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In the spring, when birds and butterflies begin migrating back to Kentucky, thoughts turn to how to attract them to visit local yards. Other than putting out bird feeders, though, what are some of the best ways to attract birds to the yard? And how does one attract butterflies?
“I try to put out a lot of nectar plants for the hummingbirds,” said Shirley Thomas, such as zinnias and coneflower, in addition to seed-filled flowers for other birds. She fills at least three feeders twice a day during hummingbird season, and estimates 15-20 birds visit her yard. She also has houses for purple martins and bluebirds.
Sharon Lovejoy, author of Roots, Shoot, Buckets and Boots and Toad Cottages and Shooting Stars, has written many books and articles about interacting with nature and bringing the natural world a little closer to our own. Her most recent book is My First Bird Book, written for children. She is a proponent of inviting birds and butterflies into the garden as pollinators and pest prevention. Her primary suggestion for attracting any species is using native plants.
“I think what people need to do is think about planting native plants,” said Lovejoy. “Start with a base of handsome natives. You have some great ones in Kentucky.”
She suggests consulting the Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center out of the University of Austin in Texas, which has a database of native species for 49 states (www.wildflower.org/collections). It contains lists of native plants, and plants that are beneficial for various wildlife, such as honeybees, native bees and butterflies.
“I think it’s really much more fun to incorporate it throughout,” said Lovejoy, rather than having a separate garden just to attract birds or butterflies. “Even just having a couple of berry producing plants can attract them. I use a lot of herbs, too.”
She warns against using a single form of fauna in a garden, such as grass or a hedge of one type of tree, instead opting for different plants throughout the area. Giving attention to plants of all heights, from the ground cover to the hedges and trees will invite more species to visit.
“Diversity is what I’m talking about,” said Lovejoy. “Monoculture won’t attract birds and butterflies. A lot of different levels will provide habitat and attract different butterflies.”
The exception to this is when a gardener would like to attract a specific species. A large patch of a specific flower will “look like a welcome mat” for the species that is partial to it, such as milkweed for monarch butterflies.
Lovejoy also suggests growing plants that butterflies use as hosts for their eggs, such as dill, parsley and anise. This allows the gardener to “see the whole life cycle” which can become “living science lessons” for kids and adults alike.
“It’s not just about planting,” she said. Providing water is also important to attracting winged creatures. She has seven birdbaths in her garden, and has installed a mister. Small amounts of moving water can attract birds to the garden, and she finds lots of action in her water areas.
For butterflies, Lovejoy uses terra cotta saucers and fills them with sand, mud and salt. She makes sure to moisten them each day. “The butterflies will sip at the cocktail of minerals.”
She also places flat rocks in the sun to five butterflies basking areas.
“My whole garden is planted with an eye toward pollinators, like bumblebees and sphinx moths,” said Lovejoy. She discovered that a sphinx moth could pollinate 200 plants in seven minutes. She has 74 different fruit trees, over 100 herbs and many other fruits and vegetables in her city lot garden in California, so pollination is important to her.
The concern for gardeners is that the larva of the sphinx moth is the hornworm. Lovejoy is just as concerned about her tomatoes as any other gardener, so she has found a solution.
“I give hornworms one petunia and one tomato plant,” said Lovejoy. She covers those plants in netting to keep the hornworms inside and away from the rest of her garden. She does not want to keep away the sphinx moths though because they are beneficial. “That’s my “give” to Mother Nature.”
Lovejoy also suggests planting a diverse patch of sunflowers. There are many varieties and the birds love to visit them. “It’s fun.”
She is not concerned that some birds that she attracts may find a meal in a butterfly or caterpillar that she has invited into the garden too.
“It’s nature’s way for a mockingbird to go after a butterfly,” said Lovejoy. “They’re not going to wipe each other out.”