Involving our children in hands-on explorations of the natural world is essential if we are to create a generation who are able to undertake the vital tasks of re-establishing a resilient life on this planet. What better place to start nurturing this than in our gardens!
Butterflies are magical creatures to children! They evoke joy and fascination and awaken imaginings of flying with them on balmy breezes. I remember, as a child, seeing fields of butterflies — Monarchs so thick they were like a carpet! But butterfly populations have seriously declined and are under threat, due mostly to destruction of habitat and use of toxic chemicals.
We need to provide the conditions to help butterfly populations bounce back, and what better way to get the kids involved with gardening, and an important environmental issue, than by creating their own butterfly friendly garden!
Why attract butterflies?
Well, to begin with, butterflies add a special touch of beauty to your garden. There’s nothing quite like seeing splashes of exquisite colour and pattern flitting amongst your flowers.
More importantly, butterflies play a large role in the pollination of our plants. Without pollination, many plants would not reproduce and species would diminish and die out.
There is also the undeniable fact, that without the provision of suitable habitats for butterflies, we condemn yet more species to endangerment, and even extinction. So, why let this happen when we can easily do something about it?
Save the caterpillars!
To many, caterpillars are a pest, which happily chomp their way through our beloved plants. Too often it is forgotten what caterpillars really are — the larvae of butterflies and moths. True, they do snack on our plants, but the gift they give us once they metamorphose into butterflies is worth a nibble or two.
Encourage your children to see caterpillars as cute little ‘woolly worms’ (as my mum used to call them), creatures that deserve respect in their own right, for the amazing ability they have to change their form, and for the benefits they will have to offer your garden in the future.
So, don’t destroy caterpillars. In fact, don’t use any pesticides or toxic chemicals in your garden! They won’t only kill the caterpillars, but the butterflies too, as well as many other insects and possibly even the birds that eat the poisoned insects. And think about it… if a chemical is designed to kill, how healthy can it be for you to spray it on the food that you eat?
Key to attracting butterflies to your garden is providing the elements they would find in their natural habitat. If you already have butterflies in your garden, get your children to observe them — what do they do, what plants do they like, what do they avoid? What times of the day do they appear?
To entice butterflies, you need to provide their food source. Adult butterflies are nectar feeders, so flowers which produce adequate nectar are vital. Butterflies will often only eat nectar from specific plants, depending on the butterfly species… not just any old flower will do! So, if you wish to attract specific species, you will need to find out what they like to eat, and add those plants to your garden.
One of the important factors to remember when designing a butterfly garden, is to include a variety of plants that flower at different times of the year, so that a food supply is always available. Summer flowering plants are especially crucial, as this is when butterflies are most active.
Peak feeding time for butterflies is mid-morning to mid-afternoon, and feeding is usually done in sunny locations, so make sure to plant your butterfly-attracting plants in positions where they will get sun during this period.
Butterflies also require suitable plants to lay their eggs on, and for their larvae (caterpillars) to feed on. Once again, the plants a particular butterfly chooses for this will depend on the species.
Some of the best butterfly-attracting Australian Native plants include: various native grasses and sedges, Eucalyptus, Acacias, Melaleuca, Grevilleas, Banksias, Kunzea, Callistemon, Pimelea, Goodenia, Hibbertia, Hardenbergia, Correa, Angophora, Epacris, Leptospermum, and Westringia.
A few non-natives that butterflies and their larvae like are lavender, crepe myrtle, citrus, daisies and snapdragons.
Butterflies are quite delicate, and need adequate places to shelter, especially from strong winds, which can tear their wings. Tall plants, hedges, etc. can act as windbreaks and create a calmer haven for butterflies in your garden.
Water is naturally an important consideration for any creature, and butterflies are no exception. Provide damp ground areas and droplets on leaves for butterflies and other insects. Create little ‘mud puddles’.
Provide clumps of their favourite plants so that butterflies can get amongst them and away from predators. If they have safe havens to escape to they will feel more at ease to choose these places to lay their eggs, which is an essential part of keeping the butterfly cycle happening in your garden.
Flat rocks and tops of garden walls, in sunny locations, encourage butterflies to rest and warm themselves in the sun. External warmth is essential for butterflies as their bodies do not produce heat like ours do.
Threats to butterflies
The biggest threat to butterflies is humankind! From the spraying of toxic chemicals to total destruction of their habitats, we have succeeded in exterminating many species from the planet and endangering countless more. It’s time to reverse that behaviour, and bring back what they need.
As mentioned above, pesticides and the myriad of other chemicals people spray with happy abandon on their gardens, have a detrimental effect on the butterfly population, among other creatures. So, it is vital to be very aware of what you are using and its possible effects and preferably to use nothing unnatural at all.
In most cases, a healthy garden will balance itself, and an infestation of a particular pest shows an imbalance of some kind, which may be able to be solved by encouraging the right beneficial predator insect to your garden. Plant diseases may be able to be dealt with by adding a natural nutrient to the soil, or strengthening the plant in some other natural way. Don’t just be quick to jump for the spray, pellets or powder — think outside the box (or bottle) and see if there is a way of working with nature to solve the problem, instead of bombarding nature with toxic chemicals.
Predators are, of course, another threat to butterflies, and unfortunately you can’t get rid of them all. In fact, some of those predators may provide other things a healthy garden needs, such as birds and reptiles. Giving butterflies adequate sheltered hiding places helps them to avoid being someone’s meal. However, you can do your best to protect them from exotic predators, such as dogs and cats, by keeping your pets separate from your butterfly garden area and by discouraging roaming animals from your yard with high fences and other natural deterrents.
Things to Talk About
Get your children fully immersed in the project by letting them be involved every step of the way, and by talking to them about what’s happening and why you are doing certain things. Get them thinking and questioning and developing an understanding of the importance of protecting and maintaining a balanced habitat… and what it can lead to if we don’t.
Some ideas to bring up:
- How do butterflies help in our garden?
- What might happen if there were no butterflies left?
- What things could cause butterflies to die?
- How can we help stop this happening?
- What do butterflies seem to like in our garden?
- How can we make our plants as healthy as possible so that they will be there for the butterflies?
- What about caterpillars — what happens to them to let them turn into butterflies?
- How can we help our caterpillars survive to become butterflies?
- What else could we do further afield to help create ‘butterfly corridors’? Get neighbours to create butterfly friendly gardens too, see if you can create butterfly areas in local parks, plant footpaths, roundabouts and median strips with butterfly-attracting plants.
By creating opportunity to allow children to become connected to nature and to understand their place within it, we help them develop an awareness of the importance of protecting it and to become ‘ambassadors’ for ecosystems in times to come. I believe that following the natural cycles of the Earth awakens children to an insight into the broader sphere of life itself. Give your child the gift of a special garden where they can find self expression, peace and just ‘be’ alongside nature.