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How to Make a Butterfly Garden (In 5 Easy Steps!)

Butterflies are important for gardens because they can be pollinators for fruiting and flowering plants. Transforming your landscape to attract them not only provides a nice colorful feature to your outdoor space but is a great way to contribute to their conservation. When you make a butterfly garden, you can easily choose plants to attract your region’s butterfly species. With 17,500 species of butterflies existing worldwide and over 750 species in the United States, there’s a lot of opportunity to promote biodiversity in your own yard.

These beautiful insects come in many colors and patterns and have unique feeding habits. It’s also fun to learn about their life cycles, from caterpillar to cocoon to butterfly. In this article, we’ll cover how to make a butterfly garden that double-ups as a sanctuary for them to hang out and multiply.

Read on for the 5 detailed and straightforward steps towards enjoying the fascinating beauty and life-cycle of butterflies.

Simple 5 Step Guide to Make a Butterfly Garden

To help you get started on creating a garden sanctuary fit for butterflies, here’s a 5-step guide with everything you need to know.

Step 1 – Find a Suitable Location

There’s more to the location you select for your butterfly garden than you might initially think. While you can plant flowers that attract them anywhere outside, to create a sanctuary for them to feel safe and lay eggs, you need a location with the following conditions:

Have Direct Sunlight

Your garden location should have an area that receives at least 5 to 6 hours of direct sunlight. If possible, pick a spot that gets sun earlier on in the day. Butterflies are cold-blooded insects that seek warmth, especially first thing in the morning. Butterflies lose their ability to fly if they are too cold, and ideal flying temperatures are in the 80’s. 

Include Wind Cover

The location must also be sheltered at least partially from the wind. Too much wind will lower the butterfly’s body temperature and make it difficult for them to fly. A windy area can also limit the blooming time of the flowers you plant for them. Consider the following as potential windbreaks:

  • Rocks
  • Trees
  • Shrubs
  • Fences
  • Vines

Have Optimal Soil

Choose a location with soil that is rich in organic matter and drains well. This will allow your butterfly plants to thrive better.

You can also add compost to improve your soil’s structure and increase the necessary nutrients. Add 3 inches of compost to your soil and mix it into the top 8 inches of the existing soil. You can make your own compost at home from yard waste and food scraps or purchase packaged organic compost online. 

Consider purchasing a raised garden bed if you don’t have a location with the right soil composition. Multiple garden beds placed strategically can create a beautiful outdoor setting suitable for your butterflies. A good brand with chemical-free and naturally rot and insect resistant products is Greenes Fence Company.

Be Cautious About Butterfly Houses

A butterfly house is a tall narrow box about 2 feet high and 5 inches in diameter. They also have narrow, long slots on them to allow butterflies to enter but keep birds out. While some people love adding butterfly houses as a shelter option, be aware that these wooden structures can also attract wasps. Once a paper wasp colony takes over, your butterflies will likely steer clear. Wasps are actually predators of butterflies and caterpillars. 

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Step 2 – Choose the Right Plants

Probably the most important step is choosing the right plants to attract butterflies and act as suitable hosts for their caterpillars. You will want a diverse range of nectar and host plants of different heights, flowers, and colors to attract a wide range of butterfly species. These include flowers, trees, shrubs, and perennials to provide a mix of bloom time.

Read on for additional information on what to research when choosing plants and optimal plants for popular butterfly species.

tiger swallowtail butterfly

The more colorful the better

Butterflies see colors on a different spectrum than humans do. Butterfly eyes have more types of photoreceptors and can also detect ultraviolet (UV) light. Brighter colored flowers, especially those pink, red, purple, and white reflect UV light better than darker colors, and this UV light is what guides butterflies to flowering plants so they can feed on the nectar. 

Do Your Research

With so many butterfly species worldwide, the first step is to research the common species found in your region. From there, you will be more informed on what plants you are looking to add to your garden. Overall, you want nectar-rich flowers that are tubular and have landing strips, such as:

  • Lantana
  • Petunias
  • Coneflower
  • Asters
  • Bee Balm

Butterflies are picky when it comes to the plants they will lay their eggs on. They want to make sure the caterpillars that hatch have the best chance of survival and becoming new butterflies. So make sure to research what host plants the caterpillars of the butterfly species you want to attract will feed on.

To make your garden easier to maintain, also make sure the plants you select can thrive in your region’s weather conditions. While exotic plants can seem enticing, they might not be as resilient as ones native to the climate in your area.

