Do-It-Yourself Flower Garden for Caterpillars and Butterflies

Grow Your Own Butterfly Garden

Planting a Seed: Asclepias tuberosa or Butterfly Weed seeds
Planting a Seed: Asclepias tuberosa or Butterfly Weed seeds

Why Grow a Flower Garden for Caterpillars and Butterflies?

I have decided to make it my mission this summer to provide a little oasis for the migrating Monarch butterflies and their caterpillars in my own backyard.

You may have noticed that you just don't see as many of these beautiful butterflies as you once did. Strange weather patterns in the last several years have depleted the Monarch population by as much as 80%. Additionally, there is significantly less milkweed along the Monarch migration routes that cross North America; milkweed is the only plant that Monarch caterpillars can eat.

Also, I simply love to grow things. So, I have decided to grow my own butterfly and caterpillar garden.

Milkweed, Butterfly Weed and More

Now, I understand that "milkweed" does not exactly sound like the most attractive of plants to have in ones backyard but there are many different types of milkweed that the Monarchs like equally. Some of them are quite beautiful and grow well in different climates. The plant I have chosen is the Asclepias tuberosa , commonly known as Butterfly Weed or Butterfly Flower. With a name like that, it must be the right choice for my project.

Butterfly Weed grows to about three feet in height and has vibrant orange, yellow or red, star shaped flowers. The flowers grow in wide clusters and the leaves are long and fuzzy on the underside. Butterfly Weed grows just about anywhere from Canada to Mexico as long as it is not overly moist or marshy.

Not wanting to limit myself too much, I also decided to grow a few other flowers known for being attractive to butterflies. I chose Nasturtium, Lupine, Cornflower, Zinnia, Phlox and White Yarrow. I am starting all of my flowers from seeds. All of the seeds for the afore mentioned plants can be found at Amazon, Home Depot, Lowes and the like.

Is it Spring Yet?

Tables and chairs on our deck on April 1st
Tables and chairs on our deck on April 1st

Getting a Head Start

Like so many of us that live in a Northern climate, I will need to get a head start because the outdoor growing season is just too short here. I live in Montana and it will not be warm enough to plant anything outdoors until mid-June. Big Sky country currently (April 1st) has about 5-6 feet of snow on the ground. Therefore, I am starting my seeds indoors. I will need the following materials which can be found at Home Depot, Lowes, Amazon and other gardening centers.

Starting Materials

  • Soil specifically for seeds. This is important, you should not use just any soil because you may run into problems with fungus that will kill your seedlings. Seed starting soil is sterile but also void of any nutrients. Seeds don't need nutrients to germinate but a few weeks after they have sprouted you will need to replant them in nutrient rich soil.
  • Something to plant seeds in like Dixie cups, peat pots, egg crates or flats: choose something that will make transplanting easy with fragile little sprouts.
  • A water bottle for misting your seedlings
  • Quality potting soil, don't skimp here
  • Larger pots to transplant seedlings; 5-6 inches deep. You can use paper or plastic cups as long as they are deep enough.
  • Seeds of your choice
  • Fertilizer
  • Fluorescent light (optional)

Planting Seeds Indoors

Fill your chosen seed containers (Dixie cups, peat pots, etc) to almost full with your seed specific soil. Again, make sure you use a soil or "soil-free" mix intended for seeds.

The soil should be moist but not soggy. You will want to keep the soil consistently moist until the seeds sprout. This is one of the reasons that fungus can become a problem if you do not use sterile seed germinating soil. Also, poke a small hole in the bottom of your containers for drainage. Too much water is as problematic as not enough.

Peat pots are convenient because you can just plant the whole thing in the ground.  The roots will grow through it.
Peat pots are convenient because you can just plant the whole thing in the ground. The roots will grow through it.

Covering Your Seeds will Help Keep them Moist

Cover with plastic wrap...
Cover with plastic wrap...
or dome.
or dome.

Getting the Seeds to Sprout

Plant your seeds just under the surface of the soil, approximately a 1/4 inch deep. Some seeds can even be set on top of the soil (see the instructions that will come with your seeds.) If you plant the seeds too deep they may not ever germinate. Also, plant 2 or three seeds per container to allow for some duds.  Later you will get to choose the best seedlings.

