How to: plant a butterfly garden

I don't know if you've heard, but the monarch butterfly is decreasing in population lately. They have declined by 85% in the last decade. Now Monarchs are different than other butterflies in that they only have one host plant for the caterpillars and it happens to grow in ditches in a long roadside so it's often treated as a weed and destroyed. That plant is milkweed, more on that later.

butterfly on flower in butterfly garden

However it's not just the monarchs! Over 450 butterfly species have declined in population since 1972! Butterflies are crucial pollinators (along with bees) for many produce crops. No pollinators equals no food! We already know there's problems with the bee population and now... here we are with butterflies!

There is something you can do though! Plant a butterfly garden.

What is butterfly gardening?

Butterfly gardening is the art of growing flowers and plants that will attract all sorts of butterflies to your garden. It creates a safe habitat for them to eat, breed and hide from predators. A butterfly garden can be a stand alone garden or a section of your existing garden. 

Or, it can just be adding plants that butterflies prefer to your garden or landscaping. It's kind of a no rules thing and can be designed to fit your particular yard situation.

Before planting, it is important to find out which plants and flowers will attract the species of butterflies that live in your area. I simply did a search for butterflies in Pennsylvania. I also went through my photo app in my phone and did a search with the word butterfly in the search field. I could then see the pictures of every butterfly I ever took. I compared those to the list of butterflies in my state and made my list.

After you have written your list of local butterfly species, be sure to look up and jot down what these particular species of butterflies use for nectar and food plants. Also if you did the little photo trick mentioned above write down which flowers the butterflies were on in the photos. You'll want to add some of these!

Related reading: How to raise Monarch butterflies.

How do you create a butterfly garden?

First you'll need to pick the right location. Butterflies are cold-blooded creatures and therefore do better where they are warm and sheltered. Be sure that your garden is in a location that provides at least six hours of sunlight per day. Most flowers grow best in full sun anyway.

Also, wind can be a butterfly's worst enemy so be sure to have plenty of wind protection in your design. You can plant tall shrubs and other plants in order to create a wind break, but a location that avoids heavy winds is even better. 

I have both my butterfly garden areas next to the woods so the trees create a natural wind break. The best of all would be a butterfly garden placed on the sunny side of your home with windbreaks on both the west and east sides, or wherever the prevailing winds come from in your area. Along a solid wooden fence would be a great idea too. 

Supply a source of water in your butterfly garden. Butterflies like drinking from shallow puddles so a shallow bird bath with some large flat rocks in a sunny spot would be perfect.

fritillary butterfly on a purple aster

What kinds of flowers go in a butterfly garden?

Butterflies are attracted to the flowers that have nectar rather than pollen.

summer lilac
Purple Coneflower
Yellow Sage
black-eyed Susan
Liatris (blazing star)
day lilies
Joe-Pye weed
Butterfly Weed
Butterfly Bush

When you select nectar-rich plants for your garden, look for varieties that are both prolific bloomers and have a long bloom time. Butterflies love purple Coneflowers and Asters which are great because they bloom well into fall.

Butterflies are especially attracted to yellow, orange and red. They are seeking nectar, but their mouths (proboscises) are very small, so they prefer flatter flowers they can perch on while they feed.

I see a lot of butterflies on my rhododendron & Azaleas. The problem with rhododendron and azaleas though, is that they have a really short bloom time. However they do bloom early in the year. You don't necessarily have to include flowering bushes in your butterfly garden, but it's a good idea to have them near by. 

Don't worry about crowding everything into one area. The monarch butterfly can travel up to 100 miles in one day, they can definitely find the flowers on the other side of the yard! I plant native wildflowers in a small clearing in the woods and the butterflies find them just fine.

Monarchs and milkweed

In order to attract butterflies, we need to feed the caterpillars that hatch out to be butterflies. Milkweed is a great plant to add to butterfly gardens because not only do all types of butterflies enjoy the flowers, but monarch butterflies lay their eggs on milkweed plants exclusively! 

You have to have food in your garden for all life phases of the butterfly if you want to attract them. You'll want to look up what the caterpillars you hope to attract to your garden eats and plant those also. For instance a certain type of swallowtail butterfly likes to eat dill plants. Dill isn't a particularly flowery plant, but still it will attract swallowtails.

These plants are popular with different types of caterpillars, but you might want to plant them at the back of the garden so you wont’ see the damage:

Wild Asters
Nettles & Thistles
Turtlehead (Chelone)

Believe me...a few big caterpillars can do some serious damage!

Butterfly garden upkeep

You'll want to thin your perennials from time to time. If the garden gets too dense the lack of airflow between plants can limit their growth potential and make them stressed which makes them more susceptible to disease.

Of course annuals will need replaced yearly and you might have to handpick bugs that are damaging plants (like Japanese beetles) because pesticides would be a huge no no!

Mulching near the base of the plants each year should keep weeds under control and occasionally side dressing with compost should help boost the soil.

Other than that, just sit back and watch the butterflies (and bees) flock to you!


Related reading: There are 10 Ways to attract bees to your garden, which ones will you grow?

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