Butterfly and Container Gardening
Master Gardener & NWF Habitat Steward
Frederick County Master Gardener Program
Brightly colored butterflies can be a welcome addition to your Backyard Wildlife Habitat landscape. To attract the greatest number of butterflies and have them as residents in your yard you will need to have plants that serve the needs
of all life stages of the butterfly. They need a place to lay eggs, food plants for the larva (caterpillar), a place to form a chrysalis, and nectar sources for the adult.
Most adult butterflies live 10-20 days. Some, however, are believed to live no longer than three or four days, while others, such as overwintering monarchs, may live six months.
Over 700 species of butterflies are found in North America. Very few are agricultural pests. Adult butterflies range in size from the half-inch pigmy blue found in southern California to the giant female Queen Alexandra's birdwing of New
Guinea, which measures about 10 inches from wing tip to wing tip. Butterfly tarsi or "feet" possess a sense similar to taste. Contact with sweet liquids such as nectar causes the proboscis to uncoil.
Millions of shingle like, overlapping scales give butterfly wings their color and patterns. Metallic, iridescent hues come from faceted scales that refract light; solid colors are from pigmented scales. During the time from hatching to
pupating (forming the pupa or chrysalis), the caterpillar may increase its body size more than 30,000 times. The chrysalises or pupae of many common gossamer wings --a group of butterflies which includes the blues, hairstreaks and elfins -- are capable of producing weak
sounds. By flexing and rubbing together body segment membranes, sounds are generated that may frighten off small predators and parasites.
Adults butterflies searching for nectar are attracted to: red, yellow, orange, pink, or purple blossoms flat-topped or clustered flowers and short flower tubes
Short flower tubes allow the butterflies to reach the nectar with their proboscis. Nectar-producing plants should be grown in open, sunny areas, as adults of most species rarely feed on plants in the shade.
Many caterpillars are picky eaters. They rely on only one or two species of plants. The caterpillar of the giant swallowtail butterfly in the northeast and mid-Atlantic states feeds on just two native plant foods --northern prickly ash
and hop tree. Others, such as the red-spotted purple, will feed on a variety of deciduous trees.
Necessities for a butterfly garden:
Provide flowers to feed adults. Dense "clusters" of small flowers such as zinnias, marigolds, tithonia, buddleia, milkweeds, verbenas, and many mint family plants generally work well.
Plant good nectar sources in the sun! Your key butterfly nectar source plants should receive full sun from mid-morning to mid-afternoon. Butterfly adults generally feed only in the sun. If sun is limited in your landscape, try adding
butterfly nectar sources to the vegetable garden.
No to insecticides! Insecticides such as malathion, Sevin, and diazinon are marketed to kill insects. Don't use these materials in or near the butterfly garden or better, anywhere on your property. Even "benign" insecticides, such as
Bacillus thuringiensis, are lethal to butterflies (while caterpillars).
Feed butterfly caterpillars. If you don't "grow" caterpillars, there will be no adults. Bringing caterpillar foods into your garden can greatly increase your chances of attracting unusual and uncommon butterflies, while giving you yet
another reason to plant an increasing variety of native plants. In many cases, caterpillars of a species feed on only a very limited variety of plants. Most butterfly caterpillars never cause the leaf damage we associate with some moth caterpillars such as bagworms, tent
caterpillars, or gypsy moths.
And here's a little information on Container Gardening!
Container gardening is ideal for the urban naturalist trying to maximize blooms per square inch, but is also a welcome addition to a larger yard. Following a few simple guidelines will result in healthy plants cascading over pots and
enticing wildlife to visit.
First one must find the appropriate home for a floral occupant. When choosing a container, keep in mind what plant you want to grow in it. The size and shape of the root system and the growth rate are factors determining how big and deep
of a pot you want. Large pots stay moist longer, are less subject to temperature fluctuations, and allow for more root growth and multiple plant displays. Hanging pots are the most susceptible to drying out.
Pots can be made out of a number of materials. Depending on your taste and setting, you might try clay, terra-cotta, cast concrete or wood. Wood can be pressure-treated and painted, just do not use creosote, which is toxic to plants.
Line pressure-treated wood with plastic if using the pot for edibles. Be creative and recycle a wooden barrel or watering can.
If you're not familiar with your locally native plants, you can experiment with them in containers before setting them loose in your yard. In many cases, local natives will be hardier than non-native plants. Locally native flowering
plants will attract hummingbirds, butterflies, and other pollinators. Non-hardy plants will need to have winter protection or be moved to a sheltered location. If plants are combined in one pot, just be sure that their growing conditions and growth forms are compatible.
Drainage is important to prevent roots from being waterlogged, which hinders nutrient uptake and can lead to root rot. With this in mind, outdoor plants should not be left in standing water. If a pot lacks adequate drainage, add extra
holes using an electric drill with a masonry bit. Put newspaper over the holes to prevent soil from spilling out. Elevating pots on pottery or wooden feet also helps with drainage and aeration. It is better to opt for a houseplant soil mixture over regular garden soil,
which is too dense. To help keep the soil cool and moist, top with a layer of mulch.
Watering the plant itself can inhibit efficient gas exchange in the leaves, so it is better to water the soil directly. The moisture of the soil should be checked frequently, both at the edge and in the center of the pot. Your watering
schedule should vary with the seasons. In cooler months, allow the plant to nearly dry out between watering. When the temperature is up, water daily to every other day. If a plant has wilted due to dehydration, immerse the pot in tepid water until no air bubbles appear and
place in a shady spot until the cells are again turgid. Watering is best done early in the morning when it is cool.
For more information on Butterflies please visit the (NWF) National Wildlife Federation web site www.nwf.org or the North American Butterfly Association www.naba.org.
If you would like specific information on Monarch Butterflies please visit www.monarchwatch.org For help with establishing a butterfly garden or if your Organization, School, Place of Worship, Would like a
presentation on this subject please contact Jim and Teresa Gallion, NWF Habitat Stewards and Master Gardeners @ firstname.lastname@example.org or 301-898-0678.
Read other articles on birds, wildlife & beneficial insects
Read other articles by Jim Gallion