How to Design a Garden to Attract Butterflies and Hummingbirds

Woman using a garden tool to plant flowers.
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  • 01 of 12

    Sweet Scents, Nectar, and Abundance

    Designs on graph paper for a butterfly garden.
    Marie Iannotti. The Spruce, 2017.

    You don't need to go out of your way to attract butterflies to your garden. If you plant enough flowers, they will find them. However, there are a few tricks you can apply to your garden design to make your garden border more tempting. Butterflies are attracted to bright colors and butterflies and hummingbirds both like high-nectar plants such as the ones featured in this garden design.

    Another consideration is providing plants for all stages of the butterfly's short life. For instance, adding a water feature such as a birdbath and rocks for sunning on.

    The design illustrated here is for a curved border, 30-feet long by 10-feet wide. Most of the flowers selected are suitable for a range of hardiness zones, but alternatives are also listed. Keep in mind that local nurseries usually stock varieties that are uniquely adapted to your area.

    Different species of butterflies prefer different plants, but you can be sure of attracting your share of butterflies with the plants in this garden design. The border is meant for full sun, which will also help in attracting butterflies since their wings need to be warm for them to be able to fly.

    Most of the plants are suitable for a range of hardiness zones, but alternatives are listed. Specifics about each plant follow on successive pages.

    1. Asclepias tuberosa (butterfly weed)
    2. Panicum virgatum (switchgrass) 'Shenandoah'
    3. Scabiosa columbaria (pincushion flower) 'Pink Mist'
    4. Coreopsis verticillata (tickseed) 'Zagreb'
    5. Heliopsis helianthoides (false sunflower) 'Karat'
    6. Veronica spicata (spike speedwell) 'Sunny Border Blue'
    7. Echinacea purpurea (purple coneflower)
    8. Asiatic lilies
    9. Agastache x 'Ava' (hummingbird mint)
    10. Eupatorium maculatum (Joe-Pye weed ) 'Gateway'
    11. Glandularia canadensis (rose verbena) 'Homestead Purple'
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  • 02 of 12

    This Is Why They Call It Butterfly Weed

    Black swallowtail butterfly on butterfly weed plant.
    Janet Foster/Getty Images

    Butterfly weed is high in nectar and attracts butterflies and pollinating bees. You'll probably even get some swallowtail caterpillars snacking on the leaves, since Asclepias is in the milkweed family, which is a host plant for the swallowtail butterfly. But Asclepias tuberosa behaves much better than common milkweed.

    Butterfly weed is one of the last plants to emerge in the spring, so be patient. It has a long taproot and doesn't like to be moved once it's established. But you get a handful of volunteers each year to keep your garden fresh or to give to friends.

    Asclepias is extremely drought tolerant because of its taproot. It also doesn't need deadheading to keep blooming. You might want to deadhead to keep it tidy, but like its cousin the milkweed, butterfly weed will develop attractive green seed pods that are nice in arrangements.

    • Asclepias tuberosa (butterfly weed). USDA Zones 3–9, 2–3' x 2', orange blooms, repeat bloomer.

    Alternatives:

    • Asclepias tuberosa 'Gay Butterflies.' USDA Zones 4–9; 2–3' x 2'; orange, red, and yellow blooms; repeat bloomer.
    • Kniphofia spp. (red hot poker). USDA Zones 5–9; 3–4' x 3'; orange, red, and yellow blooms; repeat bloomer.
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  • 03 of 12

    Wilds of the Butterfly Garden

    Water drops on flowers and purple foliage of switchgrass (Panicum virgatum) 'Rehbraun'.
    Sonia Hunt/Getty Images

    Butterflies, like most flying creatures, look for sheltered places to rest now and then. Tall grass in your butterfly garden would be just the ticket.

    Switchgrasses are airy clumps of thinned leaved grasses that sway in the breeze. They are tolerant of just about any type of soil and can become a nuisance self-seeding if you don't stay ahead of them. But most are valued for their tight clumping habit, airy nature, and the hazy flower and seed heads that form late in the season. Many such as the 'Shenandoah' have red fall color. Both Shenandoah's leaves and plumes turn a burgundy red.

