15 Tips For Creating a Beautiful Butterfly Garden
Thinking of assembling the perfect plants to create a beautiful butterfly garden? Just adding plants alone is often not enough. In this article, gardening expert Liessa Bowen shares her top tips for creating a butterfly friendly refuge in your garden this season!
Do you love butterflies and want to attract them to your yard? You do not need an entire prairie to create a beautiful butterfly garden. You can maintain a beneficial butterfly plant in a single pot. The more space you have, the more plants you can grow and the more diverse and beautiful your butterfly garden can be.
In order to create the best butterfly garden possible, it’s important to consider the entire life cycle of these fascinating insects. The most critical thing to remember is that you can’t have a butterfly without first having a caterpillar. This means that a complete butterfly garden needs some caterpillar host plants in addition to the beautiful flowers that support the nectar-feeding adults.
Butterflies typically lay their eggs in the spring and early summer. The eggs hatch and tiny caterpillars emerge. The caterpillars start feeding voraciously on their host plants and grow quickly. When the caterpillar has matured, it seeks a sheltered location to pupate.
A few weeks later, the adult butterfly emerges and flies away to begin the life cycle again. As you create your garden, keep every stage of the butterfly life cycle in mind and try to offer resources for each stage.
There are many excellent reasons to grow a butterfly garden. Growing plants that attract butterflies will provide valuable habitat that benefits other pollinators, honeybees, seed-eating birds, hummingbirds, and small animals.
There are plenty of reasons to create a butterfly garden. So here’s a deeper look at my top tips to help you create your own spectacular garden for butterflies and other pollinators to enjoy!
Pick Nectar Sources
Probably the first thing you think of with butterfly gardening is growing beautiful flowers that provide nectar for butterflies. There are plenty of nectar-rich flowers you can grow to attract adult butterflies. There are plenty of plants to choose from, no matter your climate. In fact, many pollinator-friendly plants can tolerate drought quite well.
Nectar sources include both annuals and perennials, so don’t feel that you are limited to one or the other. A few of the more commonly-available nectar plants to get you started include:
|New England Aster
As you select flowers for your butterfly garden, consider planting various colors so butterflies will notice your garden from a distance. Choose plants that bloom in different seasons to attract both early and late-season butterflies.
Use a variety of taller and shorter plants to appeal to butterflies that fly at different heights. And remember that just because a plant provides nectar for adult butterflies, you should also try incorporating larval host plants.
Pick Larval Host Plants
Larval host plants are one of the most valuable things a butterfly garden can provide. Without butterfly larvae, there would be no butterflies. Adult butterflies can feed on nectar from many plants, but they seek specific species of plants on which to lay their eggs.
The caterpillars then feed exclusively on those species. A few butterfly species feed on several different plants, and other butterflies are restricted to a single species of host plants.
One of the most well-known butterflies in North America is the monarch. Adult monarch butterflies enjoy any flowering nectar plants. Their caterpillars, however, feed almost exclusively on milkweeds.
If there were no milkweeds, there would be no monarch butterflies. So if monarch butterflies are in your region and you want to attract them to your yard and give them the greatest benefit, plant at least one milkweed for them to lay eggs on.
How do you know which plants are good for caterpillars? Do a little research to find out which butterflies live in your area. Then find out what their larval host plants are and incorporate some of them into your landscape. Larval host plants include wildflowers, common weeds, herbs, vines, shrubs, and even some species of trees.
The following is a very brief list of some familiar North American butterflies and their host plants. There are many more butterflies and many, many more plants that serve as host plants for different species.
|Plant Scientific Name
|Clouded Sulphur, Little Yellow, Orange Sulphur, Eastern Tailed-Blue, Western Tailed-Blue
|American Painted Lady
|Parsley, Dill, Fennel
|Petroselinum crispum Anethum graveolens Foeniculum vulgare
|Gulf Fritillary, Zebra Longwing
|Plantain Snapdragon False Foxglove
|Plantago spp. Antirrhinum majus Agalinis spp.
|American Lady, Bordered Patch, Gorgone Checkerspot, Silvery Checkerspot
|Great Spangled Fritillary, Aphrodite Fritillary, Silver-bordered Fritillary
Invite More Wildlife
You may initially think your butterfly garden is designed for butterflies, but it will also create a habitat for seed-eating birds, hummingbirds, and other small animals. You can easily turn your butterfly garden into a wildlife garden.
- Add a water source such as a bird bath or fountain.
- Add horizontal structures and plants of different heights.
- Add some red or purple tubular flowers to attract hummingbirds.
- Install a birdhouse to attract bluebirds, goldfinches, and other bird species.
- Provide a bird feeder to attract even more birds.
