Recently I’ve noticed a burgeoning interest in butterfly gardening, spurred by the David Suzuki Foundation’s Butterflyway Project. The goal is to create more than 1000 pollinator gardens across Canada. Several Ottawa-area Butterflyway ‘Rangers’ have contacted me for advice as they start planning. Here are my top tips, based on research and my experience with a two-year-old school butterfly garden.
Top tips for starting your new butterfly garden
- Plan now — Start planning now in the winter.
- Choose a sunny spot — If you have an option, choose as sunny a spot as possible for your butterfly garden. If you can, choose a location that is also sheltered from the wind. Assess how much sun there will be at your site, and what kind of soil it has. Then, you can choose suitable plants. Understandably, this is challenging to do in the winter. Rest assured that many native plants are quite adaptable and will grow in a wide range of conditions.
- Include mostly native plants — over many years of evolution, native insects adapted to eat specific native plants. You need to include these native plants to help butterflies.
- Grow your own native plants — If your budget is tight, grow your own native plants from seed. Plant native seeds in pots outside in the snow ASAP. Many of them need to go through winter weather before they’ll germinate. You can also trick seeds by putting them in the fridge for a fake winter. This process is called stratification. For more details, see my blog post on stratifying and planting seeds.
- Support native plant nurseries — If you can afford it, order plants from local native plant growers. They’re very knowledgeable, and can provide larger, heathy, pesticide-free plants. Find Ottawa-area native plant nurseries here.
- Include host plants — Different kinds of butterfly caterpillars eat different kinds of host plants. A few to include for easy-to-attract butterflies are: Swamp Milkweed or Butterflyweed for Monarchs, annual dill/parsley/fennel for Black Swallowtails, and Pearly Everlasting or Field Pussytoes for American Ladies. I now see these butterflies in my garden every year. For a list of host plants for other butterflies, visit the Ottawa Field Naturalists Gardening for Butterflies page.
- Include nectar plants — Nectar is food for adult butterflies. Ideally, you should include at least 3 native nectar plants for each season from spring to fall. Monarchs don’t show up until early summer, so if you want to give them some extra help, include additional nectar plants for them that bloom in summer and early fall. The Xerces Society has a PDF list of Monarch nectar plants for our region, and so does MonarchWatch. (In these lists, Ottawa is considered part of the Great Lakes region.)
- Include some non-native annuals — In my garden, butterflies also gravitate to some non-native annuals for nectar, such as Verbena bonariensis, Mexican Tithonia, Zinnias, and Cosmos. You can easily grow these from seed in the spring.
- Provide water — It is recommended that you provide a butterfly puddling area where butterflies can drink extra moisture and nutrients from the soil. I haven’t tried this yet. See the Canadian Wildlife Federation blog post Give Butterflies a Place to Drink for instructions.
- Don’t use pesticides — Don’t use pesticides in your garden to kill nuisance insects; you’ll also destroy desirable ones like butterfly caterpillars. Be wary buying plants at big garden centers because they may have been treated with pesticides at some stage of their growth. If staff can’t guarantee that plants are pesticide-free, avoid them.
- Create safe habitat — use wildlife-friendly garden maintenance practices that will provide safe shelter and overwintering spots for butterflies that don’t migrate. For example, leave the leaves and plant stems in the fall because butterflies, their caterpillars or chrysalids will hide there during the winter.
For more practical information about creating a butterfly garden, read Down to the nitty gritty: creating the Churchill Alternative School Butterfly Garden, a guest blog post I wrote for the Wild Pollinator Partners. In 2019, I helped plan and plant a local school garden. Even in its first year, we spotted Monarch and Black Swallowtail caterpillars on their host plants, as well as migrating Painted Ladies drinking nectar from flowers. The new garden also attracted several species of bees, and other interesting insects. In this blog post, I share the garden’s plant list and plan, and some of our observations and lessons.
2020: second year for the school garden
Throughout the spring and summer of 2020, Coronavirus restrictions prevented volunteers from accessing the school yard to maintain the butterfly garden. Finally, before school began again in September, I stopped by to check up on it. I feared what I might find. Miraculously, the garden thrived despite the early drought, and months of neglect. The native plants had matured and many were still in full bloom. There weren’t even very many weeds. The 2 year-old butterfly garden looked great. What a relief!
Variety of insect visitors
Since I couldn’t visit the school garden for most of the summer, I wasn’t there to observe butterfly activity. When I visited at the end of August, I did see a lone migrating Monarch butterfly. However, I did see lots of other insect visitors, including another milkweed specialist, the Small Milkweed Bug.
A butterfly garden will attract other insects besides butterflies. Most are harmless — and even beneficial — so encourage, observe, and appreciate them. Learn about the important roles insects play in ecosystems, and share your new love of insects with others.
Bonus native plant seedlings
Despite the lack of maintenance, there were few weeds in the garden. The mulch we applied in the garden after planting last spring, and periodic weeding last summer successfully controlled unwanted plants.
There were some native plant seedlings around a few of the mature parent plants. We had wanted to add more native plants to help fill in the garden, but Mother Nature kindly did it for us. Some were pulled out, but most were transplanted to bare spots in the garden, or were potted up to share with fellow butterfly gardeners.
It turned out that a few of the flowers were too close to the edge of the garden, leaning and obstructing the front edge and paths. These were moved to more suitable spots.
I added more Field Pussytoes to create a low, continuous border all along the front edge of the garden. This will make it look tidy, and will give students a better view of American Lady butterfly caterpillar that will use it as a host plant. It will also keep bees well away from the edges and nervous children; helping kids overcome their fear of insects will be a continual process. I also added more Wild Lupins, as another short host plant, close to the edge where we can watch caterpillars growing up in the future.
Luckily most of the annuals we included had self-seeded in the garden, such as Verbena bonariensis, Rocky Mountain Bee Plant, and purple Sweet Alyssum. This was great because we weren’t able to plant new annuals ourselves. Again, Mother Nature gave us a helping hand.
Duking it out with the Common Milkweed
Some years ago, Common Milkweed was planted in the school’s garden space. In 2019, it popped up everywhere. Thankfully, any stalks that emerged in undesirable locations were easy to pull out.
The Common Milkweed didn’t seem as pervasive this year. Its new plant neighbours are holding their own in the competition for space in the garden. Perhaps the Red Milkweed Bugs in the garden last year helped control this overly enthusiastic spreader; their larvae eat Common Milkweed roots.
In its second year, this school garden proves that creating and maintaining a successful butterfly garden is easy. Despite the drought and unavoidable neglect, it was still thriving, looking beautiful, supporting butterflies and other insects. If we can do it, so can you!