Backyard Habitat
How to Create a Butterfly and Hummingbird Garden

How to Create a
Butterfly and Hummingbird Garden

Part 1: Know Who You Are Inviting

(understanding hummingbirds & butterflies)

by Patricia Sutton

Our jeweled avian guests begin arriving each year in April, some years as early as the 4th and some years as late as the 28th, but normally between the 19th and the 23rd. In southern New Jersey Ruby-throated Hummingbirds (the East's only breeding hummingbird) time their arrival with the blooming of Flowering Quince. Elsewhere it may be Crabapple, Apple, Blueberry, Azalea, Autumn Olive, Black Locust, or Tulip Tree blossoms that first draw them in. During early spring cold snaps a hummingbird's life may be saved as it feeds on sap flowing from trees and shrubs where yellow-bellied sapsuckers have drilled their holes.

Hummingbird Feeders -- Good or Bad?

Despite yeoman efforts, my gardens in April and May are pretty sparse for hungry hummingbirds. So, to intercept spring migrants and hold onto them as potential nesting birds, I hang hummingbird feeders in mid-April. Males arrive first and some years one buzzes in as I'm hanging the first feeder. From that day forward hummingbirds are regulars at my feeders and in budding tree tops as they flit after spiders and other insects. The constant source of food that a feeder can provide (April through October) in a garden that is always changing, and where nectar is not constant, may be what entices a hummingbird to nest in your yard or nearby.

The proper solution for a feeder is one part sugar and four parts water (or one cup of sugar added to four cups of water). A stronger sugar concentration could be hard for the birds to digest or lead to liver damage. A quart can be made at a time and extra stored in the refrigerator. Red dye is unnecessary, even discouraged; most hummingbird feeders have red parts that serve quite well to attract the birds. A honey solution may lead to a fatal fungus disease in hummingbirds.

A mandatory responsibility that comes with the enjoyment feeders bring is maintaining their cleanliness and supplying fresh solution. They must be cleaned thoroughly with hot, soapy water and then rinsed with boiling hot water at least once a week, and more frequently (every two to three days) during the extreme heat of summer. Then refill with fresh solution, even if birds are not diminishing the supply. Otherwise, old solution ferments and could even be harmful once it turns into alcohol. Early in the spring when feeder activity is low, I only put an inch or so of solution in each feeder. Actually the only time I fill feeders to the top is during heavy use, from late June to early September.

The Cape May Bird Observatory and other New Jersey Audubon Society centers sell and highly recommend HummZinger feeders because they are so well thought out and educational: (1) they're easy and quick to clean, (2) have no hidden parts where mold can grow, (3) directions for feeder solution are printed inside feeder so you can not forget, (4) have a built in ant moat, (5) have no yellow parts (yellow attracts bees and wasps), and (6) saucer design makes it impossible for bees and wasps to reach the solution.

I am often asked if hummingbird feeders are "bad." No, they are not, as long as they're maintained and not the only source of food in a yard. Feeders should complement yards full of nectar sources and healthy insect populations. This mix of food (evolving gardens and always-available feeders) is what may entice a hummingbird to nest in or near your yard. When their favored nectar sources are blooming, hummingbirds will ignore feeders. In New Jersey this is the case in late spring when Japanese Honeysuckle blooms (May 25 to June 15). Continue to maintain feeders even when they're not in use. The hummingbirds will be back.

Hummingbirds Galore!

From late June through September 5 feeders may be used so heavily that they must be filled every few days or every day. This is when you really have an opportunity to study this tiny jewel. Sometimes four to six birds, both adults and newly fledged young, might be vying for a place at one feeder. Males are extremely territorial, often known to chase even their own young from feeders and gardens. They are all so busy dashing after one another you wonder when they have a chance to feed. In our half-acre yard we put out five feeders, placing them so that one territorial male cannot see more than one or two feeders at once. This has reduced competition and more birds have a chance to feed. By September 8th use drops off dramatically; by mid-month all the resident hummingbirds have left, and the feeder is unattended except for the occasional migrant. Most avid hummingbird gardeners leave their feeders up until hard freezes (in December), since late fall is when western rarities like Black-chinned, Calliope, Allen's, and Rufous Hummingbirds have appeared in gardens with feeders in New Jersey.

A Successful Hummingbird Garden

Many flowering plants attract hummingbirds. Most are tubular in shape and many are red, though certainly not all. A successful hummingbird garden provides nectar sources from May through the first frost. There is a great temptation to plant acres of Bee Balm or Cardinal Flower, two of their favorite nectar sources. But in each case nectar would be available for just a brief period in a hummingbird's life. The wise gardener selects an assortment of flowering plants with overlapping blooming periods, mixes perennials and annuals, and lets some of nature's wildflowers and weeds persist, many of which are favored by hummingbirds and butterflies.

Add Butterflies and Moths to the Mix

What is a hummingbird garden without the added dazzle of butterflies and moths? Quite simply, plants chosen to attract hummingbirds will often attract butterflies and moths too. The core of my butterfly and hummingbird garden is a large corridor of Tropical Sage (4 feet by 12 feet, with plants every 10 inches), and sizeable patches of Bee Balm, Butterfly Weed, Common and Swamp Milkweed, Joe-pye-weed, Mistflower, Phlox, Purple Coneflower, New England Aster, Seaside Goldenrod, Zinnias, Sedum, Brazilian Vervain, Mexican Sunflower, and a pond edged with Pickerelweed. All this is interspersed with many other flowers, herbs, and volunteer weeds like Queen Anne's Lace, Lamb's Quarters, Curled Dock, and flowering trees, shrubs, and vines.

