Butterfly Gardening Basics

Offer a sheltered, sunny spot and a diversity of flowering plants, and you'll have these beautiful creatures — and their children too.

Monarch Butterfly

Monarch Butterfly

Watching butterflies bask in the sun or flit from flower to flower has to be one of the 20 great pleasures of gardening. Here's how to give these gorgeous creatures a good place to hang out:

Give them a good home — for life. It's not just the lovely adults you want to attract: you want the babies too. The best butterfly habitat is a diverse landscape. Depending on the species, butterflies need particular host plants for laying eggs. You may think of plants like milkweed, wild mustard and nettles as weeds, but for some butterfly species, that's food for the young caterpillars.

A variety of broad-leafed trees and shrubs will provide cover from wind, rain and predators. Locate your butterfly garden in a sunny site; if you can't find a protected spot, plant a windbreak of mid-sized cultivars of dense conifers like spruce, juniper or cypress.

Plant nectar sources. Choose a wide range of flowering plants that differ in color, type of flower and bloom time to welcome multiple species and give them plenty of options. Butterflies feed on tubular flowers and they especially love those with "landing strips." Yarrow, stonecrop, coneflower, verbena, phlox, butterfly weed (Asclepias), bee balm, cardinal flower (Lobelia), coreopsis, black-eyed Susan, joe pye weed, pentas, and various asters and sedums can keep your garden in butterfly blooms throughout the season.

Butterfly bush (Buddleia) is an obvious choice for a butterfly garden, but keep in mind that this plant is pretty aggressive in the landscape. You'll need to regularly pull up volunteers. On the plus side, butterfly bushes offer nectar over a long period if you keep pruning off the spent blooms.

You can also supplement their diet with an artificial feeder; mix one part sugar to four parts water. An overripe banana or a melon rind will also do the trick.

Offer them a drink. Put a mixture of sand and soil in a plant saucer or a shallow bowl and add enough water to saturate the mixture thoroughly, but not so much that there's standing water. Butterflies like to rest on wet sand or soil and absorb moisture and minerals from it. If the "drinking station" dries out too fast in your climate, sink a bucket filled with a wet mixture of soil and sand into the ground.

Invite them to sunbathe. Cold-blooded insects, butteflies like to warm themselves in the sun. Create a few perches out of the wind; chances are you'll also see them resting on a sunny rock or on top of a fence post.

Avoid using pesticides. Treat your landscape like the miniature ecosystem that it is, banning the use of insecticides and herbicides. With a diversity of plant material, you're not likely to attract large numbers of a plant pest, and you'll also be protecting natural predators.

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