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WHAT IS A BUTTERFLY GARDEN?

"What do you grow" is a common question between gardeners on the Internet. Normally, you hear "I grow vegetables" (or roses, or perennials.) When I tell them "I’m a butterfly gardener," I am often asked "What’s a butterfly garden?" To me, it’s a no brainer question. I am surprised to learn how many people have never heard of butterfly gardening.

A butterfly garden is simply a garden, with plant material that attracts butterflies. There is more to planting one than just sticking a butterfly bush and a few yellow flowers in a flowerbed, though. Planting a successful butterfly garden requires you to do some research first. One of the first things you must do is learn the general needs of butterflies. Next, you need to find out what butterflies occur in your area, and what their host and nectar plants are. While learning about host plants, it’s important that you understand one thing about this subject: in order to attract butterflies and make them stay, you must provide for their larva - caterpillars. A host plant is a plant that caterpillars eat, and you must plant these too. Once you know the general needs, what species of butterflies occur in your area, and what the host and nectar plants are, you are almost ready to plan your garden.

To learn the general needs, you can take a walk through the woods or prairie, and see what conditions the butterflies in nature live in. You will see that they are most active in full sunshine on warm, sunny days. You should also notice that they don’t fly much on windy days. Sometimes, you might see butterflies resting on damp places on the ground, like a mud hole. You’ll notice that they don’t sit on one flower for long, instead, going from flower to flower taking nectar. You might also notice that different species prefer different shaped and colored flowers. Keep all this in mind while planning your butterfly garden.

Plant your garden where there is a windbreak. Make sure it’s in full sun, only dappled shade at the most. Try to create a mudhole for ‘puddling’, and give them a place to sit and ‘sun’. Don’t forget to include a place for people to sit and watch the ‘flying flowers’.

Now you need to learn what butterflies are in your area. One great source on the internet, is the Northern Prairie Wildlife Research Center/US Geological Survey site, "Butterflies of North America", located at: http://www.npwrc.usgs.gov/resource/distr/lepid/bflyusa/bflyusa.htm . This site will allow you to click on your state, and tell you what butterflies are there, and even narrow it down to butterflies in your county (just click on ‘checklists’). Each entry includes a photo of the butterfly and often a caterpillar too. It supplies you with pertinent information on butterflies like host plants and nectar preferences. It also gives you descriptions, habitats, and life histories. This is a great site to identify butterflies you see in your garden, as well.

I think the most important plants in your garden are the host plants. The most logical host plants are native plants. These plants will more easily recover from the destruction of hungry caterpillars, than non-native hybrids. Butterflies also know to look for native plants, where they have to ‘learn’ about the hybridized host plants. Milkweed, parsley, and passionvine are examples of host plants. Quantity is very important. You will need many plants, as caterpillars are ‘eating, pooping machines’. Three or four parsley plants, for example, will not do. Think more in terms of dozens of plants. It seems that we never plant enough milkweed, and are reminded every year what a pig a monarch caterpillar is. One large native passionvine (Maypops – P incarnata) will be totally stripped in a month by hungry Gulf Fritillaries. Just plant lots of host plants for whatever butterflies reside in your area.

Now to move on to nectar plants. Should you plant one of everything, or lots of several different plants? I think the correct answer is plant in waves of colors. Plant a variety of different plants, in different shapes and colors. Plant in groups, a clump of yellow flowers will catch the eye of a butterfly quicker than one plant here, and one plant there. Make sure you have flat, daisy-shaped flowers, and small tube shaped flowers. Look at single flowers (Coneflowers, Daisies), as well as flowers that grow in clumps (Pentas, Liatris). Butterflies seem to prefer red, yellow and purple colors. Red is the dominant color in my garden (and hummingbirds area bonus!)

You should see now, why I call butterfly gardening a jigsaw puzzle. You must put all the pieces together to make your garden work. Its very rewarding to plant a garden specifically for butterflies, and to see it totally engulfed. You grow not only beautiful flowers, but also ‘flying flowers’.