Do you have a garden already? Why not make it a butterfly garden!
This will increase its beauty while also aiding in the conservation of butterflies.
Fortunately, it’s very easy.
In this blog, we’ll discuss how you can make a butterfly garden in your own backyard.
1. What should you know about butterflies?
Butterflies are the adult stage of certain insects belonging to an order or group called Lepidoptera.
Another insect belonging to this group is the moth.
As a child, you likely learned about the butterfly’s stages of life.
They go from egg, larva (caterpillar), pupa, and finally to adult butterfly.
The transformation of a butterfly is beautiful, but it’s also incredibly functional.
Regardless of what stage the butterfly is at, they serve a different purpose in the garden.
Here are some of the facts you should know if you’re hoping to host butterflies in your garden at any stage.
Butterflies normally love a sunny garden.
They are cold-blooded and must be warm to fly.
Many butterflies must have temperatures greater than 65 degrees Fahrenheit to fly.
They use the sun to warm themselves.
As a result, it isn’t surprising that most butterfly nectar plants are also sun-loving plants.
Keep this in mind as you plan out what you want to plant in your butterfly garden!
Butterflies do not care about the shape of a garden.
Feel free to create whatever layout you like with garden plots, foundation plantings, fences, containers, etc.
Butterfly plants often consist of native plants, which means your fertilizer requirements may be lower.
Organic fertilizer is normally best, but you should be okay with some chemical fertilizer.
Either way, soil preparation is necessary (just the same as with any garden).
2. How do you create a butterfly garden?
Here are the basic steps for creating a gorgeous butterfly garden.
We’ll expand on many of these details in the sections below.
Step 1: Make a plan
Which species of butterflies are in your area?
Which ones do you want to attract to your butterfly garden?
What you plant will have a big impact on which butterflies you see, so keep this in mind throughout the planning process.
Make a list of plants that will support those specific butterflies and then move forward with the rest of the below steps.
Step 2: Select a site for your butterfly garden
The location of your butterfly garden is one of the most important components in this process.
You can plant a garden anywhere.
You can do it in your backyard, on your front porch, or on a raised deck.
A pollinator will benefit from it no matter where it is.
However, if your intention is to create a butterfly sanctuary (rather than just a small butterfly corner), then you’ll need to make sure that your location has all the following conditions.
1. Sun: Because butterflies require a lot of sun, you should be sure that your garden gets at least 5-6 hours of full sunlight each day.
We also recommend using rocks that will warm quickly and provide a nice spot for your butterflies to sun.
2. Shelter: While your goal is to have a sunny garden, your butterflies will need shelter from the wind and rain.
Look for somewhere where your butterflies have shelter.
If you don’t have a place with some existing trees/shrubs already (or don’t plan to plant any), then you could also plan to place a butterfly house in your garden.
More details on that below!
3. Water: While butterflies get quite a bit of water from nectar and sap, puddling stations can be beneficial.
See below for how to create a puddling station.
4. Pesticide-free: Pesticides can be used with good intentions, but they often harm our butterflies.
Read more below about what to do about pests, and be sure to choose a section of your land that isn’t currently treated by you, your neighbor, or your municipality.
Step 3: Get to know your soil
Your soil is a big part of whether your butterfly garden thrives or dies.
Most butterfly plants thrive in soil that drains well and is rich in organic matter.
We recommend using compost (if available) to boost the soil structure and add nutrients.
The standard practice is to add 3 inches of compost to the top of the soil and mix it into about the top 8 inches of soil.
If you’re finding it particularly difficult to balance your soil, consider using a raised garden bed.
You can also optimize the flowering potential of your butterfly plants by using a balanced fertilizer in your newly composted soil.
Step 4: Plant selection
There are a few ways to choose the best plants for your butterfly garden.
1. Native plants
Native plants tend to be the hardiest for your garden.
They occur naturally and thus work well for the local butterfly species inhabiting your region.
Your nursery should be able to help you find native plants to put in your butterfly garden.
2. Nectar plants
Nectar plants are those that will provide nectar to butterflies.
Many garden centers will indicate whether a plant is butterfly-friendly with signs.
However, just because a plant is “butterfly friendly” doesn’t necessarily mean it’s caterpillar friendly.
For butterflies to lay eggs in your garden, there must be plants local caterpillars can/will eat.
3. Food plants
And this brings us to food plants!
You want to make sure there are also plants for your caterpillars to feast on so they can go through all the phases of their life cycle.
3. What flowers attract butterflies?
Most (if not all) flowers will attract butterflies.
However, these same flowers will also attract bees and hummingbirds.
This is nothing to be scared of if your goal is a vibrant and healthy garden.
Butterflies, bees, and hummingbirds each have something that they can offer your garden.
That said, if you have no trouble attracting bees and hummingbirds, but there’s not a butterfly in sight, then here are some popular butterfly bushes, shrubs, perennials, and blooms that you may try out in your garden.
These are the traditional flowers you see in butterfly gardens that include brightly colored plants with shallow blossoms.
Shallow blossoms mean that nectar is easily accessible for butterflies.
We recommend perennials like milkweed, coneflowers, hyssops, asters, and liatris.
