Do you have a sunny area where plants can grow? You can plant a butterfly garden! It doesn’t matter how small or large, every bit of habitat helps. You could incorporate just a few milkweed plants into your current landscaping, or plant a whole meadow with milkweed and other wildflowers. The more thought and care you put in at the beginning of your project, the less work it will require later on!
If your area is already planted with something, think about what you have growing and how much you need to add. Starting from scratch can be easiest, especially in a large, weedy field where you can’t pull weeds individually and you want to start over with seeds. But if you have a garden with flowering plants, you can skip some of these instructions; just replace non-natives with native flowers and add milkweeds, using your judgment.
Go outside and see what kind of soil you have. Any soil type will work, from waterlogged clay to dry and sandy, as long as you pick appropriate plants. Wildflowers don’t need a lot of nutrients from the soil, and in fact adding fertilizers often encourages the growth of weeds more than the plants you want. You shouldn’t need to add compost unless your soil is very sandy and can barely support growth. pH is important to know as you choose plants, too. Get your soil tested by submitting a sample to the local Extension office.
Preparing your site before planting can be key to your future success. If weeds have been growing, their seeds will be all through the soil, ready to germinate when you stir the dirt and bring them to the surface. In a small garden area, careful hand weeding should do the trick, preferably without disturbing the soil much. For a full yard or a larger meadow, the most effective method is to break up the soil (ideally with a disk harrow) to kill existing weeds and bring dormant seeds to the surface. Let them grow, then do it again before they go to seed. Repeat every 2-3 weeks during the summer. By the time you sow flower seeds in fall, the soil’s bank of weed seeds should be used up.
Vernalization is an important step to account for in the planning process. Most wildflower seeds naturally drop in the fall, sitting through the winter before germinating in the warmth of spring. Therefore, the easiest method for a site of any size is to sow a mix of seeds in late fall and wait. Some species, including the milkweeds native to SC, require this period of cold before their seeds will germinate. When you’re starting seeds indoors or in the spring, check whether they need to be cold treated. If so, wrap the seeds between damp paper towels and store in a plastic bag in the refrigerator for at least 2 months before planting.
Planting a small garden
If your planting area is small enough to weed by hand, and you want it to look landscaped, you can start with potted plants or small plugs (plants that have recently been sprouted indoors). You can start plugs yourself by planting seeds in potting soil about 6 weeks before the last spring frost (starting in January-March) and transplanting outdoors when the seedlings are a few inches high. This early start gives perennial plants a stronger root system than seeds sown directly outdoors.
Read the plants’ labels, or find out how big they will get, and space them accordingly. Place plants in groupings of the same species, making clusters or waves in your landscape, to attract butterflies and bees and let them feed more efficiently. See our “Find Native Plants” page for suggestions of South Carolina natives that will give you blooms throughout the monarch migration.
Sowing a wildflower meadow
To fill a larger area or a space where you want a more natural look, you’ll want to start from seeds. It’s best to use a seed mix designed for your region and growing conditions, so that all the plants will thrive with the same amount of light and water. You can see some suggestions on our “Find Native Plants” page. Each mix will need to be spread at a different density, usually labeled as pounds per acre or square feet per pound, based on the size of the plants and the expected germination rate.
Plan to plant the seeds in the fall or spring, possibly before a rain. Mix the seeds with sand so they spread more evenly. Sow seeds on the weed-free soil surface and rake it or press them down so they contact the soil and won’t wash away. You can use a weighted rolling drum, or just walk over the soil.
In the spring, keep the ground moist until your seeds germinate. Both seeds and starts will do best with some watering for the first year, after which they should be well-established and able to succeed on their own. Keep an eye out for weeds. In their first year, your perennial plants will be establishing their root systems and they won’t grow to cover much ground, so weeds will seize the opportunity. Please resist the temptation to attack them with an herbicide, however carefully and precisely you (think you can) do it.
To keep weeds at bay in a large wildflower meadow, you’ll need to mow it. Through the first summer, mow periodically at a height of 4-6 inches to decapitate the weeds while passing over the perennial leaves. After the first year you shouldn’t have to mow so often, but it will help to mow once in winter or early spring to cut down dead stems and shake flower seeds to the ground. Keep an open mind about how you expect your meadow to look; some species will do well while others will disappear over the years, as they find a natural balance and react to seasonal changes.
Now be patient! Perennial flower seeds will grow slowly the first year, faster the second, and while they might have some blooms the second year you won’t see them in their full glory until the third year after planting. In the meantime, stay vigilant about weeds.
- Add an area where butterflies can “puddle” to get minerals and salts. Fill a shallow dish with sand or gravel and place it in a sunny spot. Have it close to a faucet or drip system outlet so you can keep it damp.
- Leave a pile of brush or another form of shelter (unmown grass, a fallen tree) where insects can spend the winter. Swallowtail butterflies, among others, need this.
- Use your butterfly habitat as a rain garden, by placing it so that it captures and filters stormwater runoff from your downspouts and yard. Clemson’s rain garden manual has great instructions.
- Get your butterfly habitat certified. While not necessary – the butterflies don’t care – getting your garden certified with certain organizations can put you on the map and motivate you to do it well. For a business or school (or library, supermarket, community center, church, city park, etc.), having a Monarch Waystation or Wildlife Habitat can be educational and show commitment to environmental values. Often, after completing the application, you can purchase a metal sign to post by your habitat area for more visibility.
Charleston Area Monarch Habitat
Many local businesses, organizations, and gardeners have planted gardens that support monarchs and other pollinators. Together, they form the habitat corridor that feeds monarchs on their migration. If you have a butterfly garden in the Tri-County area, you can fill out our simple form and we’ll put you on the map!