flowers.”

More than gardening

Dr. Ellen Sharp, an internationally recognized voice on the butterfly has been working with Nebraska Monarchs on its efforts to save the species.

She encourages people to get involved with grassroots efforts to create as much contiguous, pesticide-free, native plant-filled habitat as possible for insect and bird species: your lawn, your parks and schools, your business district.

Get your employer to commit to creating pollinator habitat. Talk to your representative about legislation to support regulated habitat creation and protection, she said.

An organization that she supports is the National Butterfly Center, a native plant botanical garden and outdoor nature preserve in Texas.

The Xerces Society also has a four-star rating for donors.

In other news

Nikkila has been working with Neil Dankert, the state facilitator for the Lepidopterists Society, and the Nebraska Wildlife Conservation Fund of the Nebraska Game and Parks Commission in creating a website that documents all the butterflies in Nebraska, including places to find them. Go to

Bellevue Native Plant Society is throwing Bellevue’s first pollinator party in conjunction with the farmer’s market on Aug. 6. The event, which runs from 9 a.m. to noon, will include live music, free pollinator face painting, native plant vendors and pollinator education. The farmer’s market is at Washington Park on the corner of 20th Avenue and Franklin Street.

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