How You Can Attract and Encourage Butterflies In Your Garden

The other day a butterfly found its way into our kitchen and we carefully scooped it up from the curtains and eased it outdoors again.  This small event in our packed lives got me thinking about giving nature a helping hand.  Living on the island, surrounded by a variety of wild plants, the butterflies have seemed to me to be doing well. They flit about, lay eggs and as long as the larvae do not decimate my garden plants, we get along just fine.  I was however reminded that not all of you are so fortunate as to live in the country so I thought I might pass along a few tips on keeping and attracting butterflies to your garden.

Give Butterflies What They Need And They’ll Hang Around

To begin, butterflies will visit and stay if they are given the essentials of life.  Their requirements are not much different than our own: a variety of plants for food and shelter, some moisture and an absence of pesticides.  This is one creature that will come if you provide the appropriate conditions.

Let us be very clear here, butterfly larvae are ugly caterpillars that eat plants.

It Takes A Lot Of Energy To Make A Butterfly

Eat is perhaps a mild word for what these multilegged predators do to plants – ravage is closer to the truth. If you have ever watched a parsley worm devour your carrots, parsley or Queen Anne’s Lace, you’ll know exactly what I mean.

A single worm can strip a planting almost overnight.  This caterpillar will shed its skin 4 to 6 times as it grows large enough to pupate into a butterfly and when big enough, it will spin a hard chrysalis and immobilize itself on the host plant until it is ready to emerge to enter our dreams and hearts as a Swallowtail butterfly.

Now, we all love the Swallowtail but you have to have the worm before it turns.  Get used to having ugly caterpillars around if you want the beauty of flitting fairies.

These plants attract or feed the larva:

  • Wild Asters
  • Clover
  • Hollyhocks
  • Lupines
  • Mallows
  • Marigolds
  • Milkweed
  • Nettles and Thistles
  • Parsley
  • Passionflower (in baskets)
  • Plantain
  • Snapdragons
  • Sorrel
  • Turtlehead
  • Violets

These will keep the larvae happy and growing well.  Do not pick only one of these plants to install in your garden. Butterfly larvae love to eat them all and the more kinds you have, the more likely it is that you will successfully attract these lovely insects. Encourage the above plants to self-sow and give you a small weedy section at the back of your garden.

Monarch butterfly

It’s A Neighborhood Project

You might consider encouraging your neighbors to plant some larvae food as well and if each of you donated a touching back corner of your yards, you would have a much larger space in one area for the larvae to feed and be protected.  If you could convince several adjoining neighbors to put a few plants in both back corners and along the backs of the garden, you could create an environmental sanctuary joined by alleyways for butterflies and other wildlife such as birds. I note that these larvae weeds do not have to be prominent, they can be tucked at the rear of gardens behind the really attractive garden plants. Back there, they are out of sight and out of mind until the butterflies come winging over to join you for evening drinks.

Here Are Two Simple and Inexpensive Ways To Attract Butterflies

Attracting female butterflies in the first place is as simple as encouraging these weeds to grow and providing a source of water.
The best sources is a mud puddle. In this way, the insect gets the moisture she needs while also obtaining needed minerals.   Sink a shallow but wide dish – the plastic top from a garbage can is ideal – into the soil and fill it up with the excavated soil. Keep this dish mud-puddled to bring in the butterflies in droves.

Alternately, you could dig a basin sized hole and line it with plastic – a plastic garbage bag would work well – fill in the lined depression with the excavated soil and water. There is no need for drainage holes in this mud puddle, we want wet mud, not drainage so top up the water every second day or so.  In our gardens, we regularly see butterflies in the bog garden area seemingly sitting on the ground but in reality getting a much-needed drink.  Butterflies will visit sites that are in full sun and sheltered from winds.  Flowering shrubs are great for their roosting needs and the more fragrant the plant the better.

Garden plants for feeding adult butterflies include:

  • Asters,
  • Joe-Pye weed,
  • Black-eyed Susans,
  • Lantana,
  • Butterfly Bush,
  • Butterfly Weed,
  • Liatris,
  • Pentas,
  • Coreopsis and
  • Purple Coneflowers.

What Happens To Butterflies In The Winter

Now, we all know of our beloved Monarch butterfly that flies south to overwinter. This of course simply proves that this insect is a true Canadian.  Most of the rest of the species we see stay right here with the rest of us.  This means they are overwintering on that weedy trash or brush pile and if you mow or prune the weeds for the winter, you are removing the insects from your garden.  Think natural here. Do not clean up the butterfly area of the garden.  Leave any brush or piles of weeds in place for the winter.  The rougher the better as far as butterfly survival is concerned.

How To Tell A Good Caterpillar From Bad

How do you know a good caterpillar from a bad one?

A rough rule of thumb is that the good ones are more solitary than the bad ones.

If you see a nest of tent caterpillars (bad ones) then opening up the nest for the birds or flaming them with a propane torch (I tape mine to the end of a hockey stick to reach higher nests) eliminates these tree predators.
Cabbage butterflies (small white ones) lay hundreds of eggs that hatch into small green caterpillars that devastate cole crops and sometimes roses and garden plants.  Handpick and stomp these guys or dust with rotenone or diatomaceous earth.  Most of the rest will be beneficial.  If you only see one or two caterpillars eating a good plant, don’t kill them.  Instead, try moving them to a more weedy specimen. In this way, both the plant and the caterpillar get to light up your life later in the gardening season.

You can get more details here.

Best plants to attract adult butterflies

  • Asters
  • Joe-Pye weed
  • Black-eyed Susans
  • Lantana
  • Butterfly Bush
  • Butterfly Weed
  • Liatris
  • Pentas
  • Coreopsis
  • Purple Coneflowers.

You can read practical landscaping tips here

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