Butterfly Gardening

Why do we love butterflies so much?  

Is it the beauty and freedom that define their days?  Is it the transformative potential of the


that attracts us?  After all, butterflies are just bugs too, right?  How is it that we save so much room in our hearts for one bug and have entire industries devoted to the extermination of other bugs?  

Happiness is a butterfly, which when pursued, is always just beyond your grasp, but which, if you will sit down quietly, may alight upon you.
~Nathaniel Hawthorne

Whatever butterflies are doing that strikes our imaginations and warms our hearts, they seem to be doing it better then any other insect around.  While the dragonfly can impresses us with speed, agility, and grace, the butterflies’ lackadaisical charm flutters ever deeper into our hearts.  While the honey bees work day and night to serve our human purposes, so many people react to their little striped suits with sheer panic, but come the lazy butterfly hopping around on the breeze and people everywhere stop to smile. 

It’s high time we humans started devoting more space to the other creatures we share this planet with, and our collective love of butterflies can guide the way towards a healthy habitat for us all.

"Just living is not enough," said the butterfly, "one must have sunshine, freedom and a little flower."~Hans Christian Anderson

The Butterfly Effect

Tiny actions can have huge effects on complex systems.  The butterfly effect is a theory used by 

scientists and storytellers alike to explain the notion that even seemingly insignificant actions can have a huge impact over time. With this in mind I like to ask myself a seemingly tiny question.  

What is the effect of my life on the Earth’s living systems?  The size of this question however should not be judged by the number of words it takes to ask, but by the millennia it takes to answer.

Our daily decisions have impacts far beyond our capacity to understand. 

Monarchs below and Western Tiger Swallowtail above feast on the 

nectar of summer blooming native perennial plants.  Butterfly gardening grows beauty and environmental health. I like to plant a few deeply rooted butterfly attracting native plants in amongst my vegetable gardens.  Not only are my vegetable crops helped when the perennial roots draw moisture from deep in the ground during the heat of the summer, but the butterflies are happy to see the free food I've grown them, and I'm happy to see the butterflies!

Butterfly Gardening Basics

Simply put, if you want to see butterflies, plant native flowers.  The most inviting homes for butterflies will have different types of native flowers that bloom and provide nectar all through the growing season.  To ensure your yard has more butterflies then the Jones’s next door, also plant some caterpillar host plants.  One classic example of a caterpillar host plant is

common milkweed

, which hosts

monarch butterflies

and seems to grow as freely as the butterfly it hosts.  If monarchs are your goal, make sure you also plant

meadow blazingstar

, no other nectar-bearing bloomer can make the monarchs line up like this form of Liatris.  Monarchs are also strongly attracted to other forms of



black eyed susans



, and


Why stop at monarchs though when there’s so many wonderful little butterflies out there to see.  Variety is the spice of life, and the more types of native plants you have in your yard, the more likely you’ll see rare forms of butterfly.  Caterpillar host plants include: Artemisia, which is preferred by Painted Ladycaterpillars, Hackberry treeswhich host many creatures including the American Snoutand Tawny Emperorcaterpillars while Violets,Purslane, and Sedumwhich will host the lovely Variegated Fritillary.   

Many butterflies will have widely varying food sources.  Much more then nectar passes the pointed proboscis of our protagonist.  Various butterflies will eat everything from leaves and rotting fruit to dead animals and dung.  The greater the variety of native plants you grow including trees, shrubs, blooming perennials and ground covers, the more diverse will be your yards selections of foods, and the more the butterflies will flutter by.  

A butterflies' beauty is bold and obvious, while other garden bugs may appear to human sensibilities as creepy or scary.  However, even the creepy bugs play an important part in our lives.

We like the butterflies, are all connected to, and reliant on a living planetary system stocked full of a huge variety of bugs.  In order to protect one type of insect like the butterfly, we must protect all of the other insects, plants, and animals that live in and create the butterflies ecosystem.

Hints for Butterfly Beginners:

1. Good plants from good sources.

Locally, the best butterfly plant selections are sold at 3 garden stores. Visit all three, they each have different selections and really cool gardeners on staff. 

Landscape Alternatives

, and

Outback Nursery

are my top stops for butterfly garden plants.  Roy at Landscape Alternatives is especially knowledgeable about local butterfly plant selections. 

2.  Good dirt makes good gardens.

Ignore the silly rumors that native plants like “starved” soil.  I don’t have any idea where or how this rumor got started, but it’s a downright lie.  The meadow, prairie, and woodland soils from this region, are some of the richest soils I’ve ever encountered and I’ve checked out dirt around the world.  If you want success with your new butterfly garden, before you plant, remove any sod, wood mulch, landscaping fabric, or other impediment to growth, and lay down at least 6 inches of fresh compost (not bagged, never trust a dirt bag), after laying down the compost turn it into the soil with a shovel leaving large chunks of the soil undisturbed.  After the compost has been incorporated into the soil, simply cover with more compost till the surface of the garden is smooth and then plant away till your garden is full and your heart is content. 

3.  Cover The Ground In Green.

I call this notion “living mulch”.  Not only will this practice keep more moisture in your soil, but by shading the ground, it will help ensure that you are packing your space with plenty of plant diversity.  Lawn grass doesn’t count.  Sod grass lawns provide habitat for neither butterfly, nor bird, nor beast.  When designing your yard, plan for as little lawn, and as much garden as possible.  If you make the flowers happy, you’ll make the butterflies ecstatic!

4.   Grow Many Layers of Canopy.

When we build habitat, it’s good to let nature be our guide.  Before the Twin Cities existed in this area, there was forest.  When we wish to heal the land locally, we need only help recreate the forest.  Native trees and shrubs should be included in the plan for any well landscaped twin cities yard.  I like to plant meadow plants around and underneath newly establishing trees.  Meadows are what the forest uses to recreate itself and fill in the gaps after windfalls and forest fires.  Think of our city building and farming practices as being as destructive to the local forests as a fire or tornado, then you can begin to see the amazing amount of repair we need to create in our environment before it will be healthy again.

5.   Never Use Pesticides or Chemical Fertilizers.

Butterflies are delicate, and we aren’t all that much tougher then them. It doesn’t take much to upset the balance of health in any ecosystem. We’ve already discussed how tiny decisions have big impacts, and this is certainly the case here.  

The gentle breeze blown by the beating wings of a butterfly in your back yard could just be the catalyst for the creation of a current of cultural change in America.  Life is funny like that.  Little actions in one place can have huge impacts in seemingly unrelated, far away places. A friend of mine once said to me of butterflies “they should be called flutter-byes, that’s what they do”.  I couldn’t agree more.  Now is the best time to plan a butterfly garden, before the growing season flutters by.