Gardening for butterflies and pollinators has become an increasingly popular and sophisticated activity over the last 15 years. Initially, these gardens were quite simple and involved only the addition of a number of nectar sources for adult butterflies easily obtained through commercial outlets as well as a few host plants for caterpillars of various species. This approach still works and if you are new to this activity it would be wise to start with the tried and true plants with the idea that you can add and subtract plant species in the future. If you are starting a Monarch Waystation at a school, nature center or home garden, a modest plan that incorporates familiar plants my be the best approach.
If you already are an experienced gardener and want to expand your knowledge of plants and provide a more productive habitat for native pollinators, you might consider adding native plants to your garden. Gardening with native plants has become quite popular and lists of plants appropriate for gardens in various regions of the country can be found on many websites. The diversity of native plants is such that you can select plants based on the kinds of pollinators you wish to attract to your garden. There are flowers that predominantly attract hummingbirds, swallowtail butterflies and some large moths, while others attract numerous bee species and yet others attract butterflies, moths and even flies and beetles. If your garden contains a good mix of such plants, it can be a lively and very interesting place indeed (and don’t worry about the bees they will be too busy collecting nectar and pollen to sting). To get an idea of how to create such habitats for pollinators and monarchs, please visit the website for the Pollinator Prairie (a list of native plants is included).
To assist those of you who would like to add native plants to your gardens, we have sought the advice of several people who have extensive experience with native plants. Two plant lists are included here, the first encompasses most of the northeastern portion of the country and the second deals with native plants that can be effectively used in different regions of Texas. The notations indicate whether the plants are native, are host plants and whether they are annuals or perennials.
These lists may be over the top for those of you who are just beginning and, if so, remember the advice is to keep it simple at the outset. To help you do this, the "must have" plants for basic gardens are in bold type.
For those creating gardens for schools, remember gardening for butterflies and pollinators is both fun and educational. Butterflies and pollinators are easy to watch and easy to identify. Pocket cameras and smart phones can be used to take pictures of the visitors to your garden so you they may be identified using some of the large number of websites devoted to different groups of insects. Pollinator gardens are also a good way to introduce students to insect diversity. The attributes of the flowers that attract certain types of pollinators or conversely the attributes of the pollinators and the flowers they visit could be the subject of many student projects. Further, the seasonal progression of bloom, or phenology, could also be tracked from year. The maintenance activities in the garden, the flower phenology and visitors, unusual sightings, etc., could all be logged on a website dedicated to the garden, a website that could be shared with other schools with similar gardens. Remember you are also gardening with another purpose – to attract specific butterflies to the host plants you have added to the garden. Some may show up soon while others may take some time before they discover the resource you’ve created. These arrivals can be quite gratifying.
One last note: your butterfly garden can be any size, from a window box to a portion of your landscaped yard to a wild, untended area on your lot. You can include native plants, cultivated species, or both. But before you get started, read the hints here in our gardening section to make your garden as successful as possible.