Butterflies are important for gardens because they are essential pollinators for fruiting plants. Transforming your landscape to attract them not only provides a nice colorful feature to your outdoors but is a great way to contribute to their preservation. 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 750 species in the United States, there’s a lot of options!
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 5 to 6 hours of direct sunlight earlier in the day. Butterflies are cold-blooded insects that seek warmth, especially first thing in the morning. They can’t fly when their body temperature is lower than 85 degrees Fahrenheit, so they prefer feeding in the sun.
Include Wind Cover
The location must also be sheltered 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:
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 definitely avoid your garden area to hibernate or rest.
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.
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:
- 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 species||Scientific name||Nectar plants||Caterpillar host plants|
|Monarch||Danaus plexippus||Buddleia, Aster, Lantana, Daisy, Zinnia, Cosmos, Milkweed, Red Clover, and Dogbane||Butterflyweed, and other Milkweed plants|
|Tiger Swallowtail||Papilio glaucus||Joe Pye weed, Buddleia, and Honeysuckle vines||Birch, Black Cherry, Willow, and Poplar|
|Orange Sulphur||Colias eurytheme||Aster, Alfalfa, Clover, Dandelion, Zinnia, Parsley, Verbena, and other composite family meadow flowers||Alfalfa, Clover, Lupine, and Vetch|
|American Painted Lady||Vanessa virginiensis||Vetch, Goldenrod, Dogbane, Aster, Burdock, Heliotrope, Daisy, Mallow, and Privet||Daisy, Burdock, Everlasting, and other composites|
|Little Yellow||Eurema lisa||Lavender, Clover, Asters, and Dianthus||Cassia and Clover|
|Silver-Spotted Skipper||Epargyreus clarus||Dogbane, Clover, Privet, Winter Cress, Thistle, and other meadow flowers||Wisteria, Beans, Licorice, Beggar’s Tick, and Black Locust|
|Pearl Crescent||Phyciodes tharos||Dogbane, Aster, and Milkweed||Aster|
|Zebra Longwing||Heliconius charithonia||Verbena, Shepard’s Needle, and Lantana||Passion-vine|
|Gorgone Checkerspot||Chlosyne gorgone||Goldenrod, Sunflower, and other yellow flowers||Sunflower and Crosswort|
|Falcate Orangetip||Anthocharis midea||Strawberry, Mustard, Violet, and Chickweed||Mustard 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.
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.
Place 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.
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.
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!