Transform Your Garden into a Butterfly Sanctuary

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Relax your neat and tidy standards. A garden that looks and acts more like nature is not only easier on the person maintaining it, but also allows habitat to develop for all four butterfly life stages.

Follow these simple steps to attract more “flying
flowers” into your yard.

Butterflies are one of Mother Nature’s best head-turners
— as they flutter by, their colorful and delicate
beauty seldom fails to stop us in our tracks. But despite
our attraction to them, our activities frequently damage
their habitat. Some insects have large ranges and travel
long distances, but many butterflies spend their entire
short lives in areas not much larger than most back yards.
So whether we’re manicuring our lawns with chemicals or
turning a wild meadow into a new strip mall, butterflies
are particularly sensitive to our actions.

Conversely, though, butterfly conservation can be quite
simple: If you create a butterfly garden, you can provide
an oasis of habitat that can sustain the entire life
history of some butterflies — even simple changes to
your backyard can yield large benefits. You’ll have the
satisfaction of making an appreciable difference for these
beautiful creatures, which your family will be able to
enjoy up close and personal. And if you garden, you already
have a head start.

Follow the steps outlined below and think of your butterfly
garden as a miniature wildlife preserve — and a part
of a local network of similar backyard sanctuaries —
and you’ll be well on your way to helping butterfly and
other insect populations persist and thrive, even in urban

Fulfilling Butterflies’ Needs

The shorter a butterfly’s flight, the more likely it will
get what it needs without falling prey to predators. Look
at your neighborhood from a butterfly’s perspective:
Consider how far butterflies fly to find all the resources
they need to live. How far will they have to travel if they
can’t find what they need in your backyard garden? If your
neighbors also garden for wildlife, then your community can
create a network of habitat corridors along which
butterflies can move.

To turn your garden into a butterfly sanctuary you’ll want
to provide the necessary resources for each life stage:
egg, larva (caterpillar), pupa (chrysalis) and adult. Here
are 10 steps you can take to help you create a
butterfly-friendly environment:

1. Choose caterpillar food plants and nectar plants. In
addition to nectar-rich flowers, be sure to include
caterpillar host plants, such as dill (Anethum graveolens),
milkweeds (Asclepias), pussy willow (Salix discolor) and
sulfur buckwheat (Eriogonum umbellatum). These will give
female butterflies places to lay their eggs and provide
food for their caterpillars. Host plants also help attract
males looking for females. For a list of the best butterfly
garden plants for your area, consult The Butterfly
Gardener’s Guide, published by the Brooklyn Botanic Garden.

It is unfortunate that many gardeners consider caterpillars
pests when they may be the most interesting stage of the
butterfly’s life cycle. Many gardeners fail to realize that
where there are host plants and caterpillars, there
eventually will be butterflies.

2. Give preference to native plants and wildflowers. The
local butterflies that you are trying to attract have a
history with the local plants. Given a choice between
unknown, foreign plant species and native species, the
butterflies will most likely prefer natives. Also, native
plants give a sense of place to your yard and to the
community, making Tucson, Ariz., reflect the nearby desert
while draping Tampa, Fla., in tropical foliage.

3. Arrange plants thoughtfully. Most butterfly habitats
include several layers, with a variety of plants at
differing heights. To emulate nature’s multilayered
approach, you should include plants that bloom at different
heights, as well as small flowering shrubs that offer twigs
for perching. Consider adding a few vines to your plant
choices since these often bloom at various heights. Masses
of blooms, or the close proximity of caterpillar host
plants, are more attractive to butterflies than widely
spaced plants, so consider extensive plantings of
particularly luring species like Mexican sunflowers
(Tithonia) or asters.

4. Pick plants for every season. Attract adult butterflies
with colorful flowers that offer nectar from spring through
fall, or choose a variety of plants that bloom at different
times of the season to achieve the same effect. It also is
good to provide a range of suitable host plants for
multi-brooded species. For example, provide monarchs with
early-blooming milkweeds that may die back halfway through
summer, as well as late-blooming species that provide
suitable egg-laying sites later in the season.

