Expert advice on planning a butterfly garden

Rather than pouting over your lawn’s tan winter hues and those droopy clumps of ice-fatigued pansies that have replaced your once-flourishing fall blooms, spend some time during spring break (or a few sunny weekends) prepping your flower beds for a future of vibrant color and new life.

Now is the time to lay the groundwork that will attract birds and butterflies and give your outdoor oasis an appealing dose of the flutters.

Fortunately, the folks at the Fort Worth Botanic Garden know just about everything there is to know about butterflies, and they specialize in teaching amateur gardeners how to design garden spaces that feed and protect them. On March 1, the Botanic Garden launches “Butterflies in the Garden,” a popular five-week exhibit of live, exotic butterflies — reportedly North Texas’ largest.

During this springtime spectacle, staff will release about 12,000 butterflies of varying hues and sizes in the conservatory, allowing visitors to walk amid them as they feed and flutter about the garden’s lush foliage and tropical flowers.

Besides learning oodles about 2014’s featured butterflies of Asia (like the striking paper kite, great Mormon and blue morpho), you can observe native Texas butterflies as they emerge from their chrysalises in the “Pupae Palace.” After that, it will just be a matter of taking your inspiration home to that dry, winterized garden and customizing your own “butterfly plan.”

Steve Huddleston, senior horticulturist at the Fort Worth Botanic Garden, says the secret to luring butterflies to your grounds lies with your choice of spring plantings. Specifically, you’ll need a clever collection of host plants to feed the larvae, plus nectar plants to attract fluttering fly-bys from “these winged jewels.”

A sunny site

Huddleston says sun and protection from the wind are key to picking the right zone in your back yard for a butterfly garden.

“Because butterflies are cold-blooded, their wings act as heat collectors to warm their bodies,” Huddleston says. “A sunny site will provide plenty of warmth to keep the butterflies active.”

He lists several easy garden-planning tips to help novice butterfly gardeners set up shop. Key ingredients include:

• Locating the butterfly garden in a sunny area.

• Placing some light-colored, smooth, flat rocks in the zone. These collect heat and offer the butterflies a place to bask in the sun.

• Offering protection from prevailing winds.

• Situating the butterfly garden next to a building or in a fenced-in area where winds are calmer and where the butterflies can more easily linger.

• Including a source of water in your design. A spot with moist sand offers the butterflies a place to lap up water and absorb nutrients from the sand.

• Filling a shallow dish or saucer with water and putting a few rocks in the center where the butterflies can perch above the water line.

• Avoiding birdbaths. They invite birds to dine on the butterflies.

Caterpillar alert

Before you can enjoy the fanciful beauty of butterflies, you have to endure the “pesty” leaf-chewing activities of caterpillars — the larval form of butterflies, and hungry little critters.

The plants they feed on are called host plants because these plants “host” the caterpillars during their feeding frenzy. Explaining that it’s important to put in enough host plants to support the caterpillar population without sacrificing other plants in your garden, Huddleston adds that host plants are not necessarily attractive garden plants and, thus, should be planted toward the back of the border or on the edge of your yard.

His list of top host plants includes: Mexican milkweed, fennel, parsley, passion flower, pipe vine, dill and rue. These plants attract such butterflies as the black swallowtail, the gulf fritillary, the pipevine swallowtail, monarchs and queens.

Nectar plants

Huddleston, who is also co-author of Easy Gardens for North Central Texas (Color Garden, $34.95), says there’s something for everyone when it comes to finding plants that appeal to your human senses and those that attract butterflies. Nectar plants are flowering plants that supply nectar to the adult butterflies, and Huddleston says the best ones provide landing pads for butterflies in the form of large, flat petals or flat clusters of flowers, plus purple, lavender or pink flowers. He suggests planting these flowers in drifts or masses to create visual impact and plenty of feeding opportunities for butterflies.

Besides planting some natural nectar sources, Huddleston suggests putting out dishes of overripe bananas, melons or peaches as a sugary supplement to natural nectar.

Here’s Huddleston’s list of top butterfly garden plants:

• butterfly weed

• purple coneflower

• black-eyed Susan

• butterfly bush

• glossy abelia

• buttonbush

• cosmos

• lantana

• verbena

• zinnia

• penta

• pincushion flower

• Mexican sunflower

• aster

• hollyhock

• purple coneflower

•  salvia (any species)

• summer phlox

• Gregg’s mistflower