Consider using flowering shrubs to add structure to your landscapes.
These shrubs will provide nutrients for your butterflies while thriving in the full sun.
We suggest viburnum, sweet spire, and elderberry.
Butterflies require a steady supply of nectar, so you’ll want to include nectar-rich flowers in your garden.
Plant nectar flowers in groups instead of separately.
Butterflies like to move from bloom to bloom of the same type of flower instead of flying from one nectar plant in search of another that may be growing some distance away.
We recommend the following nectar-rich flowers: pentas, cosmos, lantana, petunias, zinnias.
4. How should your flowers be planted in a butterfly garden?
Flowers should be planted at varying heights and in various colors to attract more butterflies.
While you may prefer a short row of flowering plants as a homeowner, this simply won’t do for butterflies.
Each butterfly species is accustomed to filling specific feeding niches in nature.
They focus on flowers at certain heights.
Selecting flowers at various heights will allow you to achieve a professional-looking border and permit you to attract more butterflies.
Good examples of this would include tiger swallowtail butterflies that seek tall flowers like Joe Pye weed and honeysuckle vines.
Lavender, dianthus, and asters are great for skipper butterflies and little yellow butterflies that are closer to the ground.
5. How should your butterfly garden accommodate caterpillars?
As you create your butterfly garden, don’t forget that caterpillars transform into butterflies.
Therefore, you want to have plants that cater to caterpillars as well.
Serious butterfly gardeners will plant both nectar and host plants to foster generations of butterflies.
Host plants give females a place to lay eggs and also offer necessary food for growing caterpillars.
Here are some of the best flowers you can plant to support butterflies in various stages.
1. Aster flowers: These are critical sources of nectar for migrating butterflies in the fall.
However, before that, the larvae of the pearl crescent butterfly feed on the foliage.
2. Butterfly weed: This is a plant (along with others in the milkweed family) that offers monarch butterflies a critical food source with an unpalatable toxin that repels birds and other predators.
3. Passionflower: This plant offers food for the showy zebra longwing butterfly.
That butterfly is most often found in Florida and Texas.
It only feeds its babies this foliage.
4. Sweet peas: This plant is considered a host.
It attracts iridescent Eastern-tailed Blues to gardens in the eastern half of the U.S.
6. What type of shelter do butterflies need?
Butterflies require shelter from wind and rain.
In nature, they will seek out natural areas such as dense shrubbery or stacked wood.
In a butterfly habitat, we recommend creating wood blocks with tall, narrow slots that can serve as colorful pieces of yard art.
When something is colorful, butterflies are more likely to be attracted to it.
Beware, however, that a paper wasp colony could also find it an attractive place to build their nest.
If this occurs, then your butterflies will not want to shelter there, so you’ll need to take care of that ASAP.
7. What are alternatives to butterfly foods?
You may find it challenging to maintain host plants and nectar all season long in your butterfly garden.
Fortunately, these aren’t the only butterfly foods available.
Some other food sources include sweet liquids or mushy fruits.
Simply place items in a shallow dish and replace them frequently to discourage wasps/ants from taking over the buffet.
If other insects or pests are a consistent problem, then you can cover the fruit with a window screen to block them.
Butterflies will still be able to feed on the fruit due to their long proboscis.
Here are some alternative foods you may want to consider adding to your butterfly garden.
Overripe fruit like peaches, pears, apples, and bananas
Liquid fruit nectar from a can
Clear sports drinks
You may also consider adding fermented beer or a drop or two of molasses to the fruit.
This will act as a condiment and become irresistible to certain butterfly species, like the question mark butterfly and the red-spotted purple butterfly.
Before using their proboscis, butterflies taste with their feet.
To help them avoid getting stuck, place a tiny drop of a sticky substance like molasses on fruit on a small sponge so it can be somewhat absorbed.
8. How do butterflies drink water?
Butterflies use shallow puddles in a butterfly garden as their source of drinking water.
It’s also how they obtain vital minerals.
You may see certain types of butterflies, like the cloudless sulphur butterfly and the sleepy orange butterfly, congregating in muddy areas, bog gardens, or with the partridge pea plant to host their larvae.
This puddling behavior is most likely to happen in the hottest part of the day.
We recommend keeping your soil free of chemicals that can harm sensitive butterflies.
A puddling station can be creative using a shallow dish, pebbles or sand, and water.
9. What types of pesticides harm butterflies?
When gardening, it’s important to keep pests out of your garden.
However, it’s equally important to tread lightly when your pest control methods could also harm your butterflies.
Most pesticides that will kill small insects or beetles will also harm or kill butterflies, bees, or other beneficial pollinators.
Unfortunately, even organic pest control options (i.e., insecticidal soap or neem oil) can harm butterflies by disrupting their feeding and mating habits or killing them altogether.
With that, you don’t have to hand over your butterfly garden to the pests entirely.
We recommend only using pesticides to treat insect outbreaks — not as a preventative measure.
You can also try non-pesticide insect controls like floating row covers and jets of water to blast away small insects.
You can also hand-pick larger insects such as beetles off of your plants.
Are you ready to create your own butterfly garden?
This can be a great way to expand the flower or vegetable garden that you already have a protect local butterfly species.
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