Backyard Habitat
How to Create a Butterfly and Hummingbird Garden

How to Create a
Butterfly and Hummingbird Garden

Part 2:  Planning The Garden

by Patricia Sutton

Plant a butterfly and hummingbird garden and they will come. But first . . . you might want to consider the following sage advice!

Choose a Sunny Location.  Butterflies are solar powered. They need to be warm and dry to fly. A simple cloud crossing over the sun will make butterfly activity drop from dozens during a sunny stretch to none a few minutes later when cloudy. If you do not have an open yard, plant a series of gardens that will take advantage of sunny spots as the sun moves through your yard. The butterflies will move from garden to garden with the sun.

Provide Shelter.  Butterflies are delicate and can be blown about easily. Gardens on edges of your yard, up against shrubby or forested areas or a fence, can offer considerable protection from strong winds. Gardens placed out in the most open part of your property to take advantage of sun all day long will be more attractive to butterflies if designed to also offer shelter. A horseshoe shaped garden that utilizes flowering shrubs offers nectar out of the wind on at least one of its edges no matter what direction the wind is blowing, even on the windiest day. Hummingbirds utilize cover near gardens and feeders in between feeding sessions. Dead snags or bare twigs in nearby shrubs become favored resting spots and can be predictable places to search for perched hummingbirds. Keep in mind too that hummingbirds favor slim, downward sloping branches over open areas for their nests, just the sort of branches that border your open yard and gardens. Keep this in mind when trimming in the early spring.

The Importance of Diversity.  A wide open grass lawn with a lone butterfly and hummingbird garden in the middle of it may attract some activity, but probably very little compared to an area with lots of options. Diversity is the key. Incorporate into your plan formal and informal gardens, natural or weedy areas or edges, plantings of trees and shrubs, a wildflower meadow, and the minimal amount of lawn you need.  Butterfly and hummingbird activity will skyrocket.

Visit Other Gardens for Layout and Design Ideas.  Learn from others.  Visit NJ Audubon centers and take garden tours.  Talk with your "gardening"  friends for ideas that meet your space needs, time needs and wildlife desires.

Work With What You Already Have.  Incorporate your gardens into available spots. Do not cut down your forest to put in a butterfly garden or create a meadow. Use some of your mowed lawn instead. Study the list of caterpillar foodplants in the accompanying pdf file of "Recommended Plantings to Attract Hummingbirds, Butterflies, & Moths" to learn the value of the trees, shrubs, vines, and weedy plants that may already exist in your yard.

Long Term Planning.  Sketch a plan for your property incorporating all the elements mentioned above that you want in your garden habitats. The plan can be carried out in stages, each year tackling a different garden, meadow, pond area, shrub border, whatever. But, you'll find it very helpful to have a rough plan to be working from. If a permanent watering system is possible, consider it early on before you've planted hundreds of dollars worth of plants.  Such a watering system will help you through drought periods and in the first year of a new garden's life.  By planting natives and the other recommended plants on our list you should be able to keep watering to a minimum, if needed at all.

Plant Selection

There are dozens and dozens of books on butterfly and hummingbird gardening, and their lists of recommended plants is extensive, even to the point of being unhelpfully so. Too, a few marginal plants, like Yarrow and Black-eyed Susan, have slipped onto these lists and are perpetuated in book after book.

The list of recommended nectar plantings and host plantings that accompanies this article is the result of years of gardening for butterflies and hummingbirds in southern New Jersey and visiting other gardens in New Jersey, surrounding states, and when traveling around the country. Jane Ruffin (Rosement, PA), Karen Williams (Woodbine, NJ), Jim Dowdell (Villas, NJ), Michael Pollock (northern NJ), and Denise Gibbs (Gaithersburg, MD) all played key roles in fine tuning this list to reflect the very best choices for this region.

As you review the list you'll see that certain aspects of it make it highly useful. The top nectar plants for both butterflies and hummingbirds are listed as "Chocolate Cakes." This is Jane Ruffin's term for the flowers that are irresistible to butterflies no matter what else is in bloom. Jane, Karen, Jim, Michael, Denise and I were all surprised by differences in each of our gardens, even when less than ten miles apart. A Chocolate Cake in one yard held little interest for butterflies in another. I think the key to this is whether or not you have massed plantings of that particular plant. For instance, Purple Coneflower in my yard is barely used, but then I have a dozen Butterfly Bushes stealing the show and the Purple Coneflower is sprinkled here and there, not planted in huge patches.

Click here for the plant list
that accompanies this article:
"Recommended Plantings to Attract
Hummingbirds, Butterflies, & Moths"

Be Selective and Plant in Masses.  A garden with one-hundred different kinds of plants, one or two of each, is much less attractive to butterflies and hummingbirds than massed plantings of well selected plants. You'll probably want to include all the "Chocolate Cakes," using them as the backbone of your gardens. Be sure to cover the tough times too by providing early spring bloomers and plants that bloom right up until the first heavy frost in late fall.

