What it takes for a Monarch Award

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You’re an ecologically minded gardener. You work with nature to create an ecosystem of function and activity, each part supporting others. You understand that soil supports plants, plants support wildlife, and water supports everything. The materials and objects in your garden are part of the same system. Your garden is beautiful—so much more than a collection of great plants. But is it ready for a Monarch Award? How do you know?

Bee on Joe Pye Weed at Kippax
Garden at RBG.
Photo by Charlie Briggs.

As the Monarch Awards evolve and gardeners continue to learn, work, and improve their creations, organizers have responded to applicants who want to know what’s expected. Exactly what does an award-winning garden look like? What things are the judges expecting? What, for example, does “healthy soil” mean? Or “wise use of water”? 

Organizers have developed a rubric—a kind of score card—to help gardeners understand how their gardens will be assessed. It’s not a simple do-this-not-that document. Rather it’s a way to set out good, better, and best practices. It also identifies a few “red flags” – methods based in traditional gardening that don’t fit with an ecosystem approach. There’s a link to the rubric at the end of this article.

Applicants are encouraged to use the rubric to evaluate and improve their gardens before applying. It’s a useful tool not only for new gardeners beginning to create their space but also for established green thumbs wanting to keep a good thing growing.

The rubric follows the six criteria categories: how gardeners care for the soil, select the plants, manage the water, tend their gardens, choose materials, and create an aesthetically beautiful space. Here are some tips to foster an exceptional, Monarch Award-winning garden.


photos and text about healthy soil

Your soil is full of life and should be treated with the same love and attention as the most beautiful flowers. Your plants need to be selected appropriately to thrive in the existing soil texture and pH. Make use of organic matter on top, especially with backyard compost. Be careful not to over-mulch, and be aware of what kind you use: sourced on-site and readily decomposing is best. Leave patches of bare soil for ground-nesting bees, and minimize soil disturbance (digging and rototilling) which disrupts the ecosystem beneath the surface. And, of course, don’t use herbicides, pesticides, or chemical fertilizers.


Photo and short blurb on native plants

Your garden will showcase native plant communities, with a mixture of species that occur naturally together in our area. While you don’t have to get rid of your favourite non-native plants, an award-winning garden will be at least 70% native species.  Do make sure to remove all invasive plants. Ensure you select your plants so that something is always blooming, from early spring through late fall, providing a continuous food supply for insects and birds. Incorporate many plants of each species so pollinators coming in for a meal can find more than one stem. Choose a good variety of species with different forms, flower shapes, colours, and heights. Plant in layers and tiers, and allow for dense growth with minimal lawn, which is a wasteful monoculture. Evergreens provide important winter habitat and interest throughout the season. In the fall, make sure you leave the seeds for birds, and resist the urge to tidy up, as the leaf layer insulates your garden over the winter and provides warm habitat for all those pollinators.


photos and text about conserving water

A Monarch Award garden sources all its water on-site. Disconnect your downspouts and direct them to your garden or use a rain barrel to harvest this free, abundant source. You could incorporate a rain garden to maximize infiltration and prevent runoff into storm sewers. Ensure a clean water source is provided for insects, birds, and other wildlife, including small shallow puddles with gentle sloped edges.

Cultural Practices

Photos and text about creative habitat in gardens

All systems and creatures, from microbes to mammals, are interdependent. Develop a food web approach, providing for all parts of an insect’s life cycle, including logs and bare soil for sunning and nesting. Appreciate that all creatures must eat – a nibbled plant is doing its job! Nature doesn’t fuss or primp and neither should you. The “tending” you do should be a labour of love, done with awareness of both neighbours and emissions.


While building your garden, be sure to use sustainable practices, materials that decompose or can be recycled, and products that are locally sourced. Minimize impermeable surfaces on your property.


Your paradise is meant to be experienced and enjoyed! Incorporate winding paths, create an invitation to explore. Plant in curves and design for visual interest. Add your unique personal touches. The ideal garden is a beloved asset to your neighbourhood streetscape, inspiring others to take notice, ask questions, and integrate these traits into their own gardens.

These principles of gardening for nature are just highlights. There is so much to learn and making changes in your garden is easier than you think.  If your garden is already brimming with life and you’ve scored well on the rubric, do  apply for a 2020 Monarch Award. The deadline for applications is June 21! For gardeners just starting to shift towards this ecosystem approach, or for small or young gardens, you may qualify for a Caterpillar Award. Previous entrants are encouraged to enter again and show how your nature-friendly garden has progressed and matured.

Garden visits will be conducted with awareness of COVID-19 safety protocols and strict social distancing. We all know that gardening is a wonderful thing to do and a safe way to be outdoors this summer. So let your good work shine, use the new rubric, take some photos, tell the Monarch Awards organizers about your nature-friendly garden, and spread the word.

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