By David Salman, Founder and Chief Horticulturalist for High Country Gardens
A butterfly garden can be a wonderful part of your landscape, and will make a meaningful difference by creating habitat for butterflies in all of their life stages. Anyone who loves growing plants and flowers can grow a butterfly garden. A garden that's good for butterflies is also good for other pollinators, such as bees and hummingbirds, who often share the same nectar plants and utilize the same habitat.
The Four Basic Elements of a Butterfly Garden
Flowers and food: Plant a mix of flowers that bloom from the start of spring through fall. Make sure to include food plants for caterpillars, such as Milkweed for monarch butterfly larvae.
Shelter: Leave some bare patches of ground or small brush piles (in unused corners of the yard). Leave herbaceous plants, such as grasses, standing over the winter to protect overwintering eggs and caterpillar pupae waiting to emerge.
Water: A mud puddle is ideal for butterflies, providing them with a source of water and salt/minerals. You can create one using a bird bath or submerged pie plate, and add sand, gravel and water.
A Safe, Pesticide-Free Environment: Don't use chemical insecticides (especially systemic ones). Use caution when applying organic pesticides and use herbicides only for a weed emergency.
Butterflies and moths have three stages in their life cycles before becoming the flying adult insects we recognize.
The mother butterfly lays eggs on preferred food plants.
The eggs hatch into caterpillars who feed on their food plants. These caterpillars grow to their full size before going dormant as a chrysalis (butterfly) or a cocoons (moth) in preparation for adulthood.
Then caterpillars go through metamorphosis and emerge as flying adults. Adults mate, lay eggs, feed and die, leaving behind the next generation.
Plant Both Caterpillar and Butterfly Food
Often the flowering plants that feed the adult moths and butterflies are different from the plants that feed caterpillars. For a butterfly garden, the gardener must plant both.
Most flowers that attract butterflies and moths will feed a wide range of species.
When it comes to feeding their caterpillars, butterflies and moths can either have a need for very specific food plants or have a taste for a wider range of plants. This depends on the species of each moth and butterfly as they will have different requirements.
Our Bee Bonanza Bonanza Ornamental Oregano Collection will fill your garden with easy-care, fragrant, pollinator-favorite flowers. Our bee-friendly collection features three of our favorite varieties, ranging from draping to upright, with flower clusters large and small in rose, pink, and magenta. Blooms in gardens or containers all summer and well into fall. Collection of 9 plants.
'Blue Spruce' Creeping Sedum (Sedum reflexum) is a standout among low-maintenance Sedums. This easy-to-grow and eye-catching features succulent blue-green foliage, much like little spruce needles! A pollinator favorite, it is covered with small star-shaped yellow flowers in summer for over a month. A great evergreen groundcover where low maintenance, drought-tolerant, deer-and-rabbit-resistant plantings are desired.
'Cape Blanco' Creeping Sedum (Sedum spathulifolium 'Cape Blanco') is sheer elegance with unusual pewter, powder-blue succulent foliage in a well-behaved groundcover. Clusters of tiny yellow flowers cover the plant in summer. Cape Blanco is an award-winning standout. Easy-to-grow and pollinator-friendly this North American native is a must-have!
Fast-growing, and colorful, 'Angelina' Creeping Sedum (Sedum rupestre) adds a dazzling highlight with colors from chartreuse to golden yellow. Easy to grow, it will spread quickly as a drought-tolerant groundcover. Bright yellow star-like flowers bloom in summer and foliage turns golden-orange in autumn. A great pick for rock gardens, dry borders, and large expanses of ground that need planting.
It is important to not spray indiscriminately in your yard and kill caterpillars. Even organic formulations like BT (Bacillus thuringiensis) that you would spray to kill corn earworms (moth caterpillars), are broad spectrum and will kill all moth and butterfly caterpillars.
It's also essential NOT to use systemic chemical insecticides (absorbed through leaf tissue and distributed through all parts of the plants including flowers). Many of these formulations are Neonicotinoids. Systemically treated plants have toxic flowers which will poison the adult butterflies and moths!
And if you have tomatoes, you'll have "horn worms", the caterpillar of hawk moths. These are the hovering hummingbird-like moths that pollinate flowers at dusk like Evening Primrose (Oenothera) and Hummingbird Mint (Agastache). So plant an extra tomato plant or two and pick off the horn worms, don't spray, leaving some to mature into adults.
The Xerces Society is a nonprofit organization that protects wildlife through the conservation of invertebrates (insects) and their habitat. For over forty years, the Society has been at the forefront of invertebrate protection worldwide, harnessing the knowledge of scientists and the enthusiasm of citizens to implement conservation programs.
The society has just published an excellent new book: "Attracting Native Pollinators: Protecting North America’s Bees and Butterflies" which is available on their website: http://www.xerces.org.
It will give you a lot more specific information on what to plant regionally to support native butterfly populations in your garden and landscape.