Regional Gardening Reports :: National Gardening Association

In the Garden:
Northern & Central Midwest
February, 2004
Regional Report

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This swallowtail larva is perfectly happy sampling some dill. Plant plenty!

A Butterfly Garden

Bring texture and grace to your landscape with a butterfly garden. Planting a garden for butterflies is a suspenseful art, sort of like holding a picnic and wondering if your invited guests will show up. Butterflies are choosy insects. Any gardener can have aphids, but red admirals, painted ladies, and tiger swallowtails insist upon certain amenities. If we provide those amenities, we can have the breathtaking added dimensions of marvelous tints and graceful motion, not to mention the fact they pollinate some plants.

Your garden, even an area as small as 250 square feet, can become a butterfly haven by providing food, shelter, and a place for butterflies to lay their eggs. Keep in mind that a butterfly garden is about more than just flowers. You can create an environment where butterflies will thrive by offering protection from wind and rain, and by providing a wide diversity of pesticide-free food sources for adult butterflies and their larvae.

Butterfly Preferences
The best habitat has some sun to keep the butterflies active, but is also somewhat sheltered from wind. It needs at least a few trees and shrubs for roosting at night and for cooling off on the hottest days. A large flat rock or two placed in the sun will give butterflies a place to bask when mornings are cool.

Since butterflies cannot drink from open water, you will help them by providing a "puddling" place, such as an old birdbath filled with wet sand, where they can congregate to drink. They will also drink moisture held in the axils of leaves after a rain, so an occasional shower over your garden from the hose will also help in dry times.

Favorite Food Plants
When planning a butterfly garden, we certainly want to choose nectar sources for the adults. However, it's just as important to provide food plants for the larvae. After we've attracted butterflies to the garden, we certainly want them to stay there. The only way they will do this is if they find appropriate plants on which to lay their eggs.

Some butterfly caterpillars feed only on specific plants, while others feed on a variety of plants. This is where a little more research comes in. It's handy to know that black swallowtail larvae feed on plants in the carrot family. If you have a field of Queen Anne's lace near your garden, then they have plenty of food. If not, you would be wise to plant some parsley, dill, or carrots to provide food for these beautiful caterpillars.

Do keep in mind that the plants will be eaten, so plant a wide variety in order not to have the entire garden decimated by hungry caterpillars. It may be daunting to think of some of your plants being chewed, but the sight of a magnificent butterfly emerging from a chrysalis will more than make up for the damage!

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