Now it is very important to keep your soil consistently moist and warm. A constant temperature at approximately 70° F is best. After they have sprouted this will not be as critical but until then, keep them in place where the temperature does not fluctuate much. Covering your seed containers with plastic wrap or a dome will help to keep your soil consistently moist.

Move your new sprout to a sunny spot.
Move your new sprout to a sunny spot.
Oh no, a "leggy" sprout. (That is my helpful 6 year old pointing to the culprit.)
Oh no, a "leggy" sprout. (That is my helpful 6 year old pointing to the culprit.)

Getting Enough Light

Until your seeds have germinated they do not need sunlight. However, it is important to check them frequently because as soon as the seeds have sprouted they will need to be uncovered and given lots of light. In fact, light is probably the most important factor at this stage. If your sprouts do not get enough light they will look pale or yellowish. Also, they may become "leggy" which is to say that they will have long weak stems that flop over.

Artificial Light

If you think that your seedlings are not getting enough sunlight there are a few options to try. After moving your plants to the sunniest room in your house, you can put mirrors, white boards or aluminum foil around them to reflect and maximize natural light.

Also, you can try an artificial light. Use a fluorescent light bulb, NOT an incandescent bulb. Incandescent lights will fry your tender seedlings, not to mention that you could create a fire hazard. A fluorescent light placed very close to the seedlings (3-4 inches above them) will do wonders. Do not put the light too far above them as this will encourage "legginess" and do not put the light under them, this won't really do much at all.

Artificial light can help seedlings grow.
Artificial light can help seedlings grow.

Water

Another reason for pale or sickly sprouts is too much water. Now that the seeds have sprouted, it is OK to let the soil dry a little in between watering. A good test is to feel the soil. It should feel dry on the surface but damp a quarter to half inch down.  Letting the top layer dry a bit before you water again will strengthen seedlings and reduce the risk of fungus-among-us.

Water very gently with room temperature water using a misting bottle or from underneath the roots (if possible.) Carelessly dumping water over fragile sprouts is a sure way to kill them.

After the sprouts are a few weeks old, it is a good idea to add 1/2 strength (or less) fertilizer into your watering routine.  I add a little Miracle Grow to the water once a week or so.

2 week old seedlings
2 week old seedlings

Thinning

Thinning your seedlings is a very important step. It is time to "thin" when your seedling have "true leaves." True leaves grow after the very first leaves which are called "seed leaves." Overly crowded plants are a disaster waiting to happen. They will compete for light and root space. Eventually they will all fail if you don't thin your sprouts.

To thin, simply snip all but the strongest seedling with fine tipped scissors. Do not pluck or tear the ones you are removing because you might damage the roots of the one you mean to keep.

Snip all but the strongest
Snip all but the strongest

Replanting

When your seedlings have 2 sets of true leaves you may want to plant them in larger containers with potting soil (unless you can plant outside at this point.) Remember that the seed germinating soil they were started in has no nutrients. Also, the roots are likely getting too long for the little seedling containers.

If you intend to replant again after this, it is practical and inexpensive to use 16 oz. (approximately) paper or plastic cups with a small hole poked in the bottom. Replant using high quality potting soil. If you used peat pots, you can just plant the whole peat pot into the larger cup with the potting soil. Be very gentle with the roots and don't expose them to the air any longer than you have to.


16 oz. cups with a hole poked in the bottom are good temporary growing pots for seedlings that will later go outside.
16 oz. cups with a hole poked in the bottom are good temporary growing pots for seedlings that will later go outside.
6 week old seedlings
6 week old seedlings

Tips for Transplanting Outdoors

  • "Harden off" plants before planting
  • It is best to plant your seedlings on an overcast day
  • Plant seedlings up to first set of leaves
  • Don't expose roots to air any longer than necessary
  • Press soil around plant gently but firmly
  • Water thoroughly and gently after planting


Planting Outside

When the weather does become warm and it is staying above 40°F at night, it is time to move your garden outside. First you must "harden off" your plants. Hardening off is a very gradual process.

