There is a multitude of butterfly species on this planet, however, their numbers are declining. This is in part due to a loss of food plants, climate change, and excessive use of pesticides that harm butterflies and other pollinators. Planting a butterfly garden is one way to protect this amazing and beneficial insect.
So, how do you get started? Homeowners can protect butterflies by choosing the right garden plants and building their own butterfly sanctuary right in their own backyard. From bright flowers to a shallow dish of water, it’s not that hard. I thought I would share a few tips for creating a successful butterfly garden that will attract pollinators and help protect butterflies from habitat loss.
Table of Contents
What is a Butterfly Garden?
In simple terms, a butterfly garden is one that will attract butterflies, in addition to supporting their entire lifecycle. A butterfly garden is bursting with flowers that produce nectar and have a beautiful fragrance. But it will also include things like a feeding station, water source, and healthy soil with no chemical pesticides.
Why pollinator gardens are important?
Climate change, pollution, and habitat destruction are causing many species of butterflies to become endangered and even extinct.
It is important that we do everything we can to encourage their continued survival. Not just because they are pretty to look at but because they are a very important pollinator and without the spread of pollen, our food supply is in serious danger.
This is a great environmental project for kids to teach them the importance of pollinators in our food system.
How to plant a butterfly garden
Your butterfly habitat needs a few simple things to become a haven for pollinators. Start small, choosing butterfly-friendly flowers and native plants. Then, as you have more time, money, and space, start adding a few more things when you can.
Choose the right location
Butterflies are cold-blooded insects that need to warm themselves in order for their bodies to reach the optimal temperature at which they can function properly.
They often start off this process by basking, or warming up near heat sources such as sunny trees and rocks early each morning before other animals even come out!
A location that gets morning sun, especially if there are low rocks to land on, makes a great place for adult butterflies to warm up.
Many of the flowering plants that butterflies enjoy visiting will require full sun to bloom. It is those blooms that will bring both beauty AND butterflies to your yard. So, a sunny spot is your best bet, especially one that gets sun early in the morning.
Select flowers that attract butterflies
There are many types of plants that should be on a butterfly gardeners’ shopping list. Selecting plants isn’t always easy, however, many garden centers will have experts that can help.
Ask if the plants have been treated with neonicodes, which is a pesticide that has been shown to be harmful to both bees and butterflies. Avoid it as much as you can. Whenever possible, choose native plants, which will require less attention to grow successfully.
Talk to your garden center about finding plants for butterfly gardens that flower throughout several growing seasons, from early spring all the way into late summer and fall. Again, this will depend on where you live.
When you plant a butterfly garden, you need two general types of plants. You need a host plant that will house eggs and provide food for caterpillars as well as bright blooms to provide nectar for butterflies as they emerge. Butterflies love the following nectar-rich plants:
- Black-eyed Susans
- Purple coneflower
- Butterfly milkweed
- Hibiscus flowers
- Bee Balm
- Butterfly Bush
- Joe Pye Weed
Host plants give egg-laying butterflies a place to deposit eggs and give growing caterpillars food to eat as they move through that stage of their life cycle.
The type of host plants you need really depends on the kind of butterflies you have in your region. Monarch butterflies lay their eggs on plants in the milkweed family, black swallowtails on parsley, and tiger swallowtails on tulip trees or wild cherries.
Check out this butterfly host plant chart for more details. Look for ones that work for your growing season. Your local nursery can help you choose plants that will thrive in your area.
Remember, both nectar and food for the caterpillar stage are important. This way, butterflies come to eat and stay to lay eggs. Understanding the life cycles of butterflies will help you nurture them from egg to caterpillar to butterfly!
Think strong scents and bold colors
Your butterfly garden will be most successful if you plant flowers that come in deep reds, bright yellows, and vibrant purples. If it is pretty to look at and smells good, butterflies will come.
Make sure you include a wide variety of plants with overlapping ‘blooming’ seasons. You want to encourage butterflies to visit your garden for as long as possible throughout the spring and summer.
Provide flowers of different heights
Choose flowers with varying heights to attract more butterflies. Butterflies love variety. Plants with different heights are not only visually pleasing, but they accommodate the different level feeding behaviors and provide shelter. Giant sunflowers are a great addition to your pollinator garden if you are looking for height!
Offer alternative butterfly foods
Many flowers support butterflies, but it’s always enjoyable to add variety! Add a butterfly feeding station that will encourage a number of butterfly species to come to visit. While nectar-rich flowers are important, homemade food sources are delicious, too.
Make homemade butterfly food with a mix of rotting fruit. Include foods like bananas, peaches, plums, oranges, and apples. You can also check out my post about how to make DIY butterfly nectar recipe and hang your own butterfly feeder.
Place the butterfly bait in an area that is easily accessible to butterflies, such as on flat rocks, tree trumps, and a shallow dish. (Check out my post on what butterflies eat and drink for more tips on feeding them!)
