Creating a Butterfly Garden in Your Backyard
Butterfly gardening and growing plants that attracts butterflies is a fun and rewarding pastime. Although you may think that butterflies, like other insects, can “fend for themselves”, critical butterfly habitats are lost annually to development through the United States and beyond. Every time a strip mall replaces a meadow, acres of habitat that once welcomes various species of plants, butterflies, birds and insects is lost. When new housing developments replace farmland and grassland, more acres are lost. Even simple practices intended to keep roadsides free of weeds can have harmful consequences; spraying for kudzu and other invasive species can harm native plants, too.
Fortunately, awareness is growing among backyard gardeners, highway departments and townships nationwide that butterflies are an important part of our ecosystem. Ladybird Johnson started the movement to plant beautiful wildflowers along the national highways, and today most municipalities sponsor some type of highway improvement program that nurtures native plants and wildflowers along highway medians. Backyard homeowners are increasingly aware of the dangers of careless pesticide use, and are moderating or ceasing the use of harmless chemicals that can kill insects including butterflies and moths. As news of the demise of honeybee hives nationwide reaches the ears of the average consumer, awareness grows that life depends on an interconnected web of pollinators and pollen, plants and insects, insects and mammals, mammals and plants. We cannot rid ourselves of one and expect others in the web not to suffer the consequences of untrammeled growth.
Although progress can, will and in many areas should continue, we can do our part to minimize the impact of modernization upon local flora and fauna. Butterfly gardening is one way that the average homeowner can do his part to protect and nurture pollinating insects. Many backyard gardening enthusiasts are hanging birdfeeders and turning their yards into wild bird sanctuaries; my book, Attract Birds to the Garden, is for just such enthusiasts. Whether you hang a little bird feeder near your kitchen window or plant a few pots of parsley for swallowtail butterfly larvae, you’re doing your part to help rather than hurt the local wildlife.
Butterfly Gardening: What You Will Find Here
This guide to butterfly gardening for beginners is divided into several parts. You can reach it straight through from the beginning to the end, or use these convenient links to jump to the section that interests you most. At the end of this guide, I provide links to online sources of information for butterfly gardeners including plant species lists, butterfly identification guides and other resources to help those interested in further information.
- What Is Butterfly Gardening?
- Gardening to Attract Butterflies: Nectar Plants
- Gardening to Nurture Butterflies: Caterpillar Food and Shelter
- Butterfly Gardens for Containers
- Plan Your Butterfly Garden
- Adding a Butterfly Garden Area
- Enhancing an Existing Garden
- Butterfly Garden Projects for Children
- Books and Butterfly Garden Accessories
- Resources for Backyard Butterfly Gardening
A butterfly garden is any garden planted to attract beautiful, colorful butterflies. You may already have plants that attract butterflies in your yard; a butterfly bush, a few pots of petunias or a bed of zinnias may already be the start of a wonderful butterfly garden. But butterfly gardens are more than flowers. They’re complete ecosystems that nurture and sustain butterflies through the three phrases of their lifecycle: larvae, pupae (chrysalis) and butterfly.
- Larvae: Butterflies do lay eggs, and the eggs hatch into larvae or caterpillars. This lifecycle is devoted to FOOD –think of them like little eating machines! A larvae’s job is to munch his way through enough nutrients and calories so that he can successfully pupate and turn into a butterfly. Some caterpillars are brightly colored with stripes like a zebra, hairy spines to ward off predators, or colors that mimic more dangerous predators. These adaptations warn birds and other animals away from them so that the larvae aren’t eaten before they can mature into pupae.
- Pupae or Chrysalis: The chrysalis or cocoon houses the pupae. After completing the larval stage, the caterpillar finds a safe spot to spin a chrysalis or cocoon around himself. Chemical messengers tell the cells of his body to begin the amazing transformation from larvae to butterfly. Most cocoons are the very well camouflaged for the area where the species hides them. Many species of butterflies remain in the pupae stage over the winter, emerging in the spring once their transformation is complete.
- Butterfly: At last nature signals the pupae to burst forth from his chrysalis, and a butterfly is born. Butterflies are intent upon finding mates so that they can continue the lifecycle. During their mature season, butterflies drink nectar using a long appendage called a proboscis. When they move from flower to flower, they pollinate some plants, thus helping along the plants that in turn generously provide them with sweet nectar.
A butterfly garden offers butterflies plants to sustain them through each phase of their life cycle. A true butterfly garden includes trees, shrubs, flowering plants and plants for food. Many butterfly gardens also include water sources, too.
You can create a butterfly garden within your existing garden. They don’t need to be big; even a small area can be planted with a few herbs that feed the larvae, and flowers to feed adult butterflies. A butterfly garden can even be as small as a container garden planted in a window box, planter or large pot placed on a sunny deck. Any planting that feeds, nurtures and shelters butterflies at any stage of their life cycle counts as a butterfly garden in my book!
