grow your own – june 2012

by ALINE CLEMENT
Here we are at the end of another busy school year wondering what to do with the kiddies during the summer break. Why not make use of the free time and their boredom to introduce them to butterfly gardening?
A butterfly garden can be as small as a few pots on your patio or as large as your entire backyard. As long as you provide the right plants, a source of water and an environment free of pesticides, you can attract these beautiful creatures into your family’s space.
Your first step is to learn all you can about butterflies. The Life Cycles of Butterflies by Judy Burris and Wayne Richards is a beautifully illustrated book for elementary-age children, but even older children and adults will enjoy reading it. The pictures help you identify the caterpillar (larva) and chrysalis (pupa) of some of the most well-known butterflies so you’ll know what to look for when your garden begins to attract them.
Next, decide which butterflies you want to invite into your garden. This is very important because while most of the flowers you plant will attract butterflies, there are only a few “host” plants where the adult butterfly will lay her eggs, from which the tiny caterpillars emerge. Host plants provide food for the growing caterpillars, and they are quite picky about what they eat. For instance, Gulf Fritillary butterflies lay their eggs primarily on the passionflower vine, while Monarchs prefer milkweed. If you don’t provide host plants, you may miss seeing a chrysalis- and possibly an adult butterfly emerging from it. Check out the University of Florida’s “Butterfly Gardening in Florida” (http://edis.ifas.ufl.edu/pdffiles/UW/UW05700.pdf) for help in planning your garden, from the types of butterflies found in Northeast Florida to which nectar and host plants attract them.
When you’re ready to plant, group your nectar plants together by color, choosing fragrant, brightly colored flowers with varying heights. Plant them in a sunny spot with shelter from the wind and some trees nearby to provide protection and resting places at night. Place your host plants among higher nectar plants. This helps to hide the caterpillars from the birds that eat them as well as to conceal the plants when those same caterpillars have munched away at all the leaves!
Butterflies need a source of water and a place to bask in the sun and warm their wings. A shallow dish filled with water and sand with a large flat stone on top where they can perch should suffice.
If all of this sounds too ambitious for you, why not plan a day trip to our own Jacksonville Zoo and Gardens to visit Butterfly Hollow? Enjoy a stroll through charming paths lined with beautiful flowering plants, garden art and about a dozen different butterflies, one of which may even land on your shirt! You’ll need to act quickly to see this exhibit; it closes at the end of September.
A family project like a butterfly garden can provide hours of fun and learning for everyone!

About Aline Clement

Aline Clement is a master gardener with the Duval County Extension Service and the University of Florida/IFAS.