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by Gillian Boyd


In 1992, I spent the summer making a butterfly meadow. I found it so interesting and satisfying that over the winter I resolved to turn my own backyard, a 35-foot-square lawn with traditional borders on three sides, into a butterfly garden.

I live in an Ottawa neighborhood with a variety of mature trees and wooded and swampy areas. I have also made a wildflower bank in the roadside ditch in front of the house. All these sites provide host plants for many butterflies and other insects – plants such as grasses, clovers, docks, nettles, thistles, umbellifers, mustards, milkweeds, poplars, birches, ashes and willows. I therefore decided not to use precious yard space on more host plants for larvae but to concentrate on nectar flowers. If I’d had a larger area to work with, I would have put in a nettle bed and included a wild weedy corner.

The hardest part of converting my yard into a haven for bees and butterflies was deciding the layout of new beds. I was able to ‘draw’ shapes directly on the grass with lengths of garden hose, and this made things very much easier.

I do not have an ideal site, because a row of Scots pines to the south casts a good deal of shade. Most butterflies like sun, so my main butterfly bed went in the sunniest spot. In deciding on the shape and location of new beds, I made sure that I could easily wheel a heavy loaded barrow between them without having to make awkward turns on the way to each of my three composting sites. I also wanted the grass paths to flow round the beds, tempting visitors to explore.

I have never before planned so many radical changes to the garden all at once! I now no longer have a lawn. Instead there are three island beds, two extension beds and other enlarged beds. I also made a tiny pool for birds, close to a shady sitting area. The soothing trickle of water nearby is very peaceful.

I know from experience how tedious and back-breaking removing grass can be. My poor sandy soil was a good excuse to leave the old lawn under the new planting areas as organic matter and build the beds right on top of it.

First, I cut out a five-inch strip of sod round the beds to define them. Then I covered the grass inside with layers of newspaper, soaking them as I put them down to stop them from blowing away. On top of the newspaper, I built up an organic base of peat moss, manure, compost, shredded leaves and grass clippings. You could use any of these, or other similar material. If using peat moss, make sure it is well soaked before adding other layers, otherwise it can stay dry and dusty, in spite of heavy rain on the finished bed. This base raised the level about six inches. A good layer of topsoil has made the island beds about a foot high in the centre and sloped to the edges. The extension beds are a bit lower. (If you topdress your beds with well-rotted manure in the spring, butterflies will be attracted to its minerals and salts. Last May, I had Tiger Swallowtails on my topdressed beds.)

I used field stones round the sides of the raised beds for three reasons: first, they prevent erosion and provide a cool root run; second, they make a useful step up for reaching into the beds; and, finally, I hoped they might become sunning spots for butterflies.

Once the beds were built and contoured came the best part: the fun and excitement of planting them, of painting the blank canvas. The beds are shaped like a spread-winged butterfly and two stylized lacewing moths. I chose to plant each wing symmetrically in the first bed in order to reinforce the butterfly theme, though the ‘markings’ are imaginary.

I had a lot of space to fill. Over half the plants came from the rest of the over-full garden, which always needs thinning out. As a seed enthusiast, I still had some of the previous year’s seedlings in the seed bed and also new seedlings of the year, sown earlier, indoors and out. Kind friends gave me plants. I had a lovely time exploring nurseries, visualizing effects, and did buy some plants there. But most of what I bought came from the spring sales of garden clubs and societies. I highly recommend them as a source. You can sometimes get quite unusual plants, and a dollar goes a long way. Other good sources for me were closing-out sales at temporary garden centres.

Besides watering as necessary to establish plants and seedlings and aid germination, I also mulched the soil surface lightly several times with grass clippings to help conserve moisture. There was a rather dry period in mid-July when the plants seemed to mark time so I watered regularly again by hand for about a week. I did this early in the morning to allow any wet foliage to dry well before nightfall and so avoid fungal problems. The plants picked up and from then on were only sustained by organic humus and rainfall. As they grew and spread, they formed a living mulch which shaded the soil and prevented it from drying out.

