A flower garden is a beautiful and fragrant addition to any yard. But if you’re hoping that butterflies will flutter through, a flower garden is a must. Butterflies subsist by drinking nectar from certain flowers, such as asters, coneflowers, yarrow, milkweed, and butterfly weed. Planting these types of flowers will ensure that some butterflies will visit. But, with a little bit of thought and planning, your flower garden can be designed to attract several different species of butterflies throughout the entire flight season.
Planning Your Flower Garden
Of course, choosing the right plants is crucial to attracting butterflies to your flower garden. But there are several other things that you can do to make your garden appealing to butterflies.
Check Your Hardiness Zone
Always start planning your garden by making sure you choose plants–especially shrubs and perennials–suited to your hardiness zone. If you’re unsure of your zone, check the hardiness maps available on the Canadian and American government websites.
Stagger Bloom Times
A flower garden that provides blossoms and nectar from early spring through late fall will attract the largest number and variety of butterflies. As the Butterfly Conservation website points out, butterflies emerging from hibernation in the spring need a ready source of nectar. And, in the fall, both migrating butterflies and those that hibernate for the winter will need to build up their reserves. But, as long as there is nectar available, butterflies will visit all season long.
Plant Both Annuals and Perennials
Perennials make it easy to maintain your garden from year to year, without a lot of annual work or expense. But annuals are a way to change up your garden each season. They’re also a way to add masses of colour and fragrance to areas where there is a lull in blooming. Combining both annual and perennial flowers will help to attract butterflies throughout the season.
Shrubs are an easy way to establish the tall flowering plants that some butterflies prefer. It’s always best to choose native plant varieties and shrubs are no exception. Plants that are native to North America evolved in tandem with local plant and animal species. As a result, they are the best hosts for the region’s wildlife, including butterflies.
The Evergreen website suggests these native shrubs:
- Red flowering currant (Ribes sanquineum) grows up to 4m tall and produces pink blossoms.
- Ninebark (Physocarpus capitatus) blooms in the spring and can grow up to 4m high.
- Lilac (Syringa spp.) has many different varieties and cultivars, making it easy to choose one suited to your planting location and your garden’s aesthetics.
- Red Elderberry (Sambucus racemosa) is a tall spring-flowering shrub that can grow up to 6m in height.
- Oceanspray (Holodiscus discolor) has creamy white blossoms and can grow up to 4m tall.
Plant in Full Sun
Butterflies are ectotherms like reptiles, amphibians, and fish. As pointed out in a great article at the Washington Post, that means that they can’t retain the heat generated by their metabolism. Instead, their body temperature changes according to environmental factors. If it’s cool outside, ectotherms will also be cool.
But muscles work better when they’re warm. In order to fly, butterflies need warmth. They will bask in the sun, resting with their wings outstretched, if they need to warm up. Staying warm, and being able to take flight quickly, keeps butterflies safe from predators like birds and bats.
While many flowers favoured by butterflies grow best in full sun, some varieties will grow in more shaded areas too. But, wherever possible, establish your plants in an area that gets lots of sunshine. That way, not only will your flowers help sustain butterflies, but they’ll keep the insects warm and safe as they feed.
Choose Plants with Varying Heights
Different species of butterflies seek out flowers of specific heights. In a piece at The Spruce, Jamie McIntosh gives some terrific examples. Tiger swallowtails, for instance, prefer tall flowers like Joe Pye weed. But other butterflies, such as the least skipper and little yellow, like flowers that bloom on shorter plants, like dianthus and asters.
Planting some flowers in containers or baskets is an easy way to vary the height of your plants. As an added bonus, container plantings are valuable if your flower garden is going through a lull in terms of blooms. A container full of blossoms can easily be moved into the garden patch when needed.
Plant in Masses
Butterflies use vision to seek out food. As explained at the online interactive museum WebExhibits, butterflies identify sources of nectar first by the colour of flower petals and second by the colour of flower centres. The centres change colour as they produce nectar and become pollinated. As pointed out in an article at nature.com, the changes in colour help pollinators avoid old or unrewarding flowers and focus instead on those that are rich in nectar.
Planting groups of like flowers together will help butterflies identify them from a distance. As well, masses of plants and blossoms make it worth a butterfly’s while to come for a visit, as there are more likely to be rewarding blooms.
Caring for Your Flower Garden
Taking good care of flowering plants will prolong their blossoming season. That means more time for butterflies to visit your garden.
Use natural fertilizers and compost to feed your flowers and keep them blooming longer. For the health of visiting butterflies and other wildlife, always avoid the use of chemical fertilizers as well as chemical pesticides and herbicides.
Be sure to deadhead flowering plants as needed. If left on the plant, old blooms will begin producing seeds. When that happens, the plant will throw its energy into seed production rather than creating new blossoms.
It can take some time to establish and care for a flower garden that attracts a wide variety of butterflies from spring through to fall. But it’s worth it! With a little bit of planning and effort, your flower garden can be an inviting oasis for butterflies.
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