Growing a Butterfly Garden

By   February 17, 2016

Everyone likes butterflies, and a butterfly garden can attract them to your yard.  The types of butterflies that live in your garden will depend on your climate zone and what you plant.  The North American Butterfly Association reports over 725 species residing in North America, with just about a hundred in any area.

You can successfully hatch, attract, and feed these beautiful insects if you know these three essentials–what plants host them, what plants feed them, what kind of culture they need to thrive.

Host Plants for a Butterfly Garden

Butterfly on a flower in a butterfly garden.

Butterflies drink nectar from flowers and they like some types of flowers more than others.

Here’s the ugly truth–at least for those of us who want pretty container flowers or small space gardens (I would count myself among you!). If you want a butterfly garden, you’re going to have to put up with chewed-up, ugly plants.This is because you’ll need plants that attract and host the caterpillars that feed them. And there are very specific flowers (primarily, as you’ll see, sun flowers), plants, and trees that do this.

And when I say “specific,” that means if you provide just any old plant and aren’t aware of what plants host which butterflies, you won’t have any. They are very particular about which plants they’ll use as hosts.

For example, milkweed is very specific for monarch butterflies, while swallowtails will lay eggs on dill, fennel, and parsley. (You can see, even a container herb garden can play host to butterflies.) Other host plants include clover, violets, and hollyhocks.

As you can see, your success depends on knowing not just how to attract butterflies, but which types of flowers and plants each butterfly will lay its eggs on.


Butterfly feeding on fruit peels

Many butterflies feed on fruit. A discarded orange or banana peel is like a banquet.

Butterflies need nutrition, and for them, it comes in the form of nectar. And while many types of flowers produce great nectar, it’s not always available to the insects.  This is because they feed through a long, narrow tube, and if the flowers harbor nectar too deep within the bloom, butterflies can’t reach it.

Canna lilies have lovely, large blooms, but you wouldn’t want to plant them for a butterfly garden. The nectar is housed so deep that the insects won’t be able to retrieve the nectar. Usually, butterfly gardens are filled with full sun plants. And these are also generally perennial flowers–examples include bee balm, lavender plants, and the butterfly bush.

You can grow lots of these perennial flowers in garden pots to attract butterflies–they aren’t just for garden beds. And for some–like Black-eyed Susan, containers are great choices to avoid invasive spreading.

There are also some annual flowers you can use in your butterfly garden pots–verbena (hummingbirds like these, too) and marigolds are two great choices.

Two Last Tips

Butterflies love bright colors, such as the flower pictured above. Try to plant lively red, yellow, pink, and orange flowers. Also, try to plant a variety of shapes, since that’s also of interest to them.  And if you have space, plant masses of bright flowers. Butterflies are more easily attracted to a multitude of blooms, rather than just one or two.(Here’s where those plain clay flower pots come in handy–when you’re planting a lot of pots, inexpensive ones are welcome.)

Here are a few culture issues you need to be aware of:

A Monarch Butterfly feeding in a butterfly garden.

A Monarch Butterfly feeding in a butterfly garden.

It’s not surprising that you should tend your butterfly garden plants as well as your other annual and perennial flowers. But there is one important distinction about caring for flowers that host or feed butterflies. Never use pesticides. (This is why many people use natural gardening techniques and organic gardening principles when cultivating butterfly gardens.)

The “no pesticides” rule is likely obvious, but it’s always good to mention it because once your milkweed plants start to look ravaged, you’ll want to reach for the insecticide. Or maybe you have aphids or whiteflies.

Just set the host plants off to one side or out of direct view, and this won’t be a temptation.  Butterflies are cold-blooded, so they need warmth to stick around. A very simple way to make sure your butterflies are comfortable is to place some large, flat stones in and around your gardening pots.

Butterflies will land on the stones to sun themselves and absorb the heat the stones have stored.  Finally, butterflies need water. It’s essential to have a shallow bowl, small birdbath, or even a saucer filled with water so they can quench their thirst.