There are numerous books that give details for butterfly gardens. The more you read, the more overwhelmed you may feel by all the information. Books generalize and what they say may not work for you or apply in your area. I suggest that you choose what you like and think will do well in your garden.

I have observed that butterflies are as catholic in their tastes as we are. Last summer, for instance, the first Monarch I saw spent its entire time on a red shrub rose. Another went from heliopsis to cosmos to phlox to snow-on-the-mountain. Others preferred coneflowers exclusively. And when the asters came out they went for those too.

Butterflies particularly like flowers that provide a flat landing pad, or cones or spikes, all with myriad tiny flowerlets that they can probe without moving around too much. When planting the beds last spring, I chose perennials that are known to be attractive to butterflies. (See list next page.) To fill gaps, I sowed annuals directly, or transplanted them. Easy annuals that I recommend are candytuft, cornflowers, cosmos (especially the dwarf variety) and snow-on-the- mountain.

It goes without saying to this audience that all pesticides and herbicides are harmful to beneficial insects, bees and butterflies. The beauty of organic gardening is that everything seems to balance out and the resultant healthy plants are much more resistant to attack.

Everything grew so vigorously that by summer’s end the plants were spilling over onto the paths. "A riot of color" was not a cliche. I think it worked very well for bees, for butterflies, and for me. The hyssop and Joe Pye weed were especially popular and hummed with bees as soon as the flowers opened – and these are very long-flowering plants. Visitors seemed to like what they saw and everyone was amazed at the speed of progress from nothing to established garden.

I cannot claim a marked increase in butterflies because 1992 was such a wet and disastrous year for them locally. Besides the ubiquitous Cabbage Whites, in May and June I had Tiger Swallowtails and Mourning Cloaks, Spring Azures, European Skippers and Eyed Browns. From July onwards came Silvery Blues, Great Spangled Fritillaries, Monarchs, and Common and Orange Sulphurs. (Missing last year were Painted Ladies, Red Admirals and Black Swallowtails.)

What seems important, if butterflies are to flourish, is that we should try to build a network of gardens for them in cities and suburbs, as well as restoring habitat in the wild. At present I wonder how butterflies can know that this garden is worth visiting. With more such gardens we wouldn't have to rely so much on chance. How satisfying it would be if they were to become regular visitors again and to increase in variety and number.

So why not do something like this? You don’t have to be as ambitious as I was. Start with one bed and see how it goes. The easiest way is to convert an existing bed rather than dig a new one. Try to be as diverse as possible, so you can attract a variety of bees, butterflies and other insects. Try not to be too fussy about color. Butterflies are very sensitive to ultra-violet light and see colors differently from us. What we may think uninteresting can be the most attractive plant in the whole garden to a butterfly! Last summer I watched a European Skipper feeding on a washed-out magenta sweet william. Every so often it would circle round looking for other plants but it always returned to this particular clump, ignoring the red and pink ones. (So I shall grow more of this one.)

You can have a garden humming with life in six to eight weeks. In case you doubt this, here is the chronology of making my new beds last year:

May 21-24: cutting out three beds and building organic bases.

May 25 - June 3: cutting out extension arms and enlarging other beds, taking up some grass and digging in organic matter.

June 4: spreading load of topsoil, building three island beds.

June 5-11: contouring beds, topdressing all beds, setting stones.

June 12-24: planting.

June 26: direct seeding in bare spots.

By mid-July plants were beginning to look established and to flower. A month later the whole garden was flourishing.

Give it a try! You will find it enormous fun, learn a lot, and have the satisfaction of knowing that you are doing your bit for the environment.



Recommended Reading: Golden Guide Butterflies and Moths: A Guide to the More Common American Species, by Robert T. Mitchell and Herbert S. Zim. New York, Golden Press, revised edition 1987. The appropriate Peterson Field Guide to butterflies in your area would also be useful.


Gillian Boyd is a member of COG Ottawa and a keen organic gardener. In the summer of 1992, she was involved in creating a butterfly meadow at the Central Experimental Farm in Ottawa. The project is part of the Fletcher Wildlife Garden




Copyright 1994.Gillian Boyd

Reprinted with permission. All rights reserved.

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