Butterflies are colorful additions to any garden, in addition to providing essential functions as pollinators, and many gardeners try to attract them by building butterfly gardens. Butterfly gardens contain plants that provide food and habitats for caterpillars, as well as nectar for adult butterflies. Myriad perennial and annual plants attract butterflies. As with any gardening project, establishing healthy soil is essential to ensure that your plants thrive and the butterflies come fluttering in droves.
All plants require certain nutrients in the soil to grow and undertake important metabolic processes. The fertilization program that you use should maintain soil health, of course, but butterfly gardens have specific needs as well. Because many butterfly plants attract butterflies with their blooms, be sure that your fertilization program provides plenty of phosphorus, which promotes blooming. Also restore the nitrogen and potassium content of the soil, because most plants use these quickly.
Most butterfly garden plants require a good amount of moisture in the soil, so it's important to keep your butterfly garden well-watered if Mother Nature becomes stingy with rain. You should be able to feel moisture in the soil at all times at depths up to 3 inches. If you dig 3 inches into your garden and don't feel any moisture, it's time to water. Water is essential to helping your butterfly plants take up nutrients and carry out photosynthesis.
According to Rebecca Cole on the "Today" show, organic gardening methods are preferable for butterfly gardening because the sensitive insects and their larvae can be harmed by synthetic chemicals applied to control pests and improve soil condition. Also, as the University of Florida IFAS Extension service points out on its website, because many butterfly gardens involve perennial plants, establishing healthy soil is essential when getting started.
Before planting, take a soil sample to your local extension office for testing. The report will identify any deficiencies and recommend a fertilization program to correct them. Enrich the soil with organic matter such as finished compost or mulched leaves, and incorporate this into the top few inches of soil. Organic matter will help your garden to retain water and nutrients. Finally, cover the soil with a few inches of mulch. Besides inhibiting weed growth and further conserving water, mulch provides a valuable habitat for overwintering larvae. Side-dressing your plants with finished compost each spring will provide them with an important nutritional boost.
Butterflies acquire minerals from the earth, not from the flowers they feed on, so a source of water and minerals will also attract them to your garden. Reserve a place for a maintained puddle, and bury a planter saucer in the ground. Fill it with mulch or small stones, occasionally adding a piece of overripe fruit or pinch of finished compost to provide minerals for butterflies.