Attracting Butterflies with a Butterfly Garden

Few sights lift a gardener’s heart more than a butterfly floating from bloom to bloom. Butterfly gardening is a labor of love requiring smart planning, and a little knowledge of the butterfly’s life cycle.

A butterfly garden can thrive on a sunny patio, but it will include wild birds if it encompasses the whole yard. Blend the needs and preferences of butterflies with landscape plans, and plant to attract butterflies that are the most common in your area. Butterflies are particularly attracted to pinks, yellows, oranges, reds, purples, whites, and blues.

There is a little sacrifice on the gardener’s part, and that is where the life cycle of the butterfly comes in. There are three remarkable transformations that take place: egg, caterpillar, chrysalis, to becoming the butterfly. This is approximately a six-week metamorphosis. The adult female lays her eggs on a “host plant”, which is eaten by the young caterpillars upon hatching. The caterpillar then attaches itself to a stem or branch as a crysallis, and creates a butterfly.

Local field guides are your best source to know which species of butterfly are common to your area, and which native plant species they use as larval host plants. It is important to provide a good quantity of larval food plants for the butterflies, as larval food plants lure females into the garden to lay their eggs.

Planning a butterfly garden landscape is not difficult. Make the most of your natural setting. As with wild birds, butterflies like edges and layers in their habitat. For example, low flowers at the edge of the lawn, and high flowers at the edge of trees. Sun is important – butterflies need sun to warm their body temperature. Butterflies will perch on flat stones or on bare soil to sun themselves, to raise their temperature high enough to fly.Provide a flat rock in a sunny, windless spot along the edge of your butterfly garden.

Butterflies avoid high winds and appreciate windbreaks. If your garden offers no shelter from wind, plant tall, dense shrubbery, or trellised vines, then butterflies will not stop for long. Native wildflowers serve as butterfly lures. Growing native species not only restores habitat, but also provides special nectar and larval food sources for the butterflies. When food sources disappear, butterflies go elsewhere.

A combination of wildflowers and grasses that bloom from early spring through early fall will keep butterflies well fed throughout their season. In designing the layout of your garden, try to use large splashes of color. Butterflies are first attracted to flowers by their color, and a large mass of blooms is easy for them to spot.

It is possible to combine nectar and host plants in a pleasing border. First, select a sunny, open site protected from the wind. In most cases, flowers grown in full sun produce more nectar, in turn attracting more butterflies.

Host plants may be scattered in the back of the border or in remote areas of the yard to minimize their ragged or weedy appearance. Young and old trees provide perches, larval food, nectar sources, and shelter. Leave thick brush under some of the trees, for this is where butterflies find warmth and shelter from rain.

Many species of caterpillars pupate here as well. It is important that you not use insecticides or herbicides anywhere near your butterfly garden, the larval food plants, or the adult nectar sources. These chemicals will kill all stages of the butterfly.

Butterflies often “puddle”, or gather at muddy places in the landscape, to get soil salts and minerals as well as moisture. A puddling place can be created with a shallow plastic container filled with builder’s sand and fine gravel, “flavored” with a small amount of compost.

Chunks of over-ripe fruit are also attractive to butterflies. A conventional birdbath or other shallow container that is filled with flat stones can provide a safe drinking spot. The stones should emerge from the water, allowing butterflies to alight and drink without getting wet.

Butterflies visit literally thousands of plants both to sip nectar and to lay their eggs. If you include some plants from each of the familes listed, you will increase your chances of attracting a variety of butterflies:

* Daisy family (Compositae), including sunflowers, marigolds, and zinnias;
* Pea, Clover, and Legume family (Leguminosae);
* Mint family (Labiatae);
* Milkweed family (Asclepiadaceae);
* Parsley family (Umbelliferae);
* Violet and Pansy family.

Growing a garden that welcomes winged wildlife provides benefits for people as well as birds and butterflies. Natural insect control, low maintenance, increased property value, and energy conservation from windbreak plantings are less obvious benefits of a well-planned wildlife garden.

Over the years, you will undoubtedly find new trees, shrubs, vines, perennials, and annuals to add, or new combinations of plants to try, that will improve the habitats you’ve created. Trees and shrubs will grow larger, bear more fruit, and provide opportunities for underplanting with shade-tolerant species. Enjoy your changing landscape and the wildlife that it attracts.Attracting Butterflies with a Butterfly Garden

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