When I first started making gardens, it was all about me. Nothing was more important than composing unique perennial combinations in trending color palettes, using an ever-changing list of the newest plant introductions.
As seasons passed, I realized that my tiny patch of earth was connected to the rest of the world. So many generous Yakima gardeners showed me that the importance of a garden goes far beyond its looks. Bees, birds and butterflies are what bring a garden to life.
The best known and most effective pollinators are bees, but they’re not the only ones. Are there any more graceful and dazzling workers in nature than butterflies?
Butterflies make us happy. British naturalist Sir David Attenborough, in a long lifetime of exploring every corner of our planet, has seen it all. Yet he noted that “a few precious moments spent watching a stunning red admiral or peacock butterfly feeding amongst the flowers in my garden never fails to bring me great pleasure.”
Our state is home to about 160 different species of butterflies, with many species region-specific because of the wide diversity of habitats separated by the Cascade Range.
What’s even more remarkable is that Washington State University entomologist Dr. David James has identified more than 64 species on the shrub-steppe lands of our own Cowiche Canyon Conservancy.
Gardeners who create a habitat for butterflies have an opportunity to forge a vital daily connection with the natural world that’s right outside the window.
No site is too small to create a butterfly garden. Offer food, water and a place to hide, and they will come. Find all the details in “Butterflies and How to Attract Them,” a publication of the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife. It’s free and downloadable at bit.ly/YHR-ButterflyGardens.
Choose a sunny location. For strong flight, butterflies depend on the sun for navigation and to increase their body temperature in cold weather. What’s more, their favored nectar plants usually grow in full-sun settings.
Choose a sheltered location. Butterflies expend more energy flying in the wind. If gardening in wind is your daily reality, planting on the south or southwest side of a building, fence or hedge can create a calmer refuge.
Adult butterflies come to your garden looking for nectar. All that flitting and fluttering is sustained by high-energy food sources from nectar-producing flowers. An array of flowers, trees and landscape plants (the WDFW publication has lists) can be nectar sources.
Butterflies have some preferences. They favor brightly colored, fragrant flowers in red, orange, yellow and purple, but they’ll make exceptions. Plants with flower heads composed of small multiple florets, such as asters, furnish butterflies with landing pads where they can rest and sip nectar. Some butterflies will sip from plants with short tubular flowers. “Single” flower forms are usually easier to feed from than “double” forms.
Select host plants for caterpillars. Many flowering plants provide nectar but are not hosts for caterpillars. To welcome the entire butterfly life cycle into your garden, furnish both breeding plants and plants that provide caterpillar food. Some adult butterflies lay their eggs on or near specific host plants because these plants supply their caterpillars with all their nutritional needs. For example, milkweed (Asclepias speciosa) is vital for monarch butterflies and their caterpillars. However, not all caterpillars are as particular. The WDFW publication will help you choose appropriate host plants.
Include native plants. Adapted to our local soils and climate, native wildflowers, shrubs and trees can be the best source of nectar and pollen for native pollinators. Most native plants are drought tolerant and bloom without fertilizers. Many modern hybrids may lack pollen, nectar or fragrance. The WDFW publication identifies appropriate native plants or genera.
Butterflies and other pollinators are very sensitive to insecticides. If you want butterflies, don’t use insecticides. And rather than using an herbicide, hand-pull weeds when possible.
Remember Eric Carle’s children’s book, “The Very Hungry Caterpillar”? Many gardeners can accept that some of their plants will be munched, either partially or completely. If you’re not one of them, simply place larval host plants in a more untended area of your yard rather than in your formal garden. That way, caterpillars can have their cake and eat it, too.
Plant in clumps by species and color. This makes the colors easier to see and butterflies will be more likely to use them. Grouping different plant species together also lessens the distance that feeding butterflies have to fly. Group larval food plants just as you would nectar plants. This helps females locate future nursery sites and provides caterpillars with the food they need.
Even if you can only garden in containers, you can still have a butterfly garden. Fuchsias, sweet alyssum, garden sage, dianthus and lavender are good choices.
Butterflies overwintering in colder areas such as ours do so as eggs, caterpillars or pupae. Many butterfly species find shelter at night and in stormy weather in wild patches of the landscape. Help them survive tough times by avoiding the urge to overly clean up fall gardens. You just might be removing what butterflies depend on for winter habitat, including snags, downed branches and wood, thick undergrowth and brush. Try to keep some areas of your yard “wild” all year long.
Butterflies need more than plants. On cool mornings and periodically throughout the day, butterflies warm their blood and flight muscles by basking with their wings open to the sun. Providing them with a few flat rocks that act as a reflective surface in full sun is helpful. Some cool, shady spots for resting will help butterflies regulate their temperature in hot weather.
Include water features that allow butterflies to “puddle” and obtain hydration and mineral nutrients. Damp areas provide respite for butterflies from the heat. Butterflies take water and trace minerals from patches of wet sand or soil.
Debra Kroon and Ray Yates have spent the past 25 years creating a pollinator garden at their home in Terrace Heights. According to Debra, it was worth the work.
“It’s immensely satisfying to pause and watch sometimes three or four distinct pollinators all working on the same flower head at the same time,” she said. “We’re thrilled to know we had a part in creating this ‘banquet’ for them. As go the pollinators, so goes all of us.”
The Benton-Franklin County Master Gardeners also created a butterfly demonstration garden, this one in Kennewick. You can make a visit, or take an audio tour right now. Learn how the garden was built and what butterfly-friendly features were included. You’ll find a long list of nectar and host plants you can borrow from.