Photo: Mark Dwyer/Janesville Rotary Gardens

By Alice Marty, Mobile County Master Gardener | [email protected]

While researching for the Mobile County Master Gardeners inaugural Lunch and Learn in May 2013, I came upon an article that has been the high point of the butterfly garden presentations I have given since. It is entitled “Potpourri to Attract Pretty Butterflies” by garden writer Naomi Mathews. The article explains that anyone can attract butterflies to a garden consisting of only three pots and a little patience. Someday I need to contact Naomi to share with her how people perk up and listen intently when I show them how to make their own butterfly pot-pourri. 

A myriad of butterflies has already begun the migration north from their wintering grounds as far south as Mexico. Representing the new and future generations, they will be seeking life-giving nectar from any source on their journey.

After mating, the females will also be scouting for host plants on which to lay their eggs. This is serious business for them, as they won’t settle for just any old plant as a home for their baby caterpillars. Only specific plants will do, especially for monarchs. This makes it essential to greet them with both nectar sources and host plants ready for their arrival. 

Ingredients for a butterfly pot-pourri
• Three glazed/decorated clay planters of different sizes;
• Two bags of commercial potting mix (do not use garden soil);
• Slow-release fertilizer granules;
• Nectar-rich plants for butterflies (3 lantana camara);|
• Host plants for caterpillars (2 asclepias, 3-4 fennel seedlings); and
• One bag of “no float” mulch.

Step 1: Preparing the pots

Glazed clay pots were chosen because the glaze makes them nonporous.  If you are using nonglazed clay pots, it’s a good idea to soak them overnight to help them absorb water. Plastic pots can also be used and retain moisture better than plain clay pots.

If you are purchasing glazed clay pots, make sure they already have drainage holes in the bottom. Adding holes later can easily cause the pot to crack. I like to place a used fabric softener sheet over the large hole in the bottom. Secure it with a few pebbles to help keep the potting soil from running out and critters from crawling in.

Step 2: Adding soil and fertilizer granules

Garden soil should never be used in containers. It contains both weed seeds and detrimental micro-organisms. Fill each pot about one-half full with potting soil and then add the recommended amount of fertilizer granules, mixing thoroughly with the soil. The slow-release fertilizer will provide nutrients to last for several months. When using fertilizer, “less is more”! Too much will give you lots of pretty leaves and not many flowers. 

Before adding more soil, water each pot thoroughly several times, letting the water drain all the way through. This eliminates any dry pockets in the bottoms of the pots. Add additional soil to within about 6 inches of the top rim of each pot and again water thoroughly.

Step 3: It’s planting time! Nectar plants

Butterflies flock to lantana (L. camara), which bloom profusely through the summer and into the fall. Lantana can easily be found at most nurseries in the early spring and is considered a low-maintenance plant. Some butterflies that are attracted are spicebush swallowtail, monarchs, fritillaries, whites and skippers.

Three lantanas will adequately fill the largest container. First, position them in the container while they are still in their pots. This way you can easily adjust the soil level. Remove from their pots, settle them in the large container and fill in soil around the plants to within about one inch from the top of the container. This leaves room for watering and mulch. A no-float mulch will stay in containers when there is a heavy rain. Wood chips tend to float out. Water lightly.

Step 4: Caterpillar host plants

For the middle-sized pot, asclepias, commonly called butterfly weed or milkweed, will do the trick. Female monarchs will be looking for it to lay their eggs, but the flowers also provide a nectar site for many other butterflies and hummingbirds.

After hatching, the caterpillars will devour the milkweed. Hopefully, this will give you a chance to view this portion of the monarch’s life cycle.

Planting the four fennel plants in the smallest pot will complete the butterfly pot-pourri. Fennel and other members of the carrot family, which includes parsley and dill, will attract female black swallowtails. These plants also attract other beneficial insects to your garden. 

The last rule for your butterfly garden is absolutely no pesticides in or around butterfly habitat. Butterflies are insects, too, and will be affected adversely. Check the plants often for pests and remove them by hand. 

Step 5: Enjoy

Take the time to observe your pot-pourri and enjoy the variety of butterflies, hummingbirds and other beneficial visitors it attracts.      

YOU ARE INVITED TO THESE UPCOMING GARDENING EVENTS

What: Mobile Master Gardeners Lunch & Learn (free)
When: Monday, April 16, noon to 1 p.m.
Where: Jon Archer Ag Center, 1070 Schillinger Road N., Mobile
Topic: Nutrition — Samantha Chirichella, DC
Master Gardener Helpline: 1-877-252-4769, or send gardening questions to [email protected].