Build healthy soil with organic fertilizer and mulch
Instead of adding chemical fertilizers, enrich your soil naturally with homemade compost, manure, mulch, and other organic soil treatments.
Plants grow best in healthy soil. And the healthier your soil, the less likely it is that you will have pests and disease. And by skipping chemical fertilizers, you will keep passing butterflies just a little bit healthier.
Provide butterfly puddling stations and other water sources
If there is a puddle, pond, or stream on your property, add some rocks to make a watering hole for thirsty butterflies. Butterflies will also stop by water sources such as birdbaths and fountains to sip while they’re visiting your garden.
Create a tiny little ecosystem in your butterfly garden. An easy addition to attract more butterflies is to add wet sand to a small, shallow dish and place it on the ground.
These are often called puddling stations and will give them a place to sip without the danger of drowning and sand can be a good source of minerals for them.
Avoid pesticides that harm butterflies
Pest control in the garden is always challenging. While pesticides may kill pests in your yard, you will also be killing beneficial insects.
And don’t forget, before adult butterflies can exist, they must live life as a caterpillar. That caterpillar is going to chew up host plants in order to grow and morph into the beautiful creatures you see flitting from plant to plant. Killing caterpillars because you don’t want your flowering plants chewed up will also mean you are not going to get any butterflies!
Instead of pesticides, plant marigolds, petunias, mint, and other plants that naturally repel pests. Use only organic gardening solutions in your yard and garden.
The butterfly gardener should take care of pests carefully. Pesticides can cause serious damage to pollinating insects.
Even insecticide-based soaps and neem oil can kill butterflies and affect their reproduction. Use as little as possible. Only use pesticides in insect infestations and not for prevention.
Build butterfly shelter areas
Butterflies need shelter during windy weather but prefer natural areas like thick shrubs or stacked wood.
Bright-colored butterfly houses can be used to decorate your garden if you don’t have a lot of natural spaces for them to seek shelter. It should be mounted on a pole or tree about 4 feet off the ground.
Keep a pollinator diary
A pollinator diary is a fantastic way for individuals to track their butterfly garden sightings. Keep a journal dedicated to your butterflies and the other insects you’ve seen in your garden.
Your journal will help you see trends in your garden, what plants attract certain species, and even inspire you to get creative with art projects!
Planting a butterfly garden is fun and rewarding, but it’s even more fun if you have a friend to help you discover your garden’s secrets. Share your journey with your kids, your friends, or your local garden club.
By learning what common butterflies are in your neighbor’s yard, you can choose other plants to grow that might attract them.
Butterfly Garden Additions You Might Like
You’ve chosen a host plant and a nectar plant or two. You’ve got your gardening supplies and learned about the life cycle of monarch caterpillars. But, are you really ready? Here are a few things you might want to purchase to round out your butterfly garden this summer.
- Buy a butterfly house so they have somewhere to live.
- Get a butterfly feeder to provide homemade nectar.
- Invest in a butterfly identification book so you can learn all about your new friends.
Attracting butterflies to your yard isn’t hard. And if you are a food gardener, you will have the added bonus of attracting more pollinators to your yard to increase your food harvest as well. Especially since many of these tips will not only attract butterflies but also honey bees to your yard as well.
Get Kids Involved
A butterfly garden does not have to be a complicated project. All they need are a few flowers, a source of water, and NO pesticides. This is a great environmental project for kids to teach them the importance of pollinators in our food system.
My daughter’s Girl Scout Troop had fun planting a butterfly garden at the local elementary school. It was a very educational service project and the girls were in charge of every step of the process.
They had to do the research on what types of plants to put in their butterfly garden, do the shopping, weed and plant the bed, and then water for a couple of months until it became established.
They did a wonderful job and I like to think that they learned a few things along the way while still having plenty of fun. If you decide to create a butterfly garden, don’t forget the pollinator watering station!
Remember, one of the most important things to remember is to SKIP THE PESTICIDES! Not only in the butterfly garden but throughout your entire yard.
If you have young children and want to start teaching them about the butterfly lifecycle, check out my butterfly printable lapbook and get them excited about pollinators!
Continue reading these other gardening posts
Pollinators are vitally important to our environment. Check out my post on what honeybees do to learn how you can help.
And if you enjoyed this post, please check out my article on how to attract toads to your yard.
Diane is a professional blogger and nationally certified pharmacy technician at Good Pill Pharmacy. She earned her BS in Microbiology at the University of New Hampshire and has worked in cancer research, academics, and biotechnology. Concern over the growing incidence of human disease and the birth of her children led her to begin living a more natural life. She quickly realized that the information she was learning along the way could be beneficial to many others and started blogging and freelance writing to share this knowledge with others. Learn more about her HERE.