My Habitat Garden: Attracting Butterflies, Bees, Birds, and Other Forms of Life in Zone 9a

By Bill Berthet, Ixia Chapter

Garden pathway

In the year 2000, with the help of Ron Davis (Butterfly Gardens, Jacksonville) and plants from Edith and Stephen Smith (Shady Oak Butterfly Farm, Brooker) I started to transform my newly purchased property into a Northeast Florida pollinator habitat.

The many benefits of gardening include: stress-relief, moderate-intensity exercise, hand strength and dexterity (wearing gloves helps prevent fire ant bites) brain health, risk reduction for dementia, and depression and mental health.
Polydamas Swallowtail with chrysalis

For me, going through a nasty divorce, gardening was key in bringing more balance to my life. It’s exciting to raise butterflies in your yard. It gives one the opportunity to take witness and share the miracle of metamorphosis with others. Plus, you get a real sense of accomplishment when releasing adult butterflies, increasing their population and diversity in your area. The added bonus is their progeny will visit your garden in the future. Since 2003, with the right selection of host and nectar trees, plants, bushes, and vines, I have been rewarded with documenting 61 species of butterflies in my 0.31-acre property, with only 0.19 acres developed for habitat gardening.  The diversity of butterfly Families and Subfamilies include, 8 Swallowtails, 2 Whites, 7 Sulphurs, 6 Hairstreaks, 1 Blue, 3 Milkweed, 4 Longwing,6 True Brushfoots, 2 Admirals and their relatives, 1 Emperor, 2 Satyrs, and 19 Skippers.
Julia ovipositing on P. biflora tendril 

Creating a Habitat Garden to attract Butterflies requires research of what species fly in your area and, most importantly, what host plants these species use. Selecting the right host plants greatly increases the possibility to attract females to oviposit on these plants, then of course, the males will not be far behind!!!!! Put the same host plant in multiple locations in your yard to help increase the survival rate of eggs and caterpillars from predators. Identify the sunny to shady areas, and the dry to moist areas in your garden. My sweetheart and I enjoy watching wildlife from the inside comfort of our home from three outside viewing areas. I have focused on planting the most effective host and nectar plants, dovetailed with bird feeders, in these areas and am rewarded with constant entertainment from butterflies, birds, and other four legged critters. I recently painted and added a tile backsplash all around the kitchen, During the day I would see 7 or 8 species of butterflies nectaring inches away from the window.
Arbors and Decks

Architectural Features

  • 5 large wood arbors
  • 76 linear ft. of Trellis
  • 3 tiered 20 x 20 wooden decks
  • 1-15 x 10 and 1-18 x 30 wood decks on water
  • 2 heavy duty treated wood potting benches
  • 1-8 ½ x 12 ½ ft. Rion Greenhouse
  • 3 water features
  • 1 Bat house
  • 1 Mason Bee house
  • Rock gardens
  • 3 bird feeding stations
  • 1 Yankee Droll type feeder
  • 1 suet cage
  • Variety of Talavera Pottery
  • Irrigation for about 3/5 coverage of garden
  • 6 wrought iron vine stands.
The trellises are on the property line to provide privacy and cover for critters. They are covered with native vines, including Purple Passionflower, Passiflora incarnata, Woolly Dutchmen’s Pipe, Aristolochia tomentosa, Carolina Jessamine, Gelsemium sempervirens, Cross Vine, Bignonia capreolata, Coral Honeysuckle, Lonicera sempervirens, Scarletcreeper, Ipomoea hederifolia,  Muscadine, Vitis rotundifolia, and Virginia Creeper,  Parthenocissus quinquefolia, providing an assortment of berries for birds. The 5 arbors add height and visual appeal. They are also covered in vines.

I use ½ whiskey barrels for planters to grow grasses: Fakahatchee grass, Tripsacum dactyloides, Muhly grass, Muhlenbergia capillaris, and Lopsided Indian grass, Sorghastrum secundum. The Indian grass is reminiscent of the large stands of this beautiful grass swaying in the breeze in the wet and dry prairies in Bull Creek and Three Lakes Wildlife Management Areas in Osceola County, where I love photographing the rare Loammi and Arogos Skippers that uses this grass as a host plant.

Insect landing strip

To attract flying insects in my area I created a 60 x 10 ft. long “landing strip” in the sunny area of my front yard featuring a mix of the nectar sources that work in my garden.

Plants That Like Wet Feet 

We custom built a small running water feature that I used for years, however I got tired of the birds skewering the pond fish, so I turned this area into a small wetland habitat. I also used a pond liner to create a 10 x 15ft. rock lined pond in the backyard, and a small plastic tub filled with sand and dirt to create another wetland habitat.
 Spicebush Swallowtail Cardinal Flower  

The wetland habitat, running along the creek, allows me to grow Lizard’s Tail, Saururus cernuus, Elliot’s aster, Symphyotrichum elliottii, and Spotted Water Hemlock, Cicuta maculate. The first week in June, I always look forward to Eastern Black Swallowtails ovipositing on the flower heads of the Water Hemlock.

I also planted Bandanna-Of-The Everglades, Canna flaccida, host plant for Brazilian Skipper, Coastal Sweetpepperbush, Clethra alnifolia, Southeastern tickseed, Coreopsis gladiate, Cinnamon fern, Osmunda cinnamomea, American elderberry, Sambucus nigra subsp. canadensis, Maiden fern, Thelypteris spp., Red Maple, Acer rubrum, and Beaksedge, Rhynchospora spp.

Excellent nectar plants that like wet feet include Cardinal Flower, Lobelia cardinalis, Common Buttonbush, Cephalanthus occidentalis, TiTi, Cyrilla racemiflora, and Pickerelweed Pontederia cordata, a skipper favorite.

