How to Make a Butterfly Garden

Wondering how to make a butterfly garden? Butterflies are admired for their bright colors and graceful movements. Butterflies are not just attractive insects, but they can help pollinate plants. If you’d like to see more butterflies around your yard, you should consider starting a butterfly garden.

A butterfly garden does not just attract butterflies to your garden, but truly helps butterflies because it gives them a safe space and ample plants and flowers to feed on and lay eggs on.

Pick a Place for Butterfly Gardening

The great thing about a butterfly garden is that it can be any size. Butterfly gardens can be a patch in your backyard, a specific, designated area or it could be a small window box


The Monarch Butterfly attracted to some Aster Woods Purple flowers. The Monarch Butterfly tends to lay their eggs on milkweed. Your garden and host plants should provide for the entire life cycle.

When it comes down to it, starting a butterfly garden is as simple as selecting flowers and host plants that will attract more butterflies. But by taking a few more steps, you can make your butterfly garden a place that will also allow adult butterflies to grow and multiply.

1 Butterfly Garden
Yesterday by Neal Wellons / CC BY-NC-ND 2.0 A colorful butterfly garden filled with flowers of different colors and heights.

When choosing a spot for your butterfly garden, look for an area that receives a lot of sunlight and that adds some protection from the wind.

Choose Your Butterfly Host Plants and Nectar Plants

First, you should check and find out what butterflies are native to your area before creating your butterfly gardens. A plant habitat that is suitable in North America and the United States may not be suitable in Australia. Butterflies like to live in their natural plant habitat. This will tell you what host plants, nectar plants and flowers will be most likely to attract them. However, butterflies use host plants and nectar plants they are accustomed to in their plant habitat for two reasons, to feed on and to lay eggs on the plants.

Butterfly larvae are caterpillars and most caterpillars feed on plant leaves. Many adult butterflies lay their eggs on the underside of leaves. When the eggs hatch, the larvae and caterpillars start feeding on the leaves immediately.

Take for example the Monarch butterfly vs the painted lady butterfly: Monarch butterflies tend to lay their eggs on milkweed, while painted lady butterflies typically lay eggs on thistle. Again, in order to decide what plants you want in your butterfly garden, you should first find out what butterflies are native to your area. It would also be wise to check to see what plants certain caterpillars feed on.

Because both butterflies and larvae will be feeding on these plants, it’s very important that you do not use harsh chemicals on your plants or in your yard in order to protect the larvae and adult butterflies. Of course, you’ll likely have garden pests, but try to minimize the use of any pesticides that you use. Instead, try to only spray pesticides on problem areas, or better yet, use a natural pesticide, such as neem oil.

Annuals are great butterfly plants as they bloom throughout the season, providing a steady and consistent supply of nectar for butterflies in your butterfly gardens. They make for great nectar plants. But other flowering plants and native plants, such as perennials, wildflowers and shrubs, are also attractive to butterflies and can be great additions to butterfly gardens.

Butterflies truly are attracted to bright colors so make sure to use an assortment of flowering plants with flowers of all different colors. It’s also best to design your butterfly garden in a way that staggers the height of the plants as that will be more appealing to butterflies.


A Red Admiral butterfly takes a moment to enjoy some purple coneflowers in a butterfly garden. Butterflies are drawn to bright flowers and purple coneflowers are extra appealing as they offer nectar. 

Other Basic Needs for a Butterfly Garden

Nectar

In addition to ensuring there are plenty of flowers and plants producing nectar in your butterfly garden, it would be worth it to double up with a nectar feeder as well. You can either purchase a butterfly feeder, or create a homemade feeder.

To create a homemade butterfly feeder, you can take an empty, clean jar, such as a baby food jar or small mason jar, and put a small hole in the top of the lid. Then fill the jar about half way with a sweet substance.

Butterflies enjoy sweet, juicy fruit such as peaches and pears. You can add fruit to the jar or you can mix nine parts water and one part sugar and pour the mixture into the jar. On top of that you can stuff the jar with cotton or a sponge and screw the lid on. Set the jar in the garden as an additional nectar source.

Water

Most butterflies like shallow puddles as they can easily get a sip of water from it. A small, shallow dish filled with small stones or sand would work well. This is another good reason to avoid using pesticides because you wouldn’t want any of the chemicals to get into the butterfly’s water source.

