Less Lawn, More Butterflies

[Guest post by Evelyn Hadden, author of Beautiful No-Mow Yards: 50 Amazing Lawn Alternatives]

Create butterfly habitat by replacing the lawn under your trees with a thick, easy-care carpet of native violets (Viola spp.) and letting the fallen leaves remain.  Fritillaries lay their eggs in the undisturbed leaf litter, and when spring arrives, the larvae feed on the violets.

Create butterfly habitat by replacing the lawn under your trees with a thick, easy-care carpet of native violets (Viola spp.) and letting the fallen leaves remain. Fritillaries lay their eggs in the undisturbed leaf litter, and when spring arrives, the larvae feed on the violets.

Shrinking your lawn may be the best way to invite butterflies into your yard. Here are three strategies to convert picture-perfect turf, which provides no habitat for butterflies, into a butterfly-friendly landscape offering opportunities for your family and friends to interact with these winged wonders.

Enclosed Garden Rooms

Convert a too-large lawn into a new garden room by creating a wide planting bed around an appropriately sized lawn. This decreases your mowing but keeps some lawn for use as the floor of your garden room. You can make walls of any height you desire; choose plants that will contribute to your comfort and sensory pleasure while bringing in the butterflies.

Install a mowing edge around the remaining lawn to save yourself a second pass with the trimmer. Sink pavers or bricks to ground level so the mower wheel can roll along them. This tidy edge will balance the wildness of your border even as it keeps lawngrasses from creeping in among your border plants and reduces your need to weed.

Include shrubs and trees in your planting bed, as well as nectar-filled perennials that bloom in all seasons. Shrubs in particular give gardeners a big dose of color with their flowers and/or fall foliage, and they attract butterflies at eye-level, giving you more opportunities to spot and observe your fluttery visitors. They also protect from wind without impeding sun, creating more attractive places for delicate creatures to linger.

For the best habitat, give preference to your regional native plants. Browse a field guide or get in touch with your local native plant society.

Islands In The Sea

Create one or more habitat islands within a sea of lawn. If a tree is currently growing in your lawn, conditions are probably not ideal for either of them. Improve your tree’s health by replacing the lackluster turf under its canopy with understory trees, shrubs, and perennials. This mixed planting will prevent compacted soil, erosion, and desiccation in the tree’s root zone.

For an additional nutritional boost, let fallen leaves lie (and rake them into the island from the adjacent lawn). Not only do they provide places for butterfly larvae to overwinter, but they also attract worms and other soil organisms. The improved soil life will build soil structure and generate more food for the tree. Site your islands strategically to reduce your raking. Revel in using nature’s compost to improve your garden rather than treating it as waste to be bagged and discarded.

Choose plants that will support butterflies and that grow naturally with your particular tree. These native understory plants will be well adapted to your site. If your tree is not native, all the more reason to undertake a little research to ensure that you plant a regionally native understory community.

If you have more than one lawn tree, avoid creating an obstacle course for your mower by incorporating several lawn trees into a larger habitat island or grove. Due to its size, a grove can make a powerful garden feature, of a scale to balance or set off your home.

You can have the best of both worlds — lawn paths for barefoot walking and maximum habitat planting space — if you leave only a wide lawn path swirling around your habitat islands. This will transform a barren sea of lawn into a lively stroll garden for exploring and watching butterflies.

Make a mowing edge around each island to keep maintenance low and to minimize the noise, fumes, and other intrusive qualities of power tools. In the same spirit, note that rakes are much more butterfly-friendly than leaf blowers, which produce heat and force that can destroy larvae and eggs.

Smarter Lawns

Finally, make your remaining lawn safe for butterflies. Stop using pesticides, which harm butterflies as well as other pollinators and soil life. Instead of aiming for a lawn that contains only grass blades, allow nitrogen-fixing clover and other small walkable and mowable plants to coexist with your grass. Violets and pussytoes are butterfly larval foods, and many other common lawn plants produce nectar for pollinators.

Smarter lawns reward people too. A diverse lawn can adapt to changing conditions of site and climate; it may remain green during more of the year when lawngrasses alone may become dormant and brown. As a bonus, children (and playful adults) can enjoy hunting for four-leaf clovers, listening to crickets, and chewing sweet, juicy blades of grass while roaming through your butterfly-friendly landscape.

A national speaker and award-winning author of three garden books, Evelyn Hadden shares strategies to help people create and maintain comfortable, functional, nature-friendly landscapes with less or no lawn. Her most recent book, Beautiful No-Mow Yards: 50 Amazing Lawn Alternatives, has been a Timber Press bestseller since it was published in early 2012. Evelyn founded the informational website LessLawn and is a founding member of the national Lawn Reform Coalition. Her next book, on gardening in hellstrips and other curbside locations, will be published by Timber Press in summer 2014.

