Choose the Right SiteButterflies need sunshine and warmth, so choose a sunny spot. They can't fly against strong winds, so avoid exposed, windswept places. Trees and shrubs not only provide shelter from wind, they also provide places for the butterflies to overwinter, and for caterpillars to make the chrysalis where they will transform into butterflies. Many trees are good host plants for the young larvae, and some provide nectar as well. A sunny corner with shrubs nearby is perfect. Prepare the ground as you would for any garden.
Keep it SafeButterflies are insects, and insecticides—even ”natural” ones—will kill them. So will weedkillers and other garden chemicals. So, let Nature's diversity be your defense. By planting lots of kinds of flowers and other plants, you are creating a more balanced habitat that will attract predator insects to control most pest outbreaks. If you have shrubs, mulch, rocks, and lots of kinds of plants, there will be places for them to live and multiply. (Remember, too, that there are no butterflies without caterpillars!)
Choose the Right FlowersOur Butterfly Garden Collection gives you six easily-grown flowers that butterflies love. Most of them are bright and colorful. Once the big colorful flowers have attracted the butterflies, you can help provide more nectar for them by adding other, less conspicuous blooms. Look for flat clusters of pale-colored flowers like parsley, yarrow, fennel, dill, carrots (Queen Anne's Lace),alyssum, and lovage, where they can land easily. Avoid double flowers like most roses, where there is no nectar for them, and long tubelike flowers where they can't reach the nectar. (Hummingbirds like those though.) Bright, hot, colors like orange are favorites, along with white, which contrasts strongly with the foliage. Plants that bear a lot of flowers are more visible at a distance.
Include Host PlantsAdult butterflies, while they have favorites, can drink nectar from many plants. Their babies, however, (the caterpillars that will be the next generation of butterflies), need specific plants to nourish them. The adults lay their eggs only on the specific plants their young need, and they don't stick around long if those plants aren't at hand. Don't forget that the plant itself is food for the young caterpillars, so the plants will get eaten. You probably want to plant them behind the nectar flowers, where they will be close at hand for the butterflies, but not too conspicuous for the viewer.
For a start, our collection includes a milkweed—the host for monarchs—and fennel or dill, which is a host for swallowtails and others. Hollyhock is a common host plant you may want to add. Many, many butterflies need host plants that are native to the part of the country where they live. If you want to include more of these host plants tailored to your area, we recommend you check this webpage for what butterflies and host plants are native to where you live:
Start your Plants RightStart the seeds as early in spring as you can. Some will want to get started indoors, and others need a period of cold and wet to sprout best, so read the labels and time your plantings as needed. Milkweeds like a cold start ; they also are taprooted and don't transplant well. So start them in the ground, in a well-weeded, composted spot, and mark the place well. They can take up to 2 months to sprout, so make sure that the area isn't disturbed.
Make Your Flowers Easy to FindGrouping helps butterflies notice your garden. Put several plants of each type together, so you have a patch rather than a lone stem. (3' wide and 3' long is good.) And if you have several kinds of flowers together, that makes your invitation even plainer. If there are a mixture of nectar and host plants, there are conspicuous masses of flowers, and there are blooms all summer, then you have the best chance of becoming a butterfly magnet.
Be a Dependable Food Source All SeasonIt's important to have a succession of flowers that goes from mid-spring to fall. The late flowers are particularly important to Monarchs on their long migration to Mexico. Food can be hard to find at that time, and they can wear themselves out trying to find it. If you still have easy-to-see masses of bloom in fall (like zinnias, cosmos, and tithonia) you will be an oasis for them.
Meet Their Other Needs, too.Butterflies like to have a few warm rocks to sit on and soak up the sun. Flying takes a lot of energy, and they can only fly if they are warm. They also need water, but open water is dangerous to them. They love a saucer (the kind that goes under a flowerpot) full of wet sand. They will come and stick their drinking tubes into the sand like a straw, and drink. It is fascinating to watch. Just wet the sand in the saucer or tray when you water the plants.
Don't Be Too TidyAt the end of the season, don't be in a big hurry to tidy and clean up all the dead stems, leaves, and plants in your garden. Some of them might be the winter home of butterflies-to-be. Often, the chrysalis where caterpillars transform themselves into butterflies looks just like a dead leaf. Some butterflies overwinter as eggs on stems or in the leaf litter under your plants. Like the host plants, winter killed plants don't have to be front and center. For example, if you had a butterfly garden between a path or patio and a fence, the area in back by the fence could have your host plants, perhaps with some shrubs at the sides(and in back if there is room.) That area could be left with dead stems, fallen leaves, and a lot of “wild” habitat, while the edge by the path could be neater. If there are small evergreen shrubs (like lavender, rosemary, or box) in front or among the host plants, the area would look neat year-round, and there would be good cover for overwintering as well.
This work by Bountiful Gardens is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License.