Sunday, December 13, 2009

Filling Gaps in a Butterfly Garden

Planning for year-around blossoms -- well, almost -- and providing nectar for butterflies in the months where they are about can be a real challenge. I'm discussing it in December to facilitate planning for spring blooms. Town Mouse mentioned the importance of consistant amounts of nectar for butterflies and pollinators in a comment on my previous post about gardening for butterflies. That's one of the things that casual referrals to butterfly gardening fail to stress when lists of 'nectar plants' are given.

There used to be a gap in my garden after late March to mid-April when spring azaleas' bloom, and the  grand opening of spring flowers in May. By Income Tax Day, azaleas had dried up and there was a dearth of blossoms to attract butterflies, who had to depend on whatever weeds were blooming in the field edges and meadows.

Here's how I learned to bridge the April to May gap to keep butterflies visiting the garden:

Sweet William dianthus and Cheddar pinks


Tangerine bulbine

When Toadflax and Venus's Looking Glass come up in my beds, I leave them. They're the weeds the butterflies seek out in the meadow. Both a lovely blue, why not in my garden?

Corn Poppies & SileneSoon after the above, will come Silene (catchfly) which I seed about liberally in November and December,
and Verbena bonariensis which seeds itself about.

Silene and Poppies
V. Bonariensis, Calif Poppies & Sweet William
Verbena on a Stick and Sweet William. I have not noticed butterflies visiting California poppies.

By May, more tropical plants can be safely planted out and seeded summer annuals are coming on.
Marigolds and Agastache

Butterfly nectar gardening depends heavily on observation of when butterflies appear and on what they prefer to nectar. The schedule that I use must be adapted in cooler climates. Our last expected frost date is April 15.


  1. Hi Nell Jean, so cheering to see the flowering plants of spring, thanks! Dianthus is such a long flowering plant, we even have a couple blooming now, although no butterflies to take advantage of the nectar now. Venus looking glass is one of the first *weeds* we started leaving here. The wildflower books really help ID those sweet flowering butterfly plants. Now everything is left, except crab grass which has zero redeeming factors. :-)

  2. Lovely post Nell Jean. It is so important to think of our flutter friends. All great ideas but I would wish for more of the wild (weeds?) flowers growing in the meadows and along the road sides too. From what I understand about nectar ... or do not understand is more apt... only perhaps each plant offers a unique elixir and the wild flowers and herbs must be as important as our cultivated ones ... if not more so. Forgive me I just have a hard time with the word 'weed'. It can only be used where we do not want a plant to grow it seems to me... such is the man made meaning of the word. A weed is something we do not want or understand perhaps... believe me I have plenty here that are invasive and I should love to be able to "weed" them out! But there are weeds and weeds so to speak ... some 'plants' might be fine left to flower in our gardens for their enhancement to a butterflies diet. Milkweed being an example. What a name. What a flutter I am causing... what is a word anyway. Thanks for stimulating thought towards caring for our beloved butterflies. I always enjoy your postings. That is a very interesting bench there in your garden. Sitting here looking out over a frozen landscape of about 10 degrees, I so enjoy seeing all your warm colorful blooms! Carol

  3. I leave a lot of "weeds" in and around my gardens too. Dandelions pop up here in March. While I haven't seen butterflies on them, I know they're a useful nectar plant. They also reach deep and help break up the hard clay. Once my perennials start blooming, I pull the dandelions and add their nutrient rich corpses to the compost bin.

  4. Neil Jean,
    We have lots of Eastern Redbuds here and they make a great butterfly attractor in April. Good post. Yes weeds are a good thing to have in the butterfly garden. Around here the butterflies have a slow period between broods in late June.

  5. I loved seeing these flowers first thing this morning. You have so many great plants and many that I'm going to try again this year. Thanks for the reminder of the Pinks, I haven't tried them for a long time.

  6. I loved seeing your post this morning of the sunshine in the flower beds. It is a rainy one here ;-)
    I love the verbena on a stick. Does it droop when wet?
    And that Gaillardia looks like a it has a pompom bloom to it. What is its name Nell?
    Very pretty and the butterflies must love your garden with all of the blooms on going.

  7. It's gloomy and raining here. You posting is a wonderful diversion. Pat and I are expanding our planting area in the front yard this spring. With you permission, I will use this post as our template. I am just now learning about sun gardening. Wonderful pics and post.


  8. Wonderful butterfly blooms. I have many that you mentioned.....I have a butterfly garden. They also enjoy the Cone flower.
    Here in the UK the absolute favourite of all butterflies in the Butterfly bush (Buddleja)....I have eight now and would not be without them.......

    This is a lovely post and for a very brief moment took me back to summer. Tku so much.....

  9. Frances, I'm always planning for the next season and include prior photos in the planning. I leave not only Venus' looking glass, but any weed with a blue flower. My favorite wildflower book is the Little Golden Book Guide from 1973, but my Audubon Guide is invaluable and I would not be without a wildflower book specific to my area.

    I think I've mentioned that the Native Plant Society of GA gave our area over to Florida, because many of our wildflowers differ from those that grow in the metro Atlanta area, where I used to garden.

    Carol, thank you for your suggestions. I urge you to look farther on my site:

    I never get around to blogging about everything that grows here, just some that catch my eye when the dog and I are out and about. So many wonderful plants just come and place themselves in my beds: weed or wildflower. Yellow corydalis planted itself two years ago, out of nowhere.

    Tom, I have dandelions, too. Like nutgrass, the only way you can beat them is to eat them.

    And I have redbuds, Randy. Some are small (?!) trees and some I keep stooled and use the wonderful new, straight growths for various projects.

    Catherine, do try some pinks again this spring. Bath's Pink is my fav.

    Lona, butterflies like the species gaillardia better, but 'Sundance' is much more photogenic, isn't it?
    Verbena bonariensis doesn't droop, but the leaves will mildew in prolonged wet spells. Another good plant that looks very similar is ironweed (vernonia) which grows wild here.

    Jim, do try out any ideas you find here. Blog about how the outcomes are different in different climates.

    Cheryl, buddleia is wonderful, but it doesn't do well in our soil because of nematodes. I can root cuttings with great success, but the plants hardly last a season and do poorly. I use vitex instead, which attracts spicebush swallowtails at certain times of the year. Coneflowers are attractive to my butterflies at certain times of the year.

  10. I just love Gaillardia and the Silene is beautiful. I am not sure if Silene grows here? I designed and planted a butterfly demonstration garden on one of the golf courses I worked at. It was such fun to design.


I look forward to comments and questions and lively discussion of gardening and related ideas.

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