Getting Started in Butterfly Gardening

By Robin Leja | May 2, 2018
Image by Robin Leja
by Robin Leja
May 2, 2018
Robin is a Master Gardener living near Columbus Ohio with her husband Brian, where she loves to capture her sunny, suburban garden with her camera for her blog Life In Robin’s Nest, Facebook and Instagram. When she isn’t gardening, she’s singing with her friends in one of several groups to which she belongs. She also loves to read, shop, travel, cook, and decorate her home. If you can’t find her in the garden, she’s likely at a beach somewhere with her toes in the sand, or off visiting her far away children and grandchildren.

“Have you ever wished to see an abundance of butterflies fluttering about your yard? It’s actually easy to entice them to visit, and you can even convince them to stay if you know a few tricks. Here’s the best part, the same flowers we love so much are at the top of the list of butterfly attractants. And if those flowers could talk, they’d say that they love the butterflies in return. They may not be quite as efficient as bees, but they do carry a fair amount of pollen around the garden as they flit from flower to flower.

Red spotted purple butterfly on buddleia

But where should you start with your butterfly garden? Well, the best thing you can do is stop using all pesticides. Even the organic types will kill off the very caterpillars that turn into butterflies. If you are worried about caterpillars eating your edible crops, floating row covers are a better option than sprays. You might want to plant extras, just for them. Learn to live with a few holes in your leaves if you want butterflies to stick around and nest in your garden.

You’ll want to find a nice sunny location for your butterfly garden. Butterflies are ectotherms, meaning they absorb heat from outside sources. They’ll appreciate having warm, sunny spots to sunbathe, so you might add a few places for them to bask. Place large, flat stones facing the morning sun, and they’ll be able to warm themselves for a day of flower feasting. Stone and cement patios are also popular spots for basking.

Monarch caterpillar munching milkweed leaf

Butterflies also need water, but in much smaller amounts than birds, of course. You can make a butterfly bath by placing stones in a dish or birdbath, so that they have somewhere to alight while accessing the water. You may also leave your outdoor faucet on a very slow drip, or frequently spray cement driveways and patios. Even pool water overflow may attract them.

Nectar flowers will be the foundation of your butterfly garden. Unlike hummingbirds who gravitate to red, butterflies often prefer purple. But instead of dotting your garden with purple, try to plant a wide swath so that it’s easy for them to find. Many of the native flowers they’ve known for generations are purple, but they will come to other colors also, especially yellow. You can even draw them in with a decoy like a purple gazing ball, as long as you have plenty of good nectar flowers nearby. Perennial flowers are easiest, of course, but most annuals are nectar rich and their long bloom period assures a steady supply. Try to use a variety of flowers throughout the year so that there will be a steady supply of nectar for early and late arrivals.

Fritillary butterfly on echinacea

While nectar plants are much showier, the best way to keep the butterflies coming is by providing their host plants. Butterflies are very particular about where they lay their eggs, and will only use these preferred varieties. You may be familiar with monarchs and their connection to milkweeds. But did you know that swallowtail butterflies only use plants from the carrot family, like dill, parsley, and fennel? Buckeye butterflies use snapdragons, fritillaries use wild violets, lawn plantains host checkerspots, while willow and oak trees are hosts to hairstreaks, admirals, red spotted purples, and mourning cloaks. Use host plants as the bones of your garden, and nectar plants as the foundation, and you’ll soon see these flying flowers often.

You may wish to provide supplemental foods for your butterflies, as many enjoy overripe fruit. You can even cover the fruit with netting if bees and wasps become problematic. Just be sure to use soft fruit, even to the point of rotting. Butterflies will often draw minerals and salts from soil, so keeping a bare spot of muddy dirt will likely attract puddling behavior. This is a bit like their version of the local pub. It’s also a good idea to provide shelter for our winged friends. They like to hide under large leaves, or inside of thick shrubs. Offering grassy lawn areas near your garden will provide them with a clear flight path to your garden.
Your butterfly garden will provide you with delight, I’m sure. All the photos here were taken in my traditional suburban lot. If I can draw them in here, so can you!”
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