First set your plants outside in a shady spot for a few hours a day. Gradually increase the number of hours per day until they are used to being outside around the clock.

Next, move your plants to a sunny spot for a few hours a day. Gradually increase the hours per day until they can handle sun all day. If at any point the plants start to look stressed or unhealthy, slow down your process.

When your plants have been hardened off, it is time to plant them in their permanent spot. For me, it will be time to start watching for butterflies!


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Comments 20 comments

kashmir56 profile image

kashmir56 5 years ago from Massachusetts

Hi Mrs. Menagerie, Wow what a great project and you explained it so well,which made it an interesting and easy read !

Awesome and vote up !!!


Mrs. Menagerie profile image

Mrs. Menagerie 5 years ago from The Zoo Author

Thanks Kashmir!!!!


QudsiaP1 profile image

QudsiaP1 5 years ago

Very well done.


4youreyes 5 years ago

Mrs.Menagerie,

What a great hub you have done an excellent job ! The pictures and instructions are very well put together.

Have A Good Evening !


Mrs. Menagerie profile image

Mrs. Menagerie 5 years ago from The Zoo Author

Thanks so much for the great comments Qudsia and 4youreyes!


Simone Smith profile image

Simone Smith 5 years ago from San Francisco

This is the ULTIMATE guide, Mrs. Menagerie. Your step by step instructions and amazing photos are all kinds of awesome! Voted up!!


Mrs. Menagerie profile image

Mrs. Menagerie 5 years ago from The Zoo Author

I'm so glad you liked it Simone. You probably live in sunny California where your flowers can be outside by now. I have to admit that that sounds pretty darn good right now.


E. A. Wright profile image

E. A. Wright 5 years ago from New York City

Nice guide, and I hope your deck is free of snow by now!


Mrs. Menagerie profile image

Mrs. Menagerie 5 years ago from The Zoo Author

Thanks E.A. Wright! You can now see the deck in a few spots but my seedlings are doing great!


pinkydoo profile image

pinkydoo 5 years ago from New York

I didn't know milkweed could look so pretty. I've always wanted to plant a garden that attracts butterflies. This is an excellent (informative and attractively arranged) hub!


Mrs. Menagerie profile image

Mrs. Menagerie 5 years ago from The Zoo Author

Thanks pinkydoo...it is nice to hear from you again!


StephanieBCrosby profile image

StephanieBCrosby 5 years ago from New Jersey

Mrs. Menagerie, thanks for this information. I am always experimenting with new plants. I don't know if I can attract monarch butterflies, but I will try. I will probably buy some of the seeds you recommend. When we moved to our house, there was a butterfly bush, but it never did much of anything. The regular plants I have added over the years are starting to attract more butterflies, but I'll be darned if I can identify them.


Mrs. Menagerie profile image

Mrs. Menagerie 5 years ago from The Zoo Author

Awesome! I'm so glad your going to give it a try! Your right, it may be awhile before the monarchs figure out your plants are there but it's worth a try.


rorshak sobchak 5 years ago

What a detailed hub. Thank you for the awesome write up!!

rorshak sobchak


Mrs. Menagerie profile image

Mrs. Menagerie 5 years ago from The Zoo Author

Thank you rorshak sobchak! It's still not too late to go for it this year!


PegCole17 profile image

PegCole17 5 years ago from Dallas, Texas

Intriguing subject matter drew me into your hub and great explanations and illustrations kept me here. Rated up!


Mrs. Menagerie profile image

Mrs. Menagerie 5 years ago from The Zoo Author

Hi and thanks Peg! Ineed to update this hub with my flowers now...they're going nuts!


Ms57Classic profile image

Ms57Classic 4 years ago from Massachusetts

I LOVE butterflies! I am thinking of trying this next spring/summer. Thank you for writing this hub.


Lilleyth profile image

Lilleyth 4 years ago from Mid-Atlantic

There was a significant increase sightings in my yard one year of introducing plants that attract butterflies, bees and moths. If everyone would just plant one Joe Pye Weed or Butterfly Bush, the world would be a better and prettier place.


Mrs. Menagerie profile image

Mrs. Menagerie 4 years ago from The Zoo Author

Agreed!

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