How to create a butterfly garden

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Butterfly gardens can add a splash of color to your yard, while the butterflies themselves are good for the local ecosystem. They are crop and flower pollinators, who play an important role in the food chain.

It takes a variety of flowers and shrubs that provide food for both the adult and larval stages to create a butterfly garden. Fortunately, all of the butterfly species in the United States and Canada have the same basic life cycle, following the metamorphosis from an egg to an adult butterfly. Some butterflies endure only one cycle a year, while others may go through two or three generations in a season.

Every butterfly’s life cycle requires food for both the adult and larval stages. When planting a butterfly garden that is the most important thing to remember.

Host plants

It’s easy to plant a garden that you’ll enjoy, while also making it attractive to butterflies. Many of the nectar plants butterflies rely on have bright colorful flowers. The host plants aren’t as showy, but they are equally important. A good balance of both will make your garden attractive and busy.

The first step is finding the right host plants for your garden. However, choosing them requires knowledge of native butterflies in your region because caterpillars can be picky eaters. Many restrict themselves to a single species of host plant or a single group of closely related plants.

To get started, check out Penn State Extension’s list of host plants common to the larva of native butterflies in Ohio and Pennsylvania.

Penn State Extension

Nectar plants

Unlike caterpillars, adult butterflies are more flexible in their feeding needs. Generally, they’re attracted to purple, red, yellow, orange or pink blossoms; flat-topped or clustered flowers; and short flower tubes. Along with an assortment of the previously listed qualities, a well-planned garden provides a continuous food supply with blooming flowers throughout spring, summer and early fall.

To provide a year-round supply of nectar, follow Penn State Extension’s outline of nectar-producing plants that native butterflies of the region enjoy.

Penn State Extension

Butterfly garden essentials

Selecting the right host and nectar plants for the native butterfly populations in your region is the most important step; however, there are other factors to consider when planting your garden.

Garden tips

  • Plant in clusters. Once you’ve selected some host plants and nectar-producing varieties, plant them in clusters. It’s easier for butterflies to notice large groups of colors and shapes that are planted together.
  • Chose common varieties. Common varieties of flowers produce more nectar than hybrids. This is why it’s often more beneficial to choose them for your butterfly garden.
  • Plant your garden in the sun. Flowering plants need sunlight to produce nectar, and butterflies need the sun to warm their bodies for flight.
  • Don’t use pesticides. Insecticides kill butterflies, caterpillars and other beneficial insects. Herbicides can eliminate sources of food for caterpillars and may ultimately kill them.
  • Provide some protection from the wind. Storms and windy days can be hard on butterflies. Trellises, shrubs and short brick or rock walls can provide shelter for butterflies to feed and lay eggs.
  • Create wet spots. Male butterflies like to gather at wet sand patches and mud puddles.
  • Put out rotten fruit and stale beer. A mixture of overripe fruit and stale beer is often effective to draw butterflies into your garden. Indiana Department of Natural Resources suggests a concoction of mashed rotten bananas, molasses, sugar, stale beer and fruit juices all mixed in water.
  • Give them a place to bask. Butterflies are cold blooded and sometimes need a place to warm up. Placing a few rocks in direct sunlight can give them a place to bask.

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