Three Steps to Turn Your Garden into Their Hangout
article by Carol Doeffinger
photos by Derek Doeffinger
Do you like butterflies and hummingbirds? We do. We like to watch them. And we like to photograph them. That’s why we have spent the past several years trying to attract more of them into our garden.
Since we’ve had some success luring butterflies and hummingbirds away from the neighbors’ yards and into ours, I thought I’d pass along some of our best strategies. Does that sound overly competitive? Well, it’s actually one of our strategies. We’re not really poaching these colorful fliers from our neighbors. Indeed, we are not even competing with them. Instead, we’re cooperating with them.
Three households at our end of the street share plants and exchange seeds of favorite butterfly and hummingbird flowers. This makes for an extended and more varied habitat that includes perennial gardens, annuals, herbs, a vegetable patch, a pond, a woodpile and woods with several kinds of mature trees. All these features provide extra food sources and shelter for butterflies, caterpillars, hummingbirds, orioles and gold finches. They now have a mini-reserve and can go from garden to garden.
But you don’t need cooperative neighbors to increase your population of butterflies and hummingbirds. You just need to provide the right food at the right
time in the right place. After reading extensively about butterfly life cycles and food preferences, we’ve made several additions (and a few subtractions) to our plant list. And we’ve watched how our improvements performed and adjusted accordingly. Evaluating your changes is critical because every garden differs and may require different approaches.
Getting Butterflies to Belly Up to the Bar
Forget the pretzels and salted nuts: butterflies, lacking mouth parts for chewing, are drinkers. A pub crawl for monarchs, viceroys, admirals, painted ladies, swallowtails and fritillaries begins with a quick fly-by check of your garden’s menu. Butterflies are near-sighted (anything beyond 10 to 20 feet is a blur), so use large swaths of bright colors to grab their attention. Planting in groups of the same flower (rather than tucking in a single specimen here and there) also gives your fliers loads of blooms to keep sipping from. They linger – and you get more time to enjoy and photograph them.
Keep in mind that your goal is to open a quality and reliable restaurant for your guests, not a fried Snickers stand
at a carnival. For energy, butterflies crave a wide selection of flowers that are rich in accessible nectar. Constantly tweak your garden so it offers a choice of great tastes all season long.
During the high season from May through September, you have an opportunity to attract from almost nearly seventy kinds of butterflies living in the Finger Lakes.
Your Reward? Entertainment
In exchange for your gardening efforts, your colorful guests will delight and entertain you with their antics. You’ll see pairs of butterflies spiraling skyward in a mad courtship chase. On your knees weeding, you’ll hear an odd sound, a low “thrum” coming from just above your shoulders. Looking up, you’re just inches away from a ruby-throated hummingbird. He hovers, stares, looks you over and sizes you up. Friend or foe? And because bees will certainly crash the nectar party you’re hosting, there will be more than a few kinds stopping by. A favorite of mine, bumblebees, are built like tiny offensive linemen and also behave like them. Clambering around atop a flower, their bulky thighs padded with yellow nectar, they sometimes encounter a rival insect. No problem – they simply head-butt the competition right off the blossom.
Choose a Garden Upgrade that Suits You
Okay, let’s get down to the business of attracting more butterflies and hummingbirds to your garden.
These suggestions are intended to be integrated into your current plantings, to add extra punch to the well-loved butterfly-friendly flowers that you already have. So, keep planting those zinnias, marigolds and cosmos, but try out some of our recommendations and then check out other butterfly-friendly plants at local garden centers.
The suggested quantities that follow are just starting points. Don’t hesitate to adjust them based on the size of your garden.
1 The Basic Upgrade: Fast and Easy with Five Favorites
Add these plants (about two hours of labor) and your overlooked garden quickly becomes a destination bistro for butterflies and hummingbirds.
4 Mexican sunflowers (Deer don’t like them – yea! Squirrels do – boo!)
6 purple cone flowers
2 non-invasive butterfly bushes
4 red cardinal flowers
3 bee balms
On the subject of butterfly bushes … Plant only sterile butterfly bush varieties, as the species and older hybrids of Buddleia davidii are considered invasive and are actually banned in some states. Several new hybrids are completely safe. One line of these is the “Flutterby” series, developed by Peter Podaras when he was at Cornell University.
You’ll find that “purple” cone flowers come in red, orange, yellow, green, white, pink – and purple. Fliers and pollinators love them all, but the purple ones are probably the most vigorous. Mexican sunflowers, big and bushy, dazzle with dozens of blooms. Each is three inches across, vivid reddish-orange and seldom free of butterflies and hummingbirds. At their seed stage, they’re also great favorites of goldfinches and chipmunks. While “deadheading” spent blooms lengthens flower production, the acrobatics of the finches and chipmunks more than make up for fewer blooms.
These choices do well in all-day, full sun, but cardinal flowers like some shade and moist soil. Hummingbirds and butterflies love them, and so do we. An outstanding hybrid is Lobelia cardinalis, “Queen Victoria,” which has scarlet blossoms and purple leaves. Other varieties (some annual and some perennial, like L. cardinalis) give you a choice of red, orange, pink, purple and blue blooms, but first plant the Queen!
Bee balm, which belongs to the genus Monarda, is also known as horsemint, bergamot and Oswego tea. It’s a must have. It’s not fussy. It’s what hummingbirds and butterflies have at the top of their wish lists. The wild form is tall and pinkish-lavender; hybrids range in height from a tiny eight inches to over three feet. You can purchase this member of the mint family in lavender, pink, purple, scarlet, deep red, magenta and white.