Sun

In addition to providing the right plants, a sunny area will be key to drawing in butterflies. Since they are cold-blooded insects, they’ll need sun to warm their bodies. Make sure wherever your butterfly garden is at, it gets plenty of sunlight throughout the day, especially in the morning so that butterflies can warm themselves up.

A large, flat rock or two would be an excellent addition to your butterfly garden as it will allow butterflies to rest and bask in the sunlight.

2 Sunny Flowers
Butterfly Garden (4) by Laura Bernhardt / CC BY-ND 2.0 Getting the conditions correct in your butterfly garden will encourage more butterflies to come in and drink the nectar from your plants. This is why you want sunny locations with a host of plants. 

Shelter

Because butterflies are such tender insects, they could use a little extra protection from the elements. Your butterfly garden is serving as a sanctuary for butterflies so why not add a butterfly house?

A butterfly house has several vertical slots that allow for butterflies to slide in. While some people doubt if butterfly houses get any use, it doesn’t hurt to add one to your garden. It’s a space for butterflies to get away from the wind or rain and it’s also a warmer area for them to go in the cooler months or in the evening.  A bonus is that the house adds a little something extra to your garden.

Alternative Butterfly Foods

Despite the fact that you can try your hardest to maintain a butterfly garden that will bloom until the first frost hits from the early spring months, there will be times each year when the flowers aren’t blooming as much. However, this doesn’t mean that it’s the end of the butterflies in your yard. Instead, you can keep drawing them in by trying to attract species that like less nectar. Hackberry butterflies are one example, and they love overripe fruit. So, you can set out a tray with some bananas, pears, and peaches that are overripe to tempt the butterflies in. 

Fermented molasses or beer can be added to the fruit mash dish. This will draw in Red-Spotted Purple and Question Mark butterflies. You want to replace your fruit frequently to discourage wasps from coming up and taking over the dishes. You may also consider covering the fruit dish with a window screen. The screen will allow the butterflies to bypass and eat while keeping ants and wasps out. 

Butterfly Puddling Stations

Butterflies will also seek out shallow puddles through your garden as a source of drinking water. It’s also a way to help them get key minerals. In bog gardens or very muddy areas, you can see masses of Sleepy Orange or Cloudless Sulphur butterflies congregating. If you want to see this puddling behavior during the hotter parts of the day, try to keep the soil free of chemicals that can cause harm to the butterflies and ensure your soil is very moist. You can set up a shallow dish filled with water and sand or pebbles to provide the butterflies with a valuable drinking station. 

Avoid Pesticides That Harm Butterflies

Pesticides can harm butterflies, and you have to tread lighting in your butterfly garden. Even organic pesticides like neem oil or insect soap can kill butterflies or disrupt their mating and feeding habits. However, you don’t have to necessarily hand your plants over to the pests. You want to shield the butterfly-attractant flowers from powders and sprays when you do use pesticides. Only use the pesticides to help treat outbreaks of insects instead of as a preventative measure. You could also try non-pesticidal methods like water jets, floating row covers, or hand-picking bigger bugs off the plants as you spot them. 

3 Butterfly House
Butterfly House of Fun by FarOutFlora / CC BY-NC-ND 2.0


A butterfly house is seen in a butterfly garden. A butterfly house allows for butterflies to get out of the wind and rain and it also serves as a warming house for butterflies in the evenings or in the cooler months.  A butterfly house is seen in a butterfly garden. A butterfly house allows for butterflies to get out of the wind and rain and it also serves as a warming house for butterflies in the evenings or in the cooler months. A butterfly house can be easily mounted on a pole in the garden or even on a tree near the garden.

Feature Plants for Butterfly Caterpillars

Most butterflies are very specific as to which plants they’ll lay their eggs on. Sometimes, they look for plants in a certain family, and sometimes, the caterpillars will only eat one plant. If you make a point to mix attractive host plants and nectar-rich plants in your butterfly garden, you could end up with several generations of butterflies floating around. Don’t worry about the damage the caterpillars can do to the host plants. Unlike some species, butterfly caterpillars rarely do enough damage when they feed on the plant to kill it or stunt the plant’s growth. It can easily bounce back.

