The Complete Guide to Butterfly Gardens

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Scrap that dull patch of grass called a front lawn and turn it into a vibrant butterfly garden. Planting an eco-friendly wildflower oasis for this native, beneficial species can help pollinate your vegetable garden and keep pests at bay. With a little bit of planning, you can spend the growing season admiring butterflies as they flit from flower to flower, searching for tasty nectar. Adding a butterfly garden to your landscape can also give a leg up to endangered butterfly species, like monarchs.

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Benefits of a Butterfly Garden

Why bother planting a butterfly garden? In addition to increasing available habitats and food sources for butterflies, you're also likely to attract other beneficial species. Many plants that attract butterflies also entice hummingbirds, bees, wasps, flies, moths and other helpful wildlife. Butterflies help pollinate plants, but they're also an excellent food source for many animals. Larvae are a favorite food source of birds and some insects, like spiders, so decreasing butterfly populations have a ripple effect across the board, impacting ecosystems in significant ways.

By planting a butterfly garden, you can help boost butterfly populations and ensure a consistent food source for animals further up the food chain. Butterflies are beautiful to behold, and so are the flowering plants that attract them. Planting a butterfly garden has both practical and visual appeal.

Planning and Planting Your Butterfly Garden

A butterfly garden isn't just a mishmash of pretty flowers. Creating one involves carefully choosing plants that will provide food for larvae and adult butterflies. The goal is to restore butterfly habitats lost elsewhere, and you don't need a ton of space.

First, your butterfly friends will need host plants. These are plants where butterflies lay their eggs. Caterpillars eventually emerge and feed on these host plants. Host plants for the black swallowtail butterfly, for instance, include plants in the parsley family, such as carrots, fennel and dill.

You'll also need a water source. This not only helps butterflies but other pollinators as well. Bees, for example, often travel a long way to get their food and can benefit significantly from having a drink of water nearby. A fountain is a great option because it circulates water and won't encourage the proliferation of pest insects, like mosquitoes.

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Having rocks around is also helpful. They offer butterflies a spot to rest and bask in the sun on cooler days. Butterflies display a behavior called mud-puddling. By sitting in puddles of moist soil, they extract minerals essential for reproduction. You can support puddling by providing these creatures with a shallow pan filled with moist garden soil and compost.

Butterflies need a way to overwinter. In northern climates, debris around the garden serves as a spot for some species to overwinter. Dead leaves are a favorite overwintering spot, which is why you might want to avoid raking them until the spring.

It's important to choose different flower varieties that bloom at various times throughout the year. This ensures that butterflies and other pollinators have a steady food source (nectar) available. It's a bonus for you if you pick wisely: You'll enjoy a gorgeous flower show throughout the growing season and well into the fall. Butterfly gardens filled with flowers need a spot with full sun, so plant yours in the sunniest area on your property.

Finally, native butterfly species tend to prefer native plants, so avoid planting exotic, non-native flowers. They're a poor food source. Pick plants according to the native butterfly species in your area. There are plenty of online resources that can help you find out which butterflies are common in your city or state. Generally, native flowers with shallow blossoms are better than ones with deep blooms because they provide easier access to nectar.

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Maintaining Your Butterfly Garden

Because butterflies are primarily attracted to native species, a butterfly garden is generally easy to maintain. Native species require a lot less babying than exotic ones. However, some native species can act a little weedy, so pruning and cleaning the garden is vital to keep plant growth in check. Topping flowers before they go to seed at the end of their growth cycle can prevent unwanted plant spread.

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Butterfly gardens usually contain a mix of annuals and perennials; mixing helps ensure there's always food available. Make your life easier by planting more perennials than annuals so you're not having to replant most of your garden each spring. Avoid using pesticides and harsh chemicals that can harm pollinators and instead opt for organic solutions, like sticky traps. Thankfully, by building a varied miniature ecosystem, you're less likely to encounter pest and disease issues.

Watering will depend on the plant varieties you choose. Once established, native species are typically well-suited to local conditions, so they usually do fine with minimal intervention unless there are weather extremes. If it's a dry summer, plan to water regularly to keep your butterfly garden happy. If it's raining a lot, cut back on watering to prevent root rot.

List of Plants to Attract Butterflies

Attracting butterflies is as simple as planting flowers that provide them with nectar, an important food source for these colorful creatures. Additionally, host plants provide a home and food source for emerging caterpillars. Different species attract different types of butterflies.

Asters

This perennial plant features tiny flowers that typically bloom toward the end of the season. They're both a food source and a host plant for many butterfly species, including black swallowtails, common buckeyes, common sulphurs, west coast ladies, viceroys and painted ladies. They grow best in zones 3 to 8. Plant height varies significantly among varieties, from as short as 8 inches to as much as 8 feet.

