As summer winds down and you begin cleaning up your gardens this fall, take a few special steps to keep your butterfly garden in shape and get it ready for spring.
Gather Seeds – Many great nectar and host plants, especially natives, are good seed producers. Take time now to collect seeds and store them for next year. Great butterfly plants to grow from seed include zinnia, milkweed, sunflower, marigold, coneflower, salvia, bee balm, and phlox. (Get tips on storing seed here.)
Mark Perennial Locations – As you cut perennials back to the ground, mark them with stakes so you remember where to expect them next year, especially if it was something new you tried this year and you’re not sure whether it will return. Mark it now so you don’t accidentally remove it or plant over it when springtime comes.
Leave Some Nectar Plants – Although you’ll be tempted to clean up and pull everything out as the weather cools off, be sure to leave some nectar plants in your garden until a few weeks after you see the last butterfly in your area. Not all butterflies move south for the winter – some species will stay in your area all winter long and will remain active until temperatures drop (learn more here). Though many of your plants might be looking a little ragged, resist the urge to pull them out altogether just yet. Trim them back to encourage one last flush of blooms to provide nectar for late-season butterflies.
Plant Fall Nectar Plants – If your garden is just too tired for repair at this point, hit a local nursery and add a few last nectar plants. Perennials to try include fall-blooming asters like Carolina Climbing Aster (Aster carolinianus) or Fall Aster (Aster oblongifolius), or Blazing Star (Liatris spp.). If you live further south, plant cool weather annuals like petunias, alyssum, or pansies (and look for a post soon on southern butterfly gardens in the cool season).
Make Notes and Plans – Now’s the time to take stock of what worked well in your butterfly garden this year, and what you learned. My mom had the fun experience this year of finding Variegated Fritillary caterpillars on her pansies, something she never expected. She’s already planning to plant extra pansies next year to bring them back to her garden. Perhaps you noticed that a wildflower you tried was a popular nectar plant but looked messy in the garden – plan now to include it next year, but toward the back of the garden or in a wilder area of your yard. Which nectar plants were especially popular? Write down the names or save the plant tags so you can seek them out again next year. What were you hoping to plant but never got around to? Write it at the top of your list now so you can look for it first thing next spring.
What else do you do to prepare your butterfly garden for fall? Which butterflies linger the longest in your garden, and which nectar plants do they visit? Tell us about it in the comments below!