Nothing can match the childhood excitement of watching new life emerge.
It’s a warm and sunny day in late July. A Monarch butterfly spreads its wings and takes in the heat of the sun from its perch atop a slightly spiky purple coneflower. An American Goldfinch flits from my Saskatoon berry bush to a lilac, its neck craning side to side in search of insects. Two little girls have been granted permission to pick one flower each and are carefully selecting Black-eyed Susans to weave into their braids. Every once in a while, a neighbour will stop on the sidewalk to chat and comment on the colour and variety of blooms.
It’s just another day in our butterfly garden.
Butterfly gardens, you see, are nature’s perfect gathering place for a variety of species. There is the obvious, of course: butterflies. And you will find no shortage of them in my garden, everything from the instantly recognizable Monarch to the sleek and smooth Black Swallowtail, to my furry favourite, the Hairstreak.
But there is a host of other critters that make my garden home. Songbirds arrive early in the spring to feast on the dried seed heads I leave to overwinter. They stick around for the summer months to snack on caterpillars and other creepy crawlies that find the garden habitat so appealing.
The insect life itself is incredibly varied. There are countless species of bees and wasps (don’t worry, they’re not there to sting you), ladybugs, hoverflies (cool, little creatures that masquerade as wasps and munch on your plant-eating aphids), as well as a hidden city of life beneath the soil. I’ve been lucky enough to find Praying Mantises in my garden for the past three years. And while the Mantis is a known butterfly muncher, it is also perhaps the coolest thing a kid will ever find in a garden.
Finally, it is a wonderful gathering place for our species as well. Not only do adult neighbours stop to admire and chat, but it is a wonderful learning spot for kids. It is a great place to learn about habitat, ecosystems, life cycles, and caring for nature. It is also pretty darned neat.
Creating a simple habitat
The one misconception people have about our front plot is that it takes a lot of work. I’m not going to lie and say that a garden plants itself, but once you have established the main perennial flowering plants and shrubs needed to anchor your butterfly garden, much of the work is done. In fact, you can spend almost as much time planning a garden as you do planting it.
“There are really two sides to this very simple habitat story,” explains Cathy Dueck, Native Species and Wildlife Gardening expert. “There are the bright, colourful flowers that butterflies flock to for nectar, and there are the leafy host plants that caterpillars need for food. You should be thinking of both when you are planning your garden.”
Dueck suggests having a “layered” garden with a variety of trees and shrubs, grasses, and flowers (see sidebar for a list of butterfly-friendly plants). “By planting a variety of plants, you will offer habitat for a variety of caterpillars,” she notes. “You will also create home for a diverse insect population. And this insect population will attract many colourful songbirds to your garden.” In short, you’ll be helping to create a small, but complex ecosystem on your own property.
And be sure to include plants that will offer sustenance for as much of the growing season as possible, says Dueck. “Some species of butterfly, such as the Morning Cloak, overwinter,” she explains. “They hibernate in cracks in tree bark and under roof shingles, and when they emerge they require early blooming shrubs and plants for sustenance.”
To attract the early caterpillars and butterflies, Dueck recommends native shrubs, such as Serviceberry and Chokecherry. Lilac also seems to be a popular food choice.
When it comes to Monarch butterflies, milkweed plants are essential. It is believed that Monarchs feed exclusively on different varieties of milkweed. It’s a simple equation: if your neighbourhood lacks milkweed, you won’t be seeing many Monarchs. Unfortunately, while native milkweed was once plentiful in our area, habitat destruction has eliminated much of the food source for these wonderful creatures.
Thankfully, there are a number of varieties of milkweed available that you can plant in your butterfly garden, some of which are extremely attractive and colourful when blooming. By including plants such as common milkweed, butterfly milkweed, and showy milkweed, you create new habitat for Monarchs, giving them an opportunity to use your area as a breeding ground.
Involve the kids
Having your kids help plant the garden is a great first step to getting them excited about your butterfly garden. Explaining why you are planting each plant will help get them ready for insect, caterpillar and butterfly searches to come.