Creating a 5 to 15 ft. High Habitat using small trees and large bushes

High Habitat

High habitat is important for shelter, perching areas, host plants for butterflies, feeding stations for lizards, and berries for birds. The central areas of my backyard are planted with American Beautyberry, Callicarpa americana, Wild Lime, Zanthoxylum fagara, Southern Bayberry, Myrica cerifera, Black Cherry, Prunus serotine, Smallflower PawPaw, Asimina parviflora, Red Bay, Persea borbonia, Walter’s Viburnum, Viburnum obavatum,   Southern Arrowwood, Viburnum dentatum asheii, Yaupon Holly, Ilex vomitoria, Simpson’s Stopper, Myrcianthes fragrans, Holly, Ilex spp., Wild Olive, Osmanthus americanus, Oakleaf Hydrangea, Hydrangea quercifolia, Swamp Doghobble, Eubotrys racemosa, Saw Palmetto, Serenoa repens,  Chickasaw Plum, Prunus angustifolia, Parsley Hawthorn, Crataegus marshallii, and Gallberry , Ilex glabra. Over the years some pruning will be necessary for height control.

The understory for this habitat includes:  Muscadine, Vitusrotundifolia, Marlberry, Ardisia escallonioides,Sand Blackberry, Rubus cuneifolis, Switchcane, Arundinaria gigantea, attracting the Southern Pearly-eye butterfly, Painted Leaf, Poinsettia cyathophora, Coral Bean, Erythrina herbacea, Twinflower, Dyschoriste oblongifolia, Northern Spicebush, Lindera benzoin, and Pinxter Azalea, Rhododendron canescens.


Oak Snag

Several years ago a large part of a rotting oak tree came tumbling down leaving a hollowed out ten-foot-high tree trunk, creating a focal point in the backyard. I left the trunk undisturbed and have been rewarded with a shelter for four legged critters and other forms of life. Vines use the snag for support, while birds peck away at it for insects, including Pileated Woodpeckers. My neighbor and I also decided to leave a 25 ft. tall, multi-branched, decaying trunk of a large Pignut Hickory Tree, Carya glabra in the landscape, which hosts insects and birds. Barred Owls and Ibis use it as a perch.

Host Trees, Plants, Bushes, and Vines in my Yard

Live Oak and other Oaks, Quercus spp., Carolina Willow, Salix caroliniana, Red Bay, Persea borbonia, Hackberry, Celtis laevigata, Northern Spicebush ,Lindera benzoin, Southern Bayberry, Myrica cerifera, Beggerticks, Bidens alba, Fogfruit, Phyla nodiflora, Partridge Pea, Chamaecrista fasciculata, False Nettle ,Boehmeria cylindrica, Florida Pellitory, Parietaria floridana, False Indigo, Amorpha fruiticosa, and  Groundnut, Apios Americana.

Nectar Trees, Plants, Bushes, and Vines in My Yard

Zebra Longwings Roosting
Snow Squarestem, Melanthera nivea, is by far the best nectar plant in the yard! Other excellent nectar plants that I grow are: Beggarticks, Bidens alba, Butterflyweed, Asclepias tuberosa, Giant Ironweed, Vernonia gigantea, Firebush, Hamelia patens, Fogfruit, Phyla nodiflora, Blue Porterweed, Stachytarpheta jamaicensis, (I have to dig it up and put into greenhouse to survive winter months) Scarlet Rose Mallow, Hibiscus coccineus.

Nectar Plants for Ruby-throated Hummingbirds in My Garden

Firebush, Hamelia patens, Coral Honeysuckle, Lonicera sempervirens, Cardinal Flower, Lobelia cardinalis.

Memorial Gardens

I have created two small memorial garden areas to remind me of those persons who were mentors in my life. One contains the original plant given to me by this person in 200, and the other a plant that this person really liked.

Rion Greenhouse

The Fine Points

  • I like the surface of my potting benches to be 35 or 36 inches high, which allows for a more comfortable posture when working.
  • When pruning, leave several dead stalks 3 to 6 feet high for dragonflies to perch on.
  • Use a lawnmower to mulch tree leaves.
  • Include windbreaks in your design, such as fences, dense shrub planting, buildings.
  • Weediness encourages butterflies and is a lot easier on arthritic hands than a manicured bed.
  • Take photos and start a list of butterflies, bees, birds, and other life forms.
  • For the suet cage: Hot Pepper No-Melt Suet by Wild Birds Unlimited is a real winner!
  • Take the time to research a plant before you dig it up, you may have a plant that belongs right where it is.
  • The returns on investing in a quality Rion Greenhouse far out way the initial expense. It allowed me to develop the skill of rooting plants from cuttings and growing from seed; enabled me to transfer cold sensitive plants during cold weather; and provides additional storage.

The Verdict

Around 6 years ago the City of Jacksonville gave me a Chapter 518 Code Violation, excessive growth of weeds, grass, or noxious vegetation. My home is zoned residential. I appeared in court to explain to the Magistrate why my yard looked this way and the benefits it provides to a wildlife, and I have not been bothered by the City since.

Note: The vast majority of Trees, Bushes, Plants, and Vines in my yard are native, however for color, growing a species I liked while traveling in another country, and adding the range of nectar and host sources to increase numbers and diversity for critters in the yard I also have some species that are Exotic and Naturalized.


reedroad said…
Inspiring! I hope the FNPS will have the Annual Conference near you. So you can be on the trip list.
Thank YOU for this garden.
Audrey Reed
Howey in the Hills (9b)
Frank Thomas said…
Thank you for sharing! Exactly what we need more of, a natural environment and not another unimaginative, high maintenance toxic "landscaped" yard.

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