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Creating Pollinator Habitat: A Guide from the Monarch Joint Venture

Oct 12, 2022


  • Habitat News

Healthy ecosystems include a diverse range of organisms, from soil bacteria and plant life to insects, birds, reptiles, fish, amphibians, mammals, and more. Supporting biodiversity (the variety of life in an ecosystem, habitat, or the world) by planting native pollinator habitat is one of the most important things anybody can do to support thriving ecosystems across the landscape… including human communities.

Monarch butterfly conservation and pollinator health are the focus of our work here at the MJV, and we see monarchs as a flagship species: When monarchs thrive in healthy habitat, so do other pollinators, birds, and so on across the food web.

Scientific research has repeatedly shown that habitat loss has been the primary driver of monarch population declines to date. One of the pillars of our work is monarch habitat establishment, enhancement, and restoration across the United States - and beyond! Whether you want to create a container garden on the balcony of your apartment, make your yard a pollinator oasis, convert multiple acres of unproductive working land, or join with your community to advocate for pollinator habitat in public spaces, the following guide and resources will support your efforts. There are also a variety of programs and grants out there that can provide financial and technical assistance to help you complete your objectives in creating or restoring quality pollinator habitat. Reach out to the Pollinator Habitat Help Desk at 337-HABITAT (422-4828) or to learn more about these resources! Thank you for joining us in protecting the amazing monarch butterfly through habitat creation; your actions create a ripple effect that supports healthy, biodiverse ecosystems.

Before You Plant

Whether you’re planning a container garden or something larger, look for the sunniest spot for your pollinator habitat, as many native grassland plant species require “full sun.” Don’t have full sun? Don’t worry, there are options for part and full shade. Contact your local nursery or native plant society for help in selecting pollinator-friendly plants that are best suited for your site, and be sure to specifically request species native to your region.

Soil type is also a consideration when choosing a habitat site. If you’ll be planting in containers, choose an all-purpose potting soil with peat moss, pine bark, and perlite or vermiculite. These ingredients help the soil retain moisture (plants in pots don’t have access to as much moisture as plants in the ground), provide enough air for growing roots, and provide enough “anchorage” for plant roots to attach to, which supports growth and stability.

If planting in a yard, the above criteria also make for good gardening soil. Is your soil sandy, clay-ey, dense, wet…or? Take up a few handfuls and check it out! You can also use a store-bought soil test or send a soil sample to your local cooperative extension office, and they will test it for you to find out what type of soil you have. Your local nursery or a resource professional can help you select native plants that are suited to your site based on soil type and conditions.

Finally (and more on this later), keep in mind a place for pollinators to drink and take shelter. Remember, habitat means more than just plants; habitat includes everything an organism needs to survive: shelter, water, food, and space. When looking at your habitat site, be sure to factor in a spot for a shallow dish, bird bath, or other source of water. As far as shelter, plants themselves can do the trick, and leaving a pile of sticks, fallen leaves, and a bit of bare ground is even better! Read more on our blog about “leaving the leaves”  for pollinators and other critters.

Check out the Monarch Joint Venture’s general “Create monarch habitat”  resource for a monarch-specific overview.

Selecting Your Plants

A few key principles to keep in mind as you start selecting plants for your pollinator garden:

  1. Choose plant species native to where you live to benefit monarchs, other pollinators, and everything else in the food web. Insects and plants evolved together; choosing regionally native plants helps the whole ecosystem thrive.
  2. Aim for numerous plant species with at least three species that bloom in each time period from early spring to late fall. This will provide continuous blooms so that pollinators will have nectar sources throughout their full breeding season.
  3. Don’t forget larval host plants! For monarchs, that means milkweed. Starter milkweed plugs can be found at Monarch Watch’s Milkweed Market. They also have opportunities that provide free milkweed for schools, non-profits, and larger restoration projects.
  4. Remember, even a small container garden benefits pollinators. Check out this resource from Tufts University (Massachusetts)

Here are some resources to help you select regionally native plants:

Planning and Planting Your Habitat

First, draw up a plan. Nothing fancy is required; just sketch your space, factoring in general shape and size, plus any other features like a path, bench, or even a bird bath. For container plants, estimate how many plants you’ll need based on the plant’s size at maturity (this info is listed with the plant description on the nursery website, plant guide, or plant’s tag at the nursery). This step will vary if you are planning to plant by seed.

