Saturday, April 1, 2017

Saving the World (and butterflies) One Garden at a Time!

Planning Your Butterfly Garden

Support for butterflies and other pollinators is really taking off-that's a good thing as we've lost well over 80% of our wildflowers since Europeans settlers arrived in North America. While there is a lot of depressing news, gardeners should know that even a small garden can make a big difference. Here are some ideas for attracting and supporting butterflies and other pollinators-let's save the world one garden at a time!

Points to Ponder 

  • Planting a wide variety of plants increases biodiversity, creates a healthier garden and attracts more kinds of butterflies and pollinators.
  • Planting flowers in masses allows butterflies to locate them more easily.
  • Most butterflies prefer sunny places. If you have lots of trees creating shade, pruning may be beneficial.
  • Do you have a sunny front lawn? It’s the perfect place for creating your butterfly paradise and that front yard makes an awesome billboard for educating the public.
  • Most adult butterflies feed on the nectar (sugary liquid) from flowers. Flowers offer the nectar as a reward for pollination!
  • It's important to provide nectar sources through the seasons. Plants flowering from spring to fall provide a continuous source of pollen and nectar. 
  • Monarchs are an example of a butterfly that really benefits from having those nectar sources available during its long migration in late spring and fall.
  • Choose open, single petalled, flat or clustered flowers that butterflies can land on easily; avoid 'double' flowers which make access to nectar difficult.
  • Choose native plants wherever possible. Avoid fancy cultivars of native plants. i.e. Echinacea purpurea is a great native plant but Echinacea ‘Tomato Soup’ is not as resilient. The nectar source may not be as beneficial and such hybrids don’t last as long in the garden.
  • Most people are aware of planting flowers for butterflies, but butterflies also need host and shelter plants.
  • Many butterfly caterpillars (larva) feed on a very limited number of specific host plants; i.e. monarch caterpillars only feed on milkweed
  • Add unique larval host plant varieties to your garden for a variety of butterflies. (see chart below)
  • Butterflies also need plants to use as shelter from the wind, rain and sun; choose a variety of shrubs or trees for shelter; native trees and shrubs are especially beneficial.
  • Provide a shallow pan with damp mud or sand for butterflies who like to ‘mudpuddle’ (drink moisture/nutrients) in a sunny area of your garden.
  • Don't use pesticides and if purchasing plants at nurseries, ask if they’ve been treated with a systemic pesticide!

Plant in large masses so butterflies can locate flowers more easily (Aster spp.)

Planning & Preparing Your Garden

    Determine the garden area (existing garden or newly developed area).
    Remove undesired plant material and/or weeds from the area. Some of the options to prepare a new butterfly garden are:
      Hand weeding to removing undesired plants and weeds
     Smothering the garden area with organic material (newspaper, cardboard, leaves,  compost, garden soil) - this option can be done anytime during the growing season.  It is best to use transplants for planting if you’re smothering the soil.  
      Solarizing the area by using clear UV plastic film to cover the garden area at the beginning of summer to produce heat and kill weeds and dormant seeds.  The area should be mown first at a low level prior to solarizing.  Once the area is clear of plant material the area can be seeded or planted with chosen materials. 
A front yard pollinator garden is a great billboard for educating the public!

Native Purple Coneflower (Echinacea) and Black-eyed Susan (Rudbeckia) make a big splash in this front garden


      Fall is the best time, but early spring is also a good time to seed a new garden area.
      Ensure that the area is free of weeds and soil is moist.
      Plant large masses of single species or create your own mixtures of preferred flowers.
      Mix the seed with coarse sand or sawdust so that it can be evenly distributed and so that you can see where the seed has fallen.  If seed sizes are dramatically different, seed them separately.
      Press the seeds into the soil by hand or by lightly walking over the entire area.
      Consider the use of a ‘row cover’ to protect seeds from birds and other predators.
Stunning Mass of Echinacea spp.