Editor’s note: For interviews and reviews of Evelyn Haddens Beautiful No-Mow Yards:

*Published with the permission of the editors of Butterfly Gardener, a magazine of the North American Butterfly Association (NABA). This membership-based not-for-profit organization works to increase public enjoyment and conservation of butterflies.



© 2013, Guest Author. All rights reserved. This article is the property of Native Plants and Wildlife Gardens. We have received many requests to reprint our work. Our policy is that you are free to use a short excerpt which must give proper credit to the author, and must include a link back to the original post on our site. Please use the contact form above if you have any questions.

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  1. says

    Thanks for these simple and powerful ideas, Evelyn! In my part of the world (the high-desert country of the Southern Rocky Mountains), another powerful reason to have less lawn is saving water. Some 60 percent of residential water use in the inland West goes to maintaining landscaping, largely turfgrass lawns. With more people than our natural water sources can supply, and dwindling rivers and streams, teaching people alternatives to lawn is critical to our survival in arid lands. And alternatives that reweave the community of nature by supplying much needed habitat for butterflies and other pollinators are even better!
    Susan J. Tweit recently posted..Habitat Heroes: making a positive change in the garden

    • says

      So true, Susan. Water is at the forefront of many minds as we start into another summer with restrictions already in place in many parts of the country. The good news is the astonishing beauty of so many native western plants, particularly those bright flowers that can attract hummingbirds, butterflies, and other fascinating visitors with little or no supplemental water.

      I really enjoyed your recent post; how interesting (and empowering, for urban gardeners in particular) that an 8-foot by 10-foot patch of plants can make such a difference to pollinators. Thank you for the great info!

    • says

      My pleasure, Carole. As you know, we share a goal of helping to inspire more gardens that foster a dazzling diversity of creatures. Thank you for all that you do!

  2. brenda clements jones says

    Thank you Evelyn Hadden, for your wonderful article. If only we could get people to take this approach. Why, oh why do we need grass cut to 3 inches, like wall to wall carpeting, everywhere throughout our neighborhoods.

    • says

      Brenda, I wonder that all the time. I see it changing though, as people learn about the many benefits of converting lawns to landscapes that support more life. Not just benefits for plants and animals, but for us too! Thanks for your kind words.

  3. Linda says

    I have not had a lawn in fifteen years. I did it to stop mowing. What I didn’t know was that native plants would attract so much insect and bird action–and of course, wonderful butterflies. I just want to emphasize that butterflies and moths don’t just need nectar and flowers–the larva stage needs to eat something, so look up your favourite local butterfly and find out what the caterpillar eats and grow it. Lots of it. It’s amazing to see something so ditsy as a butterfly hone in on the caterpillar needs in order to lay eggs. Three kinds of milkweed and that silly monarch always goes from one to the other, to the other, showing that it is actually a working cog in a very nice system.

    • says

      Linda, I have to laugh reading your comment, imagining that momma butterfly dithering: now, which of these plants should I pick? That’s exactly how it looks as she’s swooping here and there to make her choice (though likely she is doing it to confuse any watching predators). Thanks for contributing your yard as wildlife habitat — every little piece counts!

    • says

      Heather, thanks! I also like naming those spaces too, for exactly that reason, to make it clearer mentally what mood/style they evoke and what purpose they serve. To me, it’s easier to grasp the larger structure of a designed landscape if it includes named outdoor rooms.

  4. says

    I never know quite how to respond to the people who say they must have lawn for the kids to play on. My garden always seems to attract more kids than the blank green slates surrounding it. They certainly seem to enjoy a quick detour from the sidewalk through the narrow mulch pathway that winds through my native plant jungle…especially when they flush out a rabbit in the process. Even just walking by, most reach out to touch a leave or pause to watch the birds and butterflies. Cartwheels can be left to the park.

  5. says

    Hear, hear, Deborah! Children (and playful adults) are explorers, and they delight in experiencing places with their whole bodies and interacting with the plants and animals. Natural landscapes are essential for kids’ healthy development–physical, mental, and emotional. I’ll bet your landscape will be a source of vivid memories for those kids throughout their lives.

  6. says

    Evelyn, Thanks for sharing tips that any gardener can tweak to fit into their own garden. I especially like the idea of creating a garden room. I’m not sure why beds are viewed as only useful on the edges of lawns, rather than smack dab inside of them.
    Debbie Roberts recently posted..Wordless Wednesday ~ Tapestry

  7. says

    Yes, Debbie, it is so easy to imagine beds as islands, or as large spaces with paths flowing through them. I think part of it starts with the assumption that we have a lawn and are going to carve out beds from it. Many more ideas come when you start with the assumption that you will carve out paths and “rooms” and the rest is a living community. Thanks for being part of the conversation.


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