Grouping plants by species can provide large splashes of color that are attractive to butterflies. Reds, oranges, yellows, and purples are particular favorites. Arrange them so that shorter plants are in front of taller ones for better viewing. Beyond that, use as much (or little) design as you want to. Check out these resources for design inspiration:

UC Davis Arboretum California Native Planting Plan
Blue Thumb Lawns to Legumes
Pollinator Protection Fund, Bluebird Park Monarch and Pollinator Garden
California Native Plant Society Native Plant Gardening Guide

When you have your plants and are ready to get them in the ground, dig a hole for each plant that is approximately two times bigger than the root ball. Then partially backfill the bottom of the hole with loose soil to a level that will allow the soil surface of your new plant to match the surrounding soil surface. Water the bottom of the hole and allow it to soak in before placing the plant. Compact soil around the roots so that only the leaves and stem of the plant are above ground. Add straw, grass, or wood chip mulch around the plants to retain water in the soil and prevent weed growth (not always necessary but recommended if you are going for a “cleaner” look). Water newly planted plants deep and infrequently to promote the growth of deep, healthy roots.

If you are planting in California or other areas where most rainfall occurs in the winter (and is rare in the summer), you should put new plants in the ground in the late fall to winter for areas that don’t experience a hard freeze, or late winter to early spring for areas that do freeze.

For seeds: Most native seeds are distributed naturally at the soil surface, so they only need to be raked in or planted shallowly. You are better off being too shallow than too deep when planting seeds. Many of these native seeds are small and only need to be planted ⅛ to ¼ inch deep or less. Direct seed-to-soil contact is most important; therefore, site preparation prior to seeding is key to having realistic expectations of a successful establishment. In some regions, native species require cold, moist stratification, or exposure to winter-like conditions, so planting or spreading seeds in the late fall or winter can be an effective strategy. In most regions, a dormant season planting is recommended for these types of plantings.

Planning & Planting Resources

Xerces Habitat Installation Guides
Bee and Butterfly Habitat Fund Habitat Guide
California Native Plant Society Native Plant Gardening Guide

Maintaining Your Habitat

We may sound like a broken record, but you will do yourself a favor in the maintenance department when you choose habitat plants native to your region. Why? Among other reasons, these plants are already adapted to your regional climate, which affects how much or little you’ll have to water and look out for pests.

For example, if you live in the western U.S., plants in the genus Clarkia are a great pick for pollinators because they produce abundant nectar, thrive in full sun to part shade, and are considered drought tolerant - once established, they require little additional watering, even in dry conditions. You can learn more in this short article from Save the Redwoods.

If you plant in containers, you’ll need to water often because the soil in containers dries out faster than soil in the ground. However, be sure not to overdo it, as perpetually soggy roots will suffocate!

Whether your habitat is in containers or in the ground, remember to water the soil rather than the leaves. Ideal times to water are early in the morning or in the evening for your plants to absorb the most water. More water will evaporate off the plant if you water during the day.

Control undesirable weedy vegetation as needed or based on user preference. Being a little ‘messy’ is okay, but be sure to stay on top of noxious or invasive species. Weeding can be a family activity or simply a meditation. Did you know that studies suggest that getting your hands in the dirt has benefits for your well-being? Time in the garden gives you opportunities to see what’s living in - or passing through - your space. Butterflies, caterpillars, moths, beetles, birds…if you’re not out there, you just might miss these wonderful sightings!

Seasonal clean up…or not. We mentioned earlier that healthy habitat includes not only food (in this case, plants) but also water and shelter. That’s why we recommend minimizing garden “clean up.” Instead of raking up all fallen leaves, sticks, and other debris, leave a healthy amount as a shelter for insects and other critters. This is one of the most valuable things you can do (besides creating habitat in the first place). Learn more in this article from the Xerces Society and on the Monarch Joint Venture blog.

Once Your Habitat is Planted

  1. Contribute your monarch and other pollinator observations to community science
  2. Educate others (post a sign!)
  3. Enjoy!

If you have any questions or concerns when creating your pollinator habitat, please don’t hesitate to contact the Pollinator Habitat Help Desk at 337-422-4828 or