Planting a Butterfly Garden
Sometimes gardening sounds so difficult and the amount of information can be daunting. It can make your head swim and cause an acute case of analysis paralysis. Ever feel that way? Think about it, when someone can write a whole book on just one gardening topic, then it must be a really difficult and complicated hobby. Right? One whole book on ONE topic?
But it needn’t be that way. Gardening is loads of fun and rewarding in so many ways, and a butterfly garden is the perfect place to start. A butterfly garden is a must-have, especially for a new gardener because watching it grow and host a multitude of beautiful critters will inspire you to continue down the gardening path.
So let’s talk butterfly gardening and start with the basics.
Why a butterfly garden?
Last week while I was outside, engaged in yet another battle with my Bermuda grass, a large butterfly caught my eye. As I stood and watched the tiger swallowtail flutter through the neighborhood I realized that there was not a single yard in sight that provided food for that beautiful and important insect. It would leave my neighborhood hungry.
Butterflies are an important pollinator insect, and by planting the appropriate plants, we can contribute to their survival. Butterfly gardens are brimming full of life with colorful flowers and busy insects galore. There is no garden that will bring you greater pleasure.
Why do we need pollinators?
Nature is a pretty amazing system. Flowers must be pollinated to produce fruit. In order for a flower to attract the help it needs to get pollinated, the flower produces nectar. Nectar is the food for the insects that are pollinators. In this way, nature has provided a give-and-take system. Flowers entice an insect to feed on its nectar and in return gets pollinated so that it can produce fruit.
A larger percentage of our food system relies on pollinators. For example, if the flowers of an apple tree are not pollinated, then the tree would not produce apples. No matter how many flowers are on the tree, if insects did not visit those flowers, then there would be no apples.
What is a butterfly garden?
At first glance, it would seem that a butterfly garden is any garden that attracts butterflies, and essentially that is correct. However, a true butterfly garden is designed and planted to attract butterflies with nectar rich flowers (food plants) and keep them around with plants that provide food for their caterpillars (larval or host plants). In this way, a butterfly garden supports the entire life cycle of the butterfly.
What is the best location?
You don’t need a large area for a butterfly garden. A small space of your lawn, a window box, or containers on a deck or balcony can all serve as a butterfly garden.
Butterfly gardens need a sunny spot preferably protected by strong winds. Not only do the plants need the sunshine, but butterflies are sun seekers because they need to warm their bodies in order to fly.
What is a nectar plant?
Nectar plants are those that provide food for butterflies. Butterflies have a straw-like tube called a proboscisthat they use to sip the nectar from flowers. This nectar provides the nutrition that butterflies need. But not all flowers are good nectar plants.
The best nectar plants are native plants. Remember…native flora attracts native fauna. These plants (perennials, annuals, shrubs, and small trees) produce red, yellow, orange, pink, or purple blossoms. They have flowers that are flat-topped or clustered and have short tubes. This flower shape allows the butterfly to reach the nectar with its proboscis.
What are larval or host plants?
Larval plants are the plants that the butterfly uses to lay her eggs on. Female butterflies are very choosy about where they lay their eggs. They are good moms in this respect because they know that the tiny caterpillars that hatch from the egg will need food right away to survive and grow. So the plant she uses to lay her eggs on is the exact plant that the caterpillar needs for food. Typically butterfly species have one plant or plant family that serves as its larval plant. This is why you hear the call for planting milkweed for the monarch butterfly. Milkweed is the only plant family on which a monarch caterpillar can survive.
Keep this in mind next time you see a caterpillar that is munching on a plant. You cannot pick the caterpillar off of the plant and place it on a different plant and expect it to survive. Further, all caterpillars turn into butterflies or moths.
Where should I start?
Start with the nectar plants. These are the plants that will attract butterflies to your garden as they provide food for the adults. Choose 3-4 nectar plants that are native or adaptive to your area and plant these in masses. Butterflies are more likely to find your garden when there are large patches of the same flower color. Also, when butterflies are feeding they tend to flutter from flower to flower. A mass of flowers makes eating a much more pleasurable experience.
Next, identify 2-3 species of butterflies that are common in your area and provide their larval plant. Larval plants can be grown right in the garden or planted in containers that you place near the nectar plants. Remember that these plants will be eaten by the caterpillars, and some caterpillars are voracious eaters. But these plants have evolved with the butterflies and typically recover nicely. It is interesting to note that some plants that are quite aggressive are kept in check by munching caterpillars. (Passiflora–passion vine–comes to mind.)
Give me an example.
I am reducing my lawn to provide more space for useful plantings for myself and the wildlife (butterflies, birds, bees, etc.) I have successfully wrangled the Bermuda grass out of a sunny area and will be planting my first butterfly garden (at this home) this fall. What am I planting? I will start with large masses of black-eyed Susan (Rudbeckia), purple cone flowers (Echinacea), and asters as nectar sources. Next I will add some dill and fennel as larval plants for black swallowtails and passion vine (Passiflora) for the gulf fritillaries.
A butterfly garden like any other garden takes time, so this will be the beginning. As time passes and I see how the plants are doing, I will add other nectar and larval plants.
What should be avoided?
- Chemicals! This includes all herbicides and insecticides! You absolutely must avoid chemicals!
- Water splashing. Water your plants at the ground level so it doesn’t splash up on the plants and flowers. A simple DIY drip system is perfect for this.
- Plants with large flowers that are not necessarily beneficial to butterflies…such as hibiscus and roses.
- Non-native species that do not support native butterflies. For example, the Kousa dogwood is non-native and supports no insects, whereas the native dogwood, Cornus florida, supports 117 species of butterflies and moths.
- Non-native species that attract butterflies but have become invasive. These often compete and choke out the native species. And remember, just because a plant is not invasive in your yard doesn’t mean you aren’t contributing to the problem. Find out what plants are a problem in your area.
- Butterflies and Moths of North America
- North American Butterfly Association
- National Wildlife Federation: Garden for Wildlife
- The Butterfly Website: Butterfly Gardening
Now is the time! If you have questions about starting a butterfly garden, be sure to shoot me an email, or comment below.
Happy butterfly gardening!