Oasis in Parched Land

Texas A&M Students Plan Two Monarch Gardens

Sign lying on mulch. Sign reads "Monarch Waystation - this site provides milkweeds, nectar sources, and shelter needed to sustain monarch butterflies as they migrate through North America. Certified and registered by Monarch Watch as an official Monarch Waystation. Create. Conserve. And Protect Monarch Habitats."
Signage at butterfly garden, TAMU-Killeen. Photo by Carol Clark.

Students from the Texas A&M University system applied for two different grants last year through the Bring Back the Monarchs to Texas (BBMT) grant program. Both garden projects won cash grants from the BBMT committee and were installed on the Killeen campus in 2022. Awards in 2022 were made possible by funds from the Native Plant Society of Texas, Monarch Watch, individual and chapter donors, and a special one-time grant from Monarch Joint Venture.

One Monarch garden was planned for a plot at ground level on a piece of land with a history of disturbance and compacted and depleted soil. They planned  raised beds, irrigation to help get the plants established, and soil amendments to give their native plant transplants a better chance of success.

The other garden was very different, perched on a second-story deck outside the student library. Those plants were installed in two very large existing concrete planters that had fallen out of use. Students from the biology class reasoned that it would brighten up the outdoor seating area and allow all the campus students to observe pollinators at work. The native plants they chose for both projects would feed Monarchs in all stages of life.

Lauren Schachner, a faculty advisor, reported recently on both gardens’ success. With an extremely dry and hot year, the garden at ground level struggled to take off and bloom even with the water they were able to provide, but the one on the deck worked well and provided a truly magical experience for her students.

Students Observed & Tagged Butterflies

With the success of the deck garden, Schachner’s class observed many Monarchs at close range while they sipped nectar from the colorful flowers. In those two planters alone, they were able to catch and tag almost 200 Monarchs with tags from Monarch Watch to help track the migration southward. The number of Monarchs that visited their planters exceeded all their expectations.

Butterfly cupped in someone's hand. You can see the butterfly is tagged for observation.
Tagging of Monarch butterfly at TAMU-Killeen garden. Photo by Carol Clark.

We are frequently asked if the tagging process harms or scares the butterflies. Lauren reported that some of their tagged butterflies stuck around for several days before leaving to rejoin the migration. Tags and their very particular placement on the wings have been carefully and thoroughly researched to cause as little hindrance to the butterfly as possible. It doesn’t affect their ability to fly, and like Lauren observed, they aren’t distressed by the process enough to leave a good patch of flowers.

Tagging is an essential part of helping scientists understand the route and the timing of migrating butterflies. People who participate in the tagging process become invested in the Monarchs’ success and often go on to take other meaningful steps for their conservation.

Lessons Learned

Flower garden filled with blooms and butterflies
Mostly native balcony garden at TAMU-Killeen. Native plants pictured include Frostweed, Fall Asters, Gregg’s Blue Mistflower, and Shrubby Boneset. Photo by Lauren Schachner.
  • First, young people get excited about participating in citizen science! The students who tagged really enjoyed it. 
  • Second, not every garden is an instant success, but a functioning nectar source in a tough dry year becomes a big draw for desperate pollinators—even when it’s located on the second floor. Monarchs need to fatten up on their migration south to make it through the winter in Mexico.

Just like their balcony garden, every home garden that can receive just a tiny amount of extra care can become a critical oasis for migrating Monarchs in the hardest of seasons. Even though 2022 was hard on all of us, we learned that when the surrounding fields are brown and dry, blooming nectar-filled urban landscapes are where the pollinator action is.

If all you have to work with is a fourth floor balcony, you too can add a few nectar-rich flowers and put that space to work for Monarchs.

Reminder – BBMT Grant Application Deadline is February 1

The 2022-2023 Bring Back the Monarchs to Texas garden grant season is now in full swing! Find the 2023 application, rules, and other information on the Native Plant Society of Texas’ Bring Back the Monarchs website.