    • Panicum virgatum (switchgrass) 'Shenandoah.' USDA Zones 4–9, 4' x 3', red foliage in the fall.

    Alternatives:

    • Miscanthus sinensis (maiden hair grass) 'Gracillimus.' USDA Zones 5–9, 5–6' x 3', green foliage with copper-red plumes.
    • Pennisetum setaceum (purple fountain grass) 'Rubrum.' USDA Zones 9–11, 2–3' x 2–3', maroon foliage.
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  • 04 of 12

    Delicate Pink Pincushion

    Scabiosa (Pincushion flower) growing in a cluster.
    Marie Iannotti. The Spruce, 2017.

    Scabiosa is such an awful name for such a pretty little flower. The common name, pincushion flower, is far more descriptive. The button-like flowers are held high above the plant on sturdy stems. There is a variety called 'Butterfly Blue' that is very pretty, but not so hardy as 'Pink Mist.' However, none of the Scabiosa are particularly long-lived and may need replacing after a few seasons.

    Deadheading keeps the plants blooming, and it's effortless to do because of the long flower stalks.

    • Scabiosa columbaria (pincushion flower) 'Pink Mist.' USDA Zones 3–9, 24" x 18", pink blooms, repeat bloomer, tends to be short-lived.

    Alternatives:

    • Dalea purpureum (purple prairie clover). USDA Zones 3–9, 18" x 18", violet blooms, repeat bloomer, a legume and tolerant of most soil.
    • Achillea 'Appleblossom.' USDA Zones 3–9, 24" x 18", soft pink blooms, repeat bloomer.
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  • 05 of 12

    Coreopsis Verticillata Is an Edging Plant and a Lure

    Coreopsis verticillata 'Grandiflora' yellow blooms
    John Lawson/Belhaven/Getty Images

    The threadleaf foliage of coreopsis verticillata makes a nice edging plant for this garden of soft colors. While coreopsis 'Zagreb' is a bolder yellow than the popular 'Moonbeam,' it's a much hardier plant, and it likes to spread out. Butterflies look for large swaths of color. They want to know it's worth their time to fly down and land.

    The threadleaf coreopsis is very easy growing. They set an abundance of flower buds along their wispy flower stems. It's easiest to let the plants bloom themselves out and then shear back the whole plant by 1/3, rather than trying to deadhead. The plants will rally and rebloom in a matter of a couple of weeks.

    • Coreopsis verticillata (tickseed) 'Zagreb.' USDA Zones 3–9, 24" x 18", gold blooms, repeat bloomer.

    Alternatives:

    • Coreopsis verticillata (tickseed) 'Creme Brulee.' USDA Zones 4–8, 20" x 18", gold blooms, repeat bloomer.
    • Coreopsis verticillata (tickseed) 'Moonbeam.' USDA Zones 4–9, 20" x 18", pale yellow blooms, repeat bloomer.
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  • 06 of 12

    Heliopsis Is a False Sunflower That Fools Everyone

    Heliopsis helianthoides flower blooms.
    Anna Omiotek-Tott/Getty Images

    Annual sunflowers get all the attention. There's no denying they can be showstoppers, but the annual sunflowers and their cousins, the false sunflowers or Heliopsis, are no slouches either.

    Heliopsis is a smaller, clumping plant with yellow, daisy-like flowers that bloom in great abundance and for up to three months. Deadheading improves the plant's overall appearance but doesn't seem to matter much for some blooms you get. The major maintenance required with Heliopsis helianthoides is periodic division every three to five years to keep the clump in control ad blooming freely. They can also tend to flop, especially after a rain, and staking keeps the clump tighter.

    • Heliopsis helianthoides (false sunflower) 'Karat' oxeye sunflower. USDA Zones 3–9, 3–4' x 2–3', yellow blooms, repeat bloomer.

