Butterfly Plants for School Gardens

 If you’re thinking of planting a butterfly garden for a school, I’ve put together a number of my best practices. I’ve put many butterfly gardens in the St. Louis area and learned quite a lot in the process. Many of my plants and practices that I do personally in my own garden are not optimal for a school garden. Here’s my list of best practices for a school butterfly garden.

  • Include plants which take less maintenance.
    Putting in the garden is the easy part. The question then becomes, “Who is going to maintain the garden?” Who will pull the weeds, water the plants, clean up the garden in the spring and take care of the garden in the summer. This is no easy chore and why many teachers shy away from these extra responsibilities. While buddleia is a great butterfly attractor, it needs to be deadheaded on a regular basis for it to keep blooming. Also avoid any plants which have the word “invasive” in their description.
  • You need to get at least one adult to commit to taking care of the garden.
    It doesn’t make any sense to have a garden and not have anyone willing to do the upkeep. Ideally you can get someone who will come in over the summer when school is out to do the watering and weeding.
  • You want lots of plants which will bloom in the fall.
    Since most kids are out of school by the end of May, all of the summer blooming flowers will be gone by the time they come back in late August/early September. You want as many plants as possible which will bloom during the fall.
  • Water the plants in well.
    When you first put in your plants make sure that all plants get a healthy dose of water. The first month is crucial so make sure they are well-watered that first month.
  • Use lots of mulch.
    Mulch will keep out weeds and reduce the need for watering. When you’re done planting, cover the bare areas with mulch.
  • Put in paths and edging
    You need to define the garden so kids will know where they can and cannot walk. Kids are enthusiastic and will walk right over your new plants unless you clearly indicate to them  where they are supposed to walk. Walkways will also keep the kids shoes clean for when they go back into the classroom. Raised beds would be one way to do this. Also the maintenance crew will be less liable to “Roundup” the garden if it is plainly marked.
  • Locate the garden close to a water outlet.
    With summers getting hotter and drier lately you will not only need access to water when you put in the plants, but also someone willing to water once a week if it doesn’t rain during the summer. You will need to be able to run a hose to the garden. You’ll probably need a special tool to turn on the water.
  • Sun. Sun, Sun
    You want a location with as much sun as possible. Put tall plants in the back so they don’t over-shadow the smaller plants. Try for six or more hours sun if possible.
  • Consider the ultimate size of the plants.
    Many plants start out small, but may ultimately cover a large area. Keep the larger plants away from the edges. The first couple of years you can fill in with annuals.
  • Buy good soil if possible.
    Most soil in St.Louis is terrible – more of a potting clay then good for new plants. I like a mix of good topsoil and compost. I also like to add fertilizer when we start to get the plants off to a good start. If you can get some with a large pickup truck, this is the cheapest way to buy the soil. Here’s where I buy my soil. I like the Garden Mix. http://stlcompost.com/products-soil.htm –
  • If you can’t afford good soil, then use a bulb planter to make the holes and plant in those and fill with good potting soil.
  • Start Small
    A 10′ x 10′ garden is much easier to take care of than a garden 100′ X 100′.  Take into consideration how much time the care-taker has to maintain the garden.
  • Stay Away from Playgrounds. Balls and Gardens don’t mix.
  • Use labels to identify the plants.
    I prefer metal stakes with labels made from a P-touch label maker. Here’s where I buy my stakes.
    If you’re planting ten or more species, the teachers will appreciate the plant identification later in the year. Plants change dramatically as they get larger during the year.
  • Plant both Host and Nectar Plants.
    Host plants are necessary for butterflies to lay their eggs and nectar plants to attract the butterflies for nectar. See the tip below for more specifics.
  • Butterfly Gardening Book
    Give the teacher a copy of the “Ten Commandments of Butterfly Gardening.” It’s a FREE download. You can find man more butterfly gardening details in the book.
  • Perennials are great, but they don’t last forever.
    What I’ve learned from experience is that just because a plant has a “perennial” label doesn’t mean it will last for ten years. Plan on replacing plants in the future.
  • Come back in late fall and plant seeds.
    I like to do this with a class. Collect the seeds in the garden during the summer and fall and let the kids plant in late fall for next years replacement plants.
  • Find a location that is convenient for classes.
    Since the purpose of the butterfly garden is to be a resource for teachers, try and find a place as close as possible to the school.
  • Consider ALL plants for the garden.
    I am currently helping a Boy Scout work on his Eagle project – putting in a butterfly garden for a grade school. One of the suggestions made to him was that this should only include Missouri native plants. While the suggestor was well-meaning, there are a number of things wrong with the idea. Although I always include many natives in the garden, I also include other plants better suited for a school setting.While native plants are great, they may become invasive and may not have the blooming characteristics that you want for a school garden. Also it’s nice to have blooming plants in the fall, so look for plants which will be blooming at that time.
  • Where are you going to get your plants?
    I provide all the plants for the local school gardens, but there may be other free sources. I can guarantee there are local garden clubs whose members might be glad to share some of their plants. PTO’s and other organizations may also have funds available for you to buy plants for the garden. Also remember to try winter sowing seeds to get new plants in the spring.
  • Use small plant containers so kids only have to dig small holes.
  • Bring cleanup tools for when you’re done.
    You might make a mess in the process of putting in the garden so bring along brooms and rakes to clean up the surrounding area.
  • What’s Your Goal?
    While a butterfly garden can provide some beauty and natural area for the kids, it can also be a great learning tool for teachers. Instead of buying larvae to raise in the classroom, teachers can go out to the butterfly garden and collect then naturally. The University of Minnesota has some great teacher tools on their site. http://www.monarchlab.org/Default.aspx

