How to Start a Butterfly Garden

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On a sunny midsummer afternoon, you walk past a yard that is positively bursting with colorful plants. Coneflowers and black-eyed susans, monarda and milkweed, zinnias, and verbena are all blooming in a riotous display.  Flying in and around the flowers, you spy bees and hummingbirds and butterflies.  A sign on the fence says “Certified Monarch Waystation.”

Yes!  You want to build a garden like this!  But how to start?  What plants are needed and how do you attract these beautiful large-winged insects?

First, you need to learn a little a bit about butterflies, their life cycles, and what they need at each stage.  Then, you will need to create a space that welcomes them in and keeps them around.

Life Cycle

Adult females lay eggs on the plants that the larva (caterpillars) will eat when they hatch.  These plants are called host plants. When the eggs hatch, the caterpillars feed on the leaves of the host plants. Caterpillars are very particular about what they eat, and each species will only eat certain types of host plant leaves

Once the caterpillars are full-grown and ready to pupate, they make a chrysalis and begin their metamorphosis.  Some species pupate on tree branches or in leaf litter, while others pupate underground.  Depending on the species, it can remain a pupa for weeks or months, so don’t be quick to tidy up the garden.

When the adults emerge, the life cycle starts again, with the adults sipping nectar from flowers, looking for mates, and the females seeking the plants that will feed their young.  These host plants are where she lays her eggs.  Most adults only live a few weeks.  So in their short lives, they have a lot to do.

What’s in a Butterfly Garden?

A butterfly garden provides food, water, and shelter for these creatures at every life stage.

But other pollinators will find your space attractive, too!  You should expect to see honeybees, bumblebees, and hummingbirds inhabit the area as well.

If you see other pollinators inhabiting your space, you do not need to fret or tear out your existing garden and start over.  You can simply add some elements that will make it more attractive to them.

It has been said that butterflies are the “canaries in the coal mine.” In many areas, lots of us don’t see the numbers of these insects that we had in the past.  Generally, the lack of insects is an indicator of a stressed environment. These stressed environments are not good for humans either. Creating an environment that is good for insects will be good for humans too.

Food, Water, and Shelter

Food comes from nectar plants for the adults and host plants for the caterpillars (more on this later).

Water provides hydration and salts.  A shallow flower pot saucer filled with water and pebbles provides a watering hole.  Males will gather at a wet, muddy spot in an activity called “puddling,” which provides them with the minerals they need for reproduction. 

Shelter involves protection from wind, rain, extreme temperatures, and predators.  Trees and evergreens provide a windbreak and a place to roost at night.  Fallen leaves, tree bark pieces, logs, and rock piles provide sheltering crannies.

Shelter also includes flat rocks for sunning where they warm-up for the day ahead.  Shelter also allows time for eggs to hatch, caterpillars to feed, and chrysalises to wait undisturbed.

Look in Your Neighborhood

There are about 28,000 species worldwide and in the United States, there are about 750 species.  Before you plan your garden, spend a little time researching the ones you can expect to see in your area.  When you know which ones you can attract, it’s easy to learn what will attract them.  The Stokes Butterfly Book is an excellent resource.

Preparations

Once you know which varieties are common in your area, the host plants they need, and the nectar plants they like, you can begin to design your garden.  You don’t need a big yard – you can be successful even with a window box or a container.

Grow your garden in a spot that receives full sun for at least 6 hours daily.  Since they are cold-blooded insects, butterflies cannot regulate their internal body temperature. They need the sun’s warmth to fly and their favorite flowers also grow best in full sun.  Build your garden in a sheltered area out of the wind. This will usually be in the east or southeast part of your yard.

As with any garden, preparing the soil is the first, most important step.  Do a soil test and add organic matter (compost or shredded leaves), which improves any soil and increases your chances for success.

Butterflies are attracted to colorful masses and large drifts.  Plant your flowers in groups of 3 or more. Colors that are particularly enticing to them are purple, red, orange, and yellow.

Provide a variety of flower sizes.  Smaller species (like hairstreaks and skippers) like little flowers: alyssum, catmint, sedums, asters, and verbena.  Bigger species (like swallowtails, longwings, monarchs, and queens) like flowers with a landing spot, such as coneflowers and daisies.

Butterflies like things a little bit messy, so let your garden grow a little wild.   That being said, continue to pull weeds and to deadhead your flowers.  Weeding reduces competition for nutrients and deadheading keeps your flowers blooming.  Water and fertilize as you would any garden.

Do not use pesticides!  Even if the pesticide is organic or a homemade mixture, it does not differentiate between a pollinator or a pest. If you use a product to kill aphids, realize that it will also kill butterflies. 

Photo credits to Ken Lane

Host Plants and Nectar Plants

When you choose plants for your garden, choose both host plants for caterpillars and nectar plants for adults. Nectar plants will invite butterflies to dine, but host plants will encourage them to stay. 

