How to Create a Butterfly Garden

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vibrant purple flowers with a single butterfly sitting on one

Butterflies are more than just pretty-looking bugs — they play an important role in fostering a healthy environment. 

By growing native wildflowers and other butterfly-friendly plants as food sources, you’ll be strengthening your local ecosystem. Flowering plants will help decorate your backyard, and the butterflies they bring in will boost the health of your garden. They might even invite other pollinators, such as hummingbirds and bumblebees, too. 

You can enjoy these colorful creatures by building a butterfly habitat in your own backyard. Read on to learn how to create a butterfly garden, what butterflies you might attract, and how they benefit your local environment. 

How to design a butterfly garden

1. Select a prime location

Butterflies love to bask in the sun, so make sure you find a full-sun area in your backyard. They are cold-blooded, meaning they cannot regulate their temperature. A sunny spot is imperative for creating a welcoming environment for butterflies to bask in. 

Ensure that your butterfly garden gets at least six hours of direct sunlight per day. It’s also a great idea to place flat rocks around for butterflies to relax and catch some rays.

2. Learn about butterflies in your area

When choosing what to incorporate in your butterfly garden, you’ll want to focus on providing an environment and planting flowers that will attract butterfly species that already live in your area. It can be hard to figure out what to plant since there are hundreds of species of butterflies in the United States and thousands across the world. 

To learn more about the butterfly species in your area, you can:

  • Visit your local zoo, if they have a butterfly section, and ask a zookeeper for their expertise.
  • Check to see if your local botanical garden has a butterfly house. If so, visit and see what you can learn from the staff.
  • See if there are any other butterfly houses or conservatories in your area and speak with an expert about the species local to your region.
  • Get some tips from a nearby gardener that has a butterfly garden of their own.
  • Purchase a field guide of butterflies in your region or check one out from your local library. 

3. Choose the right plants

To build a thriving butterfly garden, you’ll need to include both nectar plants and host plants.

  • Nectar plants provide a source of food for adult, migrating butterflies. These are typically brightly-colored flowers with shallow blossoms. 
  • Host plants are where butterflies will lay their eggs. They provide a source of food for growing larvae. Caterpillars rarely do enough damage to host plants to harm or kill them. 

Select plants that grow at a different range of heights and bloom at different times of the year. Some butterflies will seek out nectar from tall flowers, and others will look for shorter flowers. You can add levels by growing vines on a trellis or by potting flowers and hanging them from an outdoor structure. 

Your local butterfly species will most likely be attracted to plants native to your region. It’s important to grow a variety of native species in your butterfly garden because butterflies can be picky about where they’ll eat and lay their eggs. 

A diverse selection of native plants will lead to a diverse population of butterflies and caterpillars. 

Common butterfly-friendly “nectar” plants

Perennials

  • Anise hyssop (Agastache foeniculum)
  • Butterfly weed* (Asclepias tuberosa)
  • Common milkweed* (Asclepias syriaca)
  • English lavender (Lavandula angustifolia)
  • New England Aster* (Symphyotrichum novae-angliae)
  • Purple coneflower (Echinacea purpurea)
  • Purple passionflower* (Passiflora incarnata)
  • Scarlet beebalm (Monarda didyma)
  • Tall blazing star (Liatris aspera)
  • Wild petunia* (Ruellia nudiflora)

Shrubs

  • Butterfly bush (Buddleja marrubiifolia)
  • Southern arrowwood* (Viburnum dentatum)
  • Texas lantana (Lantana urticoides)
  • Virginia willow (Itea virginica)
  • Yellow Zinnia (Zinnia grandiflora)

Annuals

  • Black-eyed Susan* (Rudbeckia hirta)
  • Northern bog violet* (Viola nephrophylla)
  • Skunkweed* (Cleome serrulata)
  • Texas bluebonnet* (Lupinus texensis)

*Indicates the plant is also a host plant

Common caterpillar-friendly “host” plants

Plant:Larval host of:
Butterfly weedGrey hairstreak, Monarch,
Queen
Black-eyed SusanGorgone Checkerspot,
Bordered patch
Cabbage Cabbage White
CarrotBlack Swallowtail
CloverOrange sulphur
Common milkweedMonarch
CottonwoodTiger swallowtail, Viceroy
DillBlack swallowtail
New England AsterPearl crescent, Checkerspot
Northern bog violetNokomis fritillary
Purple passionflowerRed-banded hairstreak,
Mexican butterfly,
Zebra Longwing
River birchTiger swallowtail
SkunkweedCheckered white
Southern arrowwoodSpring Azure
Texas bluebonnetHairstreak, Elfin
Wild black cherryTiger swallowtail
Wild petuniaCommon buckeye,
White peacock
WillowTiger swallowtail, Viceroy

4. Keep butterflies full with alternative foods

If your nectar and host plants are starting to wither, you can make your butterflies a kind of fruit salad to provide nutrients for adult butterflies. 

When the garden’s no longer in bloom, toss some overripe fruit in a bowl and top with a “condiment” such as beer or molasses to keep butterflies visiting your backyard.

Possible things to include in your fruit salad:

  • Peaches
  • Pears
  • Bananas
  • Oranges
  • Strawberries
  • Fermented beer
  • Molasses
  • Brown sugar

The fruit will ultimately attract bugs like ants and wasps, so be sure to replace them frequently. You can place a window screen over the bowl if it’s shallow to keep wasps and bees out. Butterflies have a long proboscis, so they won’t be deterred by the screen. 