Here’s a list of plants which I recommend for a school garden.

Annuals – Nectar – globe amaranth, dianthus, marigold, salvia- lady in red, zinnia. Host/nectar – tropical milkweed.

Bronze Fennel – host – perennial which black swallowtails use as a host plant.

Butterfly Bush – dwarf. Try this smaller version – it also needs deadheading, but is easier to work with. Not ideal for schools, but when in bloom it’s great.

Dames Rocket – Hesperil matronalis – host plant for cabbage whites and a good nectar plant in the spring. This not like to be transplanted so plant seeds – blooms the second year.

Echinacea purpurea – nectar – may bloom early enough before the school year ends.

False Nettle – host – used by Red Admirals as a host plant.

Gaillardia – nectar – blooms all year long – may over-winter and reseed itself.

Hop Tree – host –  if you have space for a small tree, this is a great host for Giant Swallowtails.

Lantana – nectar – bush type – a great nectar source which fills out a large area. It doesn’t need dead-heading. You will probably need to replant in colder climates – it needs as much sun as possible.

Liatris – nectar – meadow and eastern blazing – a great fall bloomer.

Milkweed – host/nectar – aslcepias incarnata, tuberosa – short-lived perennials. Tropical milkweed is a great annual to attract the Monarchs in the fall. The kids can start this in class and plant them in spring. You can possibly try common milkweed in some school situations – but it can be invasive.

New England Aster – host/nectar – the traditional variety falls over and takes up lots of space. Only plant this where you have lots of space. Plant these in the back. I’m trying a variety called Purple Dome this year.

Pearly Everlasting – host – good host plant for Painted Ladies. Falls over and takes space – not for small spaces – try Pussy Toes instead.

Sedum – nectar – Autumn Joy type – will get large and floppy, but attracts fall butterflies.

Shasta Daisy – nectar – blooms until early August

Slender Mountain Mint – nectar – blooms into fall.

Spider Flower – host/nectar – host for Cabbage Whites. It will reseed itself and blooms into the fall. Put in the back of the garden.

Verbena bonariensis – nectar – a great plant – gets tall.


Filed under Butterfly Gardening, Schools

6 responses to “Butterfly Plants for School Gardens

  1. Great article. I have shared this with my Twitter followers.

  2. Hi Tom, You did a great job of telling about the ins and outs of gardening with school children. I run Granny’s Garden School in Loveland, OH. We work with more than !,7000 students each week in our school gardens (more than 100 vegetable gardens, loads of flower gardens, a 3/4 mile nature trail and an apple orchard) and advise school garden developers from across the country. I would like to link to some of the information on your site and find out more about what you are doing.
    Roberta Paolo, a.k.a. “Granny”.

  3. Hi Granny,

    A fun name always makes life a bit more interesting. I’ve just become a Gramps and will visit my new grandson in a few days.

    Please feel free to link or use any of the material I post. I believe in sharing what you have and know.

    I’m glad to hear you’re doing such good work.


  4. Pingback: School Butterfly Garden Checklist For School Teachers

  5. Why visitors still use to read news papers when in
    this technological globe everything is accessible on web?

  6. I found this website extremely helpful. I am not a teacher, or have a classroom but I can follow the same steps in my private garden.

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