Saturday, June 11, 2016 By: Ask A Master Gardener

Gardening for Butterflies

Gardens help protect declining butterflies

Brian Jervis: Ask a Master Gardener   

Saturday, June 11, 2016  

Q: I need help in planning a couple of garden beds to be butterfly friendly. What do I need to plant? W. G., Tulsa
A: Butterflies and other desirable garden insects are struggling with the loss of habitat and other factors that have reduced their numbers. Monarch butterflies have been on decline due to loss of milkweed and other nurturing plants in their flyways. We can do several things to aid these garden friends, which are discussed in the OSU fact sheet, “Landscaping to Attract Butterflies, Moths and Skippers,” available online from OSU or from the Master Gardener website in the Monarch and Milkweed section.
It is clear that when you make your landscape “butterfly friendly,” you also create a favorable environment for many other beneficial insects, some of which are pollinators and others that keep harmful pests in check.
Butterflies are classified in the order Lepidoptera, which also includes moths and skippers, insects similar to butterflies, although there are significant differences. Moths mainly feed at night and are often seen around nighttime lights outdoors. Skippers are usually brownish, small and have a darting flight habit. They are commonly found on flowers. Discussion below applies to butterflies, moths and skippers for the most part.
To create a butterfly habitat, it is important to consider sunlight and shelter from the wind. Sunlight is needed to warm up butterfly’s bodies to 85 degrees before they can function. Plant selection is important. Select ones that are a food source for the immature larvae (caterpillars) and the adults. These are not always the same plants.
Butterflies also need a water source and often drink from shallow mud puddles. Artificial puddles may be created by placing gravel in a large dish containing a shallow amount of water. Fruit slices also serve as a water source, as well as supplying some nutrients.
Obviously, all insecticides, as well as electronic bug killers, should be avoided.
When planning and selecting plants for your garden, go to the OSU fact sheet cited above, which has more than 100 plants recommended, not only for nectar sources, but also serve as food to nurture caterpillars.
For monarch butterflies, milkweeds are the only plants on which they thrive. Monarch caterpillars feed on leaves of milkweed, and the flowers provide nectar for the adults. It is of interest that milkweed contains a toxin, which if eaten may make people and animals sick. However, it is not toxic to monarchs and, in fact, gives them protection in nature from predators.
In Oklahoma there are more than 20 varieties of milkweed, which are hosts to monarchs. A list of most milkweeds in Oklahoma may be found on the Master Gardener website,, under tips and techniques. Go to the long list of plants in the OSU butterfly document and select those plants that will work for you in terms of benefiting butterflies, as well as being an attractive addition to your garden.

Garden tips
§  Renovate overgrown strawberry beds after the last harvest. Start by setting your lawnmower on its highest setting and mow off the foliage. Next, thin crowns 12 to 24 inches apart. Apply recommended fertilizer, pre-emergent herbicide if needed and keep watered.
§  White grubs will soon emerge as adult June Beetles. Watch for high populations that can indicate potential damage from grubs of future life cycle stages later in the summer.
§  Feed established mums and other perennials.
§  When picking fresh roses or removing faded ones, cut back to a leaflet facing the outside of the bush to encourage open growth and air circulation.


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