I woke up to temperatures below zero again. My face hurt from the blast of cold air as I walked into the yard to take the kids to school, but I forced myself to see the ground that would soon thaw and the plants that would come to life again in the spring. I long for warm temperatures, but I also miss the color that winter hides. I miss puttering around in my yard too. I started to think of the vegetables my kids and I could place in the raised bed, and then I got excited about the black raspberries that would emerge for a few weeks in July. I became happy by the thought of my perfectly manicured, weed-free lawn. And then I thought of the promise I made to my daughter last summer. This year we will start a butterfly garden in a corner of the yard.
Fussing over garden beds and edging is a hobby of mine—fine, it’s also a bit of an obsession. Having OCD does contribute to the intensity of my obsession over a perfect lawn, but I sincerely enjoy the aesthetics of a thick, green lawn and mulched flower beds. But because I also love the environment and the planet we live on, I use as many chemical-free options as I can to keep out pests and weeds. I use natural pesticides or manual labor to pull invasive plants, but when my daughter saw me pop a dandelion out of the yard by its roots she commented that I was taking food away from the pollinators. Fuck.
Dandelions are often the only food source for early season pollinators like butterflies. I may not have been using toxins, but I was still contributing to the decline of helpful insects that are literally fueling our world.
According to a February 2019 study, over 40% of insect species are declining and are at risk for becoming extinct. This is terrifying and even at the age of nine my daughter knows it too. She doesn’t see dandelions as weeds or insects like bees as pests; she sees them as food and the powerful pollinators they are.
Pollinators move pollen from the male part of a flower to the female part. A fertilized flower will become seed, and then the food around said seed. Domestic honey bees, for example, are responsible for pollinating $19 billion worth of crops each year in the United States. Butterflies, moths, and birds fertilize 75% of flowering plants, AKA our food. Habitat loss is a significant contributor to the decline of pollinators. Adding a butterfly garden is a great way to combat this loss. And for me, it was also a self-serving compromise to create space for pollinators without keeping weeds in my yard.
You don’t need a big space or suburban home to get started, but you do need a plan. Butterflies are attracted to red, purple, orange, and yellow flowers. But before you make selections based on those colors, check to see what flowers are native to your area. Native butterflies will be more attracted to gardens with native plants, and non-native plants could actually hurt butterflies and other local pollinators. Another thing to keep in mind is that you will need to plant your seeds or transplant established root systems in areas that receive a lot of sun. Full sun for at least half of the day is best.
Keep in mind too that a butterfly garden isn’t meant to just attract butterflies; it is to support the entire life cycle of a butterfly. Before they can feed on the nectar of the wildflowers you have in your garden, they need host plants where they can lay their eggs and then pupate. To refresh your kindergarten science lesson: butterflies start out as eggs, hatch into larva (caterpillars), and then form into pupa (chrysalis or cocoon) before emerging as beautiful butterflies. Join me in geeking out over this video my kid showed me. A fat caterpillar chills in its own goo then grows wings and flies off as a gorgeous butterfly? Come on now.
Milkweed and parsley are good examples of host plants that will support eggs and hungry caterpillars. Adding flat rocks and corners of shade will allow butterflies to sun and cool themselves as needed. A bird bath, small fountain, or even pockets for water give butterflies the water they need too. Think of your garden as an all-inclusive resort where pollinators can come to eat, rest, and socialize.
And don’t forget to get your kids involved. We are saving the planet for them and future generations, after all. Let your kids help you decide what flowers to grow and give them small jobs like weeding (though flowering weeds can stay!) or watering as needed. Paint rocks or garden gnomes to give your garden a personal touch. Remind them that the bees that make their way to the butterfly garden are welcome too—bees are interested in the flowers, not us (unless we disturb them). And most importantly, show your kids what a difference they can make by a few thoughtful and beautiful actions.
We need pollinators. Turning a corner of your yard into a butterfly garden will attract other pollinators like moths and hummingbirds, will help sustain biodiversity, and it’s a fun and low-maintenance project to do with the kids. If you plan it accordingly you can reduce the amount of grass you have to mow, which also helps the environment because you are using less gas to power your mower and less water to keep your grass green. Some homeowners’ associations may not appreciate a big, overgrown wildflower section of the yard, though, so be sure to check in before you get started to see if you are bound by any limitations.
Plan your garden now, build it in the spring, and watch the butterflies fly in like the planet-saving super heroes they are.