Habitat How-To

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prairie planting 1Congratulations! You have decided you want to help monarch butterflies by planting monarch habitat. You have found the right place to help you begin your Iowa planting. Here are the steps:

  1. Find local support
  2. Site Selection
  3. Site Preparation
  4. Planting
  5. Management

Local Support

Establishing monarch habitat takes time. Identifying and connecting with a knowledgeable local conservation contact will be invaluable in implementing your project. A local conservation contact who has experience establishing diverse native prairie will be able to guide you through the process of establishment and maintenance, helping you understand how factors such as current vegetation, soil type, and project goals will influence your project. Find local contacts in your county. You should ask about incentive and cost-share programs in your area that may be available to you. Not all areas qualify; be sure to estimate your potential savings of reduced mowing or other management costs for the area. Farm Bill Program opportunities are summarized here.Iowa County monarch planting contact map

Not in Iowa? Visit the Farmers for Monarchs site here for resources in your area. 

Looking for garden project resources? Blank Park Zoo’s Plant.Grow.Fly. program has resources compiled to help you begin.

Site Preparation

A successful prairie planting will support monarch butterfly conservation and reward you with a beautiful low management system that also supports pollinators and wildlife. The most important step to ensure success is site preparation. High weed pressure can make it almost impossible for new prairie plant seedlings to establish. It is essential to reduce the weed population as much as possible prior to planting. The most successful plantings are often those associated with Conservation Reserve Program (CRP) practices (e.g., CP-42 pollinator habitat), which typically follow herbicide tolerant corn/soybean rotations and result in sites with very low weed pressure. If this option is not available, monarch habitat can also be established in grass-dominated sites (e.g., turf grass or smooth brome grass); however, these sites typically require more intensive weed management prior to planting native seeds. 

Planning

A number of decisions need to be made during planning process, including seed selection, planting equipment, and planting time. Use the “Find Wildlife Contacts” map to get in touch with a local advisor who can help with these decisions. Here are two additional tips: 

  • The range in seed sizes makes it challenging to evenly distribute the seeds throughout the planting site. It is essential that the seed not be planted deeper than ¼ inch deep or it will not grow.  

  • When you select a seed dealer, look for a vendor that sells local ecotype seed that is native to your state.  

Seed Mix ResourcesIowa State Seed Mix

Iowa State University Seed Mix: High diversity monarch seed mix that meets requirements for a wide range of Farm Bill conservation programs in Iowa while providing a wide variety of blooming species for pollinators (not just monarchs) from spring through fall. Bloom timing and suitable soil conditions for plant species are illustrated in this resource.

Iowa Pheasants Forever Native Seed Program: Seed mix options. Work with local contact or contact Pheasants Forever to select appropriate seed mix.

Tallgrass Prairie Center Seed Mix Generator: Select general environmental factors and customize the seeding rate; specific species cannot be selected.

USDA NRCS: Seed Calculator: Work with your local contact to determine the seeding rate needed for the species you choose. To find the calculator on this page:

  1. Select your state.
  2. Select your county.
  3. In the navigation along the left, select “Section IV” from the dropdown menu.
  4. Click "Old Section IV."
  5. Click Tools.
  6. Click Native Seeding Calculator.

Planting Resources

USDA NRCS “Planting Native Prairie into Corn or Soybean Stubble:” learn how to convert a cropped area into a prairie planting. 

USDA NRCS “Planting Native Prairie into Cool Season Sod:” learn how to convert a non native cool season grassland into a prairie planting.

Plant Iowa Native: Plant Iowa Native is an initiative of the Tallgrass Prairie Center at the University of Northern Iowa, which provides a list of professional services you may need, such as local seed producers.

Tallgrass Prairie Center Prairie Reconstruction: “How To” video series.  

Prairie Moon Nursery: “Pros and Cons to Fall versus Spring Seeding”

prairie planting 2Site Management

Management is essential to ensure long-term success. Mowing three or more times during the first full growing season, and perhaps once or twice during the second year, prevents weeds from shading out native plant seedlings and prevents weeds from going to seed. With successful planting and proper care the first two years, future years require less maintenance, with occasional spot herbicide treatment of invasive weeds or woody plants. Long-term maintenance must also include a residue removal practice every 3 to 5 years such as prescribed fire (ideal) or haying to limit grass dominance and prevent tree establishment.

USDA NRCS “Establishing and Managing Native Prairie:” Outline of maintenance recommendations for the first few years of a planting.

Prairie Moon Nursery: “How to Burn a Prairie

Monarch Joint Venture: Mowing Best Practices for Monarchs. Once the planting is established (3+ years old), mowing is discouraged in pollinator plantings and if utilized, should only be for the purpose of weed seed reduction in select areas. These mowing guidelines should be used for areas which contain a mix of native and non-native plants, not pollinator planting projects where native vegetation has been established.

USDA NRCS BMPs for Monarchs: Best Management Practices for Monarch Butterfly: Achieving Best Results for the Monarch in the Midwest. Includes details on grazing, herbicide use, mowing and haying, and tillage.

What’s the bottom line for converting a grass-dominated site to monarch habitat? 

Researchers at ISU recently completed a four-year NRCS Conservation Innovation Grant ("Enhancing Monarch Butterfly Conservation in Iowa" USDA-NRCS 69-3A75-16-006, 2016-2019) that demonstrated habitat establishment practices at 20 sites across the state of Iowa. The findings of this project helped to develop the recommendations listed here and the 2018 NRCS guidance for habitat establishment in grass-dominated sites USDA NRCS “Planting Native Prairie into Cool Season Sod. Results of the NRCS CIG project indicate one to two years of herbicide treatments at grass-dominated sites, followed by a dormant season planting, will improve the likelihood of achieving a habitat patch dominated by native forbs and grasses that support production of monarch butterflies.  

As part of the NRCS CIG project, the ISU team also estimated the input costs for establishing and maintaining monarch habitat in grass dominated sites based on the following steps: 

  1. Late summer: remove existing residue (mow bale and hay rake or burn). 

  2. Fall: kill existing vegetation with one or two applications of a broad spectrum herbicide 

  3. During the next year, apply herbicides throughout an entire growing season (three to four applications). Note: if a thick stand of reed canary grass is on the site, it will require multiple years of herbicide applications to achieve modest control at best. Sites dominated by reed canary grass should be avoided. 

  4. Plant in dormant season (mid-November – mid February) 

  5. Mow three times in Year 1 at height of 6”  

  6. Potentially mow once (sometimes twice) in Year 2 at height of 10-12”  

  7. Once a site is established, spot treatment of invasive weeds or woody plants and prescribed fire or baling every three to five years. 

Estimated costs (in 2020 dollars) for establishing monarch habitat using the above practices (Steps 1 – 6) is approximately $650 per acre. Including costs for spot treatment of invasive weeds or woody plants ($193) and periodic burning ($247), the mean estimated cost for establishing and maintaining a habitat patch over a10-year management horizon is approximately $1090/acre.   

In sites with a history of well-managed turf grass and low weed pressure, only one or two pre-plant herbicide treatments would be needed. For these situations, costs for establishing and maintaining monarch habitat over a 10-year timeframe would be approximately $995/acre.