Plant IT and They Will Come

Plant a butterfly and hummingbird garden and they will come.  Lure butterflies right into your own yard so that you can savor them. You'll first notice the big, showy swallowtails, but actually most butterflies are tiny and easily overlooked. Be sure to take binoculars when you go out to enjoy your garden. Butterflies are easily flushed by movement, so be sure to look ahead at your flowers for visitors. A butterfly's camouflage is amazing and the naked eye can't be counted on to detect many of them. Binoculars are essential. A camera is fun too, but be sure to move in slowly and low so as not to cross over them with your shadow and you might get an eye-popping photo or naked eye look.

Most moths are active at night. Treat yourself on a moonlit night to a stroll through your gardens to see another world unfold, as many of the flowers so attractive to butterflies by day are adorned with moths at night. By day you may see Hummingbird Moths in your gardens; the two species to expect are Hummingbird Clearwing and Snowberry Clearwing. Hummingbird Clearwings are bigger, have red markings in their clear wings, and greenish bodies; Snowberry Clearwings are a bit smaller and resemble bumble bees with their yellow and black bodies, camouflage key to their survival. They hover like a hummingbird before the flowers and are a fun addition to any garden.

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


Unusual Preferences

Quite a few butterflies (and moths) prefer feces, urine, and rotten fruit to flowers. Not owning any fruit trees, I buy pears, peaches, bananas, and watermelon to attract butterflies. In recent years I've cultivated a relationship with my favorite farm stand.  They now save their spoiled fruit for me.  Watermelon is the easiest attractant. Place a flat slice on a plate, dolling out new slices as the first dries out or gets moldy. Bananas have worked the best for me and they're always available, but they aren't always rotten enough to attract butterflies. I've learned to peel and freeze them; once thawed they are nice and liquidy and immediately attractive to butterflies. My homemade butterfly feeder is nothing more than a ceramic plate with a lip (so liquids don't drip off) filled with gooey bananas and hung from a tree by a simple plant hanger. I suspend it, rather than place it on the ground, so ants do not make off with the precious bananas. A little fresh orange juice each day keeps the bananas moist and attractive a while longer to the normally elusive butterflies. Red-spotted Purple, Red Admiral, Question Mark, Eastern Comma, Mourning Cloak, Common Wood-Nymph, Little Wood-Satyr, Appalachian Brown, Hackberry Emperor, and Tawny Emperor butterflies have all enjoyed feeding at my dish of fruit by day, and at night a rich assortment of moths finds it irresistible.

Providing water adds another enticement into your yard. Garden sprinklers draw in hummingbirds and mud puddles please butterflies. Misters and drips are a more permanent solution than a garden sprinkler. They are easy to set up and readily available now that gardening for wildlife has caught on. My mister is set up to spray down through tree branches and into a series of birdbaths.  I've utilized the moist ground and planted Cardinal Flower, Joe-pye-weed, and other plants that like wet feet under the mister.  Hummingbirds find it irresistible; they fly through the mist and often bathe in the drips collected on leaves.

A killing frost wilts the last flowers in late October and the parade of butterflies wanes. A few hardy species (Cabbage White, Orange Sulphur, Question Mark, Eastern Comma, Red Admiral, Monarch, Common Buckeye) may be seen through November and into early December. The deep freeze winter months seem endless without these entertaining gems. Just how they survive the winter is important to understand because it relates to recommended gardening practices.

Great Reasons for an Untidy Garden

About fifteen or so of the commonly seen butterflies in New Jersey cannot survive our winters in any form (egg, caterpillar, chrysalis, or adult butterfly) and must migrate south in the fall or die. Each spring or fall, in some cases, they migrate north and repopulate New Jersey from the south.  Nearly all the rest of our butterflies pass the winter in our gardens not as an adult butterfly, but as an egg on a plant, a caterpillar in a curled-up leaf or down in the leaf litter, or a chrysalis attached to a plant stem in a sheltered spot.  The adult butterflies died months before, after laying eggs.  For this very reason I often leave my garden standing through the winter.  Otherwise I would be carting off next year's potential butterflies as I tidied up.

Another excellent excuse to be a lazy gardener in the fall is that the spring through fall butterfly garden turns into a winter bird garden.  Many birds find shelter in the still standing garden and feed on the abundant seed heads.

Only four different butterflies winter as adults here in New Jersey: Mourning Cloak, Question Mark, Eastern Comma, and Compton Tortoiseshell. They survive the cold months in protected nooks and crannies, down inside woodpiles, under shutters or shingles, or inside hollow trees. Hence, these are the only four species that might use a butterfly house. On a warm winter day you may find Mourning Cloaks or Compton Tortoiseshells lilting about, but as soon as the temperature drops they'll return to their safe nook or cranny. By March, as the weather warms, some of the butterflies that winter as an egg, a caterpillar, or a chrysalis, are beginning to complete their metamorphosis and emerge as adult butterflies. And by April more and more adult butterflies are emerging and can be enjoyed.

--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 2: Planning The Garden

(sage advice)
click here