    Alternatives:

    • Helianthus salicifolius (willowleaf sunflower). USDA Zones 3–9, 3–5' x 3–4', yellow blooms, mid- to late summer.
    • Rudbeckia fulgida (black-eyed Susan, orange coneflower) 'Goldsturm.' USDA Zones 3–9, 2' x 2', yellow blooms, repeat bloomer.
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  • 07 of 12

    'Sunny Border Blue' About Sums It Up

    Speedwell (Veronica spicata) 'Ulster Blue Dwarf' flower
    Chris Burrows/Getty Images

    No garden should be without some spiky purple/blues. Veronicas have the nice feature of dense, compact foliage offset by tall flower spikes that start blooming from the bottom and work their way up to the tips. This makes the long period of bloom stretch even longer. And it makes deadheading quite simple, too.

    The recent cultivars of Veronica such as 'Sunny Border Blue' and 'Goodness Grows' are worth seeking out for their wide adaptability, tolerance to drought, pest resistant foliage and, of course, their ability to repeat bloom throughout the growing season.

    • Veronica 'Sunny Border Blue.' USDA Zones 3– 8, 24" x 18", violet-blue blooms, repeat bloomer.

    Alternatives:

    • Salvia nemorosa (meadow sage) 'May Night.' USDA Zones 4–9, 18" x 18", deep purple blooms, repeat bloomer.
    • Lavandula augustifolia (English lavender) 'Buena Vista.' USDA Zones 5–10; 24" x 18"; fragrant, purple and violet blooms; mid- and late summer.
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  • 08 of 12

    Echinacea Is a Butterfly Magnet

    Coneflowers
    RiverNorthPhotography / Getty Images

    Echinacea deserves a spot in your garden just because it's a great performer. But it is also a butterfly favorite, and you'll find them sitting on the petals, taking in the sun and nectar. There's been a surge in coneflower breeding recently, 'White Swan,' 'Harvest Gold,' 'Orange Meadowbrite,' and 'Sunset,' making the term 'Purple' coneflower almost obsolete. But having other options doesn't mean the old standbys should be discarded and a butterfly garden is a perfect spot for some of the proven performers of the species.

    • Echinacea purpurea (purple coneflower). USDA Zones 2–10, 3–4' x 3', magenta blooms, repeat bloomer.

    Alternatives:

    • Echinacea tennesseensis (Tennessee coneflower). USDA Zones 3–9, 18" x 18", magenta blooms, repeat bloomer.
    • Echinacea pallida (pale or tall coneflower). USDA Zones 5–9, 3-4' x 18", magenta blooms, repeat bloomer.

    Both of these plants have thinner petals than purpurea, and the tall coneflower is more swept-back.

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  • 09 of 12

    What the Elegant Butterfly Will Be Wearing

    Red, blooming growing lilies (Asiatic Lily)
    Marie Iannotti. The Spruce, 2017.

    As if you need an excuse to plant lilies. Daylilies (Hemerocallis) have become so ubiquitous that true lilies are more exotic than ever. But they're still just as easy to grow as ever. Give them a well-draining spot with at least a half day of sun, and you'll be fighting the butterflies for bouquets. It's always wise to plant extra lilies because they are hard to resist as cut flowers. But leave some for the butterflies. You're not the only one who can't resist the fragrance.

    • Lilium (Asiatic lily) 'Red Velvet.' USDA Zones 3–11, 3–4' x 1–2', scarlet blooms, June–July.

    Alternatives:

    • Zauschneria arizonica (hardy hummingbird trumpet). USDA Zones 5–9, 3' x 2', red-orange blooms, repeat bloomer, loves heat, but not clay.
    • Monarda didyma (bee balm)' Jacob Kline.' USDA Zones 3–8, 3–4' x 3', red blooms, July–August.
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  • 10 of 12

    Agastache Is Varied in Appearance and Pronunciation

    Agastache 'Apricot Sprite', apricot spikes of tasselled florets.
    Craig Knowles/Getty Images

    Most gardeners know Agastache as anise hyssop, the spiky, blue-flowered plant that smells like anise or licorice. Anise hyssop is a versatile plant that will attract plenty of butterflies in its own right, but there is more variety out there in the world of Agastache.

