Creating a Community Butterfly Garden

Children sitting on a fence holding trowels with containers of plants lying on the ground in front of them.

At the last moment, it was the image of a butterfly that caught my eye. I nearly walked past that tattered sign taped onto the community mailbox before returning to read it more carefully. A new community butterfly garden was being planned for next spring in our local municipal park in Ottawa (Canadian zone 5a, American zone 4).

The note invited neighbors to learn more at a talk scheduled for the following week. Three educators from the Monarch Teacher Network of Canada would be there. They had raised monarchs in their classrooms and created several butterfly gardens and they now advised community groups on how to design gardens for butterflies. Having certified my own urban garden with Monarch Watch, it was an easy decision to sign up.

Luckily, I didn’t know the hard work that lay ahead – city licensing, grant applications, contracts and job deadlines. But surely, if one little butterfly can fly all the way to Mexico, then a few volunteers should be able to collaborate to build a butterfly garden to help it and others on their way, right?

Besides, there were broader benefits. The new garden would ultimately support habitat not just for monarch butterflies and various butterfly species, but for bees, hummingbirds and other pollinators, too.

A monarch butterfly sitting on a milkweed bloom

Fall Planning

Despite the efforts of the hard-working organizer, a young mom named Margaret Sambol, turnout at the scheduled butterfly garden meeting one fall evening was disappointing. She had even made homemade sugar cookies shaped like butterflies as a crowd pleaser. But there was energy there as the three retired teachers, wearing their monarch butterfly T-shirts, shared some practical tips.

We’d need a hot, sunny location for the garden. Butterflies need sunshine to fly. It’s why they like to bask on sun-warmed rocks. Butterflies also need nectar plants for food, including an array of native and non-native plants.

An orange butterfly weed bloom

They’d also need host plants to support them during the caterpillar stage. Hungry caterpillars have an appetite for leaves. For monarch butterflies, it’s milkweed. For the Eastern Black Swallowtail, it’s plants in the carrot family including celery, dill, parsley, fennel, carrots and Queen Anne’s lace. Red Admirals like nettles. With about 800 species of butterflies north of Mexico, the list of plant possibilities is long.

Butterflies also like shallow pools of water with mud for ‘puddling’, during which they seek out nutrients, primarily salts. We would need to consider even the color of the plants. These insects are attracted to yellow, orange, pink and red. As we were taught that night, there was a lot to learn about butterflies.

White Shasta daisies with yellow centers

Later over tea at Margaret’s place, three of us – including a young entomologist (someone who studies insects) who lives in the neighborhood – pored over garden designs and endless plant lists, wondering how to plant a butterfly garden with lasting power in a mixed park setting shared by soccer players, dog walkers, kids on swings and teeter-totters, cyclists, tennis players and, occasionally, the odd troublesome teenager and dogs running off-leash. A community butterfly garden is not without its challenges.

Winter Surprises

“Have you seen the butterfly site?” Margaret asked over coffee at my house a few months later, one cold day just as the snow was melting. The site was totally underwater, flooded by heavy spring runoff. It might be good for bog plants, but certainly would not be appropriate for a butterfly garden.

A friend who for years had walked her dogs through the park later told me that it was always that way in spring. The perennials would drown. The community planting-bee was scheduled for a couple of months later.

Purple coneflower

Desperate pleas to city officials to consider changing the park site followed, with a flurry of telephone calls and emails. Margaret had done much of the hard slogging already, applying for a city licence, filling out grant applications and delivering required letters by foot to nearby neighbors to ensure there were no objections to a butterfly garden on public property. Changing the site to elsewhere in the park, but still close enough to a rain barrel that had been set up to water the garden, meant another round of discussions with city officials.

In the end, the difficult decision was made to stay in the existing space but build a raised bed. A landscaper who lived nearby offered to provide his skilled labor and equipment without charge. Slowly it dawned on me – neighbors helping neighbors. That’s really what this butterfly project was about.

The raised butterfly garden

Spring Success

Stresses come with any deadline. City officials were delayed in issuing the necessary licence. Two days before the community planting, the raised bed was still not constructed and a call for volunteers to help with planting had already gone out through the community association. Then, with the clock ticking, some great news arrived. A supportive city staffer had worked out a licence compromise at the eleventh hour by offering a ‘Consent to Enter’ the park with a ‘Licence of Occupation’ to come later. With the paperwork completed, the landscaping company moved quickly. By Friday night, less than 48 hours from the planned Sunday morning planting bee, construction of the raised bed finished. Cheers went up.

Sunday morning was perfect for planting, a little chilly with light rain. We gathered to plant the perennials with all generations present, from grannies to kids gardening for the first time. We talked about butterflies and their favorite flowers as we dug holes to plant the host plants: butterfly weed (Asclepias tuberosa) and swamp milkweed (Asclepias incarnata).

The fuchsia bloom of a blazing star

We also added plants from an annual native-plant sale: bee balm (Monarda), black-eyed Susan (Rudbeckia hirta), yarrow (Achillea millefolium), Joe Pye Weed (Eutrochium purpureum), New England aster (Symphyotrichum novae-angliae), purple and yellow coneflowers (Echinacea), blazing star (Liatris) and others that would provide continuous bloom for butterflies and other pollinators from early spring until late fall.

We took a chance and added a butterfly bush (Buddleia), knowing the butterflies would love it but also that it might not survive the winter. We got our knees dirty, laughed, ate donuts and met new friends. After we watered the plants well, we erected poles and taped caution signs around the edges, hoping to prevent damage from mischief-makers.

A couple of weeks later, kindergarten kids from a nearby school came to plant butterfly-friendly annuals to provide some color until the perennials were established. A new generation had arrived to learn about pollinators.

Blooms in the butterfly garden

Summer Blooms

Thanks again to Margaret’s help, a free electronic sign-up page was created to let the gardening team water and weed in weekly shifts. We planned to grow this garden together, as a community.

We erected a sign with identifying plant pictures and labels. We didn’t expect many butterflies the first summer, but you never know. The flowers were beautiful, even this first year.

We’ll see how our community garden grows, especially how it survives the harsh cold of an Ottawa winter in this big raised bed. We’ll put in plenty of mulch and mow leaves to blanket and protect the bed.

But one thing is clear. If you build it, butterflies will come. And so will friendships that blossom slowly, just like these young plants.

Text and photos by Julianne Labreche

Julianne Labreche is a freelance writer and garden enthusiast who volunteers as a Master Gardener in Ottawa-Carleton.

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