Monday, March 14, 2016

A Garden Experiment: expanding my butterfly garden

I hope to see more butterflies like this Painted Lady in my yard this year!

This fall I decided I just didn’t have enough area in my yard devoted to butterfly beds. Some of this was inspired by the great gardens I observed on my Big Year excursions, especially the enormous field of zinnias at the Dismal Swamp welcome center in North Carolina. I didn’t have nearly as many butterflies in my yard as were at the zinnia field, nor did I have the diversity of insects that those zinnias attracted. So I decided to add a few beds devoted to flowers for my butterflies and other pollinators.

I spotted this assassin bug feasting on an unlucky honeybee at the Dismal Swamp rest stop's zinnia field. Cool!

I also decided to try an experiment in creating these new beds. Instead of laboriously digging up the existing sod (since these beds were going to replace some lawn in my front yard), I laid out a layer of flattened cardboard boxes on top of the existing grass, wetted them down, then covered them with a few inches of mulch. I had just enough mulch left over from earlier in the summer to cover both new beds, whew!  I left that there all winter to smother the lawn underneath. Mulching them kept them looking neat and tidy, important since they’re in my front yard. Next I’ll layer some dry leaves and mostly-finished compost on top. I’ll probably add some additional soil too, depending on how much compost I have available. Leaving the cardboard in place under these beds should help control weeds in my new flowerbeds, and it will eventually decompose completely.

Here are the new beds in the fall. Soon it will be time to add more layers of soil and compost, then add my plants!

I’ve started seeds for butterflyweed (asclepias tuberosa), pentas, and verbena bonariensis already. I also purchased zinnia seeds, which are direct-sow. I usually like to focus on native plants in my ornamental beds, but am willing to grow non-natives if they are particularly attractive to butterflies & other pollinators. I noticed verbena bonariensis was very popular with butterflies and hummingbird moths at Brookside Gardens, so thought I’d try it. The pentas are also quite popular with butterflies in the Wings of Fancy butterfly exhibit, so I thought I’d see if my wild butterflies like them too.

Southern Broken-dash enjoying Verbena bonariensis.

I’ve learned a lot more about butterfly gardening since I started here at this house. I’ve learned that butterflies are very nearsighted and really need big swaths of blooms to attract them, rather than one plant here & there. So I’m only planning a few kinds of flowers in those beds. Lots of bright attractive blossoms during the main part of the summer is my central goal here.

With the butterflyweed I hope also to attract egg-laying Monarch butterflies. It would be really fun to add Monarch caterpillars to my invertebrate menagerie in the summertime! Even if I don’t get caterpillars, the bright orange flowers should attract plenty of hungry bees and butterflies. I think this is my third or fourth time trying milkweed; all the previous times I direct-sowed in the fall and didn’t get any sprouts in the spring. So this time I’m raising the seedlings indoors where I can protect them better. If the first batch of seedlings fails I have more seeds and will try again. The tiny new sprouts look healthy so far, though, so I am feeling optimistic.

Baby butterflyweed with their first real leaves! Also marigold seedlings in the back.

What about you? Are you growing anything new this year, or trying a new technique? It’s fun to experiment in the garden. I’m trying a few new plants in my vegetable garden this year as well; I’ll write about that more in a future post.

Happy gardening! Spring is a mere week away.


  1. Hello, we planted mostly perennials that attract the butterflies and during the summer we will have some annuals that the hummers and butterflies love. Your Butterflies and flowers are lovely. Happy Sunday, enjoy your new week!

  2. I am a novice gardener. I am adding more plants each season focusing on natives. I am hoping to raise monarchs or spicebush swallowtails if I can find the eggs...


Blogger Widget