How to - Gardening with Kids

Kids and butterflies

Create a flowering habitat for these winged beauties

Kids love butterflies. They enjoy watching them flit from flower to flower and delight in witnessing ugly caterpillars transform into beautiful flying insects. One way to foster this connection between your child and nature is to help him or her plant a butterfly garden. You don't need a lot of space to attract butterflies ' they'll travel out of their way to dine on their favourite plants, even if the garden is confined to a windowbox or planter.

As a gardener you may not want to hear this, but if you want lots of adult butterflies in your garden you must put up with their voracious children. Female butterflies fly from plant to plant, landing briefly on leaves to taste them with their feet. When a plant tastes right, they stay long enough to deposit one or more eggs. Butterflies are choosy because their offspring are picky eaters. For example, monarch larvae eat only milkweed leaves, while black swallowtail young limit their menu to members of the carrot family When the eggs hatch, the kids—caterpillars—will be hungry. In Canada, three species of butterfly caterpillars are occasionally pests because the amount of eating they do may cause damage: mourning cloaks, which feed on the leaves of willows, poplars, birches and elms; cabbage butterflies, which damage cabbages and related crops; and orange sulphurs (a.k.a. alfalfa butterflies), which chomp on members of the pea family. One way to cope is to plant caterpillar hosts in out-of-the-way spots, so the damage is less noticeable.

Some caterpillar hosts may already grow in your yard or neighbourhood. For instance, birches and willows attract eastern tiger swallowtails; and dogwoods and viburnums lure in spring azures. Other hosts are easy to grow, like butterfly weed, one of the milkweeds munched by monarchs, and parsley and dill, in the carrot family, which is nibbled by black swallowtails.

Adult butterflies need to eat, too, but they feed on nectar-rich flowers and don't chew leaves. They have food preferences as well: checkered skippers enjoy sipping the nectar of mallows and hollyhocks; pearl crescents prefer asters; cosmopolitan silver-spotted skippers enjoy zinnias, honeysuckle, butterfly weed and joe-pyeweed; and painted ladies visit thistles, asters, cosmos, milkweed, red clover and privet.

Butterfly garden tips
Plant your butterfly garden in a sunny spot protected from the wind. If you place a couple of large flat stones where the sun's rays can heat them, you'll see them sun themselves on cool summer mornings. Male butterflies appreciate a nearby saucer of wet sand or dirt from which they can sip salts and minerals.

In the fall, don't tidy up too much; butterflies hibernate as eggs, caterpillars, chrysalises or adults and need a place to hide. If the only space you have is a windowbox or planter, plant one variety ' not a mixture of plants. Butterflies are attracted by displays of single species.

And don't use chemical pesticides or you'll do your guests in along with the pests.

Related websites
Butterfly Butterflies North and South
Click on 'identify' to find galleries of butterfly photos for Ontario, Nova Scotia/New Brunswick, Quebec and Alberta

Butterfly Gallery
Click on each photo to get a better view.

Monarch Watch
The University of Kansas Department of Entomology and the University of Minnesota Department of Ecology

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