Before You Start Your School Butterfly Garden…
School butterfly gardens have exploded in popularity over the past decade. Some of them have had great success, while others are missing out on the butterfly garden party.
There are a lot of basic guides floating around the internet, but most of them don’t stop to consider important questions that could change the entire direction of your school butterfly garden plan.
I recently came across an article by author and butterfly gardener ‘Tom Terrific’ that I believe could benefit all teachers, administrators, and students before digging into their butterfly garden adventures.
The following is a summary review of Tom Terrific’s article about starting a school butterfly garden:
(new additions to the list are in green)
1. Choose One, Attract Many- Find out which butterflies are most common in your region and when? Focus on attracting those one or two species and add plants to attract others later on. You’ll be happy to know that focusing on one species will bring lots of bonus butterflies to your school:
2. Low Maintenance Plants- Unless you have students, parents, or teachers willing to tend the garden on an ongoing basis, don’t choose plants that require close monitoring or care. You’ll miss out on some great options if you go for a “no maintenance” garden, but that’s a choice every school needs to make based on its own unique circumstances.
3. A Responsible Adult- While kids may have the best intentions, they can be easily distracted. One adult should be regularly monitoring the garden to ensure its survival.
4. Fall Plant Focus- Butterfly season is in full swing across most of North America when school begins in September, and the magical monarch migration is just beginning.
5. Spring Plant Focus?- This depends on your location and what butterflies you are trying to attract. Last season we had “Minnesota Monarchs” in late April so spring blooming plants would have been helpful…but “counting on extreme weather” probably isn’t the best idea.
6. Water Well- Most plants and seedlings require more water at the beginning of the season while their roots get acclimated.
7. Mulching Today, Keeps Tomorrow’s Weeds Away- …it also helps the soil around your plants retain moisture!
8. Mark Your Territory- If you define paths and include edging, your garden will be better protected. If the kids don’t know exactly where the garden is, they’ll run right through it!
9. Available Water Outlets- Don’t make watering the garden inconvenient or it might not get watered! Also, rain barrels are a convenient extra water source and they add a bit of school butterfly garden decor.
10. Sun & Shade- Yes, most butterflies and butterfly plants prefer lots of sun, but shade can also be utilized in a butterfly garden. Over the years, I’ve found that some of the “full sun” plants can perform just as well (if not better) in areas that receive partial shade. Last season I grew my largest Mexican sunflower plant ever in partial shade…it eclipsed 8 feet!
11. Experiment- Just because you read something on a plant label, on a website, or in a book doesn’t mean you’ll have the exact same experience. Embrace the ‘open and curious minds’ of your students and try something different. It might not work, but it might just amaze you:
12. Don’t Plant A Garden Hog!- When planting perennials, don’t forget they’re going to grow, so space accordingly. While they’re babies fill in extra space with annuals. Otherwise, be prepared to move around perennials you spaced too closely together.
13. Supplement Your Soil- Using topsoil and compost is a great way to improve soil quality if yours isn’t ideal for what you’re planting.
14. Fertilizer?- There is some debate as to whether it’s even necessary to add fertilizer in addition to composted manure, but I think it makes a big difference over an entire growing season. Over the years we have used many different fertilizers both organic and non.
We haven’t had any issues with sick butterflies or caterpillars using non-organic fertilizers, and I’ve talked to countless others who have had the same experience. Use what you feel comfortable with and check out reviews from other gardeners in the trenches:
15. Plant Host And Nectar Plants- While nectar flowers are get all the glory, there’d be no butterflies if the caterpillars had no host plants to feed on. If you have limited space try plants that serve both needs like swamp milkweed (Asclepias incarnata) and tropical milkweed (Asclepias curassavica).
16. Butterfly Gardening Guide- Get more details for creating a successful butterfly garden and discover top notch resources in my 5-star customer rated butterfly gardening guide.
Purchase the guide or get more info on How To Attract More Monarchs
17. Cuttings Make Great Plant Insurance- No matter how well you care for them, sometimes plants die. There are lots of butterfly plants that can be started with cuttings…in water!! In late summer or fall, just head outside and take cuttings to place in water. For some plants, it’s that simple. Watch the process here.
18. Collect Seeds Each Fall- If you want to start seeds as a class activity in winter/spring, your garden will give you plenty of opportunities to collect them throughout the season…harvesting milkweed seeds each fall is typically the best option for a school butterfly garden.
19. Don’t Get Stuck On ‘Native’- Many people disagree with me on this topic, but Tom and I seem to be on the same page. Native plants are not always the best option for school (or home) gardens. Like Tom, I have many native plants growing at home, but I’m constantly experimenting with non-invasive annual plants too. Teachers should consider bloom times, plant care, invasiveness, and all relevant issues when making their final plant decisions. That won’t always lead to the “native” conclusion.
20. Raise Your Game- Creating a butterfly garden for kids should give you a window of opportunity to raise butterflies. This is a fun and educational activity for the kids, and you’ll save eggs and caterpillars from garden predators too. For more information on how to raise monarchs in the classroom check out this helpful school resource.
21. Get Monarch Insurance- The monarch numbers are down and it might take them a season or two to discover your glorious new garden. Fortunately, that doesn’t mean the kids have to miss out on the monarch experience. Eggs and caterpillars are available from butterfly farms for most of North America’s butterfly season. You can find monarch eggs and caterpillar for sale at the bottom of my raising resources page.
As you can see, there are lots of important points to consider before you dig into your school butterfly garden. However, you’ll be happy you took the time to consider these things before getting in ‘over your trowel.’ Best of Luck, Tony
Check out Tom Terrific’s original article here: Butterfly Plants for School Gardens