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Five easy steps to butterfly gardening

By Staff | Jun 22, 2016

Two sulphur butterflies emerging from their chrysalis. ANITA FORCE MARSHALL

Everyone knows that butterflies add inspiration, tranquility, and wonderment to their gardens. The importance of butterfly gardens is growing into a worldwide effort to embrace all pollinators and their necessity to reclaim a dwindling habitat.

In the past, land was refurbished into communities that regarded wildlife as a nuisance. Today as gardeners, it is our responsibility to give back what we can to all wildlife. We can, one garden at a time, change our views of how gardens should look.

Contrived and overly pruned gardens hopefully are a thing of the past. A naturally edited garden with lots of thought process to its design for aesthetics and nature can be easily started. Butterfly gardening principles embrace wildlife gardening and will set a backyard stage in the right direction.

Start small, pick one area in the garden at a time, and do not be overwhelmed by trying to create a masterpiece in one day. With each addition experience, expertise and confidence will grow.

Here are five easy steps that will lead you from butterfly failure to butterfly success.

Monarch butterfly eating nectar from a lantana. ANITA FORCE MARSHALL

Step one: Select the area in the yard that gets the most sun. Butterflies require lots of sun to stay warm and active; their wings are solar panels scales that absorb heat from the sun. Easy-peasy grass removal is merely laying newspaper down thickly (3-5 pages) over the grass and put mulch on top of the newspaper. This method actually enriches the soil, making it ready to plant within weeks. Gardens today should have more garden and less grass ratio. Now the area is ready to plant.

Step two: Plant butterfly nectar plants. A simple garden design uses a square area with four entrances. The butterfly nectar and host plants are planted cottage style in the bed areas surrounding the outside boundaries. A center focal point (as simple as a bird bath) can be accented by flowers. Flowers are food, aka nectar, for butterflies. They obtain nectar from flowers through their long tongue (proboscis) that is hollow and unrolls from a spiral position into a straight straw-like tube to sip up their breakfast lunch, and dinner. Nectar contains not just sugar, but proteins and other life sustaining ingredients. When seeking nectar, butterflies evaluate flowers with their feet, antennae, and tongue. When feeding, butterflies grasp the flower petals with both legs and push their proboscis into the flower to reach the nectar. They are always competing for nectar with other pollinators, so the more flowers the merrier. Now that there are butterflies visiting the yard and they are being fed, let’s keep them in the garden.

Step three: Plant butterfly host plants. Every species of butterfly has one plant they will lay their eggs on; this is called their host plant and is essential for their survival by reproducing for the next generation. The host plants tender, new growth, is where they gently lay eggs on. In about two weeks the new caterpillar babies hatch and begin eating and resting and eating resting.

Step four: There is no spraying of any insecticides allowed in wildlife gardens. Spraying insecticides is non-discriminating and kills all the good bugs along with the bad bugs. For butterflies, it interrupts the life cycle, which is egg, caterpillar, chrysalis, and butterfly. Caterpillars are the future butterflies. We want them to eat their host plant, so they can get big, plump, and beautiful. In about two weeks of growing (typically five skin molting/instars) they will look for a suitable place to pupate. Caterpillars usually choose an area that blends in, or camouflages, their chrysalis. Some will stay in the area, some will travel and pick a space they feel safe in. They will assume a hanging position and start to literally lose their heads to make their chrysalis. Magic occurs in this pseudo sarcophagus.

Step five: About two weeks later the newest butterfly will arrive usually early morning by slowly emerging out of its chrysalis. Expanding their folded wings is done by forcing blood into the veins. After a few hours the wings are ready for flying in their new home. This butterfly will then repeat the whole process in the same garden because a backyard was created suitable for wildlife and pollinators. Butterfly gardens can be in everyone’s future, one garden at a time.

Gian swallowtail butterflies mating. ANITA FORCE MARSHALL