How To Plant a Butterfly Garden
Tips for Attracting Butterflies to Your Yard
A butterfly garden can be a wonderful part of your landscape and will make a meaningful difference by creating habitat for our imperiled Lepidoptera friends. And gardening for butterflies is something anyone who loves growing plants and flowers can do. 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.
Many years ago, as a kid living in subtropical Houston, TX, I devoted much of my time studying butterflies, moths and beetles and creating an extensive collection of mounted specimens. In fact, my involvement with plants began as part of my insect collecting hobby; I started to raise moth and butterfly caterpillars to adults and needed to learn about their food plants. This was my original introduction to the web of life.
Collecting butterflies is no longer appropriate with so many species experiencing big declines in their populations. But back then, they were abundant with many species finding a home in the rich Piney Woods habitat of my childhood home.
The Four Basic Elements of a Butterfly Garden
Butterfly gardening is easy and, like any horticultural endeavor that creates habitat, depends on providing four basic elements:
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 the herbaceous plants 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.
A Little Butterfly Biology
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.
- The adults immediately mate, lay eggs, feed and die leaving behind the next generation.
What to Plant?
Often the flowering plants that feed the adult moths and butterflies are different from the plants on which their caterpillars feed. 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.
- To attract and feed adult butterflies, our 'Butterfly Paradise' Pre-planned Cottage Garden provides a beautifully designed garden that supplies many months of nectar-rich flowers for a wide range of butterflies.
- Flower shapes that attract butterflies are generally either flat topped (Achillea), flower spikes with lots of tiny flowers (Liatris, Buddleia, Agastache) or cone type (Echinacea).
- Food plants for caterpillars vary but widely feed upon plants include oak, willow, cherry, poplar, birch, apple, alder, dandelions (NO "Weed-N-Feed" fertilizers!), clover and dill.
- For widespread migrating species of butterflies like the regal Monarch, various species of milkweed (Asclepias) provides both larval food and nectar for adults.
Butterfly Favorite Plants
Create beautiful butterfly habitat for our Monarch butterflies as they migrate across North America. Our selection of five Monarch butterfly favorites will help feed these important ...Learn More
Asclepias syriaca (Common Milkweed) is a gorgeous plant that produces purple/pink flower clusters that wildflower gardeners love and spreads quickly. This native perennial is a prima...Learn More
Rose Milkweed (Asclepias incarnata) is a showy pink blooming Asclepias species that is a food plant for Monarch butterfly caterpillars and a nectar source for adult butterflies. Also...Learn More
To attract and provide habitat for regionally specific species of moths and butterflies, gardeners will need to do some research to discover what food plants the caterpillars need to eat and plant them (see "Xerces Society" below).
No Chemical Insecticides
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.
Listen to an interview with David Salman on Utah Public Radio to Learn More About Butterfly Gardening
The Xerces Society
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.
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