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Want butterflies? A kaleidoscope of gossamer-winged beauties all a flutter in a cloud of garden flowers that you planted? The truth is, creating a butterfly garden is pretty effortless, because many truly easy garden flowers are big on the butterfly palate. And butterflies eat with their eyes, so the flowers they love are generally the vibrantly hued flowers that we love, too.
What makes a butterfly flower truly a butterfly flower? There are a suite of garden flower traits that attract butterflies, and it’s not just the flowers that draw them. A female butterfly ready to lay her eggs will choose the best plants for her caterpillars, while adult butterflies choose flowers with nectar essential for their growth and development. True butterfly plants and flowers have several distinguishing cues that fit the ways butterflies see, feed, and feed.
Overall, butterflies all have a weak sense of smell, long curled tongues (probosces), sharp vision, and they must perch to feed. So, most butterfly flowers are brightly colored, often lack a scent, are flattened and shaped for perching, and have long, tubular nectaries (the nectar-holding well at the base of a flower) perfect for a butterfly’s proboscis. (Madagascar periwinkle, Lantana, and phlox blooms are just three examples of the many flowers uniquely designed for butterfly pollination.) It’s a different matter when female butterflies choose plants on which to lay their eggs.
The best butterfly flowers have foliage that are also larval food for the young of specific butterfly species. Favorites include my #1 butterfly flower, orange milkweed (Asclepias tuberosa, perennial). Its sweeping clusters of bright orange flowers appear in summer and attract butterflies of all types, while its leaves are the favorite food of Monarch butterfly young. The leaves impart chemical protection to the Monarchs, which gives them a foul taste, making them undesirable to predators.
Other double whammies are flowering plants in the carrot family, whose flowers are attractive to all butterflies and foliage are the perfect food source to Eastern Tiger and Zebra Swallowtails, among other related butterflies. A wonderful garden-variety carrot is my #2 butterfly plant, the purple- and pink-flowered ‘Dara’ Queen Anne’s lace (Daucus carota ‘Dara’, annual). The large, lacy blooms are long stemmed and great for cutting. Just be ready to leave the plants to the caterpillars when they first appear munching away at the leaves.
Most butterfly plants tare grown for their flowers alone. Coneflowers (Echinacea spp., perennial) of all flavors are all-round butterfly favorites, coming in many bright shades beloved by all butterfly species, which is why they are my #3 butterfly flowers. These days, there are numerous varieties to choose from. I like the electric tangerine-orange and red ‘Flame Thrower’ for garden appeal and pollinator attraction, though most purists would advocate planting the common native species, eastern coneflower (Echinacea purpurea, perennial).
My #4 butterfly flower, tall zinnias (Zinnia elegans, annual), are some of the easiest to grow and butterflies love them. Their colorful blooms appear through much of the summer, providing needed nectar during the hottest days of the year. Renee’s Garden Seeds has loads of amazing mixes, the Raggedy Anne Mix, with its ragged large flowers in candy colors, is one of my favorites. They pair well with another super easy butterfly magnet, common cosmos (Cosmos bipinnatus, annual), my #5 butterfly flower. The reliable Sonata Mix, with its short stature and large flowers in pink, magenta, and white, won’t disappoint. Plant both of these annuals in full sun and fertile, well-drained soil.
A late summer bloomer sure to draw loads of butterflies is the tall phlox (Phlox paniculata, perennial), my #6 plant, and of the many cultivated varieties, ‘Jeana’ is very special. Its large, upright flower clusters consist of many tiny, pink blooms with a sweet scent. Butterflies and bees always cover these showy blossoms.
Finally come the many butterfly flowers for fall. By choosing a perennial sunflower (Helianthus spp.), my #7 butterfly plant, you can’t go wrong. All are essential food for butterflies preparing to migrate or overwinter. One with lots of charm and good looks is the fine-leaved Helianthus angustifolius ‘First Light’, which produces many golden daisies in mid fall above plants with fine, linear leaves of bright green.
All butterfly flowers, whether annuals or perennials, need good care for best flowering. Water them well, amend their soil with fortifying organic matter, and light feeding will ensure crops of flowers to delight your burgeoning butterfly populations all season long.