5. Create a sunny corner. Butterflies need some open, sunny
spaces out of the wind where they can bask. Their bodies
depend on the temperature of the air around them, and they
need sunshine to warm up to flight temperature. Do not
cover every square inch of your garden with plants —
instead leave a low, protected corner, or even a centrally
located spot, as a butterfly sunning area.

6. Provide shelter and perches. Butterflies also need
sheltered areas to escape strong winds and rain.
Unfortunately, so-called “butterfly houses” rarely achieve
their goal (although they do make good refuges for spiders
and wasps, predators that help control garden pests).
Instead, a border of shrubs and trees can provide host
plants for larvae as well as dry places where butterflies
can hide from their own predators or bad weather.

Unmowed edges of grasses, clovers and dandelions also
provide shelter and early nectar for certain species. Some
butterflies also require perches where they can watch for
mates, so tall herbs or small flowering shrubs can serve a
dual purpose.

7. Set up a puddling spot. In addition to the nectar they
sip from plants, most species need to acquire compounds
they cannot get from plants. Many of these are mineral
salts that are naturally available in garden soil. An empty
sandy space under a birdbath where the soil often is wet is
the perfect spot for butterflies to gather on the ground
and “puddle” to get these additional nutrients.

8. Relax your neat and tidy standards. A garden that looks
and acts more like nature is not only easier on the person
maintaining it, but also allows habitat to develop for all
four butterfly life stages. Leave a corner of your yard
untended, allowing native grasses to grow and feed larvae
of skippers and satyrs. Don’t remove clovers; they provide
early nectar to a variety of insects and are larval host
plants for sulphurs, blues and skippers. In autumn, let
fallen leaves create a natural mulch — where moths
and skippers pupate — before the leaf litter
decomposes into nutrients for your garden.

9. Lose the lawn. Plan to reduce or eliminate your lawn,
which offers nothing to wildlife and uses precious water.

10. Hold the poisons. One caveat that should be readily
appreciated by anyone with a butterfly garden is that the
use of pesticides — even natural control agents such
as Bt (Bacillus thuringiensis), which kills all
caterpillars — should be strictly controlled or, even
better, avoided altogether. Stick with natural products
such as insecticidal soaps or plant-derived oils for those
rare occasions when pest control is needed. I rarely use
even natural pesticides in my garden, preferring to let
nature take its own course — which includes letting
lizards, spiders, wasps, ants and other insect predators do
the dirty work for me.

Look Beyond Your Butterfly Sanctuary

If butterflies are worth attracting to your garden, aren’t
they also worth having in local parks, public gardens and
natural areas? And to ensure that there are butterflies
available to come to your garden, don’t you also need to
help protect them everywhere? My best advice is to be
proactive rather than reactive. Don’t wait for butterflies
to become endangered, but work now to help keep them safe.
For example, ask local or state agencies to cease, or at
least limit, roadside pesticide spraying. Ask them to
ensure that roadside mowing is rotated through the seasons
instead of always being done at the same time in the same
place each year, and to use native plants wherever
possible. Any of these initiatives will help ensure the
survival of these marvelous creatures.

Adapted from The Butterfly Gardener’s Guide, edited by
Claire Hagen Dole and one of the Brooklyn Botanic Garden’s
All-Region Guides. To order this and other titles published
by the Brooklyn Botanic Garden, shop
online at .

More Butterfly Information

Related Articles

Butterflies and Larval Food Plants

Butterfly Families


Butterfly Gardening By the Xerces
Butterfly Gardens By Alcinda
Lewis (editor)
How to Spot Butterflies By
Patricia Taylor Sutton and Clay Sutton
Stokes Beginner’s Guide to
By Donald and Lillian Stokes

Books for Children

Becoming Butterflies By Anne
Rockwell and Megan Halsey
Butterflies in the Garden By
Carol Lerner

Field Guides

Butterflies through Binoculars
(Regional guides) By Jeffrey Glassberg
National Audubon Society Field Guide to North
American Butterflies
Peterson First Guide to Caterpillars of North
By Amy Bartlett Wright


Monarch Watch
North American Butterfly Association 
Xerces Society  

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