Butterfly bush

By planting large plants, like bushes, you can provide even more food for butterflies. Bushes also offer shelter from the elements. Butterfly bush, or buddleia, is an excellent bush to plant because of its long bloom time. The bush attracts a variety of butterfly species, including anise swallowtail, eastern comma, ocola skipper, red-spotted purple and zebra swallowtail. In colder zones 5 to 9, this bush is perennial. In many warmer locales, the bush remains evergreen. Butterfly bush can grow up to 12 feet tall and requires regular pruning to maintain its shape.

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Phlox

This low-growing, nectar-producing plant is ideal for borders or rock gardens and is available in multiple colors. They're perennial and grow best in zones 2 to 9. There are a few tall types of phlox that work well for adding visual variety in a wildflower garden. Deadheading phlox ensures they bloom again next year.

Butterfly milkweed

This perennial plant and other types of milkweed are vital to monarch butterfly survival. Unfortunately, it was once the frequent target of government weeding efforts. There's a toxin in butterfly milkweed that makes monarchs taste gross to predators. Feasting on milkweed keeps them safe along their intense migratory journey. It's an aggressive spreader, so keep that in mind when planting it.

Cosmos

Available in various vibrant shades, like pink and red, these tall-growing plants often bloom well into the fall. The annual flowers are an excellent source of food for migrating butterflies, like monarchs, as well as hummingbirds. They're not picky about soil type and can grow in low-fertility soils. Varieties grow between 18 and 60 inches tall.

Coneflower

These easy-to-grow, perennial flowers grow well in many climates and are like butterfly catnip. Plant them and watch the butterflies flock to the tasty nectar. Some examples of butterflies that coneflowers attract include clouded sulphurs, fiery skippers, Hayhurst's scallopwing, spotted admirals, silver-spotted skippers, wild indigo duskywings and zabulons.

Lantana

These flowers provide long-lasting blooms and attract both hummingbirds and butterflies. Some examples of butterflies that perennial lantanas attract include monarchs, spicebush swallowtails, wild indigos, zebra longwings and little glassywings. The semihardy plants sometimes survive the winter and come back in the spring. Survival depends on how cold the winter gets.

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Marigold

These quick-growing annuals offer a burst of bright color throughout the summer. The blooms often last well into late summer and sometimes into fall. They do well in pots, so they're an excellent choice for balcony and container gardens.

Salvia

These tall, drought-tolerant plants are some of the longest blooming in the garden. They attract butterflies, hummingbirds and plenty of other pollinators. Perennial salvia is also known as sage and grows best in zones 5 to 10. Varieties grow between 18 inches and 5 feet tall.

Thistle

This perennial plant is both a host and nectar plant for the painted lady butterfly. It also provides food for black swallowtails, two-tailed swallowtails, sachems and more.

Alyssum

Sweet alyssum tends to attract smaller butterfly species. Bees also like to feed on the flowers. The white variety is a better food source because it usually has a larger number of blooms. The flowers are annuals but readily self-sow.

Wild bergamot

Also known as bee balm, wild bergamot features frilly purple blooms that entice a variety of pollinators. Bee balm, a perennial, readily seeds and spreads, but it's relatively easy to control if you want to prevent it from taking over your garden.

Black-eyed Susan

These flowers are easy-to-grow perennials and feature UV-visible patterns that only butterflies can see. They bloom for a long time, so they provide a long-standing food source for pollinators, including butterflies.

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Zinnias

These annuals are some of the showiest garden flowers. They're available in an incredible variety of colors, shapes and sizes. You can also easily grow them from seed.

Verbena

Verbena is a popular nectar source for many butterfly species, including painted ladies, pearl crescents, red-spotted admirals, zebra longwings, American ladies and black swallowtails. Verbena is available in both annual and perennial varieties. Sizes vary significantly. Some varieties only grow up to 12 inches, while others can get to 6 feet tall.

Yarrow

Available in multiple colors, yarrow plants feature flower clusters that provide plenty of nectar to hungry butterflies. Yarrow is native to North America and grows best in zones 3 to 9. It's a very hardy perennial plant that's both drought-resistant and pest-resistant.

Carrot-family plants

Celery, dill and parsley are the host plant for black swallowtails. Adult butterflies lay their eggs on the tops of plants, and once the caterpillars emerge, they munch on the plant fronds until it's time to pupate. Don't worry if you spot a few of these on your vegetable or herb plants. They don't often do irreparable damage to crops. If you find them a nuisance, you can always plant a decoy crop to discourage them from invading the food destined for your dinner plate. If they end up on your main crop regardless, just transfer them carefully to the plant you've designated as disposable.

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Steph is a freelance writer with over 10 years of gardening experience. She has taught gardening workshops, once created a communal gardening space from scratch, and never tires of sharing her passion for digging in the dirt. She also firmly believes that you can never have too many houseplants.