What is Planting in Drifts And How To Plant For Migrating Monarch Butterflies

Purple Flowered Butterfly Bush Full Of Butterflies
(Image credit: ZAKmac)

Join us as we visit Adams Ricci Park in Enola, Pennsylvania. This is a special place that is super attractive to migrating monarch butterflies. Learn how flowers, when they’re planted in “drifts” or groupings, provide pollinators with the perfect place to stop and feed. Drifts of pollinator plants mimic nature and provide important way stations for monarch butterflies in their migratory travels. To learn about this and more, check out our Creating a Butterfly Garden five-part master course to learn everything you need to know about attracting monarchs to your own yard.

The Traveling Monarchs

Monarch butterflies are favorites among butterfly admirers. They truly are the royalty of the butterfly world with their striking colors and impressive annual migrations. But monarchs and other pollinators are in trouble, in part because of habitat loss. The 3x3x3 drifts planted in Ricci Park in Enola are a perfect example of how to attract monarchs to a butterfly garden. Created by master gardeners in the area, their goal and purpose is to attract butterflies of all types. This massive butterfly garden serves as a migration waystation, providing rest and fuel for the monarchs that travel thousands of miles on their journeys.

3 by 3 by 3

The butterfly garden in Enola uses the 3x3x3 method of flower planting that results in natural clusters of flowers that are highly attractive to pollinators. The “3s” refer to:

  • Choosing a variety of plants that together provide blooms through all 3 seasons, from spring to summer to fall.
  • Planting each type of plant in groups of 3
  • Planting each group of those three plants within a 3 foot (.9 m) space

This method provides a natural area of consistent, regular blooms that will keep pollinators coming back to refuel throughout the growing season.

How Do You Plant in Drifts?

Drift planting creates a space that attracts pollinators like butterflies. By planting flowers in groups that cover a larger area, you make it easier for the butterfly to find and benefit from the blooms. But, in addition to attracting all types of pollinators, drift planting can be done simply for aesthetic beauty. With a look that’s more natural than formal beds, drifts provide a greater visual impact than solitary plantings, and are perfect for a cottage garden or native garden.

A drift is simply a mass of plants of the same type planted together. Use at least three plants per mass for a small or medium garden. The “method of 3s” is a useful guideline, but using five or seven as a larger grouping is even more effective. If you’re fortunate enough to have a large space, it’s great to plant up to seven in a group. Odd numbers make the masses of plants appear more natural to our pollinators and will resemble a field of wildflowers to them.

Another important aspect of planting a natural looking drift is spacing. If you’re using three specimens, plant them in a space three feet (.9 m) long or wide. If you are using five or seven plants, create a space five or seven feet (2 m) long. If the drift is too sparse, it won’t be as appealing or draw as many pollinators. However, a note of caution: if the plants are placed too closely together and become too dense, they may not grow well or could become diseased.

Finally, be sure to choose a variety of plants that will produce blooms at different times. Create multiple drifts with flowers that open in spring, summer, and fall. This gives pollinators a long-term refuge that will span the seasons.

Monarch Butterfly Plants

If you want to be one of those special people whose goal is to attract and harbor vulnerable monarchs, use the drift method of planting, and focus on special plants that monarchs need and love. Milkweed is certainly one of the most important because it is a primary host plant for monarch caterpillars. However, in addition to milkweed, monarch butterflies like to feed on a wide variety of flowers to obtain all the nectar they need to fuel their courageous migrations:

If you’re excited to learn more about creating a backyard refuge for the important endangered monarch butterflies and you want to learn how to attract all kinds of butterflies, be sure to sign up for our Creating a Butterfly Garden master course! We heartily invite you to learn everything you need to know to provide habitat and resources for these precious pollinators.

Heather Andrews
Content Contributor

Heather Andrews is a published author, an astute photographer, and an avid expert gardener. She spends much of her time helping people create sustainable gardens as a way to attract wildlife, support pollinators and increase vegetable yield using native plants.