For The Answer
Weekly Express-News Article
By Calvin Finch, Conservation Director, SAWS, and Horticulturist
Saturday, May 26, 2003
CHILDREN’S BUTTERFLY GARDENING
Consistent with our emphasis on low-water-use plants for butterflies this summer, the National Garden Bureau has provided a good write-up on butterfly gardening for children. I have adapted it for use in South Texas.
Planting a garden to attract butterflies is one of the best ways to get children interested in gardening and nature.
To attract the most butterflies, design a garden that provides a long season of flowers (nectar plants). Perennials, such as chives, dianthus, beebalm, butterfly weed, mints, black-eyed Susan, and purple coneflower, offer a succession of blooms. Add annuals that flower all season, such as cosmos and zinnias, to fill out the border banquet. Select flowers with many small tubular flowers or florets—liatris, goldenrod, and verbena, for example—or those with single flowers, such as sunflowers.
In addition to planting for the beauties on wings, you also need to offer food plants for their larvae. Caterpillars may not be your favorite life form—although your kids might disagree with you—but you will have only a fleeting glimpse of butterflies passing through unless you provide some nourishment for their juvenile (larval) stage. Many of those sources are trees and shrubs, at least a few of which probably already grow in your yard—hackberries, oaks, mulberries—but they also include herbs, such as dill, fennel, angelica, and parsley, and weedy plants like thistles. One of the best-known butterflies, the Monarch, lays its eggs only on milkweed, and its larvae feed on the plant. To keep the weedy plants from becoming invasive, remember to remove their spent blooms before they go to seed.
Planning a Child’s Garden—Create a separate garden area especially for the kids. The size of the garden should suit the age of your children; even a space as small as 3 feet by 6 feet will hold enough flowers to attract a few butterflies. If the kids lose interest partway through the season and the garden gets weedy, don’t worry; neatness counts for very little to a butterfly. Color, however, and a clump of bright orange butterfly weed or red salvia is easier for them to see than individual or isolated plants. After color, fragrance follows in significance; butterflies have a keen sense of smell.
Site—Find the sunniest spot in the yard for the garden. Butterflies need the heat of the sun to raise their body temperatures, which helps them fly.
Plants—Ideally, plan a garden your children can grow from seeds they sow outdoors. Some perennials germinate well in the outdoor garden: chives, butterfly weed, coneflowers, meadow rue (Thalictrum), liatris, and yarrow (Achillea), to name a few. They may not, however, bloom the first year from seed, so include annuals in the plan. For younger children, ages 3 to 7 or 8, use annuals with large seeds, such as marigolds and zinnias, which are easy for small hands to sow. Sow seeds in color groups, rather than sprinkling them through the bed.
Accessories—Incorporate a few rocks in the design. Butterflies often rest on rocks, which reflect the heat of the sun. Edge the garden with rounded rocks, put a small pile towards one side, or make a path through the flowers with flat stepping stones. Create a place where water can collect with a concave rock or a pot saucer filled with wet sand (Moisten the sand periodically if it doesn’t rain). Butterflies “puddle” in such spots—the perfect opportunity for kids to watch them up close.
For more information on butterfly gardening in San Antonio, visit the website plantanswers.com or your favorite nursery.