Butterflies, moths, and our buzzing bee friends are indicator species, meaning they are one of the first organisms to show a negative reaction to environmental changes and pollutants. I always feel kind of proud when I look out at my vegetable gardens and see the pollinator attracting plants I’ve scattered around alive with activity.
There has been a noticeable difference for me in the amount of produce I harvest from when I just grew vegetables, to when I started inter-planting pollinator attractors in with my veggies. More veggies make me happy, and I feel good about taking steps in my own yard to protect pollinators. When they are protected, their habitats and the other creatures that live there are also protected. If you choose the appropriate plants for your garden, you will be delighted with the beautiful butterflies and cheerfully buzzing bees taking residence on your property, and you will be participating in habitat conservation!
Garden Design Basics
For the most part, bees of all kinds will appreciate the same kind of nectar plants as butterflies, and since larval host plants are not really necessary for bees, I will often plant for the butterflies, knowing that the bees will be happy with those choices too.
Plant adult nectar sources near larval host plants
This encourages butterflies to remain within your garden and will build populations instead of just pass through.
Use native plants whenever possible
They are better adapted to the climate and soil. Once established, they perform better, require less watering, and are less susceptible to disease and pest attack. Native plants also provide a small representation of the natural ecosystem that has the ability to attract and sustain other wildlife.
Be creative vertically as well as horizontally
Choose plants that have a variety of heights and growth habits. This introduces more microclimates and provides more variety of feeding opportunities which is attractive to bees and butterflies alike. This can be tricky when pairing with your vegetables, because you don’t want to throw shade on veggies that don’t appreciate it. I get around this by placing things like hummingbird vine and passion flower vine side by side with my pole beans.
Maintain a nectar source constantly
Choose plants that have different bloom times. This ensures that your garden remains active as long as possible throughout the year, and helps the bees especially make it through times of natural dearth in your area.
Plant in groupings
Group at least three of the same plant species together whenever possible. Not only does it look pretty, but this practice minimizes individual plant growth inconsistencies, masks leaf damage by caterpillar feeding, and provides ample nectar and host availability.
Choose the appropriate plant for each location
Make sure that you understand the basic light, water, soil, and nutrient requirements for each plant. This will be easier when you’re planning your flowers in with your vegetables, as most vegetables are neutral soil and full sun, but it’s still good advice to consider for all planting.
Give plants a good start
Mulch and water regularly to reduce weed competition and to ensure plants establish well. This is particularly important when inter-planting perennial flowers in with your annual veggies. Perennial plants need a bit more babying while they are young to get them established.
This is a very important component for reducing evapotranspiration, moderating temperature, preventing erosion, and discouraging weed growth. Do not use Cypress mulch! Cypress is a native tree that belongs in its natural habitat. Pine bark, non-seedy straw, or your grass clippings are great choices.
Insects in all stages of life are extremely susceptible to pesticides. Even the slightest drift from nearby applications can be deadly. If a pest problem does arise, start with the least toxic products before applying harsh chemicals. Insecticidal soaps and oils can be very effective. Use natural enemies whenever possible. Ladybug larvae and other predators and parasitoids can be purchased from many gardens and nurseries. The only natural control to avoid is Bt. Bacillus thuringiensis is a naturally occurring bacterium that is deadly to herbivorous insects including butterflies.
Trim off old blossoms
Regular “dead-heading”, or removal of old, spent, blossoms on your nectar plants, will encourage the continued production of new flowers. It can also extend the flowering period of some species. Just a little bit of effort from time to time will help your plants look better and flower more!
What To Include:
Adult nectar sources
Flowering plants provide nectar, a very important source of energy for butterflies and bees. Pollinators are generally attracted to simple flowers that are not too deep and that are wide enough to provide a good landing platform. Compound flowers where the blooms are clustered are popular with butterflies and bees alike because the adults don’t need to take flight to visit a new flower after they sip one dry.
Just like other living beings, butterflies and bees seek shelter from temperature extremes, poor weather, and predators. Garden landscapes with a variety of plantings create pockets of protected space for pollinators to use.
A fountain that provides a constant mist will moisten the surrounding vegetation and soil. This is the preferred water source for butterflies and they are better able to suck up water out of moist soil than from the edge of a birdbath. If a birdbath is more practical for your landscape, don’t worry, adding plenty of river rock to the basin will provide perches for bees and butterflies, and will give many footholds to prevent drowning.
Larval host plants
Unlike adult butterflies, larvae have very discriminating tastes and only utilize certain plant species for food; to attract egg laying female butterflies, plant specific host plants.
Adult Host Plants
Since most caterpillars are such picky eaters with voracious appetites, it’s easy for them to strip down a plant to stems in no time. Plant a big enough group of plants to keep your guests well fed until they pupate. Placing the host plants behind the nectar sources or vegetables in the garden hides the chewed foliage from immediate view. Listed below are some host plants and the butterflies that are attracted to them.
- Milkweed – Monarch & Queens
- Cassia species – Sulpher, Hairstreak
- Passion Vine/Maypop (Passiflora incarnata) – Gulf Fritillary, Zebra Longwing, Julia
- Willow – Mourning Cloak, Viceroy
- Sugarberry/Hackberry – Snout Butterfly, Tawny Emperor, Question Mark
- Frogfruit – Phaon Crescent, Buckeye, White Peacock
- Wild Lime – Giant Swallowtail
- Hercules’ Club – Giant Swallowtail
- Water Hyssop (Bacopa monnieri) – White Peacock
- Black Cherry – Tiger Swallowtail, Red Spotted Purple
- Pawpaw – Zebra Swallowtail
- Red Bay – Palamedes Swallowtail
- Sassafras – Spicebush Swallowtail
- Fennel & Parsley & Dill – Black Swallowtail
- Pipevines – Pipevine Swallowtail, Polydamus Swallowtail
- Wild Petunia – Malachite, Common Buckeye, White Peacock
If you are inter-planting with your vegetables, your spot is already nice and sunny, but if not, you’ll need to pick a sunny spot for your pollinator plants. Butterflies, bees, and the plants they eat and drink thrive in the sun. Don’t forget to mulch! Mulch helps the soil stay moist and hinders the growth of weeds. The following are some nectar sources that adult butterflies find tasty.
- Bee Balm
- Clover family
- Coneflower family
- Coreopsis family
- Daisy, Shasta
- Marigold family
- Milkweed family
- Poppy family
- Rudbeckia family
- Sunflower family
- Sweet Pea Vine
- Zinnia family
Taking the time and space in your garden to plan for pollinators will increase your vegetable yields and your overall enjoyment of your gardens. Allocating just a handful of square feet can help save our precious pollinators, and maybe even the world- one garden at a time.