Popular Butterflies and Their Plants

Butterfly speciesScientific nameNectar plantsCaterpillar host plants
MonarchDanaus plexippusBuddleia, Aster, Lantana, Daisy, Zinnia, Cosmos, Milkweed, Red Clover, and DogbaneButterflyweed, and other Milkweed plants
Tiger SwallowtailPapilio glaucusJoe Pye weed, Buddleia, and Honeysuckle vinesBirch, Black Cherry, Willow, and Poplar
Orange SulphurColias eurythemeAster, Alfalfa, Clover, Dandelion, Zinnia, Parsley, Verbena, and other composite family meadow flowersAlfalfa, Clover, Lupine, and Vetch
American Painted LadyVanessa virginiensisVetch, Goldenrod, Dogbane, Aster, Burdock, Heliotrope, Daisy, Mallow, and PrivetDaisy, Burdock, Everlasting, and other composites
Little YellowEurema lisaLavender, Clover, Asters, and DianthusCassia and Clover
Silver-Spotted SkipperEpargyreus clarusDogbane, Clover, Privet, Winter Cress, Thistle, and other meadow flowersWisteria, Beans, Licorice, Beggar’s Tick, and Black Locust
Pearl CrescentPhyciodes tharosDogbane, Aster, and MilkweedAster
Zebra LongwingHeliconius charithoniaVerbena, Shepard’s Needle, and LantanaPassion-vine
Gorgone CheckerspotChlosyne gorgoneGoldenrod, Sunflower, and other yellow flowersSunflower and Crosswort
Falcate OrangetipAnthocharis mideaStrawberry, Mustard, Violet, and ChickweedMustard and Rock Cress

Step 3 – Prepare Your Garden

Besides planting the flowers and plants you selected from above, below are other things you need to do as well to make the garden a sanctuary to attract butterflies and encourage reproduction.

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Add Some Rocks

Since butterflies seek warmth, adding large rocks that quickly warm up in the sun provides a hang-out spot for butterflies to bask on and start their day. Make sure you position the rocks in direct sunlight but also sheltered from winds.

Have Water Puddles Available

Butterflies get thirsty too, but they can’t drink from open water and prefer shallow puddles. You will often find them perched on muddy areas for water and minerals. Recreate this by mixing sand, soil, and water in a shallow bowl or plant saucer.

Make sure the sand, gravel, and/or soil is wet, but there’s no standing water. You also want to avoid any chemicals in the soil that can harm the butterflies. They are actually trying to absorb salt from the substrates as well as hydrate.

zebra swallowtail | source: USFWS Midwest Region

Plant Shrubs and Small Trees

Besides protecting them from the wind, mindfully placed shrubs and small trees in your garden area provides butterflies with a place to hide from predators or to roost at night. Some of the caterpillar host plants listed in the previous step also make for good resting places for butterflies.

Prepare Alternative Food Options

It can be difficult to keep nectar plants blooming all season long, and sometimes there’s a gap between blooms and replanting new plants. Prevent disruption of the butterfly’s feeding cycle and encourage continuous visitors, by providing them with alternative food sources.

Have a location where you can place a shallow dish to lay out food when your natural food sources are scarce. Place overripe fruit onto the dish, such as bananas, pears, and peaches.

Step 4 – Avoid Pesticides

Butterflies are insects and invertebrates, so pesticides or insecticides, even when labeled organic, will harm or kill them. To protect your garden, consider non-pesticide insect and weed control methods instead, including:

  • Floating row covers or insect screens to protect your plants, especially during their early stages of growth
  • Hand-picking larger insects such as beetles
  • Using jets of water to blast away smaller insects
  • Attract pest predators, such as ladybugs and lacewings
  • Add plenty of mulch to prevent weed growth
  • Plant perennial plants and dense ground cover to prevent weeds from having space to grow

Step 5 – Have Patience and Enjoy!

Last but not least, have some patience and wait for your planted butterfly garden to bloom. While it might only take a few hours or a day to set up the garden and plant everything, it can take multiple weeks for the flowers to develop and start attracting butterflies.

American lady butterfly

Consider Butterfly Food

Suppose your plants have bloomed and you still don’t see any butterflies visiting. In that case, you can consider adding butterfly food to your garden. Some species prefer the added sodium and protein from commercial butterfly nectar to supplement their diet. You can purchase Butterfly Kits that come with a feeder and nectar.

Enjoy Metamorphosis

Once you start seeing butterflies, expect them to leave eggs on the host plants their caterpillars enjoy feeding on. After the eggs hatch, you will have to be patient with the hungry larvae and caterpillars eating away at leaves (and damaging your plants). However, soon they will attach to a branch or twig, form a chrysalis, and metamorphose into butterflies in around two weeks. The wait to see new butterflies emerge from the chrysalis is definitely worth it!