Learn how to attract butterflies to your garden and keep them there.
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If you love butterflies but aren't an avid gardener, it's a match made in butterfly heaven. That's because an untamed garden becomes more like a natural habitat.Think about it: where do you see lots of butterflies flit and flutter freely? In wild meadows where the terrain is left alone to do what it does naturally, without the help of green thumbs.
Extreme butterfly gardeners allow their home turf to become genuine ecosystems and are willing to tolerate a bit of a mess. They leave their rakes in the garage and allow fallen leaves and plant debris to become nesting territory for butterfly larvae.
Don't be discouraged, however, if the entire weekend was just spent cleaning the yard. Allowing just one small corner of the yard to go unkempt, says horticulturist and nursery owner Leana Beeman-Sims, "gives butterflies a place to rear their young, which is one of the most important ingredients in attracting them."
The four ingredients of a successful butterfly garden, she advises, is "plant diversity, a chemical-free environment, sunshine and a bit of wet ground."
Provide plant diversity.
Luckily, many home gardens already beckon adult butterflies. That's because butterflies are attracted to common annuals, perennials and flowering shrubs such as aster, abutilon (flowering maple), cosmos, lantana, marigold, scabiosa, verbena, sweetpeas, Shasta daisies and Buddleia (butterfly bush). The blooms of cosmos, yarrow and Gloriosa daisies offer broad flowers that butterflies see as airports. Butterflies can rest on each bloom while sipping the flowers' nectar--important because, unlike hummingbirds, butterflies can't hover. Flowers such as delphinium and snapdragons that have many small blossoms on a single stem allow butterflies to investigate each miniature blossom without moving. Click here for more nectar sources that butterflies love.
Diversity means growing some tall plants such as trees and evergreens to help create a breeze-free zone. Butterflies need a sheltered, peaceful place to feed.
"Don't blow your butterflies away," says Beeman-Sims. "Even windy balconies and decks can be made more user-friendly by adding medium- sized bushy shrubs such as bluish-purple flowering Ceanothus or lavender. This gives butterflies a kind of fast food stop."
Besides supplying butterflies with nectar sources, it's probably most important to supply them with host plants where they can lay their eggs. Two favorite easy-to-grow host plants are Lavatera and parsley. For more varieties, see larval host plants for additional varieties.
Many well-intentioned gardeners don't quite make the connection between caterpillars and butterflies and sometimes view caterpillars as an enemy. "If you spray pesticides to get rid of garden pests, you'll most likely get rid of the butterfly population tool," says Beeman-Sims. "Eliminating the butterfly larvae means eliminating butterflies; it's as simple as that."
Adult butterflies do not tolerate pernicious substances either. Their colonies quickly die off if fed meals of nectar that have been tainted by harmful chemicals.
Give them a spot in the sun.
Butterflies are cold-blooded and truly solar-powered. Their wings must be a certain temperature — about 85 degrees or warmer — for them to take flight. When basking in sunshine, they are literally gathering energy. Many of the plants that butterflies cherish — such as lantana and butterfly bush — also like the sun.
Butterflies need water but they avoid running water and big fountains. Offer them still, calm water instead. Many gardeners set out bowls of water, or you may want to wet the ground. In the wild butterflies drink around mud puddles. Wet earth simulates this natural setting and offers them the moisture and minerals that they need.
Jill Slater is a garden writer and floral designer who appears regularly on Henry's Garden (KRON-TV, San Francisco).
Facts about this three-acre garden, located on the grounds of the U.S. Capitol.