There is no shortage of ideas to keep children engaged in your garden. While you are awaiting the life cycles to begin, you can introduce some butterfly-related crafts. Look up photos of the caterpillars and butterflies that will frequent your garden and break out the paints, paper, and crayons. I’ve encouraged kids to make egg-carton caterpillars, butterfly window hangings (using waxed paper wings), and paper plate butterfly puppets. Check the Internet for more craft ideas or let your imagination run loose. The more time your children spend making realistic models, the easier it will be for them to identify the real thing.
You can also actively raise butterflies. In particular, you can help maintain Monarch butterfly populations by raising them in your new butterfly garden. Monarch Watch – a non-profit organization dedicated to the protection of butterflies – has an excellent page on its website on raising them. The advantage to rearing your own butterflies is that you get to witness all of the changes in their metamorphosis from larvae to adult. This, I can tell you, is extraordinarily cool for kids of all ages (including the well-advanced author of this article!). It will also help ensure that your garden will include these royal insects. Visit www.monarchwatch.org for kid-friendly instructions.
Award winning author and naturalist Drew Monkman has his own ideas on how to best view butterflies. And while he is a butterfly garden enthusiast, he also recommends looking elsewhere for them. “Larger naturalized areas will offer a larger population and a larger variety of butterflies,” he explains. “I definitely recommend getting out and exploring butterfly habitat.”
This would include tallgrass prairie sites, such as the Alderville Tallgrass Prairie, the prairie area attached to the Ganaraska Forest, and the Trent University Nature Areas, as well as display butterfly gardens at the Ecology Gardens in Port Hope & Cobourg . “Open fields and meadows will also yield good results,” says Monkman. Pack a picnic lunch for a full day of fun.
Then there are the other types of gardens that will attract our winged friends. “I often find almost as many butterflies in food gardens,” admits Monkman. “They are really quite attracted to plants such as dill and parsley.” I find my raspberry plants to be particularly good habitat for a variety of butterflies.
This is why many families choose to have multi-purpose gardens. Having a childrens’ herb garden and including some food plants in your butterfly garden not only attracts more species, but also serves as a handy reminder that a healthy ecosystem will help feed people as well as animals and insects.
Life cycles fascinating
When the caterpillar and butterfly populations begin to take hold, be sure to spend some good quality time in your garden. Magnifying glasses and microscopes can help display the incredible life cycles of all the creatures in your yard. And nothing can replace the childhood excitement of watching new life emerge and grow and change. Particularly in the dramatic, colourful, metamorphosis of the butterfly.
As the afternoon grows late, a trio of young boys has replaced the flower-picking girls in our front yard. They have mason jars, with holes in the lids, looking for caterpillars to keep and watch as they begin the cocooning process. There is a whoop of delight as one of them finds a Praying Mantis.
“Whoa!” he cries. “Look at this. Look at this!”
It’s hard not to see the excitement of life in our garden.
Butterfly Garden Plants
This represents a small selection of examples. Please see the list of gardening websites below for more.
Host Plants for Caterpillars
American Lady: pearly everlasting, forget me nots
Black Swallowtail: dill, parsley, fennel, carrot
Common Hairstreak: hollyhock
Monarch: common milkweed, butterfly milkweed, showy milkweed, etc.
Tiger Swallowtail: black cherry, poplar, ash, birch, willow
Wood Nymph: big bluestem grass
Forget Me Not (spring blooming) • Purple Coneflower • Bergamot/Bee Balm • Lavender • Black-eyed Susan • Asters (fall blooming) • Yarrow
Trees and Shrubs
Saskatoon Berry/Service Berry • Oak • Chokecherry •Willow• Lilac•Maple•Raspberry
A Few Resources
Bringing Nature Home: How You Can Sustain Wildlife with Native Plants, by Douglas Tallamy. A treasure trove of information on gardening with native species and bringing birds, butterflies, and beneficial insects into your garden; www.timberpress.com/books.
Nature’s Year in the Kawarthas, by Drew Monkman. Drew may be located in the Kawarthas, but his book will act as a great guide for all of Central Ontario; www.dundurn.com/books/natures_year_kawarthas.
www.monarchwatch.org. A non-profit organization dedicated to Monarch butterflies and butterfly gardening. Learn all about butterflies, their habitat, and how to raise them. They can also supply you with kits for starting your own butterfly gardens.
www.virtualmuseum.ca/Exhibitions/Butterflies/english/gallery/index.html. An excellent website of Ontario butterflies, butterfly habitat, activities and games.