We have recently received several requests from teachers, about how to start a butterfly garden for students. These children were old enough to do research on the internet, but many of the garden tips apply no matter the age of the children. The tips we sent to them may be useful to others, so we show them below. Many people new to gardening ask about the soil, when water is even more important, so we start there.
A recent request [edited]...
Hi! My name is [Frances] and I'm currently looking on more info on starting a
butterfly garden. I currently run an afterschool program and the children
are so interested in starting from scratch to make a garden. I, myself, have
no planting or gardening experience so I don't know where to even begin. The
children spent a lot of time researching different plants that attract
butterflies in our area. What are the first steps to start a garden, what
soil do we use?! I'm trying my hardest for them to reach their goal this
year and can use some guidance! Thanks!
If you have original soils on your site, they are likely sandy and suitable for most of the native plants. Soil and water conditions for each species is shown on the Natives for your Neighborhood website and the Florida Native Plant Society website (links shown below). You can also confirm the plant species and butterfly host and nectar plants at both of these sites. In a new garden all the new plants will need water during the first year, even those listed as "drought tolerant" as this refers to established or mature plants only.
When the soil says "humus" or "humus top layer" they will benefit from some potting soil or organic garden soil to fill in the hole as you plant them, instead of pure sand. Generally, speaking, plants that need more moisture need more humus to hold the water near their roots. But the most important thing is immediate water after planting and frequent water during the first weeks. Regular (weekly) watering during the first six months or year will allow most plants to establish themselves. Once established, you can be less conscientious about the watering.
Read our recent news article for "Brown Thumbs": http://coontie.fnpschapters.org/index.php?id=propagation-ten-fundamentals. Sun, shade, or partial sun would be the second most important condition. Generally flowering plants need the sun, but the same websites show the light conditions that each species prefers. Soil would be third in importance behind water and light.
Students might compile a list of the butterfly plants with the water, drought tolerance, light, and soil preferred by each. Then plants can be grouped by similar conditions. If you have more than one site, you can put the plants where they get the right amount of light and water. If you have only one site, then choose the plants that like the conditions of your site. If the plants won't get watered when the program is on vacation or interest wanes, then the drought tolerant plants will do better (but they will still need regular watering at least during the first six months or so).
A trip to the Secret Woods Nature Center with some of your teachers, parents, and students would be an excellent start. They have a butterfly garden so you can see the plants and the butterflies.
A map to the Secret Woods is on our website: coontie.org "Info" tab.
Online, you can find which plants and which butterflies on the Natives for your Neighborhood website:
Sounds like your students may have already done this research, but if they don't already know this site, they will enjoy it.
Getting some native plants is easy, but many others will take hunting them down. Local native nurseries are listed at the "FANN" website: http://www.plantrealflorida.org
Call the nursery first, to see if they have the plants you want. You might want to make one trip south of Miami for a better selection of plants because some of the bigger native nurseries are located there. You can find them on the above website.
Also go to a meeting of the Broward Butterfly Association and check out their website for information:
You will find a lot of help from there members.
Remember that the caterpillars eat the host plants, so keep that in mind when you design. These leaf food plants need to be plentiful and will look "diseased" to the untrained eye. Those that only serve as nectar plants will be the pretty plants for your more showy locations.
We also encourage you to use many native plants as they are the most helpful to the natural environment. Some non-native plants are very good at attracting butterflies, but may be encouraging too many of the wrong butterflies. There are, of course, as many opinions on this, as butterflies.
We sell a few plants at each of our meetings, so come if you like and find our other members who know about butterflies:
coontie.org "Calendar" tab.
What you are doing is wonderful. It may take a while to realize your full vision, but others can join to each learn and help with the part that is most interesting to them.
Finally, there is butterfly information on the Florida Native Plant Society website as well:
Note which plants grow natively in Broward or South Florida.