An encounter with a beautiful butterfly has me on a mission to encourage more butterflies. I love the idea of having masses of butterflies flutter through my garden. They are beautiful to watch and perform valuable pollinator services.
The fact that butterflies start their life as caterpillars has some gardeners considering butterflies as pests. But the amount the larvae eat is negligible and is outweighed by their positive contribution as a pollinator and garden ornament.
The first step in welcoming butterflies and other beneficial insects into your garden is to use organic gardening methods.
When you spray pesticides to rid your garden of bad bugs, you are also killing the beneficial bugs.
Learn to expect and accept a few nibbled leaves and focus on building healthy soil using compost and manures.
In a healthy and diverse garden you’ll rarely see any particular insect get out of control.
Next - grow butterfly host and food plants
To encourage butterflies you need to provide resources for both the caterpillars (host plants) and butterflies (nectar).
Grow a diversity of plants and you will more than likely provide host plants and nectar plants for a selection of butterflies.
But you can also be a little more targeted and grow specific plants.
Butterfly larvae (caterpillar) host plants
Some of the most common butterfly larvae host plant families within the greater Sydney region (presumably the picture is similar in other parts of Australia) include Poaceae (grasses), Cyperaceae (sedges), Lomandraceae (mat rushes), and Fabaceae (wattles and peas).
Grow plenty of these plants and you'll be providing plenty of caterpillar food.
Thankfully, the bushland area adjacent to my garden hosts a nice range of species within these families.
I'm also going to set up a small native butterfly garden especially for caterpillar food and butterfly forage.
For the caterpillars I’ll grow a range of native grasses, sedges, rushes, shrubs, herbs and climbers. On my list so far are kangaroo grass (shown above), weeping grass and species from the following genera: lomandra, acacia, daviesia, glycine, hardenbergia, commelina, bursaria, pultenaea, boronia and pimelea.
A small wild area like this could be set up in even the smallest corner of an urban garden. And many of these plants will do well as potted plants.
Butterfly caterpillars also feed off many of the plants you may have in your orchard or potted garden (e.g. citrus, bay tree, avocado and figs) or vegetable garden (for example lemon grass, peas, and beans). Maintain a healthy diverse vegetable garden and orchard and you’ll likely encourage butterflies by default.
Butterfly attracting plants
Butterflies are attracted to bold clusters of flowers in bright colours.
I watched my recent butterfly visitor eagerly collect nectar from purple sage flowers.
Nectar-giving flowers favoured by butterflies are typically long and tubular and occur in clusters. Butterflies have a long, delicate, coiled tongue (called a proboscis) that is good at sucking nectar from deep within flowers.
To my native butterfly garden I’ll add a range of native plants favoured by butterflies, including grevillea, banksia, callistemon, pultenaea, melaleuca, scaevola, and leptospermum.
I’ll also be making sure there’s numerous butterfly nectar plants in my flower and vegetable gardens – including sunflowers, buddleja, marigold, ageratum, daisies and lavender.
Many common herbs also provide nectar for butterflies – including sage, chives, dill, lemon balm, mint, oregano, parsley and thyme.
Interested in learning more about pollinators in your garden?
Join in next week's Australian Wild Pollinator Count.
The Wild Pollinator Count is a great opportunity to familiarise yourself with some of the beneficial bugs in your garden and contribute to wild insect pollinator conservation in Australia. The next count run 15-22 November. Find out how to join in here.
Originally published in the Newcastle Herald Monday 19th October 2015.