Maintaining A Garden for Butterflies

By now, many of you have planted your butterfly gardens or Monarch Waystations in hope of seeing butterflies feeding—both adults and larvae. It can be difficult for experienced gardeners and landscapers to look upon a garden and see it getting eaten up by caterpillars. However, knowing that these caterpillars are the next generation of butterflies makes the mess worth having. 

The author’s Monarch Waystation

Keeping up your butterfly garden means mostly leaving it alone. This too can be difficult for most gardeners. In the first year of my waystation, I did nothing more than weeding and mulching, and occasionally adding new plants.  I wait until late February to do my spring cleanup, before work gets busy at Grimm’s. I like to cut everything back, then take the piles of debris and place them either in the top of a compost bin or along the fence row, where any hibernating insects can get out. I then rake up leaves over the left stems and grass and burn it to kill off disease. 

Indigo duskywing caterpillars begin feeding after the flowering period, causing no damage to the blooms
Caterpillars can devastate plants as they eat.




As things grow in the spring and summer I like to keep an eye out for invading pests that can pose a problem to plants and future caterpillar sites. While it is okay for the Monarchs to lay waste to my entire plants of swamp and tropical milkweed, it is not okay for Japanese beetles to wreak havoc on my evening primrose. I am careful to use no pesticides in the vicinity of developing caterpillars, instead opting to hand pick the Japanese beetles. 









You also will have to keep an eye on invasive natives in the garden. Some plants will spread rapidly by rhizome or seed, destroying the balance of the garden. Watch out for American Germander (Teucrium canadense), Western Ironweed (Vernonia baldwinii), and Whorled Milkweed (Asclepias verticillata)—these natives can quickly out-compete other plants for space, water, and nutrients in managed gardens. Keep them at bay with hand-pulling and dead-heading seedpods before they ripen. Leave some of these natives, however, to keep diversity high. in the right place (usually native prairie), these natives are not a problem as foragers keep them in check. In a garden, they need to be watched.  

Gray hairstreak butterfly on American Germander


Remember to keep your butterfly garden fun and exciting for you and your neighbors. Take lots of photos, showcase long blooming perennials or annuals in the border, and keep the edges maintained with concrete or stone edging and mowing. The best butterfly gardens have a balance of plants (annuals, perennials, grasses, and shrubs) to insects, and close water sources (either a bubbler, stream, or pond). 

Monarch waystation designed by the author in Powhattan, KS

Happy planting!

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