2 The “Indulge Them Like Grandkids” Upgrade: Something for Everyone
For this level, your goal is to provide continuous blooms from late spring through the first frost.
Plant the same flowers in Upgrade 1, but double the quantity. Then add these flowers: 4 phlox, 3 pentas, 2 butterfly weeds, and 2 lantanas. Consider putting the pentas and lantanas in pots (hanging or on the ground) and moving them around to reinforce areas not performing well.
Are certain flowers proving to be especially popular in your garden? Add more of them. To reduce territorial squabbles, increase the distance between flower groups. If you want to be prepared for early-arriving hummingbirds, you may want to plant columbine, foxglove and even a rhododendron or two.
At this point, pause and really plan out your next move. Your goal is to provide your guests with a source or sources of nectar from late spring through the first frost, so read books, take a class, drool over catalog listings and visit friends’ gardens and public gardens. Spy on butterflies.
3 The Airbnb Upgrade: Mi Casa es Su Casa
Here your goal is to provide for family needs so they keep them coming back. Consider creating a separate garden dedicated for fliers. To truly accommodate the needs of butterflies and hummingbirds, you need to fine-tune the food plants you provide and then help with their other needs, such as shelter, water, safety and offspring rearing.
For this upgrade, you start by planting all the flowers listed in Upgrade 2, then start incorporating the following suggestions.
Add Native Plants
For eons, butterflies and hummingbirds have evolved and adapted to native plants and used them to raise their young. Providing some native plants likely delivers some obscure critical nutrients or other health resources that will help them thrive. Native plants like common milkweed and Queen Ann’s lace feed both adults and larvae. Milkweed and butterfly weed are well known as the plants monarchs lay their eggs on because their caterpillars feed on them. Great spangled fritillary caterpillars will only eat the leaves of common blue violets (the wild kind).
Other native nectar producers for adult butterflies include Joe Pye weed, ironweed, thistles, teasel, red clover, New England asters and touch-me-nots (jewel weed).
Hummingbirds can get by with a bird bath, although they do enjoy a gentle spray on hot days. But butterflies don’t bathe or drink from bird baths. To satisfy a thirsty butterfly, build a puddler. This is simply a shallow area with a thick slurry of sand, fresh water and some flat stones to rest on. Another butterfly amenity – for question marks, red admirals and others – is well-ripened fruit.
Here’s a pop quiz. Why do so many male butterflies hang out in mud puddles? Answer: They are sipping dissolved salts and minerals that make their flight muscles stronger. During mating, males pass these same minerals to their mates – and from the ladies, they’re forwarded on to help ensure the viability of eggs and caterpillars. (Note to self: Add a “puddler” to the garden – and don’t forget to mix in a wee dollop of plain old manure.)
Our rubythroats were wasting a whole lot of precious energy chasing each other away from favored flowers and the single nectar feeder. I couldn’t move the disputed clump of Crocosmia, but – ignoring Star Trek’s Prime Directive – I did add a second feeder about 50 feet away. For the feeder, mix ¼ cup white granulated sugar with one cup of water; change (and wash) the feeder two or three times a week.
A garden paradise for hummingbirds might include a supply of lichen bits and spider webs. You can gather some of these and then leave a few caches near their nectar feeder. These are a couple of the nesting materials that female rubythroats incorporate into their nests. The lichens help to camouflage the wall of the nest, and spider webs enable the nest to expand as the baby hummingbirds grow.
Fine-Tune the Arrangement
How you arrange your plants may determine how effective your garden is for building the loyalty of your flying guests.
Sunlight is essential for the success of both flowers and fliers. Butterflies flourish only in warm temperatures (reportedly a minimum of 55 degrees F), so they prefer flowers in full sunlight. But they also need places where they feel safe to spread their wings and wait for the sun to warm them up. In bad weather, they need shelter from heavy rains and strong wind; you can help them by planting shrubs or small trees nearby. (Choose these not only for their own attractiveness, but also for their ability to do double duty as food plants for both summer and winter visitors. Great examples are crabapples, dogwoods and viburnums.)
Rather than install bird feeders for orioles and hummingbirds within the garden, you may want to hang fresh oranges, grape jelly and nectar feeders from tree branches, or place them on poles where you can enjoy watching from your windows or deck. Although we’ve never witnessed a hummingbird or any other passerine grab a butterfly to snack on, some experts strongly caution against incorporating both bird feeders and birdbaths into a butterfly garden.
Enjoy your garden. And be patient. It may take days or weeks before your garden blooms start bringing in butterflies. Half the fun is matching wits with the wild things. And if you succeed, your garden will be colorful both on the ground and in the sky.
Have you encountered caterpillars among your garden plants and been curious enough to identify them? Want to raise them? Keep in mind that choosing the right food plants is really important. For example, if you’d like to encourage great spangled fritillary caterpillars, you must provide the little crawlers with common blue violets – the wild kind – because that is the only food they will eat.
After emerging from its chrysalis, an adult fritillary will sip from a wide variety of flowers, but you may see that it is partial to bee balm, purple cone flower, milkweeds, butterfly bush and Joe Pye weed. Nevertheless, when it comes time to lay her eggs, the female will make a beeline for violet foilage, just as a female monarch will lay her eggs only on milkweed plants.