    'Ava' belongs to a group of Agastache commonly called the Hummingbird Mints. The pinkish red flowers start blooming in late summer and stay blooming for weeks. They even seem to get more intense in color as the season progresses. The Agastache pictured here was labeled something like 'Root Beer,' but David Salman, the plantsman who bred Agastache x 'Ava,' that it is Agastache rupestris (licorice mint hyssop), a wildflower species from Arizona and northern Mexico.

    Agastache are hardy, drought tolerant, low-maintenance plants, but they need to get acclimated before they take off. They like rich soil and seem to overwinter better if you don't cut them back until spring. Once established, you'll become an addict and want every new Agastache that comes on the market. Once the butterflies are done with them, you can cut them for dried flowers, as well.

    • Agastache x 'Ava.' USDA Zones 5–10, 4' x 2', rose and red blooms, repeat bloomer.

    Alternatives:

    • Centranthus ruber (Jupiter's beard) 'Coccineus.' USDA Zones 4–9, 30" x 30", rose-red blooms, repeat bloomer.
    • Knautia macedonica. USDA Zones 5–10, 2' x 2', dark purplish-red blooms, repeat bloomer. Note: 6.6 to 8.0 (neutral–alkaline soil) Knautia is a tall, floppy plant, but will weave between other flowers easily. Gets large fast.
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  • 11 of 12

    Weed Called Joe-Pye

    Monarch Butterfly on pink Joe-Pye weed flowers.
    Katrin Ray Shumakov/Getty Images

    Native plants are often mistaken for weeds. As the saying goes, "You don't appreciate what you don't pay for." Joe-Pye has been dressing up roadsides for years. But the butterflies notice and if you turned your head as you drove past, you'd see them flitting about.

    Joe-Pye Weed can be weedy. The species grows very tall and spreads eagerly. But it's been tamed, and there are several excellent cultivars out there now. Perhaps the best and most widely grown is 'Gateway.' Gateway has been scaled down to garden size, but it still makes an impact. This late-season bloomer will carry your butterfly garden well into fall.

    The one catch with growing Eupatorium is that it prefers a moist environment. However, if you can keep it well watered the first season, it can handle a little less than ideal conditions in future years.

    • Eupatorium maculatum (Joe-Pye weed) 'Gateway.' USDA Zones 4–8, 6' x 6', mauve blooms, August–September.

    Alternatives:

    • Buddleia davidii (butterfly bush) 'Potter's Purple.' USDA Zones 5–9, 4–6' x 3–4', purple blooms, repeat bloomer.
    • Salvia uliginosa (bog salvia). USDA Zones 6–10, 4–6' x 4', light blue blooms,k repeat bloomer.
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  • 12 of 12

    Glandularia Canadensis 'Homestead Purple'

    Homestead purple flowers
    muffinn/Flickr/CC BY 2.0

    Glandularia is another pretty, evocative plant name. Rose verbena tells you why gardeners came up with common names in the first place. Despite the tag 'canadensis,' cold climate gardeners may see this plant offered as an annual and an inexpensive one at that. But it's worth a shot at overwintering outdoors.

    Rose verbena starts blooming early in the summer and keeps going if you deadhead it. It also spreads out nicely, making it a good choice for edging. It has kind of a cascading habit, which has made it popular for growing in pots.

    If Glandularia canadensis doesn't ring a bell with too many of you, it's because this plant is so easy to propagate that plant sellers can push it each year as a bedding plant. But it deserves a spot in the front of your butterfly garden, because the mounded clusters of flowers not only give the butterflies a place to land, they offer multiple nectar sources.

    • Glandularia canadensis (rose verbena) 'Homestead Purple.' USDA Zones 6–9, 12" x 9", lilac blooms, repeat bloomer.

    Alternatives:

    • Eupatorium coelestinum (hardy ageratum) 'Wayside.' USDA Zones 3–8, 15" x 20", lavender-blue blooms, repeat bloomer.
    • Nepeta (catmint) 'Blue Wonder.' USDA Zones 3–8, 12" x 18", lavender blooms, June and August.