This time of year is exciting for many gardeners as they begin to plan for a new season. Seed catalogues and nurseries are sending daily e-blasts, teasing the senses to encourage orders. This is when gardeners think about how to approach the upcoming growing season; new shrubs, fruit trees, berry bushes, more perennials, or just focus on annuals? Some gardeners will also consider planting specific types of gardens; a prairie garden, shade or wet garden, and hopefully many will think about planting a butterfly or pollinator garden.
There are many reasons to plant specifically to attract birds, bees and butterflies in our gardens. All three are being severely effected by environmental factors that are decreasing their populations at alarming rates. Pesticide use and frequent mowing, over-zealous leaf removal in the Fall and an increasing number of invasive plants are severely changing the natural habitat that these creatures need to survive.
The plight of the Monarch butterfly is a prominent example of the consequences of man’s interference in the environment— the attention the depleted population of Monarch butterflies is garnering is an indication that many people other than gardeners have become proactive in their concern for these beautiful endangered creatures.
Monarchs cannot survive without milkweed. The Monarch caterpillars need milkweed plants (Asclepias spp.) to grow and develop, and female monarch butterflies only lay their eggs on milkweed. With shifting land management practices, we have lost much milkweed from the landscape. Planting milkweed is a great way to help other pollinators too, as milkweed provides nectar resources to a diverse suite of bees and butterflies.
Planting native nectar and host plants helps keep the eco-system healthy by attracting an assortment of pollinators, insects and birds. Both nectar plants for nourishment and host plants are important elements in a butterfly garden. They provide a site for the butterfly to lay her eggs and also provide a food source for the emerging caterpillar. Don’t forget a water element as well and be prepared for heavy munching on your host plants— I like to plant for the caterpillars and then place a few extra plants some distance away for my own enjoyment.
Because tiny Monarch caterpillars cannot travel far to find their own food, the female butterfly locates and lays her eggs on milkweed which is the only type of plant that the caterpillar can use as food. Most species of caterpillars are particular about the type of plants they can eat. If the egg was not placed on the correct plant, the caterpillar hatching from that egg will not survive. Many gardeners do not like to see plants in their gardens that have been chewed on by bugs. To avoid this, you may want to locate your butterfly host plants in areas that are not highly visible, but still a short distance from the butterfly nectar plants. If you do not provide host plants, you will have fewer butterflies.
There are several types of milkweed to choose from. Common Milkweed, Asclepias syriaca will benefit native pollinators with its long and fragrant bloom time. The sweetly fragrant Rose Milkweed, Asclepias incarnata or Swamp Milkweed will grow in drier partial shade as well as sunny spots. Poke Milkweed, Asclepias exaltata — Tall Green Milkweed, Asclepias hirtella— Butterfly Weed, Asclepias tuberosa— Whorled Milkweed, Asclepias verticillata and Spider Milkweed, Asclepias viridis. All will grow in my zone 6 garden.
When choosing plants you should keep a number of factors in mind; a succession of bloom times, and species which provide both nectar and food for the caterpillars. The following is a sampling of plants to use in either a wet or dry spot:
Pale Purple Coneflower
Button Blazing Star
Hairy Mountain Mint
Blue Wild Indigo
Great Blue Lobelia
Meadow Blazing Star
The listed plants will attract Hummingbirds, bees, an assortment of butterflies and many other pollinators to your garden. Find out which butterflies are common in your area, grow the plants the caterpillars like to eat, along with plants that adult butterflies feed on. Nectar and host plants should be in the same general area, but if you don’t want all of your perennial garden ravaged by caterpillars be sure to plant some perennials some distance away from your butterfly garden.
Remember— plant a variety of flowers incorporating different shapes and colors to attract more than one type of pollinator and to ensure continual blooms from Spring through Fall. Plant native plants whenever possible. Avoid modern hybrids; pollen, nectar and scent, (all essential for the survival of your garden habitat) can be lost in the hybridization process. Don’t even think about using pesticides— pick the unwanted pests off— pesticides will kill beneficial bugs too. Build a bee condo, or leave a dead branch or two to create a nesting habitat for bees. Plant in clumps so that pollinators can easily find their plant of choice. Provide bare ground and water and don’t forget your “host” plants, baby caterpillars need to feed on the foliage of their host plant.
A quick tutorial on starting milkweed indoors from seed:
Stratification needed— Seeds germinate after a period of cold, moist stratification. 60 days of cold, moist conditions.
1] Calculate the date to start cold stratification pre-treatment. (Here in the Hudson Valley, May 15 is usually a safe time to put your babies in the ground). Rinse or complete a short soak. Pour seeds into a paper towel or a coffee filter or fine screen to drain.
2] Arrange seed in a single layer and allow excess water to drain off.
3] Fold seed loosely into the coffee filter or paper towel to allow for weekly spot checks— the seed and paper should be damp but not wet.
4] A dry paper towel added to your labeled resealable bag will help to maintain even moisture while pulling excessive moisture away. Do not allow the stratification medium to completely dry out or stay soggy enough to rot.
5] Place the sealed bag in your refrigerator— not freezer, and monitor weekly or as needed, until it is time to remove for sowing. Replace paper towel or coffee filter often; repeat from step 1.Once seed has completed the recommended stratification period or if excessively early sprouting occurs, plant immediately.
All photos (other than the featured image which was sourced from the internet) courtesy of the author.