      Consider the size and dimensions of mature plants - try staging the pots in your garden area.
      Transplanting can be done at any time, however, avoid long periods of hot, dry or windy weather.
      Fall is generally the best time to place transplants so that they can become established before a hot summer season.
      Water transplants immediately after installing them.
      Apply an organic mulch to prevent competition from weeds and retain soil moisture.
      During dry spells the plants may need 2 cm of water each week during the first season.
      Mulch around transplants to reduce weed competition.
Choose native plants where possible

      Prevent competition from weeds by hand weeding or using garden tools, until the desired plants become established and have filled in the area.
      Use an organic mulch to help retain soil moisture and reduce competition from weeds.
      Avoid cleaning up the area at the end of the growing season as many species may overwinter as eggs, caterpillars, adults, or pupae in plant material.
      Leave a layer of leaf litter or stem thatch on the ground to provide refuge for insects.
      If it’s absolutely necessary to clean and prune an area, reduce the impact by storing branches and stems in a brush pile at the back of the garden.
Plants for your Butterfly Garden
Nectar plants (flowers) for adult butterflies
Any of these flowers would be a great addition to your garden. For more suggestions, or suggestions for different garden conditions, consult the resource list below.
  • Choose native plants where possible and avoid cultivars:  i.e. Joe-Pye-Weed (Eupatorium maculatum), Black-eyed Susan (Rudbeckia hirta), Purple coneflowers (Echinacea spp.), Milkweed (Asclepias spp.),  thistles (Cirsium spp.), Bee balm (Monarda spp.),  Rough blazing star (Liatris aspera), Goldenrod (Solidago spp.).
  • Aster, Butterfly bush (Buddleia), Cosmos, Sage, Sunflower,  Zinnia

Host Plants for eggs and caterpillars
Milkweed is the only host plant for Monarchs-plump Monarch caterpillar in Claudette's yard!

(click on the link for more information)
Host plant
·     a variety of different Milkweed plants (Asclepias spp) with different flowering times is ideal:
·     butterfly weed (A. tuberosa)
·     common milkweed (A. syriaca)
·     swamp milkweed (A. incarnata)
·     Note: Dog strangling vine, is an invasive plant that is a threat to monarchs. Monarchs mistake it for milkweed andy lay their eggs on it. All monarch larva feeding on dog strangling vine will die because the plant cannot sustain them. 

Black Swallowtail (Papilio polyxenes)
·     Carrots or, even better, carrot relatives, such as parsnips and dill
Painted Lady and Red Admiral (Vanessa spp.)
Anglewings (Polygonia spp.)
·     Thistles or nettles
Lycaenid butterflies i.e. Hairstreaks (Satyrium spp.) & Azures (Celastrina spp.)
·     Willows, oaks, aspens and cherries
Karner blue, frosted elfin
·     Wild lupine (Lupinus perennis)
·     Poplar (Populus), ash (Fraxinus)             
·     Elm (Ulmus),  willow (Salix)
·     Turtlehead  (Chelone glabra)
·     Sassafras )Sassafras albidum )
·     Spice bush (Lindera benzoin)
·     Violet (Viola spp.)
·     Dogwood (Cornus),
·     Sumac (Rhus)
·     New Jersey tea Ceanothus americanus
·     Aster (Aster spp.)
·     Showy tick trefoil (Desmodiumcanadense)
·     Blue vervain (Verbena hastate)
Common milkweed has a stunning flower

A Word about Milkweed

It's such a shame that our native milkweeds have such unfortunate common names-Butterfly weed, Common milkweed or even worse Swamp Milkweed. Who wants to have a weedy garden? They are really in need of a marketing agent as they are a must for butterfly gardens.  Just as baby humans only drink milk, monarch caterpillars only eat milkweed. Without milkweed there are NO monarchs!

The botanical name for milkweed is Asclepias which is named for Asclepius, the Greek god medicine or healing. Doesn't that sound nicer already? And healing is what monarchs need, given that they've recently been put on the Endangered list here in Canada. So let's look at the bright side of milkweeds. They are all very hardy, trouble free, deer resistant and drought tolerant once established. They all have gorgeous flowers and fascinating seed pods. They are all excellent nectar sources for monarchs and other pollinators.

