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Take a guess: What the largest acreage crop in the U.S.? Corn? Soybeans? Wheat? Nope. It’s lawns! Landowners spend millions of dollars each year, grooming their yards with chemicals for weed-free, velvety lawns. These same green carpets are death knells for butterflies and other pollinators due to the chemicals used and the dearth of plants from which to gather nectar and lay eggs.

Imagine living in a world without flowers, fruit, nuts, coffee or chocolate. More than one of every three bites of food we eat or beverages we drink and the flowering plants we feast our eyes on are directly due to pollinators. But worldwide, there is an alarming decline in pollinator populations. Excessive use of pesticides and an ever-expanding conversion of landscapes to human use are the biggest culprits.

You can help make a difference by converting part of your lawn to a pollinator paradise.

Some tips for beginning a butterfly garden:

  • If you are not an experienced gardener, start with a small plot. You can always expand.
  • Smother the grass or weeds with weighted-down black plastic or layers of wet newspapers or cardboard.
  • Create a border with mulch, rocks, timbers, etc. to make your butterfly plot look intentional. Turf grass is aggressive and will quickly invade and overwhelm your native plantings and increase your maintenance chores.
  • Using seeds is much more economical than plants; however, plants grown from seeds will sometimes take 1-2 years (or sometimes longer) to bloom. Most native plants need to overwinter in the ground to break dormancy (or in damp sand in the refrigerator for 1-3 months). The Prairie Moon Nursery website is a great online resource for site preparation and planting techniques.
  • Plant caterpillar host plants as well. Without food for the caterpillars, there will be no beautiful adults!
  • Most of the flowers and grasses do best with at least 6 hours of direct sun per day.

At the Master Gardeners Plant Sale Saturday morning, May 11, (That’s TOMORROW!) at Lytle Park, you can find butterfly-friendly native plants (among many other selections). Douglas-Hart Nature Center will also be a vendor there. Coles County Soil and Conservation District, and Grand Prairie Friends in Champaign sell native plants.

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Restriction on article space limits the following list to a few of the good butterfly plant attractors: Even though not native, zinnia ‘Lilliput’ brings in many butterflies. Native plant suggestions include butterfly milkweed, blazing star, golden Alexander, purple coneflower, sky blue aster, New England aster, rue, spicebush, little bluestem, prairie drop-seed. There are many websites that list butterfly attractors.

A caveat: Plants from large nurseries often have been treated with systemic insecticides that may harm the very creatures you are trying to protect!

Websites: www.urbanbutterflies.org; FB@UrbanButterflyInitiative.USA; ubutterflyinitiative @gmail.com. To obtain access to a free download of a Butterfly e-Guide, for either phone, tablet or computer format, go to www.urbanbutterflies.org/butterfly-guide .

Many thanks to Paul Switzer, founder and director of the Urban Butterfly Initiative, for his information contained in this article.

If you have other questions about your garden or landscape, feel free to contact a master gardener at the University of Illinois Extension office in Charleston at 217-345-7034. You can also check out the many horticulture webpages at the U of I Extension’s website by visiting http://web.extension.illinois.edu/ccdms/ . And be sure to like the Master Gardeners’ new Facebook page, atwww.facebook.com/ColesCountyMasterGardeners.

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