Mix Perennials and Annuals.  Perennials only need to be planted once; they live from year to year, with varying blooming periods. Over time many perennials need to be divided, providing you with new plants to stretch your gardens even further into the yard or to give away to friends or acquaintances you're trying to convert into wildlife gardeners. Annuals are short-lived plants; their entire life cycle takes place in one growing season. They must be planted from seed each year. Many of them have a longer blooming period than perennials and they can be tucked into bare spots in your perennial garden as filler. Many annuals bloom right up until the frost.

Natives.  Chose as many native plants as possible.  It's the right thing to do!  Being native, they belong here, and will require less care (water, fertilizer, pampering).  I am a purist when it comes to tree, shrub, & vine selection for bird gardens / food, but not when it comes to butterfly and hummingbird gardening. In my own gardens I've included as many natives as possible (native to NJ and native to North America), but compliment native plantings with Chocolate Cake alien plants that are not invasive and fill in quiet times in the garden, so there is an unending offering of intense nectar spring through the first hard frost.

Learn how to grow native plants from seed.

Natives for Sale. Support NJ Audubon with plant purchases - every center has a spring native plant sale.  

Provide Nectar Spring Through Late Fall.  Choose from the accompanying list as many plants as you can that flower in the spring. But also value and spare some of your "weeds" that are spring bloomers (mustards, Purple Dead Nettle, clovers, Dandelion, Common Strawberry) and note the butterfly activity they attract.

Include long-blooming nectar plants like Butterfly Bush in your gardens. Butterfly Bush begins blooming in July and blooms right up until the frost, some years into early November. This is a real bonus for migrating Monarchs and late moving hummingbirds. To encourage such a lengthy blooming season does require some work. You need to "dead head" the spent flower heads, otherwise the plant puts its energy into developing seeds and stops producing flowers. Too with all the concern about Butterfly Bush being a possible invasive plant, by dead heading it you nip this in the bud!  In the spring I cut each shrub back to one foot high, since all the flowers are produced on new growth. In no time they are again sizeable shrubs and in bloom.

Save space in your gardens for long-blooming annuals such as Zinnias, Mexican Sunflower, Tropical Sage, and Tropical Milkweed. Some gardeners swear by marigolds, though they have too much competition in my yard to be attractive to butterflies. All of these annuals bloom right up until the frost, an important time period to cover. Tender shrubs that will also bloom until the first frost are Pentas and Lantana. I pot mine up and bring them indoors before the first frost, enjoy their indoor blooms all winter long, and then put them out again in the spring.

It is fun to plan a garden but not very easy when you have no idea what many of the plants look like. Many mail-order catalogues are illustrated with excellent photos of perennials (and, in some cases, annuals) in bloom. Spring catalogues are more complete and they arrive in winter, a good time to plan for the following spring and summer. Get on their mailing lists.

Maintenance is a Key Consideration

You want to enjoy your gardens and their visitors, not bog down in maintenance tasks. As I've become more and more focused on gardening for butterflies, hummingbirds, and birds in general it has been a wonderful excuse to garden in a more relaxed fashion. The knowledge that my garden is full of butterfly eggs, caterpillars, and chrysalids scattered throughout (indeed the next generation of butterflies I can look forward to) is my rational for not being too tidy during the growing season and through the winter. To conserve water and keep plants in my formal gardens alive during summer's heat I've found that mulching with grass clippings is the perfect solution. The grass is free; an acquaintance with a lawn mowing service drops off six or so full trash cans and picks up (to be refilled) the empty cans from the previous week.  The grass clippings eventually break down into rich soil. I smother weeds with grass clippings (before they can crowd out my perennials) and surround newly planted annuals with it too. As weeds again peek through I add new layers of grass clippings.

Caterpillar Foodplants for Butterflies

In order to meet all butterfly needs, it is important to understand their biology. Most adult butterflies only live two to three weeks, and a few species only live three days. (The longer-lived butterflies hibernate through the winter months as adults.) The bulk of a butterfly's life is spent becoming a butterfly: egg, caterpillar, chrysalis, and finally adult. An adult butterfly's primary function is to mate, lay eggs, and create the next generation. Butterflies lay their eggs on specific plants known as caterpillar food plants (or host plants). Some butterfly species lay their eggs on only one specific caterpillar foodplant. The Baltimore Checkerspot uses only Turtlehead (white). ?Olive' Juniper Hairstreaks use only Red Cedar. The monarch lays its eggs on many members of the milkweed family, in our area using Common Milkweed, Butterfly Weed, Swamp Milkweed, and planted beds of Tropical Milkweed. The Gray Hairstreak is one of the most widespread butterflies in North America because it uses so many different caterpillar foodplants. Many of the trees, shrubs, vines, wildflowers, weeds, and grasses encouraged or planted in my yard are important to the life cycle of butterflies and moths. A garden that only supplies nectar forces butterflies to move on in search of caterpillar foodplants.