Aster flowers are a very important nectar source for butterflies when they migrate in the fall months. Before this time, the pearl crescent butterfly larvae feed on the foliage. Monarchs need butterfly weed and other plants in the same family to give them the toxins required to make them undesirable to birds or other natural predators. If you’re in Texas or Florida, the zebra butterfly will feed the babies on the passionflower’s foliage alone. For the Eastern portion of the United States, planting a mess of sweet peas can easily attract the iridescent Eastern Tailed Blue to the area. 

13 Plants to Add to Your Butterfly Garden 

If you have your butterfly garden set up but you have no idea which plants to add to it to make it more attractive, we’re going to help. We’re going to give you a host of plants that do well in most butterfly gardens, and they can help you attract a huge range of different species from the summer to the later fall months when they migrate. The best plants for your butterfly garden include: 

Butterfly Bush

These are fast-growing and large shrubs, and they produce flowers that butterflies can’t resist. These are plants that are very easy to care for once you plant them, but they are invasive in some areas due to the adaptability and rapid growth rate. You can get sterile cultivars that won’t run wild and set seed. They work well when you plant them in perennial borders, island beds, or cottage gardens. They have a somewhat messy and loose growth habit that will look right in these spaces. Butterfly bushes tend to grow in a spiral formation, and they can easily reach up to 12-feet tall at full maturity. You can also get dwarf types that have a very compact growth habit if you want something more groomed. 

Lantana

This plant usually produces flowers that are very bright and colorful, and they give you tiny clusters of blooms. Most people choose to grow this plant as an annual, and it works very well for an accent shrub or as a low hedge. You can train the growth pattern to suit your needs, and it tolerates heat while attracting a host of butterflies. The care is relatively simple too, and this makes it popular with novice gardeners. When you first plant it, you want to water it to ensure the roots develop and stay healthy. Established plants can tolerate drought very easily, and they only need around an inch of water a week. The light green foliage can really set the flowers off, and it does well in hanging baskets. 

Lavender

Lavender is an immensely popular plant for your butterfly garden, and the butterflies adore it too. When you plant it, it’ll give you very tall spikes of fragrant flowers that sit above the silver-grey foliage. Each time you brush up against it, lavender will release a very strong, floral fragrance. It was originally a plant from the Mediterranean region, and this makes it a solid choice for areas that get a high level of heat. Also, it can tolerate a heavy drought without damage, and this makes it easy to care for. You can easily dry lavender and use it in potpourri or desserts. You can plant it out in your yard or in contained beds, but you won’t have to worry about the lavender spreading and taking over. 

Phlox

Phlox is classified by the spreading, low-growing habit it has. It’ll eventually form a very low blanket of flowers from the middle of spring throughout the summer months into fall. So, it makes a great addition to your butterfly garden. There are also perennial varieties available that make an excellent groundcover all year-round. Most phlox that you get for your butterfly garden does best in zones four to eight. For the best growth results, you do want to perform a soil test before you plant phlox. This will give you an idea if you need to amend the soil or not. You can get these test kits online or in your local garden centers. 

4 Phlox
Phlox by Anna Hesser / CC BY-NC-ND 2.0 Phlox is a nice groundcover in areas where you have trouble growing grass, and it produces dozens and dozens of eye-catching flowers from a single plant. You will need to maintain it more to ensure it doesn’t spread out of control. 

Coneflower 

This is arguably one of the best flowers you can have in your butterfly garden due to its immense popularity with butterflies. It will give you a nice hit of color during the late summer and early fall months. You can easily plant it along any low-growing perennial bed to encourage the flowers to stand above the rest. They are consistently winter-hardy throughout the United States, and they can withstand everything from harsh Minnesota winters to milder Florida ones. Once this plant establishes itself, it’s very tolerant to drought conditions. They work well in rain gardens too because they can quickly adapt to the wet-dry soil conditions without any damage. 

Bluestar 

Bluestar is a perennial plant that can easily get between two and three feet high at full maturity. It has star-shaped blues in a light blue hue, and this is where the plant gets its name. It works either as a specimen plant or planted in larger masses in your yard. You can also easily add it to a mixed perennial border as long as you put it in the back or middle to prevent it from shading your other plants too much. Bluestar likes to be in partially shaded areas, and the soil should be loamy and moist if you can help it. Make sure it drains well after you water it, and it does well in rock gardens. If you have to plant it in a full sun area, you will have to increase how much moisture you give it. 

