Come with us as we look at important information on how to plant a butterfly garden. While this is only a survey of some necessary garden components, be inspired to pursue learning even more about the soil, plants, and butterfly species in your part of the world. Our location, the eastern side of the United States, North America (Zone 8a), may differ from where you live. Knowledge of your local climate and gardening conditions will further enhance our suggestions.
So, you are interested in planting a butterfly garden. How exciting! Let’s start with a stroll around your outdoor area. Butterfly gardens come in all shapes and sizes and can be in rural or urban areas. Do you have a designated area on the back deck? Maybe there’s a strip of lawn by the house; possibly you envision an acre of wildflowers by the forest edge? Making some parameters of space gives an idea of what you might need, gardening-wise, to fill the space.
Light and Soil
Get to know your space even more by taking note of the light it receives at different times during the day. Keeping lighting in mind will help you learn the types of plants to buy (more on that later) and help you understand where you can place vegetation. Full sunshine all day long? Perfect! Partial shade during the afternoon? Good to know!
Now would be an excellent time to investigate the soil from the yard/garden area. A few tweaks to the soil may be needed to help with acidity and ph. Some prefer just to plant and see what grows and thrives, but others want to match specific plant needs with what is already happening in the dirt! If you really want to know the science of your soil, check out your local cooperative extension office. They will give you the steps for gathering a soil sample and submitting it to the state program! Here is a link to Virginia’s soil sampling for the home gardener.
Before making any purchases, a clear plan of what butterflies live or travel through your area would be helpful. A lifetime of learning can start with the migratory patterns of certain species and reproductive cycles of the butterfly (those caterpillars need somewhere to make their cocoons!) and times of the year when the butterflies will be most prolific. The bottom line is, “If you build it, they will come.” You just want to know for whom you are building!
Pro Tip from the Bay Haven gardens: If you add only one thing to your butterfly garden, it must be Milkweed! Both the milkweed flower (Asclepias syriaca), a show stopper, beautiful and multi-colored, and its cousin, the butterfly weed (Asclepias tuberosa) with its vibrant orange or yellow blooms, are an integral part of a butterfly garden. They are a source of nectar for butterflies and hummingbirds. Growing milkweed supplies the larvae of the Monarch with food and shelter (they lay their eggs on the underside of the sticky leaves), providing caterpillars food (as seen in this video from the Bay Haven gardens), and a resting place before they leave the caterpillar stage and become butterflies. A bonus is that the plants can be toxic (not to humans), therefore protecting caterpillars from predators.
A veritable rainbow of options awaits you, as the choices of flowers and shrubs are endless. It is essential to have a nice mix of annuals (plants that need planting every year) and perennials (plants that come back on their own every year) to provide some variety. You’ll want to extend the blooming season with selections that develop at different rates. Springtime is easy, and some flowers bloom well into the summer and early fall.
Pro Tip from the Bay Haven gardens: We have had much success with the following pollinators: Mexican Petunia (Ruellia simplex) and Vermillionaire (Cuphea).
Once you start, you can’t stop!! You have been forewarned. Attracting butterflies is such a rewarding hobby. You’ll find that other pollinators will enjoy your offerings, too – honeybees and hummingbirds are beautiful and so important in the ecosystem. Maybe you’ll get into the plant/flower varieties and want to join a local gardening group or take some classes. Is soil your thing? Local coffee shops and restaurants may have composting options where you can pick up coffee grounds and fruit and vegetable scraps that can become valuable amendments to your soil.
As you begin your journey, we hope these ideas of how to plant a butterfly garden will prove helpful. Watching a butterfly sip nectar from one of your homegrown blooms provides a sense of purpose and joy. Please reach out to us at the Bay Haven Inn of Cape Charles for further tips or to share what you are learning!