Do a casual survey to find out how many caterpillar foodplants you already have in your yard, using the list that accompanies this article. See which new host plants you can tuck into your perennial flower beds or choose when planting a new tree, shrub, or vine. Maybe you already have wild violets. Rather than remove them to make way for other plants, work around them now that you know they are used by fritillaries for egg laying. Many gardeners are appalled when they find their Parsley, Dill, or Fennel patch ravaged by large, ornate, green and black striped caterpillars. I and others have learned to intersperse large patches of Fennel, Parsley, and Dill right into our perennial flower beds. The result, a yard full of newly emerged Black Swallowtails and still plenty of seasoning for the kitchen. Many caterpillar foodplants are "weeds," plants we've all pulled out of our yards and gardens at one time or another, like Queen Anne's Lace, Lamb's Quarters, Sweet Everlasting, Sheep Sorrel. After reviewing this partial list of caterpillar foodplants used by local butterflies and moths, you may have new respect for these plants and learn to tolerate and maybe even enjoy them in your yard.

Click here for the list that accompanies this article of
"Recommended Caterpillar Foodplants"

To Weed or Not to Weed?

If you garden for butterflies and hummingbirds, many "weeds" take on a new significance. The presence of unkempt areas near your formal gardens, where nature is given free rein, might contribute more than you think to your garden's success. Weeds like Large-flowered Vetch cling to my garden fence and frequently draw hummingbirds away from my more formal and planned garden. As already discussed, many weedy plants are essential host plants for some of our favorite butterflies. Most of our butterflies winter in the egg, caterpillar, or chrysalis stage. I no longer tidy up my garden in the fall but leave the flower stalks standing. Not only do many birds feed on the seed heads through the winter, but this approach allows butterfly eggs, caterpillars, and chrysalids to remain safely scattered throughout my garden. I stopped raking leaves when I learned that Luna Moths winter in their silken leaf-wrapped cocoons under Sweet Gum trees and that Hackberry Emperors winter as partially grown caterpillars in fallen leaves under Hackberry trees. The "too tidy" gardener is literally and physically bagging up and carting off next spring's butterflies. Actually, butterflies are an excellent excuse to spend less time fussing and more time enjoying the garden visitors. Sara Stein's excellent book, Noah's Garden, and Michael Pollan's Second Nature, a Gardener's Education wonderfully explain the importance of a more relaxed view of gardening.

Wildflower Meadow

Now that you realize the value of grasses and weedy plants, consider incorporating a wildflower meadow into your butterfly and hummingbird habitat plan, even if it is a small flowerbed-size meadow. The easiest way to begin your meadow is to simply stop mowing. If the area has not been chemically treated, a rich diversity of plants will come up in just the first year, including a number of wildflowers. You can speed things along by planting a wavy line of wildflowers through your meadow (New England Aster, goldenrod, various milkweeds, and Purple Coneflower). Denise Gibbs recommends planting your wildflower seedlings or plugs in this wavy line or pattern so that when seeds disperse, it looks as it would in a natural meadow.

Sexy Meadow . . . Nuisance Weeds?  If you live where uncut grass is unacceptable to your neighbors or if you are trying to accomplish this on a schoolyard, make your meadow more pleasing: (1) surround it with a low split rail fence, (2) mow a walking path around it and a winding path through it, and )3) place a sign at the entrance stating that the area is a "Wildflower Meadow for Butterflies." Of course the birds, bees, moths, and other critters will benefit too, but butterflies have a magic appeal. To keep your meadow a meadow it must be partly mowed once each year, preferably in the spring, otherwise woody shrubs and trees will seed there and eventually turn your meadow into a shrubby area, and finally into a forest. As shrubs move in it becomes harder and harder to mow. It is important to do the mowing in the spring, not in the fall, for a number of reasons: (1) the foot-high grasses and wildflowers provide important cover to birds and other wildlife through the winter, and their seed heads provide important survival food through the winter; (2) many butterflies go through their life cycle (egg, caterpillar, chrysalis) tucked down in the weedy growth of your meadow. This being the case, rotation mowing helps make sure some survive: mow half the meadow one spring and half the next spring.

I hope that your lawn too will become a series of pathways through blooming garden habitats! In your gardening efforts, keep good notes. They'll pay off and prove very helpful to you and other gardeners in your area. I'd love to hear from you; pass along your garden's "Chocolate Cakes" and other nectar attractants so that they can be included in future updates of this article and other NJ Audubon materials.

--Patricia Sutton

Much of the information in this article is derived from Pat Sutton's long experience with gardening in Cape May County, and some of the flowering periods and bird arrival dates reflect this. Readers living in areas other than the southern Coastal Plain of New Jersey may wish to adapt their gardening accordingly.


Part 1:
Know Who You Are Inviting

(understanding hummingbirds & butterflies)
click here