A Full Season Garden
Butterflies may be most active in the warm summer months, but butterflies are flying in the spring and fall months as well. Butterflies typically eat every day that they are active, so having nectar sources available during as many seasons as possible will benefit not just butterflies but all pollinators around at that time.
Winter is not the most active time for butterflies, but butterflies will be around depending on where you live, even on an unusually warm winter day. There probably won’t be any nectar plants available, though. When it gets cold, many butterfly species go into hibernation. They may hibernate in a pile of sticks, a clump of dead leaves, or under some loose tree bark.
Caterpillars also utilize food sources throughout the warmer months and seek places to hibernate safely during winter. A butterfly chrysalis can easily overwinter in a protected location outside. When the weather warms in the spring, it will emerge as a flying adult and immediately start looking for nectar.
As you design your butterfly garden, consider it a garden for all seasons. Don’t plant just flowers that bloom in the peak of summer. Try to incorporate plants with a variety of bloom times so you and the butterflies can enjoy colorful flowers and plants from early spring until late fall.
Plant in Plenty of Sun
Butterflies typically prefer sun to shade. As insects, they are cold-blooded and rely on the sun to keep their bodies warm. You may see butterflies sitting still, slowly opening and closing their wings, trying to keep their bodies at an ideal temperature.
Most butterfly-friendly plants also love the sun, although a few butterfly-host plants grow well in partial shade.
To attract the most butterflies to your yard, use a large sunny area for your butterfly garden. Butterflies will stay in your yard longer if you offer them the needed plants and a butterfly-friendly environment.
You may see them flitting among the flowers, flying away a short distance, and coming back, again and again, to return to the most favorable environment.
Don’t Use Pesticides
If you want to design and implement a butterfly garden, you are creating a safe haven for insects. Do not use pesticides in your butterfly garden. Pesticides do not discriminate between butterflies and harmful insect pests and will kill your butterflies and their larvae. Pesticides may also harm other pollinators, including honeybees.
Be careful not to mistake butterfly caterpillars as pests. If you plant host plants for butterfly larvae, expect the caterpillars to eat the leaves of these plants — this is normal! Even organic pesticide options, such as Bacillus thuringiensis, can be negative in a butterfly garden. BT coats the leaves of plants with a specific soil bacteria that can kill off all forms of moth or butterfly larvae, which means both the good and bad ones are at risk. While this is great for preventing tomato hornworms on your tomatoes, you don’t want to accidentally kill your big beautiful butterflies too!
Feeding on their host plants is a natural and necessary part of the larval life cycle stage so the butterfly larvae can mature and transform into the beautiful winged creature we want to see. When I plant milkweed to attract monarchs, I am thrilled to see a caterpillar munching on the leaves. Similarly, I love to watch the swallowtail caterpillars eat the leaves of my parsley plants. I always plant extra parsley, so I have plenty to share.
Use a Diverse Amount of Flowering Plants
Don’t limit yourself to just pretty flowers in your garden. Plant a variety of different vegetation types. An assortment of vines, herbs, and shrubs can provide a combination of nectar sources, larval host plants, and shelter for both adults and larvae. You have many options, so don’t be afraid to get creative with your butterfly garden.
Even trees play a role in the butterfly life cycle. Trees can provide necessary shelter during inclement weather. Some trees, such as willow and pawpaw, serve as butterfly-host plants.
Pipevine and passionflower are vines that serve as larval host plants. Mallow and spicebush are examples of ornamental shrubby plants that serve as larval host plants. Parsley and dill are common herbs that can also be grown to attract butterflies, both adults and larvae!
Leave the Leaves
After the first frost, you may be tempted to clear away all the leafy debris from your flower garden. You can clear the fall leaves off your roof and your car and clear out dead vegetation from your vegetable garden. In your butterfly garden, however, these leaves provide habitat.
Adult butterflies overwinter in clusters of dead leaves or any natural sheltered area. Butterfly larvae that are still in chrysalis form may be attached to stems of plants, garden fences, and the twigs of small trees and shrubs.
Leaving these places undisturbed throughout the winter can help protect the butterflies that are sheltering there. There’s a good chance you won’t even see the chrysalises because they are very well camouflaged!
If you don’t have many leafy locations for butterflies to overwinter, consider bringing in some leaves and using them as mulch around your butterfly plants.
Learn About the Locals
Find out what butterflies live in your area. Learn how to identify them when you see them. Then read about their larval host plants.
If you grow host plants for your local butterfly species, you will likely see these insects in your garden. On the contrary, it won’t do any good to grow a host plant to attract a butterfly species that doesn’t live within your range.
The best way to attract a specific local butterfly species to your garden is to offer its larval host plant. I once planted a pipevine in my yard because I wanted to attract the pipevine swallowtail. It worked like a charm!
