Planting a garden to support butterflies, bees and other pollinators is one of the biggest trends in gardening today. Monarch Watch (based here in Lawrence), Master Gardeners, Xerces Society, National Garden Clubs and even General Mills are teaching people about the importance of pollinators and how gardeners can help their plight.
Planting a few seeds is a good place to start if you made it on the list for free ones or if you find another opportunity, but there is plenty more to do to restore some of the habitat that has been lost for pollinators. Find a place in your yard or gather a few containers to dedicate to pollinators — even the tiniest garden is beneficial.
There are many guides available about butterfly and pollinator gardening. Look for advice specific to Kansas or the Midwest.
The first thing you are likely to see in almost any pollinator garden guide is advice about including both larval and nectar food sources. Translated: Some plants are going to get eaten, and others are there for their pretty flowers. Plant some of each.
If you are new to gardening or new to gardening for pollinators, start with a few of the must-have pollinator plants. Milkweed (Asclepias) is at the top of the list, with many species from which to choose. Common milkweed is less showy than butterfly milkweed or tropical milkweed, but an important food source. Interplant it with other, more attractive species. Get milkweed from local sources when possible (Monarch Watch, Master Gardeners, Farmers Markets, local garden centers, etc.).
Milkweed provides food for butterfly larvae and nectar (flowers) for pollinators.
Next, add more food sources. Wild blue indigo, bronze fennel and aster are butterfly food sources that are easily found at garden centers. Spicebush, wild senna, pipevines, woodland sunflower and others are also good choices if found.
For nectar (pretty flowers), try salvia, monarda, purple coneflower, zinnia, aster, chrysanthemum, columbine, penstemon, lantana, parsley and sedum (upright variety such as ‘Autumn Joy’). Select a few different species that bloom at different times throughout the year to provide a longer season to the garden.
Gardeners with more space might add butterfly bush (sterile varieties preferred), blue mist spirea (Caryopteris), and Joe Pye weed for nectar. Eastern redbud, dogwood, hackberry, elm, pawpaw and sassafras trees are also good options to provide food for butterflies if space is available.
Advanced gardeners might be interested in planting very specific food source plants to attract certain types of butterflies, bees, or other pollinators. The organizations mentioned above have resources to help gardeners determine which plants and pollinators are best for their locales.
There is some propaganda about certain milkweeds being invasive or “bad” for butterflies. The main argument is that taking these plants out of their native habitat could cause more harm than good or unnaturally extend the feeding season for migrating pollinators. While lessons have been learned the hard way on similar matters, the arguments have yet to be proven in this case. Use personal preference if the idea of planting a tropical milkweed concerns you.
Controversy has also arisen about the use of cultivated varieties of plants over the uncultivated species. For example, one might choose the ‘Magnus’ purple coneflower over the plain one because of preference for Magnus’s exceptionally large flowers that hold their rays (petals) horizontally instead of allowing them to droop. This is also a nonissue, as Magnus provides food for pollinators the same as the uncultivated species. Again, use personal preference when deciding whether to include these types of plants.
— Jennifer Smith is a former horticulture extension agent for K-State Research and Extension and horticulturist for Lawrence Parks and Recreation. She is the host of “The Garden Show.”