How to Create a
Butterfly and Hummingbird Garden
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
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
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.
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
here for the plant list
that accompanies this article:
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.
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
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
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
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.
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
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
here for the list that accompanies
this article of
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.
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
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.
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
Know Who You Are Inviting
hummingbirds & butterflies)