Remember, these insects have evolved along with the plants that are native to your region, so try to use native host plants.  Using native nectar plants is recommended, but it’s okay to use nectar-rich plants that may not be original to your area.

Keep in mind that most species do not travel far from where they grew up as caterpillars.  So if you have host plants, you will naturally eventually have butterflies!

Here is a list of some common host plants and the species that need them. Remember, the caterpillars eat the leaves of these plants.

  • Milkweeds  – monarchs and queens
  • Willow – viceroys
  • Parsley – swallowtails, painted ladies, and crescents
  • Dill, carrots and fennel – black swallowtails
  • Clover – sulphurs, blues, and hairstreaks
  • Violets, passionflower – fritillaries
  • Pearly everlasting, thistles  – American ladies, buckeyes, and admirals
  • Hollyhock – painted ladies and skippers
  • Lupines, legumes, vetch – azures and blues
  • Pea family plants,  marigolds – sulphurs
  • Turtlehead, asters – crescents and checkerspots
  • Spicebush, tulip tree, pipevines  – swallowtails
  • Sorrels and docks – coppers
  • Mustard family plants – cabbage whites
  • Grasses and sedges – satyrs

Our Top 9 Nectar Plants

Adult butterflies don’t eat – they only drink!  They sip nectar from flowers, juice from rotting fruit and even sweat and liquid animal waste. Some satyrs feed on tree sap.

Here is a list of our favorite nectar plants.  All of them require full sun, average soil, and about an inch of water per week.

1. Buddleia

Buddleia grows in zones 5 to 10.  In areas with colder winters, it often needs to be cut down to the ground in early spring. Colors include shades of purple, pink, and white.  Buddleia has been classified as an invasive species in some areas.

Buddleia can be found on Nature Hill Nursery

2. Lantana

Hardy in zones 9 to 11, this floriferous plant is used as an annual in cooler areas.  Red, yellow, pink, orange, and white varieties are available; some have flowers with 2 or more colors.

Find Lantana at Nature Hill Nursery

3. Coneflowers

Echinacea is hardy in zones 2 to 9 and while the species is purple, lots of cultivars are available in shades of red, pink, orange, white, and yellow.  Be warned though: the hardiness of some of these cultivars is not always reliable.

4. Monarda

Also known as bee balm or bergamont, this perennial is hardy in zones 4 to 9.  It grows 3-4 feet tall and wide, and blooms midsummer into fall for about 6 weeks. Flower colors of cultivars include red, shades of pink, and shades of lavender.

Also known as Bee Balm

5. Liatris

Hardy in zones 3 to 8, blazing star blooms in midsummer with purple or white flower stalks that make a great vertical accent.

Find Liatris on Nature Hill Nursery

6. Cosmos

An old fashioned favorite in shades of white, pink and lavender, cosmos is an annual that grows easily from seed and will reseed freely.

7. Zinnia

These colorful annuals come in a variety of sizes and are very easy to grow from seed. The pink, red, yellow, orange colored flowers are butterfly magnets.

Buy Zinnia here

8. Marigolds

There are lots of varieties of this cheerful annual.  Flower sizes vary from tiny to huge, in yellows and oranges.

9. Verbena

There are several varieties of this plant and some are winter hardy in warmer areas.  Bonariensis is a tall variety with small purple flowers on branched stems.  It reseeds freely.

A Word About Monarchs

Monarchs are the only species that migrate. They spend the winter in the mountains of central Mexico and start heading north in March.  It takes 4 generations of monarchs to  reach the end of their range in southern Canada.  As each generation becomes adults, they fly further north, following the milkweed that is the caterpillars’ only food.  In early autumn, monarchs begin their journey south to their winter home, flying nearly 3000 miles!

In recent decades, monarch populations have been dwindling drastically. It’s estimated that the eastern United States has lost 80% of its monarchs since the 1990’s.  Habitat loss and the lack of wild milkweed as more areas are developed are two big reasons why.

You can help monarchs by planting milkweed species that are native to your area.  Also consider adding plants to your garden that will feed the fall migration.  Perennials that bloom late in the season like asters, mums, Joe Pye weed, and sedums will provide these black and orange beauties with the fuel they need on their long  journey.

Photo credits to Docentjoyce

Obtain a Certification

There are organizations that certify wildlife areas and butterfly gardens.  And while these insects won’t care if your garden is certified, the sign on the fence can be a point of pride and might encourage neighbors to create butterfly havens along with you. 

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About the author: Alaine has been working way too hard in horticulture since 1992, beautifying golf courses, resorts, and hotels. She is a part time landscape designer who works full time caring for a 28,000 square foot public garden. At home, she maintains her own 400 square feet plot. Alaine lives in northern Illinois - zone 5b.

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