Common milkweed (Ascplepias syriaca) has now finally cleared its reputation and been removed from the noxious weed list and routine herbicide spraying in Ontario-a practice that had saddened me for years.  It is the most widespread and abundant milkweed. I think that fact along with its "Common" moniker has given it the reputation of being seen as vulgar, aggressive and ugly! It is actually fragrant, trouble free and showy! Just wait until you see your first fat monarch caterpillar on it-pure magic! I allow it to grow in my garden and can tell you that the flower is stunning and the pods intriguing. It can spread in the garden, but is also easily pulled out-I just yank out any plants that are growing where I don't want them. And you can remove the seed pods to reduce reseeding. But if you have a child or grandchild in your life, make sure you show them the amazing way the seeds are arranged inside-they look like the scales of fish to me. Let's rename this plant "Monarch Magic"!

Butterfly weed (Ascplepias tuberosashould be renamed "Flames 'n Fame" because of its bright orange flowers and easy upkeep. It has a deep tap root which means that it doesn't need much water-water it sparingly but deeply until established. It also means that it doesn't really like to be transplanted, but it can easily be grown from seed. Once established it does well even in poor dry soils. Who wouldn't like a plant that has gorgeous flowers that attract butterflies, is extremely low maintenance and doesn't need watering, staking or fertilizer?

Despite its name, Swamp milkweed (Ascplepias incarnatais also a great plant for dry locations once it is established. Because it is native to swamps and wet meadows, it's also great for rain gardens which are all the rage right now. How often do you find such a versatile plant that can grow in clay soils or wet soils?  Plus it has gorgeous hot pink blooms that are fragrant! And it's erect and clump forming, so won't stray in your garden. We should rename this plant "Gorgeously Grows Anywhere".

Try milkweed in your garden-you won't be disappointed!

Shelter Plants

  • Choose a variety of native shrubs and trees whenever possible.
  • Paul O'Hara (Blue Oak Native Landscapes) has a great list of native trees and shrubs for southern Ontario gardens at
  • Choose plants that are also host plants to maximize positive results (i.e. willows, oaks, aspens and cherries).
  • Anglewing butterflies, including commas and the Question Mark (Polygonia spp.), tortoiseshells, and the Mourning Cloak (Nymphalis spp.) need overwintering sites for the adult such as hollow logs or the eaves of houses and garages. You can buy or build a large box with slits along the side to offer shelter during the winter.

Butterflies need shelter plants-native Redbud (Cercis canadensis) in flower

Lots of shelter plants in this garden

Useful Links and Resources

      Butterfly Gardening (Government of Canada)
      Create Habitat for Monarchs, (Monarch Joint Venture)
      Monarch Watch (Monarch
      Pollinator Garden Planting Guide (Bee City Canada)
      Selecting Plants for Pollinators: The Greater Toronto Area, The Golden Horseshoe, Sarnia, London, Windsor & Niagara Falls region, (
      The Butterfly Website  (List of specific host/nectar plants-Pennsylvania)
      North American Native Plant Society, Butterfly Gardening: Attracting Butterflies to Gardens of the Great Lakes Watershed,, 1999, Accessed on March 15, 2017.
      Selecting Plants for Pollinators booklet
      Management practices for Dog Strangling Vine
      Monarch identification and monitoring training video series produced by the Monarch Larva Monitoring Project.

      Gardening for Butterflies: How you can attract and protect beautiful, beneficial insects, The Xerces Society, Black, S. et al, Timber Press, Portland, Ore., 2016 (book)
"Creating Your Award Winning Monarch Garden" Workshop April 1 2017

Each participant started a milkweed plant-newspaper pots in water bottles!
From a workshop given by Halton Master Gardeners- Janet Mackey & Claudette Sims April 2017

No comments:

Post a Comment