Betty Workinger and Fran Shea of Edina planted a certified monarch butterfly way station at Arneson Acres in the summer of 2013. Here, they share their passion for pollinators, the story behind their garden and helpful advice for home gardeners. There are simple things anyone can do to help monarchs continue their incredible journey across North America, pollinating plants along the way.
Do Your Homework
Monarch butterflies are a beautiful addition to Minnesota’s summer landscape, but they are also pollinators for plants across North America. Sadly, butterflies are in rapid decline due to loss of habitat and widespread pesticide use. Without beneficial insects and plant diversity, quality and quantity suffer.
Workinger became interested in the plight of the butterfly when her grandson planted his own butterfly garden at his elementary school in Chattanooga, Tenn. “I thought, what a wonderful idea,” says Workinger. “Why in the world don’t we have one here?”
She teamed up with Fran Shea, a fellow member of Late Bloomers garden club and a native-plant enthusiast, to create a butterfly paradise in Edina. Shea has been planting native gardens for more than 10 years and is a proud member of Wild Ones, an organization dedicated to preserving prairie plants in the Midwest. Her own yard is a vision of mostly native plants.
After securing permission from their garden club, Late Bloomers, the Edina Garden Council and Arneson Acres, Workinger and Shea brought their proposal to the Edina Park Board. “They thought it would be wonderful for children and a great addition to Arneson Park,” says Workinger.
Prepare the Space
The women knew they didn’t want a garden of wild prairie plants within an arrow-straight border. Instead, they looked at other native wildflower gardens for ideas and decided to create an interesting organic shape.
A grassy area was plowed and prepared for planting. Next, they constructed a mound of dirt and brought in a large boulder for height and interest. Members of Late Bloomers were eager to help. “It wasn’t a lot of work because we were just so excited,” says Workinger. “Once the ground was prepared, planting didn’t take long at all.”
Plant Caterpillar Food
Because much prairie has been lost to farming and development, wild plants are disappearing. Among the most affected is common milkweed, which is also the monarch’s preferred place to lay eggs. When the eggs hatch, the caterpillars feast on milkweed before snuggling into their cocoons. Milkweed’s chemistry makes a monarch taste bitter to predators, keeping them safe for their journey south.
Knowing this plant is essential, Shea and Workinger planted swamp milkweed and common milkweed at Arneson Acres. Despite the inelegant names, these tall, green plants produce a charming flower. The bloom is made up of hundreds of tiny blossoms in colors that range from soft mauve to vivid lilac. “Some are quite exotic-looking,” notes Shea. “The swamp milkweed has a wonderful scent that just carries me away.”
Since these plants are native to Minnesota, they aren’t hard to cultivate. “Common milkweed you can hardly stop from growing,” says Shea. “You’ll see it growing in ditches and near ponds.”
If you only add one plant to your garden this year, make it milkweed. The monarchs are depending on you.
Choose Butterfly Magnets
After they emerge from their chrysalis, monarchs need plenty of nectar to nourish them on their long journey south. “We looked at desirable plants from the point of view of the monarch,” says Shea. “Liatris is called the ultimate monarch magnet.”
The garden at Arneson Acres includes Marsh Blazing Star and Prairie Blazing Star varieties of liatris. Both can grow as high as five feet tall and have a single, thick stalk covered in feathery pink or purple blooms. Workinger and Shea also included a vivid array of other nectar-rich plants like purple coneflowers, with bulbous golden centers embellished with a row of velvety purple petals.
New England asters have a face like a daisy, but with a finer fringe; their colors range from white to blush to soft purple. Butterfly flower is wildly popular with butterflies and comes in shades of vivid orange and yellow. And the yellow coneflower has a velvety brown center and a skirt of yellow petals. A beautiful bloom with a less than beautiful name is Joe Pye weed. It’s commonly seen in the wild, with a head of purple and white blossoms on a long stalk.
“These plants provide color and variety as well as places for monarchs to shelter and rest,” says Shea. Common yarrow, wild columbine, prairie smoke, little bluestem, prairie dropseed, black-eyed Susan, zigzag goldenrod, culvers root and false indigo all add a teeming variety of color and texture to any butterfly garden.
Monarchs also need a water source. “Some plants gather and hold water in their leaves, branches and flowers,” says Shea, who suggests home gardeners keep a water source close to the ground, where butterflies prefer to drink.
Although native plants require less maintenance and water than a lawn, they aren’t totally chore-free. Instead, it’s about weeding and checking the spread of the hardier plants.
Since the butterfly garden was planted in a formerly grassy spot, eradicating crabgrass was one of the biggest summer jobs. “[Last] June was our first weedy trial and error, but we were really very pleased,” says Workinger. “A lot of people have taken an interest and helped,” adds Shea.
In the fall, there is no need to cut back butterfly garden plants. In fact, Shea says it’s prettier to let the snow pile up. “Native plants make beautiful structural shapes in the winter. It’s like having little sculptures all over the place. The plants disperse seeds that give birds something to eat.”
“In the spring, it’s like a little treasure hunt,” says Shea. Since native plants reseed themselves, many plants will already be started, while others must be removed.
In your own garden, consider adding prairie flowers to a decorative border. There are many native plants that will do well in either sun or shade. “There is something nice about knowing that native plants started here and like living here,” says Shea.
Watch the Butterflies Flutter In
Visit the butterfly garden at Arneson Acres during its peak bloom in mid-June and you’ll notice a panoply of life. “It’s much richer in biodiversity than a green lawn. When you walk through the garden, instead of a quiet, placid scene, it is just alive with noises all over the place. It is diverse with birds, insects and animals. It is alive all the time,” says Shea.
Dedicated gardeners hope many pollinators will be drawn to it. Not just monarchs, but also bees and other insects. “We’re just waiting and hoping,” Workinger says.
Left: Betty Workinger of the Late Bloomers Garden Club in Edina. Right: Fran Shea, (left) and Betty Workinger in the butterfly garden at Arneson Acres.