As soon as the little vine had enough time to grow a bit and climbed up a fence, the adult butterflies noticed, and I soon had a plethora of pipevine swallowtail caterpillars. Every few days during the summer, a pipevine adult fluttered around my plants, laying eggs. What a thrill!
Plant a Rainbow of Color
Butterflies are attracted to brightly colored flowers. They seem especially interested in flowers that are shades of red, pink, purple, and orange, although plenty of white and yellow flowers also attract butterflies. If you plant an array of brightly colored flowers, the butterflies will come, and the more flowers there are to explore, the longer they will stay.
Think of butterfly gardening as creating an exciting and colorful work of publicly accessible art. If you planted just white flowers that only bloom in the spring, you won’t get a very big audience. If you want to attract a large audience, plant a diverse assortment of flowers.
Plant bright colors to catch the butterfly’s attention. Grow perennials that bloom in spring, summer, and fall so your audience can visit each season. And, of course, include both nectar plants and host plants to appeal to the whole family!
Focus on Floral Diversity
Butterflies have a long thin tongue called a proboscis. The proboscis can curl and uncurl to fit 1 to 2 cm deep into a flower to sip nectar. Any nectar-rich flower that a butterfly can reach into can attract butterflies and many other pollinators.
Different colors, shapes, and textures of flowers will attract different butterflies. Hummingbirds will also come to investigate your flowers, and seed-eating birds will forage in the late summer and fall. Smaller butterflies are often attracted to smaller flowers, while larger butterflies enjoy larger and sturdier flowers and dense clusters of blossoms.
Planting a variety of plants of different heights will also attract different butterflies. For example, if you plant low-growing yarrow, mid-range purple coneflower, and towering Joe-pye weed, you will have three levels of nectar-rich plants to attract butterflies of all kinds.
Use Plenty of Water
Butterflies drink water but prefer to drink it from moist earth or shallow puddles. You can add a bird bath or small fountain to attract birds, but it’s unlikely these will be beneficial to butterflies. Butterflies are most likely to congregate in groups at the edge of a muddy puddle.
Here they not only drink water but can absorb essential nutrients from the earth. Any time you are able to provide a shallow puddle of water, such as a shallow dish or tray filled with wet sand, you may attract puddling butterflies.
Have you ever wondered where butterflies sleep or where they go in the rain? Butterflies seek protected areas to rest and ride out bad weather. If you offer food and a shelter for the butterflies, you are offering a free bed and breakfast, providing a more complete habitat that is very enticing to your guests.
Adult butterflies seek nectar for food and host plants on which to lay eggs. They depend on leafy plants to protect from rain, stormy weather, and extreme heat.
They may also seek sheltered places to sleep at night and protection from predators. Trees and shrubs can offer excellent sheltered locations. Flowering plants with larger leaves can also offer some protection and safety during the growing season.
Native butterflies typically have native larval host plants, although some can eat other non-native plants from the same family as their native counterparts. You can create a beautiful garden using all non-native species, but it won’t be as beneficial to wildlife as a wide assortment of native plants.
In general, growing native plants is better for the ecosystem as a whole. Native plants in the home garden essentially provide a tiny extension to the natural ecosystem.
They support other native wildlife, like honeybees and migratory birds. Native plants require fewer pesticides and are generally very low-maintenance because they are already well-adapted to live in the area.
Provide Adequate Plant Maintenance
Taking care of your plants is an excellent way to maintain the health of your butterfly garden. Healthy plants produce more flowers and therefore attract more butterflies. Start with seeds or vigorous young plants, help your plants get well-established, and then maintain the garden area for the most butterfly enjoyment.
- Plant perennials in the spring or fall.
- Choose plants that grow well in your specific region.
- Pay attention to plant light requirements.
- Mulch around plants to maintain soil moisture
- Water as needed.
- Add organic compost for nutrients if needed.
- Divide plants periodically to reduce crowding.
- Avoid using pesticides.
- Pull weeds to reduce competition for space, nutrients, and light.
You should now be ready to start your own butterfly garden or further enhance a garden that you have already established. It can be immensely rewarding to look outside and see beautiful flowers and a colorful assortment of butterflies dancing around them. Remember these key points for creating a 4 season butterfly-friendly habitat.
- Grow plenty of colorful nectar-rich plants.
- Choose several caterpillar host plants.
- Learn about your local butterflies.
- Choose a sunny spot and take care of your plants.
- Offer a water source and leafy sheltering spots.
- Grow native plants.
- Avoid pesticides.
- You can provide year-round butterfly habitat.
- Butterfly habitat benefits other pollinators, birds, and people.
- Enjoy your butterfly garden!