As we approach autumn I wanted to share some hints regarding how to winterize your garden with butterflies in mind. Warning, some of these suggestions will cause you to rethink some life-long traditions.
1. Leave the Leaves - As leaves fall in the autumn do not remove them from your garden beds. Gasp! Don't rake the leaves? Raking leaves out of the lawn is fine, but leave the leaves in the flower beds. Not only do they add compost to your garden soil, they also provide insulation for butterflies and moths that pupate in the soil, just under the leaf litter. Among these butterflies and moths are Azures and Hairstreaks (butterflies) and most Sphinx Moth species.
2. Cut Back Later - Many gardeners include cutting back perennials and ornamental grasses in their fall clean-up activities. By leaving perennials standing you are providing seeds for birds. Also, swallowtail butterflies normally pupate on the upright stems of your perennials Cutting back perennials in the fall will most likely cause the death of next spring's swallowtails.
Grass Skipper butterflies over-winter in the stems of grasses as caterpillars. If you cut back your grasses in the fall and toss them in the burn pile, you just burned up next year's grass skippers. Wait until spring when the grasses start to green up again. Which leads us to . . .
3. Wait Until Later to Mow - For much the same reasons as number two, do not mow fields until spring when green growth begins to show. Mowing fields in the fall will chop up the next season's butterflies. In the spring, swallowtail adults will emerge from their chrysalis once the weather begins to warm. Grass Skipper caterpillars will migrate to the base of the grass plants as they begin to green up. When you mow in the spring set your blade height high, at least six inches, and your mower blades will go over the top of the growing caterpillars and not chop-up anybody!
4. Blow Off Brush Pile Clean-Up - You know, that brush pile in the yard that your husband swore he would burn or chip up two months ago? Leave the brush pile over the winter. In Ohio we have a few butterfly species (ex. Eastern Comma) that overwinter as adults. They accomplish this by spending the winter deep in brush piles where they are protected from snow and cold winds. By leaving these piles you are saving the lives of countless butterflies! And finally . . .
5. Collect Seeds Now - Rather than assuming nature will handle seed prep for you, collect seed of desirable plants in the fall. Stratify those seeds in your refrigerator and by spring they will be ready for planting and you will not have fed every mouse in the township all winter! What seeds should you gather? Milkweed, Bergamot, Ironweed, Blazing Star, and Joe Pye Weed are excellent butterfly friendly native plants.
For more instructions how to stratify seed or good plant choices from which to harvest seed email Butterfly Ridge (firstname.lastname@example.org) or visit Butterfly Ridge on Facebook or the Ohio Native Plant Seed Xchange on Facebook.
After these five things are accomplished you can sit back next to the fire and enjoy the falling snow knowing everybody is cared for!