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Getting Butterflies into your Garden

Why do we rarely see butterflies in suburbia? Are we just too busy to see them, or do the butterflies just not like living near people?

It's a matter of habitat. The typical manicured lawn with grass in the parkway is just not a good place for butterflies to hang out. But, if you were to grow a woodland garden populated with a variety of native plants that flower throughout the growing season, you would attract butterflies from miles around.

Where would the butterflies come from? How would they know to come looking for your garden? Though they seem delicate and ephemeral, butterflies are actually tough little critters. The monarch, for example, winters in Mexico, and summers in the Plains states, as far North as Minnesota. They can even migrate to Canada. If you grow enough of the right stuff, they will come.

Choose a plot for your woodland garden. A good place would be right under a tree with filtered shade. Beneath a Honey Locust, an Ash, or a Pin Oak would be a pretty good choice. Black Walnut is not so good because the roots excrete a chemical that is poisonous to many plants.

Your plot should be substantial. Think of this as an opportunity to reduce the amount of lawn you need to mow. The plot border should be at least five feet from the central tree trunk on all sides. You will need to install edging all along the border to prevent turf from invading the garden. Putting down brick edgers will clearly delineate the garden from the lawn.

Here is a list of species that work well together to attract butterflies, as well as other pollinating insects, and many seed-eating birds:
  • Lavender Hyssop - Latin name: Agastache foeniculum
  • Purple Coneflower - Latin name: Echinacea purpurea
  • Virginia Wild Rye - Latin name: Elymus virginicus
  • Bottlebrush Grass - Latin name: Hystrix patula
  • Woodland Sunflower - Latin name: Helianthus strumosus
  • Wild Columbine - Latin name: Aquilegia canadensis
  • Pale Coneflower - Latin name: Echinacea pallida
  • Sweet Joe Pye Weed - Latin name: Eupatorium purpureum
  • Northern Sea Oats - Latin name: Chasmanthium latifolium
  • Mistflower - Latin name: Eupatorium coelestinum

And don't leave out the grasses! They naturally support the otherwise spindly flowers and fill out your garden. Early spring and late fall are the best times to plant these species. The plants may appear dead, but it's more likely that they are dormant. It may take them up to a year to break dormancy, so don't dig them up.

Native seeds require special handling. Follow your seed supplier's instructions - they will probably have certified your seeds as "P.L.S." ("Pure Live Seed"), so no special preparation will be necessary. With native plantings, it's typical to mix a few seeds in with a lot of moistened vermiculite and a bit of sand. The seed/vermiculite/sand mixture is then broadcast across the prepared bed. Then you can spread straw or straw pellets over the seeds and either walk over the seed bed or use a roller to make sure the seeds have good contact with the soil.

Seeding in late fall tends to succeed more with native seeds because it's closer to their natural germination conditions, conditions for which these native species evolved. In the wild, these seeds are distributed and lie dormant over the winter, during which they are exposed to moisture and frost which cracks their hulls open preparing them for spring germination.

Establishing a woodland garden requires patience and a large initial investment of time and effort. After the first couple of years, however, it will almost take care of itself, requiring only a yearly cutting down in late fall. Ideally, a controlled burn every two or three years is recommended, but that's not feasible for most homeowners. Your woodland garden will become very attractive for butterflies. Not to mention songbirds, Native American bees, and perhaps even the occasional hummingbird!