How to Make a Butterfly Garden

Watching butterflies visit your flowers, flowering shrubs, and perennials is one of the delights of gardening! As they flutter from flower to flower or stop to sun themselves on flat rocks, it’s easy to be captivated by their ethereal beauty. It’s also a great way to get kids interested in gardening. With more than 20,000 species of butterflies in the world, in most of the U.S. you can see about 100 different species near where you live. Whether you have a huge yard or a tiny balcony, you can attract these pretty garden visitors by offering food, water, and shelter for every stage of their lives.

Here’s what else you need to know about how to design and create a butterfly garden:.

Butterflies need different things at different life stages.

These beneficial insects start life as an egg that’s been laid on the leaf of a host plant. Some butterflies have very specific tastes and will only lay eggs on certain plants. For example, the Monarch feeds only on milkweed. When the eggs hatch, caterpillars start munching on the host plants. Within a few weeks, each caterpillar (that doesn’t get eaten by birds or other predators!) spins a protective casing called a chrysalis. After about two weeks, the adult butterfly emerges, spreads its wings to dry, and starts looking for food and a mate.

How to Make a Butterfly Garden

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How do I attract butterflies to my garden?

Your garden needs flowers for adult butterflies to sip and host plants for the baby caterpillars to chow down once they emerge from the chrysalis. Most flowers require full sun, which is 6 or more hours of direct sunlight. Offer lots of different types of flowers to attract specific kinds of butterflies and to provide blooms from spring to fall so there’s always nectar available. Container gardens work, too, if you have limited space.

Butterflies bask to regulate body temperature, so place flat stones throughout the garden where butterflies can hang out to absorb heat. Trees and shrubs offer shelter for butterflies, so make them part of your planting plan, too. Although butterflies are most active during the warmest parts of the day, they’ll seek shade when temperatures exceed 100 degrees. Finally, avoid broad spectrum insecticides which can kill all insects including the beneficial ones, not just the pests.

What kind of flowers should I plant in a butterfly garden?

Butterflies will sip nectar from many different kinds of plants. Favorite annuals include sweet alyssum, marigolds, petunias, heliotrope, lantana, verbena, zinnias and sunflowers. Favorite perennials, which come back year after year, include asters, asclepias, coneflowers, and dahlias. They also like flowering shrubs such as abelia, butterfly bush, caryopteris, diervilla, and rose of Sharon.

yellow swallowtail butterfly

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Plant flowers in large swaths, instead of one or two plants scattered here and there throughout the garden so butterflies will easily find them. You also can try setting up a butterfly feeder filled with rotting fruit (though this can attract unwanted visitors, too!). Also, more butterflies visit when host plants for their babies are nearby, so make sure you offer plants where they like to lay their eggs. If you’re worried about looking at chewed up leaves once the eggs hatch, plant extra host plants! Some for you, some for the caterpillars. Or tuck these plants into inconspicuous spots in your garden.

Although each type of butterfly has its preferences for host plants, favorites typically include parsley, dill, fennel, borage, and milkweed. Other species like shrubs and trees such as serviceberry, willow, dogwood and viburnum. Search here to find out what kinds of butterflies are common in your part of the country and what types of plants they prefer.

Butterflies also need water.

Butterflies won’t drink from deep sources such as birdbaths. Instead, you’ll often see butterflies at the edges of puddles or creeks, where they obtain salt and minerals needed for reproduction. So, place a shallow saucer filled with wet sand among your flowers at ground level, fill with sand and yard soil, and keep damp.

Do I need a butterfly house?

Butterfly houses are cute, but they’re only garden ornaments. Butterflies usually don’t take shelter in them, instead preferring to rest on flat rocks or sheltered in shady areas such as shrubs. The species that spend the winter as adults lodge behind loose bark or in tree crevices.

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