Creating a Butterfly Garden

Last week I covered how to make a wildlife garden that is bird-friendly. This week you will learn how to make your garden a haven for butterflies. Butterflies are beautiful and interesting creatures. A butterfly garden is an easy way to see more butterflies and to help them, since many natural butterfly habitats have been lost to human activities like building homes, roads, commercial development and farms. It is easy to increase the number and variety of butterflies in your yard. Simply grow the plants the caterpillars like to eat, and plants that adult butterflies feed on.

Your butterfly garden must be in a location that's warm and sunny most of the day. On cool days and in the mornings, butterflies bask in the sunlight. The sun increases their body temperature, which must rise to 85-100 degrees F before they can fly. This is why butterflies are active on sunny days and inactive on cloudy days. Add a few light-colored stones or rocks to your garden for the butterflies to use as basking sites. The following tips will help you create habitat for many different types of butterflies.

  1. Locate the flower border in the sun. Butterflies bask in the sun but avoid cool shade.
  2. Shelter the border from the wind. Tall flowering perennials or shrubs at the back of the garden will block the wind and protect the butterflies while they are nectaring.
  3. Pick plants for every season. Butterflies sources of flower nectar from spring through fall.
  4. Grow large clumps of three or more of each butterfly flower.
  5. Plant a diversity of brightly colored flowers.
  6. Grow caterpillar plants as well as flowers for adult butterflies. Butterfly caterpillars, or larvae, often require a particular native plant for sustenance.
  7. Grow weedier-looking caterpillar and nectar plants in the corner of your yard. This will provide habitat for a wide variety of butterflies in all life stages.
  8. Provide a place for butterflies to spend the winter. Leave seedpods and stalks of perennials as well as leaf litter. Piles of sticks, brush, and logs will serve as winter refuge.
  9. Don’t use pesticides; they will kill butterflies and their larvae.

Flying requires great amounts of energy which adult butterflies receive from nectar-producing flowers. Nectar contains energy-rich sugars and lipids and has about the same basic chemical make-up, no matter what flower it comes from. A hungry adult butterfly may visit several different flowers for nectar. However, some butterfly species do have nectaring preferences.

It is especially important to have flowers in mid to late summer, when most butterflies are active. Butterflies are particularly attracted to red, orange, yellow, and purple flowers. Avoid big showy flowers (and double flowers) bred for their size; they are often poor nectar sources. Don't be disappointed if butterflies ignore some highly recommended plants. Watch the butterflies, record their preferences, and plant more of the popular species next year

Nectar plants for Connecticut gardens: Perennials include: swamp milkweed, common milkweed, yarrow, chives, butterfly weed, New York & New England aster, purple coneflower, Joe-Pye weed, blazingstar or gayfeather, lobelia, lupine, mint, catmint, Monarda, phlox, sedum, and goldenrod, Black-eyed susan, coreopsis, flowering onions, lily, salvia, Oxeye Daisies, Redbud (tree)

Shrubs: Caryopteris, button bush, Pepperbush (Clethra), Butterfly bush

Larval hosts for Connecticut gardens: Butterflies lay eggs on host plants and later, when the eggs hatch, the larvae (or caterpillars) eat the leaves, and they require a different menu than adult butterflies. Most adult butterflies lay their eggs on or near specific plants because these plants meet the nutritional needs of the larvae or caterpillars hatched from the eggs and most caterpillars will starve to death if they cannot find their host plants in a field or yard soon after emerging from the egg. Monarch larvae, for example, only feed on plants in the milkweed (Asclepias) family. Key plants include: Yarrow, sunflower, aster, black cherry (tree), milkweed, spicebush (shrub), sassafras (tree), and tulip tree.

If you plan a butterfly garden carefully, you can provide a habitat that can help sustain the entire life cycle of some butterflies. You can also help restore fragmented corridors by planting asters, goldenrods and other late-blooming perennials for butterflies migrating south. If you encourage your neighbors to plant their own butterfly gardens, you’ll really be helping them not only persist in a rapidly declining habitat but also thrive.

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