Jane Hurwitz on Butterfly Gardening

Butterflies are regarded by many as canaries in our ecological coal mine: they provide visual signals indicating the relative health and diversity of a habitat. Improving our local fragmented and degraded habitats in order to promote butterflies may seem like an onerous task, but in Butterfly Gardening: The North American Butterfly Association Guide, Jane Hurwitz presents simple steps to create more vibrant and dynamic environments that encourage wild butterflies to flourish—and provide gardeners of all levels with inspiration and pleasure.

Why did you write this book?

I am a life-long gardener who has had the good fortune to work for an organization that actively promotes gardening for butterflies. During the years I directed the North American Butterfly Association’s Butterfly Garden and Habitat Program,  I was exposed to a wealth of information on butterfly gardening that changed the way I view all aspects of gardening. A large part of my work with the program involved daily communication with people of all skill levels concerning their NABA certified gardens. In fact, the second half of the book revolves around specific butterfly gardeners living in different regions of the United States; there is so much to be learned from other gardeners regardless of their location or garden size.

Writing this book allowed me to explore the connection between how we take care of our landscapes, whether our private gardens or public spaces, and how those choices impact butterflies. Very little is static in a garden, a fact that is accentuated when butterflies—or any insects, for that matter—become part of the garden’s focus. Butterfly gardening is a gardening method that allows the interplay between the natural world and human-made habitats to expand in ways that allow wildlife to flourish. Learning the interconnections between plants and butterflies is fascinating and works as a catalyst to deepen our connection to our natural surroundings. The creation of habitats for butterflies is an ongoing process, not a fixed point that will ever be perfectly attained; as such, butterfly gardening provides an open ended opportunity for constant experimentation and learning.

Who is this book for?

Anyone with an interest in butterflies and gardening—even if they’re only mildly curious! Gardening books are often quite prescriptive, providing chapter after chapter on how to grow specific plants or how to achieve a particular garden style. Butterfly Gardening takes a more flexible approach, imparting basic information on butterfly and plant biology, butterfly watching, and plant selection in an accessible way that allows the reader to make their own informed choices on how best to create a habitat for butterflies within the constraints of their location and budget. Whether one’s focus is on creating habitat for monarchs, installing a school garden, or simply making a suburban yard more butterfly-friendly, once equipped with the essential information it is easy to implement changes that will lure these beautiful and fascinating creatures into our lives.

What are some of the first steps in creating a great butterfly garden?

Eliminating the use of pesticides, particularly those in the class of insecticides known as neonicotinoids, is the first item on any butterfly gardening checklist. Of course, there may need to be exceptions; if my home has termites, for example, I am probably going to need to use pesticides, but as a general rule they are best avoided. In fact, taking pesticides out of our garden toolkits is one of the very few things we must do in order to provide a habitat for butterflies.

Identifying the butterflies that are common to your locale and learning their names would be a second step to consider. There are many ways to accomplish this; some people start with a butterfly guide book and work from their own observations, while others find information through local sources such as nature centers, NABA chapters, or the Extension Service.

Learning the names of butterflies will enable you to communicate better with other butterfly gardeners and will also inform you about which caterpillar food plants to install. Many butterfly gardeners, however, skip this step, at least in the early stages. For many, butterfly gardening begins with the plants (and there are so many good ones!); rather than identify possible butterfly visitors to their garden and plan specifically for that group, they jump right into planting nectar sources, and see what comes to visit. As I emphasize throughout the book, there are no rules about how to start or organize a butterfly garden, but most gardeners do eventually become interested in naming their butterfly visitors and learning about their life cycles.

What would you say is the benefit of butterfly gardening?

A garden represents different things to different people. By using the methods detailed in Butterfly Gardening, a layer of ecological relevance can be added to a pleasurable and revitalizing activity. We can make our gardens a refuge for butterflies as well as ourselves.


Jane Hurwitz  is the editor of Butterfly Gardener magazine and the former director of the Butterfly Garden and Habitat Program for the North American Butterfly Association. She lives in northern New Jersey.

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