How to Make a Butterfly Garden

butterfly on a flower bud

The Spruce / Randi Rhoades

Butterfly gardens are a popular feature in the home garden landscape. In fact, creating Monarch butterfly waystations has become the major goal of preservationists across the United States Flowering plants and shrubs like butterfly bush, butterfly weed, and the pincushion flower ‘Butterfly Blue' can attract these winged beauties to your garden, but learning about the life cycles and feeding habits of butterflies can increase your garden’s allure considerably.

Plant Butterfly Friendly Flowers

Traditional flowers that you see in butterfly gardens include brightly colored plants with shallow blossoms that allow easy nectar access. Popular butterfly perennials include milkweed, coneflowers, hyssop, asters, and liatris. Flowering shrubs add structure to the landscape while nourishing butterflies, so include some viburnum, sweetspire, and elderberry. These plants and shrubs all thrive in full sun, which butterflies need to maintain their metabolism.

Use a mix of annuals and perennials to prolong blooming time. Flowering containers allow you to exchange plantings during low-blooming lulls in the garden, like late spring and late summer. Use a combination of window boxes, patio containers, and hanging baskets to help create staggered blooming heights in the butterfly garden. Stick to nectar-rich flowers like pentas, cosmos, lantana, petunias, and zinnias instead of sterile hybrid flowers to ensure a steady supply of nectar.

In addition to a variety of colors, include plants of differing heights to attract more butterflies. A short row of flowering bedding plants may look attractive to homeowners, but it doesn’t satisfy the needs of some butterflies. In nature, butterflies fill specific feeding niches by focusing on flowers at certain heights. By including flowers that grow at a range of heights, you can achieve a professional-looking border, and you will attract a greater variety of butterflies. For example, Tiger Swallowtails seek tall flowers like Joe Pye weed and honeysuckle vines. The Least Skipper and Little Yellow butterflies prefer flowers closer to the ground, like lavender, dianthus, and asters.

Plant nectar flowers in groups instead of singly. Butterflies prefer to move from bloom to bloom of the same type of flower rather than fly from one nectar plant in search of another that may be growing some distance away.

Add Plants for Butterfly Caterpillars

Serious butterfly gardeners plant both nectar and host plants. Host plants are those on which the female butterfly will lay her eggs and for many butterflies that choice is very specific. The host plant must provide food for the growing caterpillars. Some butterflies seek out plants in a particular family, and others will lay eggs on one plant and one plant only. If you intermingle attractive host plants with nectar rich plants in your flower garden, you may find yourself fostering one butterfly generation after the next. Damage to host plants is minimal since butterfly caterpillar feeding rarely causes death or stunted growth on healthy plants.

Aster flowers are an important source of nectar for migrating butterflies in the fall, but before that, the larvae of the Pearl Crescent butterfly feed on its foliage. Monarchs depend on butterfly weed and other plants in the milkweed family to provide them with the toxins that make them unpalatable to birds and other predators. The showy Zebra Longwing butterfly, a Florida and Texas resident, feeds its babies exclusively on the foliage of the passionflower. If you reside in the Eastern half of the United States, you may attract the iridescent Eastern tailed-blue to your garden with a host planting of sweet peas.

Include Butterfly Shelter Areas

Butterflies need shelter from wind and rain but will seek out natural areas such as dense shrubbery or stacked wood. Butterfly houses that look like wooden blocks with tall, narrow slots can serve as a colorful piece of yard art in your butterfly garden. They are more likely, though, to attract a paper wasp colony, and will be the butterflies' last choice for a place to hibernate or rest.

Offer Alternative Butterfly Foods

It can become a challenge to keep all your nectar and host plants going all season long and many butterflies are attracted to alternate food sources. Placing overripe fruit like peaches, pears and bananas in a shallow dish will help to continue the feeding cycle for adult butterflies when nectar plants move past bloom.

Fermented beer or molasses can act as the condiment on the fruit main dish, proving irresistible to species like the Question Mark and Red-Spotted Purple. Replace the fruit frequently to discourage wasps and ants from taking over the buffet. You can also cover the fruit with a window screen, to block wasps and bees. With their long proboscis, butterflies will still be able to feed. .

Provide Butterfly Puddling Stations

Butterflies seek shallow puddles in the garden not only as a source of drinking water, but also as a way to obtain vital minerals. In fact, the Cloudless Sulphur and the Sleepy Orange butterfly may congregate en masse in muddy areas or bog gardens. Look for this puddling behavior in the hottest part of the day, and keep your soil free of chemicals that can harm sensitive butterflies. A shallow dish filled with pebbles or sand and water can act as a valuable drinking station on hot days.

Avoid Pesticides That Harm Butterflies

When it comes to pest control, butterfly gardeners must tread lightly. Most pesticides will harm or kill butterflies (as well as other beneficial pollinators like bees and parasitic wasps). Even organic pest control options like insecticidal soap or neem oil can kill butterflies or disrupt their feeding and mating habits. However, this doesn't mean you have to hand your flowers over to the aphids. Only use pesticides to treat insect outbreaks, not as a preventative treatment. Finally, try non-pesticide insect controls, like floating row covers, jets of water to blast away small insects, and hand-picking large insects like beetles.

A Fun and Worthwhile Garden Project

Designing and planting a butterfly garden is a fun project for the entire family. Children often enjoy helping out with gardening tasks especially when the reward is a visit from lots of beautifully patterned butterflies.

Article Sources
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  4. Burris Judy, Richards Wayne. The Life Cycles of Butterflies. Storey Publishing 2006. ISBN 978-1-5807-617-0