Butterfly Gardening with Kids

yellow sulfur butterflyBy Pam Brown, Urban Horticulture Extension Agent
Gardening with children can be a fun and educational activity. A butterfly garden is easy to do and will provide eggs to look for, along with caterpillars and butterflies to watch. It is a great way to spend quality time with your kids.

Now is a good time to plant a butterfly garden. You need to have location with lots of sun, a site that is not soggy, and that you can get water to for irrigation. The size is up to you – but involve children in the planning and selection of the location. You can talk about the needs for sun of both the plants and butterflies. If you have more than one child that will be gardening, you might want to assign them to areas of the garden.

If the children are small, they need tools that fit their size. You can find some really cute tools by shopping around. Take the children with you so that you can judge if the tools are appropriate. They will need gardening gloves to protect their hands. Some adult tools are for small areas and will be appropriate for older children.

One of the most important tasks for planting a garden of any kind is preparing the soil. If the area has not been a garden, you will want to clear it of all grass or plants and then add compost or other organic matter along with a good balanced slow release fertilizer to the area and spade it in. This is a good job for the kids – they like to dig in the soil. Teach them that growing a healthy garden starts with good soil and that plants, just like people, need water to drink and nutrients to grow. Once the material has been incorporated – rake the area smooth.

swallowtail larvaeWhen choosing plants for your garden, you may want to consult the University of Florida/IFAS Extension publication Butterfly Gardening in Florida. Plants with flowers that are nectar or food plants will attract many kinds of butterflies. However, each species of butterfly has specific plants that they lay the eggs on so that the caterpillars have the proper food once they hatch. You will want to plant some of both in your garden. Select plants for instant effect and also purchase some seeds for the children to sow. Watching seeds sprout from the ground is a fun thing for kids. The publication listed above has lists of specific larval plants for each type of butterfly. Milkweed is both a larval plant for the Monarch and nectar source for many butterflies. Parsley, dill, fennel and carrots are larval plants for American Swallowtails. Many of our native plants are both larval and nectar sources for many butterflies. Bidens is a native that grows in many open areas and the medians of the roads that serves as a wonderful nectar source. You will want to talk with your children about the fact that the eggs that the butterfly lays will hatch into caterpillars that will eat the leaves of the plants. Some children get upset that the plants are disappearing. The caterpillar will then form a chrysalis (cocoon) that the butterfly will emerge from. Getting to observe this process is truly magical for children and adults.

Butterfly caterpillars are blind. They do not build their chrysalis on the plant they feed on – they climb down and crawl along the ground until they bump into something. They will then climb up to form the chrysalis. Planting a barrier around the edge of the garden will help keep them in the garden and give them a place to go. Liriope, daylilies or other bushy low growing plants will do. You could also put a few rough wooden planks in the garden or a bench. This will also provide some place to build a chrysalis.

Once you have your garden planted, the plants will need to be watered daily for the first few days then every few days for several weeks. Where seeds are planted the soil should be kept moist until the seedlings have two sets of leaves, then taper off. This is a good job for children. A watering can will keep the seeds from being washed out of the ground or use a hose end sprayer set on a gentle setting. You will need to add some additional fertilizer every two or three months, depending on the type you use. Follow the information on the label.

You should see butterflies visiting in a few days, and then plan to visit the garden every few days to watch for caterpillars, chrysalis and butterflies emerging.

Please watch our short video below for butterfly gardening information.
*Both pictures in this blog are by Dan Culbert, Horticulture Extension Agent in Okeechobee County, Florida

Posted: March 11, 2009

Category: Florida-Friendly Landscaping, Home Landscapes, Natural Resources, Wildlife

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