Touch a Butterfly: Wildlife Gardening with Kids

I have talked about gardening for wildlife in the past, especially the idea of gardening for insects other than butterflies. With that in mind, let’s take a look at a recently published book about wildlife gardening with children, Touch a Butterfly: Wildlife Gardening with Kids–Simple Ways to Attract Birds, Butterflies, Toads, and More to Your Garden by April Pulley Sayre.


Who is the author?

April Pulley Sayre is an award-winning author of nonfiction books for a range of ages, but she specializes in natural history for children. She says she has been growing a wildlife garden for over 20 years and that through her husband’s work, ended up with over 300 species of native plants in her 1.5 acre yard. Now that sounds like fun!

Summary of the book:

Part one discusses looking at the potential of your space, and advises how and why to make observations about nature to determine what might needed to improve it. She suggests recording your observations via a nature journal, photographs and sound recordings. I might add keeping a blog or Flickr stream to share your experiences.

Part two involves planning your garden, preparing your soil, and planting and maintaining your plants. Realistically, Sayre includes a section on how to keep you neighbors happy, too. This is important. Every year our family receives our annual notice from the homeowners’ association to remove the “weeds” from our yard. Once we explain the weeds are actually wildflowers, we are let off the hook. Well, that is, until the next year when we have to call and write again.

Part three discusses some of the wildlife to expect, particularly insects and toads. The insects she briefly highlights are butterflies, dragonflies, and bees. Part four concentrates on attracting birds and their various needs. Finally, part five discusses some of the human aspects, such as reaching out to your community and getting your wildlife garden certified. She also briefly discusses some things that may happen that will cause you to leave or lose your wildlife garden, preparing readers for the realities of life.


Given the title, I was hoping for more information about butterfly/insect gardening, which was limited to four short pages and didn’t give many specific details. I understand one handicap about writing this kind of book is that it is impossible to list native plants to use because those will vary so much from place to place and also depend on what wildlife occur in the immediate area. However, some generalizations are possible, such as monarch butterflies use plants of the milkweed family as hosts. To compensate for being general, Sayre lists an extensive number of resources in the back, many of which will have more specific advice.

Touch a Butterfly is a good introduction to wildlife gardening, especially for people who know little about it. The book’s real strength is that Sayre opens the door to the natural world through many excellent suggestions for making careful observations of wildlife all around us. Hopefully you will be inspired to share these insights with children.

Paperback: 224 pages
Publisher: Roost Books (April 23, 2013)
Language: English
ISBN-10: 1590309170
ISBN-13: 978-1590309179

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Gardening For Ants? Yes, You Can!

This is an idea that is probably well ahead of its time, but after writing about how you can plant a garden to encourage bees last week, I decided to figure out if you can plant a garden to encourage ants. I think the answer is, “Yes!” and if you are interested in ants, you’ve probably already been doing some of these things.

What do you need to provide to encourage ants in the garden? The same things you would provide for butterflies or bees:  food, water and shelter.

1. Plants with extrafloral nectaries provide food and water for ants

Bees collect pollen and nectar from flowers, which is why they are great pollinators. Ants also have relationships with plants, but it often much more subtle. Many plants have nectaries, which are glands that produce sweet fluid fluids, outside of those that reside in the flowers. These nectaries, called extrafloral nectaries or EFN’s, are often used almost exclusively by ants. They supply both water and nutrients.

You are probably already familiar with one well-known example of extrafloral nectaries in the popular landscape plant, the peony. Ever see ants crawling all over peony buds right before the blossom opens?

Peonies have very small extrafloral nectaries along the outside edges of the flat, leaf-like scales of the flower buds. The nectaries provide a mixture of sugars, water and amino acids that attracts hordes of ants. In exchange the ants chase off or eat herbivores that might attack the bud. They also protect the peony “fruit.”

Sunflowers are another example. They have big showy flowers that attract bees.

If you look on the stems, however, you are likely to find ants. The ants are visiting extrafloral nectaries for food. (see another post about ants on sunflowers)

Over 70 different families, from buttercups to violets have extrafloral nectaries. The nectaries may be dripping nectar during definite seasons of the plants’ life cycle, for example for a week or so while the plant is blossoming, or may be available year round.

Here in the Southwest, many cacti have extrafloral nectaries.

It is thought that ants provide various services in exchange for the free meal. (For more information, try these posts about other plants with nectaries:   red bird of paradise, vetch, spurges)

2. Providing food- aphids or scale insects

Now you’ll think I’ve gone over the deep end, but if you are serious about gardening for ants you might want to provide some plants that are hosts to aphids or scale insects.

Leaving a few weeds that are prone to aphids doesn’t necessarily mean your garden will be infested, because some aphids are specific to only one or a few plants. An example is the thistle aphid, Brachycaudus cardui.

Ants definitely benefit from the honeydew the aphids secrete, as do a number of other insects and even birds. You may also benefit, because it is easy to spend hours studying the complex relationships involved.

3. Providing shelter for ants

Can you provide shelter for ants? It might be more simple than you realize. You just need to have a few of these:

Well, maybe not so artistically arranged.

A few flat rocks strewn about your garden are likely to provide a valuable resource for ants. In the cooler parts of the year, ants use rocks that are warmed by the sun as incubators for the larvae. In fact, these particular rocks have a colony of rover ants under them doing just that this week.

4. Get to know your local ants

One of the best ways to develop an ant-friendly garden is to find out what species are found in your area and what their requirements are. Find out which species are keystone species important to your local ecology and which are introduced pests that should be discouraged. You are likely to be a pioneer, so keep records and share what you find out.

Looking back, it seems like gardening for ants could be a real possibility. In fact, if you know of a publisher who might be interested, I would be willing to write up a guide. I can guarantee it would be one of a kind 🙂

Now, you may ask, “Why on earth would you want to encourage ants?”  More about that next…