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Imagine a garden full of brightly colored flowers, oranges, yellows and blues. Your children are squealing as they find yet another caterpillar hidden on a plant. Then their attention is diverted as they spot a yellow butterfly fluttering nearby. As they race to get a closer look, a bright orange and black butterfly glides into view. Everyone points and cheers as they spot the first monarch of the year.

Seem like an impossible dream? Actually with a little research and a small plot of ground, almost anything is possible when it comes to butterfly gardening. Plant a few food plants and some well-chosen flowers, and your garden can become an outdoor paradise for learning about butterflies and other insects.

What do you need to do to start a butterfly garden? The first step is research, research, research. Every region has its own unique blend of plant and butterfly species, and what works in one place may not in another. You and your children will need to look for species of butterflies that occur locally, and then find out what plants the adults use for food (nectar usually), and plants the caterpillars feed on. Fortunately in most areas there are individuals and organizations that are interested in butterfly gardening, and they have probably done some of the research for you. Try an Internet search for butterfly gardening in your region. Visit your local botanical gardens or arboreta. Look for regional books on butterflies and butterfly gardening. Also, keep records of what kinds of butterflies you see when you are hiking or walking through your neighborhood. Try to figure out what plants they seem to prefer.

In general:

buckeye butterfly
Scientists have shown adult butterflies prefer flowers that are yellow or blue. They also prefer flowers that are flat, so they have a platform to stand on while feeding, like this buckeye butterfly.

lantana

Neat fact:  Ever look closely at a Lantana flower? The center is often yellow and the outside dark pink. The yellow flowers are the fresh ones, with plenty of nectar and pollen. Once each individual flower in the cluster has been pollinated, it turns dark pink and is no longer attractive to butterflies.

butterfly weed

Butterfly weed is a common plant that will attract many butterflies.

moth eggs

The adult butterflies lay their eggs on the plants their caterpillars will eat. (These are the eggs of a large moth, by the way).

fritillary caterpillar

The caterpillars or larvae feed on the plant once they hatch from their eggs. Some caterpillars feed only on one or a few plants. For example, fritillary caterpillars feed on passion vines.

Other caterpillars may use a number of different plants as food. Also, some species may use one group of plants in one region and a different set in another region, depending on temperature, plant availability, etc. You only need to provide one or a few of the correct plants to attract butterflies.

Adult butterflies may be attracted to feeders, or pieces of certain kinds of fruit. There are some simple butterfly feeders that are easy to make.

male blues puddling

Adult butterflies may also be attracted to patches of mud, particularly the males. This behavior is called puddling.

After you and your children have decided which plants will work for your area, decide where to plant them. If you have a large enough space, you might want to develop a formal design. If not, plant them where you can. Just take care that if the plant requires sun, that it is a place with adequate sun and vice versa with shade-loving plants.

If possible, include your children in the planning and planting of the garden. Giving them ownership of a project is great for children’s self-esteem and helps maintain their enthusiasm. If things don’t go as planned, celebrate the mistakes as learning opportunities.

painted ladywhite butterfly

Once the plants are in, the ideas for projects will begin to flow. Planting a butterfly garden with children is sure to take you into directions you never dreamed possible.

Here are some books about butterflies and caterpillars in a later post. There are also some books listed in the white-lined sphinx moth post.

Are you looking for activities that the whole family can take part in? Then consider growing a theme garden. Not only will your children learn about plants, they will also learn about soil, water, weather, decomposition (ecology), wildlife, and many other aspects of the natural world, while they sharpen their observation skills. They will benefit from the opportunity to play outside and get some healthy exercise, too. More and more people are planting gardens as part of the green movement. And, with any luck, you can all eat the results of your efforts.

Thinking that this is not the time of year to plant a garden? In many parts of the Northern Hemisphere your garden is probably growing full tilt by now, but our growing season starts in the fall. We can start to plan what we will plant in September, believe it or not. Also, you can still do a lot with containers no matter where you live, so don't give up on gardening just because it isn't still spring.

If you can't grow outside right now, how about picking a theme and researching a garden for next year? Theme gardens can inspire you to try new things and children love them. To get you inspired, here are some popular children's garden themes:

1. ABC garden: Can you find a flower or vegetable to represent every letter of the alphabet? Plan the garden in the shape of letters. Make letter signs out of craft sticks to mark each plant. Make letters out of recycled materials (junk) to decorate the garden. Don't forget to plant bulbs for spring color, too.

2. Rainbow gardens add color and can be planted in a rainbow shape. Try to find unusually colored vegetables, like yellow beets and blue potatoes. Or pick one color and find plants to make a single-colored patch. Do you have an artist in the family? Then you have to try a color wheel garden.

3. Animal gardens can go way beyond the traditional butterfly garden idea. Have your children pick an animal, from an antelope to a water buffalo, ant to zebra finch. Research what the animal eats and then grow some of those plants. Choosing local animals will ensure success because you can find local plants more easily, but creative substitutions can make an exotic animal garden fun too. Ever tried growing peanuts for an elephant garden?

4. Food themes are enjoyable for gardens. Try a salsa, soup, herb or pizza garden. Herbs are often easy to grow and add another dimension to the garden through odors and textures.

5. Pick a favorite story or book that talks about vegetables or other plants and then try growing some of them. The Bible is a traditional favorite, but many books lend themselves to be garden themes. If I get a chance I'll add some examples later on.

(Edit: Theme Gardening with Kids Book List here.)

6. Research your heritage and plant some of the plants from your ancestors' culture or cultures. Or pick a culture you have been studying. Growing and eating plants of a given culture makes the learning experience many times richer.

7. Use plants to make forts, huts, and other places to hide. Tall plants, such as hollyhocks and sunflowers are easy to grow under a variety of conditions. Building a structure and covering it with vines is another option.

We recently saw a number of great theme gardens at the National Arboretum. Some of them might not be as appropriate for small children, but older kids are likely to be interested in plants used for dyes, medicinal plants and plants that produce materials used in industry. Be sure to check out their virtual tour of "Power Plants" on the website. These are crop plants with potential as renewable fuel sources in the future.

When it comes to developing a theme garden, all you need to do is to use your imagination and have fun.