Gardening for Butterflies and Other Pollinators
Gardening for butterflies and other pollinators has become increasingly popular over the last decade, and is one of the most important gardening goals for many Lee County gardeners this year.
Initially, these gardens were quite simple and included adding a few nectar sources for adult butterflies and a few host plants for caterpillars of various species. This is still a good approach if you’re just getting started. As your pleasure grows with the visits of various pollinators, your garden size and diversity can too.
If you already are an experienced gardener and want to increase your knowledge of plants and offer a more productive habitat for native pollinators, you might consider adding native plants to your garden. Native species are those that occur naturally in an area, having not been introduced by human action. Over time, they have evolved with the physical and biological factors specific to their region, such as climate, soil, rainfall, and interactions with other plants, animals, and insects that live in the area. Native plants are uniquely adapted to the local conditions and the area’s wildlife, including important pollinators and migratory birds.
The variety of native plants is so large 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 several bee species and yet others attract butterflies, moths and even flies and beetles.
Follow these simple steps to create a pollinator-friendly garden:
- Use a wide variety of plants that bloom from early spring into late fall. For a list of plant choices visit https://growingsmallfarms.ces.ncsu.edu/wp-content/uploads/2012/08/Top-25-Plants-and-Suppliers-2.pdf?fwd=no
Help pollinators find them easier by planting the same species in clumps, rather than single plants. Think of one-stop-shopping for the pollinator. Consider night-blooming flowers that will support moths and bats.
- Reduce your use of hybrid flowers, especially those with “doubled” blooms. Often the pollen, nectar, and fragrance of these blossoms is reduced.
- Eliminate pesticides whenever possible. If you must use a pesticide, use the least-toxic material possible. Read labels carefully before purchasing, as many pesticides are especially dangerous for bees. Look for sections in the label with information specifically focused on the pesticide’s interaction with bees. Use the product properly. Spray at night when bees and other pollinators are not active.
- Include larval host plants in your landscape. If you want colorful butterflies, grow plants for their caterpillar stage to eat. They WILL eat them, so place them where unattractive leaf damage won’t be noticeable.
- Create a damp salt lick for butterflies and bees. Use a dripping hose, drip irrigation line, or place your bird bath on bare soil to create a damp area. Mix a small bit of table salt (sea salt is better!) or wood ashes into the mud.
- Leave a dead tree or limb standing. By leaving dead trees, or at least an occasional dead limb, you provide essential nesting sites for native bees. Make sure these are not a safety hazard for people walking below or a parked vehicle. You can also build a bee condo by drilling holes of varying diameter about 3 to 5 inches deep in a piece of scrap lumber mounted to a post or under eaves.
- Add to nectar resources by providing a hummingbird feeder. To make artificial nectar, use four parts water to one part table sugar. Never use artificial sweeteners, honey, or fruit juices. Place something red on the feeder. Clean your feeder with hot soapy water at least twice a week to keep it free of mold.
- Butterflies need resources other than nectar. They are attracted to unpleasant foodstuffs, such as moist animal droppings, urine and rotting fruits. Try putting out slices of overripe bananas, oranges and other fruits, or a sponge in a dish of lightly salted water to see which butterflies come to investigate. Sea salt provides a broader range of micronutrients than regular table salt.
For more information on attracting pollinators to your garden with native plants and landscaping tips, take a look at these resources: https://www.fs.fed.us/wildflowers/pollinators/documents/AttractingPollinatorsEasternUS_V1.pdf
Minda Daughtry is Horticulture Agent for North Carolina Cooperative Extension in Lee County.