First, the bleak butterfly news: The population of monarchs passing the winter in Mexico appears to have fallen. Now, the good news for the insect: It’s not too early to start preparing a butterfly garden for this summer.
The area covered by monarchs in Mexico has decreased by more than a quarter compared with last season, according to Mexico’s National Commission of Protected Natural Areas and World Wildlife Fund. Because the butterflies mass together on fir trees at their southern roosting grounds, populations are measured in hectares, or acres. This winter’s count is only about 5 acres, down from nearly 7 last year.
“When you have those really low numbers, you run the risk of a real catastrophic decline, like we’ve seen with the monarchs in California,” said Erika Hasle, a conservation ecologist at the Field Museum in Chicago, where a community science project is now heading into its third season. “We’re not at that point yet with the monarchs east of the Rockies, but it’s a real risk, and it’s a real concern. And it’s an indication that there’s something they’re not getting.”
The eastern population accounts for nearly all the monarchs in North America and includes a supergeneration that flies thousands of miles to Mexico. The western population, which winters in California, was found to number fewer than 2,000 monarchs in a Thanksgiving count — a record low, down from nearly 30,000 the prior year and more than a million years ago.
The news also follows a December finding from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service that monarchs are qualified to be listed under the Endangered Species Act but will have to wait their turn, as limited resources are directed to species with higher priority.
Monarch population shifts
In the past 25 years, monarchs’ populations have plunged by the hundreds of millions, according to the wildlife service’s species status assessment report. The black and orange butterflies have to contend with insecticides, loss of milkweed — the plant monarchs lay eggs on and the caterpillars’ sole food source — and habitat loss. They’re also up against human-induced climate change and weather extremes.
The dwindling population led Field Museum researchers to ask: What makes a successful urban monarch garden? Hasle and GIS specialist Karen Klinger are working to answer that question.
Many stops along the monarchs’ multigenerational migratory route are taking an all-hands-on-deck approach to helping out the butterfly, looking for more places where milkweed might grow.
“How can a small piece of land do as much as possible for protecting this butterfly?” Hasle said. “Because we think to some extent, cities are providing an important refuge for a lot of insects.”
Ways to grow
There’s not a one-size-fits-all monarch garden. Although the Field Museum’s project is still fairly new, there are already some findings after a pilot and pandemic season. Participants sent in weekly reports, including the makeup of their garden, and development of eggs and caterpillars.
The most prevalent kind of milkweed planted among project participants was common milkweed, and it was associated with the most eggs. And while participants planted close to the same amount of swamp and butterfly milkweed, they reported about four times as many eggs on swamp milkweed.
The more successful gardens had more milkweed and blooming plants multiple milkweed species, and they tended to be larger plots. But there were small victories.
Klinger said one participant with a single plant watched eggs transform all the way to a chrysalis. So, she said, “You just need one plant.”
But now is the perfect time to start planning to plant some milkweed, Hasle and Klinger said. They recommend checking out native plant sales and preordering; milkweed can be in high demand come June.
Starting a milkweed patch
There aren’t many don’ts for starting up a milkweed patch, Hasle said, but one plant to avoid is tropical milkweed, a nonnative plant that flowers late in the season. The best garden is one you can sustain, Hasle said. And it can make for a fun family project.
“The best thing to do is what you can do,” Hasle said. “One milkweed plant in a pot on your balcony is doing something.”
Judith Rice, a retired teacher who lives in Skokie, Illinois, participated in the Field Museum project in its first two seasons, while growing her garden with more milkweed and more pollinator plants. Now she has so much common milkweed, she gives it away.
“I can remember the first year looking for them and it’s like, oh my gosh, look, there’s a little caterpillar,” Rice said. “Or, there’s an egg!”
Last summer, the garden relieved some of the stress of the pandemic.
“Once you start counting the eggs and you start seeing caterpillars, it gets more and more fascinating and more and more motivating,” Rice said. “I’m looking forward to doing it again this year.
How to have a gorgeous garden
Gardening doesn’t have to be expensive. But tell that to your pocketbook after you’ve made a trip to your local nursery or garden center. Here's how to have a gorgeous garden without spending a ton of money.
How to have a gorgeous garden
Make a plan and start small
Break your garden plan into several easy-to-accomplish steps. You’ll be less likely to spend impulsively on cool-but-unnecessary equipment or kill the plants you bought because you didn’t have time to plant them. Be realistic about your space and goals; do you really have time this weekend to prep your garden bed and plant 60 seedlings (that’s 10 six-packs of flowers and vegetables)? Do you have room for 60 seedlings? Spreading out the work will make things easier on your wallet too.
Gardening experts say soil preparation is the most important thing you can do (after figuring out the sunniest spot in your yard or patio). Make your first task and purchases devoted to soil prep, whether it’s buying good organic potting soil for a few containers or adding organic amendments, such as compost, aged manure, coffee grounds and seaweed, to a garden patch in your yard.
Typically, you have to wait a week or two to plant after adding organic amendments because they raise the temperature of the soil as they decompose and “cook.” You can’t plant until the soil cools, so wait a couple of weeks to buy plants.
Start with a few tools
You don’t need many tools to have a good garden, said Yvonne Savio, creator of the Gardening in LA blog and a retired director of the Los Angeles County Cooperative Extension Master Gardener program. She recommends starting with a sturdy hand trowel, a hand fork for scratching fertilizer and mulch around plants and a large garden fork for incorporating organic amendments into the soil. Using a fork instead of a shovel is easier on your back and better for the soil, she said.
You might also invest in a good shovel to dig large holes for trees or shrubs and a pair of sturdy hand clippers. Scout out garden tools at garage and estate sales. It’s wise to buy sturdy, well-made equipment, but high-quality tools don’t have to be the most expensive. For instance, Swiss-made Felco 1-inch hand pruners are the gold standard for garden tools (about $60), but Corona makes excellent 1-inch hand clippers as well for about half the price (about $33).
Check out local gardens
Before you plant, find out what grows well in your area. Go on an organized garden tour or two or visit nurseries and take notes about what plants you love and the conditions in which they’re grown. Protect your heart and your wallet by seeking plants in harmony with your growing conditions.
And don’t forget your nearest resource: your neighbors. Many gardeners are eager to talk about what they grow and may even be willing to share seeds or volunteer to give you some seedlings or show you how to propagate plants from cuttings from their yard.
Make a list again, this time of the plants you want and where you will put them, to keep impulse spending at a minimum. If you’re planting an edible garden, grow vegetables your family will eat, Savio said, and look for plants that provide the biggest bang for your buck. For instance, you might love cabbage or cauliflower, but they require lots of space and produce only one head per plant. Broccoli keeps producing smaller bunches of tender edibles after the main head is harvested.
Grow with seeds
That doesn’t mean seeds only, Savio said, but some plants such as beans, corn, squash, leafy greens, radishes and cucumbers grow easily from seed. Instead of buying lettuce seedlings, for instance, buy just a few to get a head start on your harvest and sow the rest for a staggered crop.
Compost is vital for healthy soil, and you can make it cheaply and easily from kitchen scraps, lawn clippings, fallen leaves, shredded newspapers and other materials that would otherwise go to landfills. Many municipalities offer free composting workshops and discounted compost bins.
If you want more hands-on instruction, call your county or city public works department or go online to find composting classes and special deals on bins. Short on space? Lots of municipal and other government agencies offer instructions for worm composting as well as free workshops and discounted worm bins. which are small enough to fit on a balcony.