Kids just naturally love dirt—ask any parent. When you encourage children to put their hands in that dirt and plant seeds, you are growing future gardeners. But as with any learning experience, kids are more likely to take to gardening if you help make it fun and accessible. The best way to start is with a packet of big seeds.
Start by talking about what the child wants to grow. Some children naturally gravitate to colorful flowers, while others might like the idea of planting and harvesting their own Halloween pumpkins. If your child is very young or unsure about the whole project, start with one easy plant type and see what happens. More than one gardener started his or her horticultural life with a single bean planted in a paper cup.
Handling small seeds can be frustrating for small people, so make it easy by choosing plants that grow from the kind of large seeds that are simple to handle, plant and love. If the child likes flowers, annual sunflowers (Helianthus) are a wonderful way to start, featuring large seeds and a wide array of varieties to choose from. Traditional giant types are inspiring to watch, rising to six feet or more, with huge, yellow-petaled flowerheads. Some of the shorter hybrid types boast petals in shades from palest cream through yellows, oranges and reds—perfect for enjoying up close, or for arranging in the empty jam jars that seem to lurk in so many kitchen cupboards.
Other good ornamental varieties include low-growing nasturtiums (Tropaeolum) and brightly colored Mexican sunflowers (Tithonia rotundifolia). If ground space is limited, plant climbers like morning glories (Ipomoea purpurea varieties and hybrids) or moonflowers (Ipomoea alba) (Caution: Ipomoea seeds should not be ingested!). Nasturtiums can also climb or sprawl from hanging baskets, if you pick the right varieties.
The world of edible species is full of large-seeded plants. Small children often like peas—either traditional or snap varieties—which also feature lovely flowers. Beans of all sorts are another option. Let little ones help you build simple supports for these sprawling crops. Pumpkins, from the cute miniature types to bright orange behemoths, also start with large seeds. Hilling up soil for planting mounds can be, literally, child’s play. Other members of the cucurbit family, like squashes and melons, are also possibilities. If your child insists on growing tiny-seeded edibles like carrots or greens, try to find vendors that offer pelleted seeds. These easy-to-handle products consist of tiny seeds encased in pea-like pellets of inert material. Once the pellets go into the ground, moisture quickly dissolves the coating and the seeds sprout normally.
If you are working with very young children, supervise carefully to make sure that they do not put any seed—even those of edible crops—in their mouths.
Before planting large-seeded edible or ornamental varieties, parents should prevent later disappointment by doing a bit of prep work. Suit your crop to your particular situation and make sure that sun-loving varieties will receive enough light. Can you dedicate a small portion of your garden to your child’s plants? If not, container growing is always an option. Encourage your child to have a sense of ownership of the plot or container, so he or she will take an extra measure of pride in the finished crop.
Give big seeds a leg up by growing them in planting beds amended with a nutrient-rich product like Fafard® Premium Natural & Organic Compost. For seed starting, choose Fafard® Seed Starter Potting Mix with RESiLIENCE®, a quality seed-starting medium that grows robust seedlings fit for little hands to plant. Some large seeds, like nasturtiums, sunflowers and morning glories, benefit from an overnight soak to soften hard outer shells before planting.
Once the planting is done, check the beds or containers every day. Encourage the children to watch and tend their plants, but be sure to supervise the watering. Overenthusiastic watering will swamp young plants, leading to tears later on.
Give older children an idea of how long those big seeds should take to germinate, sprout leaves and produce flowers or fruits. Check off days on a calendar or whiteboard to help manage expectations. Sometimes the longest days are those just before flower buds open or edible crops are ready to harvest. Keep frustration at bay by letting children draw or photograph their young plants each day.
When harvest time finally arrives, celebrate. Invite friends over to see the culmination of all the gardening effort. Harvest and prepare the edible crops and have the young growers help as they are able. Take pictures of both children and crops and cherish the occasion. Remember that the child who plants sunflowers today may end up as a horticulturist in a few short years.
Eastern U.S. gardeners in search of spring color can find plenty of inspiration and possibilities right here at home. Many of the wildflowers that brighten our fields and forests in spring also make wonderful and easy garden plants (and quite a few of them are available from reputable plant and seed merchants).
