Butterflies in the Garden

By for CAES News

Butterfly gardens are a lot of fun but require a little planning. To ensure a successful garden, first consider the butterfly's needs.

Butterflies prefer to rest and feed in full sunshine, which means 10 or more hours of sunlight per day in June. Water, resting places and food sources for caterpillars are important considerations.

Putting larger plants to the rear and smaller ones up front makes sense. To make the garden even more interesting, put a butterfly feeding-dish stand or birdbath where you can easily see it.

A small bench or outdoor chair nearby will make the butterfly garden a great morning or evening resting spot.

Pay close attention not only to plants' height, but to their vigor. As an example, Lantana camera 'Miss Huff' and butterfly bush (Buddleia davidii 'Black Knight') can become four-foot-wide bushes! Planted too close, these "towers with flowers" can crowd out neighboring plants.

Examples of troublesome, spreading butterfly plants include Monarda, Physostegia and Lysmachia.

The goal of any butterfly garden is to attract butterflies. Since butterflies especially need nectar in hot weather, selecting heat-tolerant, nectar-producing plants is important.

Purple coneflower (Echinaceae purpurea) and Lantana are two types of butterfly attractors which produce nectar even in the hottest, longest droughts.

Pick a combination of nectar plants for season-long bloom. The 1994 Georgia Gold Medal selection 'Homestead Purple' verbena will flush in early spring. And Helianthus angustifolia will bloom profusely in September. These plants can extend the nectar season for very early and late-season butterflies such as zebra swallowtails and frittilaries.

Green food sources for caterpillars are vital to keep strong butterfly populations. Ornamental fennel, the favorite food of our eastern black swallowtail, is easy to grow.

Dill, garden fennel, carrot and parsley do well, too. Common butterfly weed, or Asclepias tuberosa, is a good food source. Add these to your garden to encourage more caterpillars.

Butterflies need water and like places to rest and warm up. Add large flat rocks to your garden. Or fill a birdbath with sand and then add water until the sand glistens.

Another fun thing you can do is put pieces of fruit, old or fresh, on top of the sand. Old watermelon, cantaloupe, banana, apple and pear attract butterflies like magnets.

The single most important thing you can do to grow healthy plants for butterflies is prepare your garden soil. The goal is to have well-drained soil with lots of organic matter.

Turn the soil 12 inches deep over the entire area. Add several bushels of compost, pine bark or manure, and turn the soil again. Your plants will thrive in this type of soil.

Fertilize your garden the day you plant with an even sprinkling of 10-10-10 fertilizer (about one pound per 1,000 square feet). Water it in thoroughly. Apply again every three weeks until July 1.

Avoid getting fertilizer on plant flowers and leaves. It may burn them. Weed occasionally to cut down on competition for nutrients.

Common sense dictates that anything used to kill bugs won't be suitable for a butterfly garden. A few chewed leaves is a small price to pay for lots of butterflies.

After a killing frost, let your plants dry down naturally. Around Christmas, cut woody bushes such as buddleia and 'Miss Huff' lantana to six inches high.

Set your lawn mower blade on high (three inches or so) and mow the entire garden except the woody bushes. Leave the debris on the ground and cover with an inch or two of fresh pine straw. Mound leaves around the bush trunks.

Your garden will look neat all winter, and your perennials will emerge just fine next spring.

Paul Thomas is a horticulturist with the University of Georgia College of Agricultural and Environmental Sciences.