There are many reasons beyond the fact that butterflies are beautiful to create a butterfly garden. For instance, butterflies, like bees, are great pollinators, dancing from flower to flower to help the plants reproduce. And, while bees are on our minds, many of the same plants that will attract butterflies will also entice bees, so there’s that whole helping the bees thing as well. Truth be told, butterfly populations are on the decline due to habitat loss, so they could use a little help, too.
By and large, sunny gardens with flowers will attract butterflies, but there are several things that we, as the garden designers, can do to both attract them and create the right environments for these lively insects. They like specific plants for nectar, as well as plants and trees for shelter. Get the right combination, and the garden will not only be full of butterflies but will also help them thrive and rebuild their populations.
The Basics: Sun and Flowers
Butterfly gardens start with finding a sunny spot and flowering plants. Butterflies need the sun to help them stay warm. They are considered cold-blooded insects, meaning they go very lethargic — basically paralyzed— when temperatures drop below 40 degrees. At 41 degrees, they are able to crawl, but they don’t flitter around until its fairly warm. The sun, of course, helps with heat, and it helps with growing the flowering plants.
Choosing a variety of plants and the right kinds of plants is helpful as well. Most culinary herbs are a good start, especially sage, chives and lemon verbena. Sunflowers are another good choice, as are marigolds, which are often used as pest deterrents for vegetable gardens. Other popular flowers include milkweed (the favorite of monarchs), purple and yellow coneflowers, lilies, asters, and daises. Butterflies also like aromatically useful plants like lavender and bee balm.
The other thing to be aware of with plants is trying to choose ones that are local to the area, which in turn will make them better suited to the butterflies there. It’s also good practice to avoid known invasive species. Lastly, perennials and early-blooming bulbs will help with providing pollen during leaner times, i.e. when the summer annuals haven’t yet sprouted.
The Necessities: Shelter and Food
While nectar-producing flowers in a sun-filled garden will certainly invite butterflies for a visit, in order to get them to stay, there needs to be shelter and food.
Windbreaks via trees or hedges is a great idea — as long as they don’t block the sun – because they’ll help butterflies not get blown away whilst doing their pollinating. Trees and shrubs also provide a sturdy enough setting for butterflies to sleep safely and avoid predators.
The other thing trees and shrubs do is provide food for caterpillars. Many gardeners fear caterpillars because they are known for chowing down on things. For the most part, though, caterpillars steer clear of vegetable plants in favor of more substantial stuff. Some of the best trees and shrubs for a butterfly garden are maple, willow, alder, chokecherries, and currants. Feeding caterpillars is how we get more butterflies.
For the most part, butterflies are good at finding their own water sources, content with puddles or sap or dew, but it’s not a bad idea to create some kind of small supply of water, such as a birdbath or small pond with a bit of sand (Butterflies can’t drink from open water). This will help with bringing in other useful animals, such as bees, frogs, and lizards.
The Research: Natives and Plans
Now that the general information is there to work from, it’s time to get more specific. This begins with finding out which butterflies are common, and plants are well suited, to your location.
Ultimately, finding out what kinds of butterflies are native to your particular area is going to make a huge difference. Gardens can then be designed with the plants that these butterflies prefer most. Plus, more than likely it is not going to be as fruitful to build a butterfly garden for species that aren’t ever going to visit.
Finally, a little planning can help with how the garden fits together. It’s good practice to have different sized plants that grow to different heights. And, it’s important to make sure that larger flora, like hedges and trees, aren’t going to be blocking the sun. So, take a moment to plot out the garden with these things in mind. And, don’t forget to include a nice spot to sit.
Then, it’s all about the watching. Butterflies can bring a lot of joy and color into the garden. They are a pleasure to have around.
Lead image source: Schwoaze/Pixabay