Among the earliest and most exquisite wildflowers are the hepaticas, two of which occur in woodlands throughout eastern and central North America. Both round-lobed hepatica (Hepatica americana) and sharp-leaved hepatica (Hepatica acutiloba) grow into dainty clumps of leathery, semi-evergreen, three-lobed leaves that are often strikingly marbled with contrasting hues. The blue (or sometimes pink or white), starry flowers face up from erect, somewhat furry stems in earliest spring. Hepaticas are lovely in a partly shaded garden niche protected from the encroachment of larger, more rampant plants. If they’re in a place where passersby can easily admire their early-season display, so much the better. Some botanists place all hepaticas in the genus Anemone, but horticulturists and gardeners will no doubt continue to use the traditional name.
The delicate white flowers and broad, lobed, bluish green leaves of bloodroot (Sanguinaria canadensis) arise soon after the hepaticas come into bloom, with the flowers usually shattering seemingly hours after opening. The spellbinding double blooms of the cultivar ‘Multiplex’, however, keep their exotic beauty for a week or more, looking for all the world like ruffled waterlilies. This is one of those plants that once seen, must be possessed. Native to moist woodlands over much of North America, bloodroot does best in humus-rich soil and partial shade. For this, and many other spring wildflowers, we suggest amending wooded beds with Fafard® Premium Natural & Organic Compost.
For mid-spring display, almost any garden planting could benefit from a few native Phlox. Wild sweet William, Phlox divaricata, is among the most essential. Its sprays of five-petaled, lilac-blue (but occasionally white, purple, or pink) flowers on foot-tall stems spangle woodlands from Quebec to Texas in early or mid-spring. Plants self-sow readily in partly shaded, moist habitats, both in the wild and in the garden. Another eastern U.S. woodlander, Phlox stolonifera, lifts its flower clusters on 8-inch stems about a week after Phlox divaricata commences bloom. Flowers vary in hue, with ‘Bruce’s White’, ‘Blue Ridge’, ‘Sherwood Purple’, and the lilac-pink ‘Home Fires’ representing some of the color range. The species’ common name, creeping phlox, refers to the ground-hugging mats of spoon-shaped, evergreen leaves, which spread rather rapidly in moist acid soil and partial shade.
Other phlox, including the Eastern and Midwestern native Phlox subulata, favor harsher, sunnier niches. Moss phlox’s adaptability to arid, sun-parched sites has made it something of a cliché in challenging suburban habitats such as traffic medians and gas station islands. It’s equally well suited, however, for naturalistic “habitat garden” plantings, where its needle-like foliage and colorful early spring blooms combine splendidly with other tough, sun-loving U.S. natives such as bearberry, little bluestem, Missouri primrose, lowbush blueberry, prickly pear, and purple lovegrass. Numerous cultivars of moss phlox are available, flowering in a rainbow of colors from lavender to pink to white. Gardeners looking for a less ubiquitous needle-leaved species might want to consider sand phlox (Phlox bifida), a Plains native whose petals are elegantly cleft into narrow lobes.
Among the best companions for woodland phlox is celandine poppy, Stylophorum diphyllum, which inhabits fertile woodlands throughout much of the East and Midwest. Its bright yellow, mid-spring “poppies” on 15-inch plants provide a splashy contrast to the blues of Phlox divaricata and Phlox stolonifera, and its bold, deeply lobed leaves complement their relatively dainty foliage. Both celandine poppy and Phlox divaricata self-sow moderately in partial shade, making them a perfect pair for naturalizing together.
They also form a perfect trio with Virginia bluebells, Mertensia virginica, named for its baby-blue flowers (opening from soft pink buds) that indeed resemble tiny hand bells. The flowers are borne in coiled clusters that elongate on 16-inch stems in late April and May. Prolific self-sowing can occur in moist, partly shaded sites. The large, tongue shaped leaves of this New York to Kansas native die back early summer, as does celandine poppy’s foliage.
All the above, and many more native plants besides, offer both beautiful blooms and a connection to this place we call home, with little or no fuss involved. What more could a North American gardener want?