Butterfly Weed

Butterfly weed is a type of milkweed. It’s a very drought-tolerant plant, and it’s not overly picky about the growing conditions. This makes it very low-maintenance and easy for novice gardeners to have. You should try to plant it in a sunny location in your butterfly garden, and it’ll give you a show until the late fall months. Bees, butterflies, and other pollinators will flock to this plant and the bright orange flowers. It’ll start pushing through the soil in the late spring months long after early bloomers have made an appearance. It’s hardy in zones three to nine, and you may want to stake the areas where you plant butterfly weed to avoid accidentally digging it up becuase you think the space is bare. 

Sea Holly

This plant offers a large blue-green mass of foliage that looks very eye-catching. You get stunning metallic-blue but small flowers that sit on top of impressive four-foot stems when it matures. Butterflies love these flowers, and the plant is very low-maintenance. This is a tough plant that is extremely tolerant of drought and heat, and this makes it popular in drier climates. To keep this plant happy, you’ll want to put it in a well-draining soil and water it moderately. It won’t do well in constantly saturated soil, but it also doesn’t need any shelter or fertilizer. It’ll give you blooms throughout the summer months, and you don’t have to prune it to keep it looking nice. The leaves are shiny and hairless to add more visual interest to the plant. 

Sedum

Another popular plant for your butterfly garden is sedum. This plant offers very thick, succulent-like leaves. These leaves help it withstand rainy weather and drought conditions without stunting the growth. It’ll form flower buds very early in the springtime, and the flowers will stick around well into the winter months in more mild climates. You can get taller or low-growing types of sedum that do marvously when you plant them in rock gardens. The taller varieties of this plant work as perennial borders. They do best in full or partial sun, and they like a well-drained soil that has a neutral to slightly acidic content. To ensure they have enough room, space the plants a foot or two apart. 

Joe-Pye Weed

If you’re after a statuesque plant for your butterfly garden that can introduce a strong architectural interest to the area, try this plant. It does well as a border for your butterfly garden, and it’ll attract butterflies by the dozen. The foliage does usually decline once the plant blooms, so picking out a late-season bloomer ensures you’ll have a pretty plant until the first frost hits. Some varieties get up to an impressive six feet tall, and they offer large clusters of flowers that drape down from the tops of the tall stems. Also, the foliage has lance-shaped leaves in a brighter green coloring that can help showcase the flower colors. 

5 Joe Pye Weed
This is a classic in butterfly gardens due to the height and how thick the foliage is. Monarchs adore this plant, and they’ll come around as long as it blooms
. Joe-Pye Weed by Don O’Brien / CC BY 2.0 

Penta

Both hummingbirds and butterflies will flock to your garden if you plant Penta. The flowers on this plant sit atop deep green leaves, and this helps highlight their colors. Depending on the cultivar, Penta will get between 18 and 24-inches tall. It’ll spread out between 10 and 15-inches, so you should space them out a little to prevent crowding. They come in white, purple, red, and pink flower colors, and they like to be in a sunny location with a soil that drains very well. The soil should also be nutrient-rich and loose. This plant will require more water or a thick layer of mulch as it tends to dry out very quickly once you water it. Allowing it to dry completely out isn’t good for it. 

Agapanthus

This plant will put on a fun show in the late summer months into the early fall. You’ll get very elegant but large bell-shaped blooms in a deep blue color. The flowers cluster tightly together on sturdy, tall stems. They stand way above the plant’s foliage, so they can easily add some height to your butterfly garden. They need between six and eight hours of sunlight every day to do well, but they’ll need partial shade if you live in a very hot climate. They like moist, fertile soil that drains very well, and they have almost no preference for the soil’s pH levels. The deep green foliage is a perfect complement to the flower colors too. 

Floss Flower

Along with being an excellent plant to repel mosquitoes, floss flower is one that is very easy to grow. It’s a member of the aster family, and it requires partial shade to full sun to do well. It starts to bloom in the midsummer months and it’ll continue to put on a show until the first frost of the fall hits. If it gets too much shade, you’ll end up with leggy plants with fewer blooms. It offers medium-green foliage with fuzzy purple flowers that grow in clumps. The soil should drain well and stay consistently moist, so you can add a layer of mulch around the plant to help lock the moisture in. 

Now that your butterfly garden is ready, you’ll be able to sit and admire the butterflies that stop to rest in your garden. You may see some regulars and hopefully with time, you’ll start to see more as they multiply, thanks to your butterfly garden.

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