Want to bring more butterflies to your garden? This ISU resource offers tips for creating a pollinator-friendly garden

Iowa State University Extension
Swallowtail butterfly on a flower.

AMES, Iowa – The beauty and diversity of pollinators can be enjoyed within the home garden or landscape, if some basic steps are taken to assure their habitat.

In a recent publication called “Gardening for Butterflies and Pollinators,” horticulture specialists with Iowa State University Extension and Outreach explain the life and role of common pollinators, and actions Iowans can take to increase their numbers.

Pollinators are animals that help plants reproduce (produce fruits and seeds) by carrying pollen from one flower to another. Specifically, pollinators carry pollen from the male flower parts to the female flower parts, enticed by the nutrients they derive from the nectar and pollen.

“Growing plants for insects is an amazing way to enjoy nature in your own back yard,” said Laura Jesse Iles, director and extension plant pathologist with the Plant and Insect Diagnostic Clinic at Iowa State. “I love just sitting and watching the parade of bees, flies, butterflies and more visiting my flowering plants.”

Common insect pollinators in Iowa include honey bees, bumble bees, solitary bees, beetles, butterflies, flies, ants and wasps. Bats, birds and other animals that visit plants can also be pollinators.

The publication lists common nectar-providing plants for the Iowa garden, including trees and shrubs. A list of caterpillar host plants is also provided.

“When we think about plants to support pollinators we often think about annuals and perennials, but they are just some of the many plants, including trees and shrubs, that can be grown in a pollinator friendly space,” said Aaron Steil, consumer horticulture specialist with ISU Extension and Outreach.

The authors also explain the importance of plant location (full-sun is better), moisture, shelter and protection. For the best pollinator garden, avoid pesticides and be cautious with herbicides.

Once a site is selected, growers should remove existing plant debris or vegetation, such as sod and weeds. Follow good gardening practices, including plant spacing, planting depth, irrigation (especially when plants are young and getting started), and use mulch for weed control and moisture conservation.

It may take several years for butterfly and pollinator habitat to establish and flower, but the results can add another layer of beauty to your property, while helping plants and crops that depend on pollination.

For more information, contact Laura Jesse Iles at 515-294-0581 or ljesse@iastate.edu.