Butterflies on a budget

Just in time to prep for migrating Monarchs and hatching Black Swallowtails, here are the top 10 must-haves for a butterfly garden on a budget. Even for urban gardening, all you need is the right shopping list to kick off season-long sightings.

Invite both larvae and adults into your garden with a few strategic plant choices — this will protect fledgling butterflies and prolong their stay in your yard. Brad Wier at the San Antonio Botanical Garden suggests planting four herbs: dill, parsley, fennel, and rue.

“Gardeners complain that these plants disappear because the young butterflies keep eating them, but that’s what we want to happen `at the Botanical Garden`,” says Wier.

By seed or by transplant, pot the herbs densely for ultimate texture; the matrix of thin fennel leaves creates a safety web, and butterflies will lay eggs among them. Dill survives best in cooler weather, so plant it in a shady patch. You’ll find these mature herbs almost anywhere, from Central Market to the farmers market, and Shades of Green carries them for just $2.25 apiece.

Other larvae-friendly foods include native Milkweed and Dutchman’s Pipevine. Both provide central caterpillar feeding spots, and when the Monarchs pass through in the fall, your Milkweed will be covered for an entire week. Plant now to establish them in advance, and plant your Pipevine in partial shade for sturdy growth.

To host adult butterflies, all you need are a few rocks for perching and another fab four: Blue Mist Flower, Sweet Almond, Passionflower, and Butterfly Weed (rocket science, eh?).

“Blue Mist Flower and Sweet Almond are like butterfly crack,” says Wier. “In the summer they are blobs covered in butterflies.” Pack these densely together, too, for maximum feeding ground, but separate them from your larval plants for good measure. If you’re planting in full sun, be sure to
irrigate daily at the root level. You risk washing away nectar if you hose from above.  

A Texas native, Passionflower is easy to grow — so easy that it will crop up even when you don’t want it to. But this gem produces spectacular blooms that remind me of birthday cakes with sparklers (not kidding, Google-image it). No wonder butterflies single it out for dinnertime. You can grow it by seed — stop by Carmelita’s on Broadway for a glimpse of the pods and score your own from a nearby bush. With this shopping list in hand, remember that even the smallest plot of land offers potential butterfly spottings, and the common-sense rules of gardening apply. Plant closely for highest effect; know that when you treat for pests you’re sacrificing butterflies, too; and if you think a flower smells nice, they will too. Follow these steps and you’ll be providing a few weary butterflies with a sweet refuge from the perils of the big city. And in return, these garden guests will pollinate your existing crops for continuous harvests.

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