Create your own butterfly garden

Photo: flickr.com/mikebaird
Help nurture butterfly populations by growing your own easy-to-maintain butterfly garden.

Butterflies aren’t just beautiful creatures – they’re an important part of every eco-system because, second only to bees, they pollinate much of our harvests. Butterflies also serve as an indicator of the environment’s health. Butterfly populations are suffering: land is being cleared and developed in North America at a staggering pace, and butterfly habitats are quickly dwindling.

You can assist butterfly populations by growing your own easy-to-maintain butterfly garden. In some municipalities, including Toronto, butterfly gardens are subsidized, which is an added bonus of this eco-friendly gardening activity. Another selling feature: if you have children, growing a butterfly garden can be a fun eco-educational tool.

Where to Start

Observe the types of butterflies you see living in your neighbourhood, consult a butterfly guidebook or website, or ask fellow butterfly gardeners which species inhabit your corner of the world.

Next, choose the site of your butterfly garden carefully. These colourful insects need sun and warmth, so pick a spot in your yard that gets a lot of natural light. (This also means the plants you choose will need to be ones that thrive in full sun – but more about that later.) Shelter is also a factor: the ideal butterfly garden will get sun for at least five hours a day, but also border a tree line, structure or hedge to provide shelter from the wind. (Butterflies don’t like to fight gales when feeding on nectar.)

Necessary Objects

•    Include a few large stones in your garden. These will absorb heat and light and provide a good resting place for weary butterflies.

•    Butterflies need water, so you can either make a little pool in the form of a mud puddle (little ones will love this) or, if you’re concerned about standing water and mosquito threats, include a small patch of manure in your garden, and keep it damp. Neither option appeal to you? Just put a container of water in your garden and empty it regularly.

•    Plan to have blooming plants from late spring to early fall. A consistent supply of flowers will ensure your garden is brimming with butterflies all through the growing season.

Prepare a feast

You’ll need both nectar food for mature butterflies and larval food for the caterpillars. (Don’t eradicate caterpillars. They are butterflies in their larval state and a good butterfly garden will be full of caterpillars, munching away on the food you’re growing for them.) Including larval food as well as nectar food will also attract a more permanent butterfly population because they’ll return year after year.

Here are some larval food examples:

Milkweed: Monarch butterfly larvae exclusively depend on milkweeds for both food and protection. It’s a wildflower found in fields, roadsides and other open areas, but you can buy the seeds at nurseries, greenhouses, and garden centres. (The only province in which milkweed doesn’t grow is Newfoundland and Labrador.)

Wild Lupine: It’s the food of choice for the threatened and gorgeous Karner Blue so it’s a great idea to include this wildflower in your garden.

Dill: Many butterfly larvae, including the Black Swallowtail, feed on dill; they also enjoy carrots and parsley.

Violets: Easy to grow in almost any zone, violets are the food of choice for Great Spangled Fritillary larvae.

Laws of Attractions

In general, adult butterflies prefer yellow, orange, pink and purple flowers, herbs, grasses, wildflowers, annuals, perennials and shrubs. So try planting:

•    The aptly named butterfly bush and butterfly weed, as well as Joe-Pye weed and Black-eyed Susan.

•    Trumpet- or tube-shaped flowers because they provide them with a landing platform. Try zinnia, goldenrod, honeysuckle and daisy.

•    Perfect egg-laying plants such as milkweed, aster, lupine, violets and Black-eyed Susans. Female butterflies are particular about where they lay their eggs, and will often spend a long time searching for the right plant.

Although your beautiful butterfly garden will never be a substitute for their natural habitats, rest assured that your hard work will help butterflies thrive and survive as they travel towards their true homes every year.