5. Incorporate butterfly shelter

Butterflies need access to shelter in harsh weather, such as heavy rain or wind. Butterflies are more attracted to natural coverage than colorful butterfly houses, and butterfly houses are actually more inviting to pests such as paper wasps. 

To prevent unwanted wasp colonies from making a home in your garden, opt for more natural butterfly shelter such as: 

  • Stacked wood
  • Rock piles
  • Dense shrubs
  • Trees (dead or alive)
  • Tall grass

6. Create an area for butterfly puddling

What is puddling?

Puddling is a common behavior for butterflies and other insects where they seek out moist areas to perch and ingest water through their proboscis. 

Butterflies need access to shallow puddles of water to stay hydrated and get access to key minerals and nutrients. Some butterflies even live exclusively in boggy areas, such as the Sleepy Orange Butterfly and the Cloudless Sulphur.

You can create an artificial puddling station by placing a shallow dish filled with sand or pebbles and water somewhere within your butterfly garden. This is sometimes called a “butterfly bath” as it’s a smaller, more shallow version of a birdbath. 

7. Keep an eye on your soil conditions

If you want a garden full of beautiful butterflies, your soil must be free of chemicals, especially if butterflies will be puddling directly on the ground. 

Most pesticides will threaten butterflies (and even bees). Even organic options such as neem oil and insect-repelling soap will repel butterflies, mess up their feeding habits, and disrupt their mating process. 

Avoid using unnecessary pesticides, and only use them when needed. By avoiding preventative pesticide applications, you’re giving butterflies a healthy environment to thrive. 

Instead of using pesticides, use alternative insect control methods, such as:

  • Floating row covers
  • Hand-picking large insects
  • Water jets

What to avoid if you want butterflies

Here are a few things you should avoid if you want butterflies visiting your backyard: 

  • Shade
  • Growing only nectar or only host plants
  • Pesticides
  • Neem oil
  • Insecticide soap
  • Red flowers (Some butterflies cannot see the color red. Instead, look for nectar-bearing flowers that are bright yellow, pink, white, orange, and purple.) 
  • Plants from outside of your hardiness zone

Why design a butterfly garden?

Butterfly conservation is important for ensuring the health and enrichment of wildlife and the environment. 

Butterflies are threatened by habitat destruction as suburbs and cities across the country expand, wildfires rage on, and deforestation continues. Building a butterfly garden helps to mitigate their displacement and invites them to your yard to entertain you and help your plants thrive.

Butterflies contribute to your local ecosystem through pollination. Butterflies pollinate your garden and flowers, an essential part of the life cycle for both plants and butterflies. 

Planting native plants for your butterfly garden helps support your local ecosystem and attracts a variety of butterflies to your backyard. 

Common butterflies in the U.S.

Some of the most common butterflies in America include:

ButterflyHost plants
Tiger Swallowtail (Papilio glaucus)Cottonwood, birch, ash,
wild black cherry, tulip tree,
sweet bay (magnolia), willow
Black Swallowtail (Papilio polyxenes)Carrot, Queen Anne’s lace,
dill, parsley
Cabbage White (Pieris rapae)Cabbage, broccoli, cauliflower,
radishes, horseradish, nasturtiums 
Orange Sulphur (Colias eurythemeVetch, clover, alfalfa
Monarch (Danaus plexippus)Milkweed, butterfly weed
Viceroy (Limenitis archippus)Cottonwood, willow, aspen,
cherry, plum, apple

FAQ about butterflies

1. What is the life cycle for butterflies?

Butterflies have four life stages: egg, larvae, pupa, and adulthood. 

Their life cycle length will depend on the species, but for most butterflies, after three to seven days, the butterfly egg will hatch into a larva or caterpillar. 

Butterflies stay in the larvae stage for two to five weeks, then form a chrysalis and begin their pupa stage. The pupal stage differs in length depending on the species, lasting between weeks and years. 

Most butterfly species have an adult stage that lasts about two weeks long. 

2. How do butterflies help the environment?

Butterflies are pollinators, meaning they carry pollen from the stamen to the stigma of the same (or another) flower, fertilizing it. Pollination is essential for the plant reproduction process. 

They also eat weedy plants and are a source of food for other wildlife.

3. What are their predators?

Wasps and flies are the enemies of butterfly larvae. They are also threatened by spiders, ants, and birds. Adult butterflies are more threatened by reptiles and bats. Other predators include rats, parasitic flies, toads, and dragonflies.

4. When will I see butterflies in my garden?

When you might find butterflies in your garden is largely dependent on where you live and the kind of plants you put in your butterfly garden. 

Plants have different bloom times and different species are attracted to different nectar sources. That’s why it’s important to plant different types of native plants to attract a variety of butterflies. 

Butterflies usually emerge during the morning and bask in the sun through hot afternoons. They prefer hot, humid weather, so summer is typically the peak season for you to find butterflies in your garden. Butterflies will migrate or hibernate in colder temperatures, so you won’t easily find them fluttering around during the winter.

Want to watch butterflies fluttering around your backyard, but don’t have the time or energy to build a butterfly garden of your own? Contact a local lawn care expert to lend a hand and get flowers blooming in your backyard. 

Main Photo Credit: iankelsall1 | Pixabay

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