My Butterfly Garden
Let me pause here to share with you my butterfly garden. I got into butterfly gardening by accident. When we moved into our home here in Virginia, my husband noticed that the area to the north side of our driveway was very steeply sloped. He wasn’t comfortable riding the tractor over such a steep slope to cut the grass, so he asked me to plant “a few flowers” there. Famous last words. I ended up planning an elaborate flower garden with pathways and dedicated flower beds for roses, butterfly gardens and more!
The butterfly garden area here at my farm, Seven Oaks, began as a kit purchased from a gardening catalog. The kit container seeds, plants, and a planting guide –a sort of road map to where to plant everything. We planted the little seedlings according to the map, watered them, and hoped for the best.
The garden was such a success and brightened the whole landscape that we decided to add more butterfly garden plants. The Buddleia, or butterfly bush, helped us along that path by producing copious amounts of seeds and seedlings or baby plants the following year. We purchased other butterfly gardening plants including catmint (Nepeta), salvia, and zinnia seeds for our little area. The area thrived, and today it is the highlight of my flower garden.
The butterflies find sustenance for their larvae in my yard among the wild trees we’ve left growing along the forest edge. Wild cherry, dogwood and sumac provide abundant shelter and food; forsythia provides a nice plant for the butterfly caterpillars to hide their cocoons. And in the vegetable garden, a portion of my dill and parsley is gratefully tithed to the butterfly caterpillars each year. Without my caterpillars chomping away at the herbs, I wouldn’t have butterflies.
While my yard is quite large, you can successfully plant a butterfly garden in containers, window boxes, or among your existing landscape shrubs. I’ll show you how later on in this guide.
The key to attracting butterflies to the garden is to plant a variety of annuals, perennials and shrubs that butterflies like. These plants should flower at different times, starting in the spring and continuing to the fall, to ensure a constant supply of nectar for butterflies. (If you’re creating butterfly gardens in containers, don’t worry about planting perennials or shrubs. You can create a beautiful, attractive butterfly garden with annuals, too.)
A variety of nectar-producing flowers is essential for butterflies. Butterflies sip nectar through a long, needle-like tube called a proboscis. The proboscis on each species of butterfly or moth is shaped differently. Some can sip nectar from long, tube-like flowers; others need shallow-cup flowers. Planting a variety of flowers attracts the widest variety of butterflies to your garden.
Nectar plants vary according to your gardening zone and country of origin. Here in the United States, most gardening zones can plant one or more of the following nectar-producing butterfly garden plants.
Perennials that Attract Butterflies
For a comprehensive look at any of these plants, consult a good plant guide or gardening catalog.
- New England Aster (Aster novae-angliae), summer and fall blooming
- Sky Blue Aster (Aster azureus), summer and fall blooming
- Smooth Aster (Aster laevis), summer and fall blooming
- Bee Balm (Monarda didyma), summer blooming
- Wild Bergamot (Monarda fistulosa), summer blooming
- Black-Eyed Susan (Rudbeckia hirta), summer blooming
- Dense Blazing Star (Liatris spicata) summer to fall blooming
- Butterfly Weed (Aesclepiaas tuberosa), late summer to early fall blooming
- Cardinal flower (Lobelia cardinalis), summer to fall blooming
- Wild columbine (Aquilegia canadensis), spring to summer
- Coreopsis (Coreopsis major), summer
- Wild geranium (Geranium maculatum), spring-summer blooming
- Goldenrod (Solidago), summer-fall (avoid if you have allergies)
- Iron Weed (Veronia noveboracensis), summer-fall
- Jerusalem Artichoke (Helianthus tuberosus), fall
- Joe Pye Weed (Eupatorium maculatum), late summer
- Maximilian’s sunflower (Helianthus maximilianii), summer-fall
- Ox-eye sunflower (Helipsis helianthoides), summer
- PawPaw (Asiminia tribola), spring
- Phlox, spring
- Purple Coneflower (Echinacea purpurea), summer
- Spicebush (Lindera benzoin), spring
- Virginia Bluebell (Mertensia virginica), spring
- Yarrow (Achillea species), summer-fall
Some butterfly garden perennials sold in the United States may become invasive species in certain parts of the country. Most of these plants are imports or non-native plants. If the conditions are right, they thrive, and sometimes take over an area. Check with your local Cooperative Extension office to see if any of these plants are considered invasive species in your area:
- Bush honeysuckle
- Asian bittersweet
- Japanese honeysuckle
- Butterflu bush
- Queen Anne’s lacy
- Day lily
Annual Flowers to Attract Butterflies
For those planting a butterfly garden in a small space or adapting an existing landscape to become a butterfly garden, the easiest way to attract butterflies is to plant annual flowers in pots or containers, or intersperse butterfly-attracting annuals among your existing landscape trees, shrubs and perennials. The follow annual flowers attract beautiful butterflies, and some, like geraniums, will even attract hummingbirds.
- Sweet alysum
- Bachelor’s Buttons
A butterfly garden wouldn’t be complete unless it provided support for butterflies throughout each phase of their life cycle. A well-rounded butterfly garden includes plants for larvae (caterpillars) to much on as well as shrubs for shelter.
I like to grow extra herbs and plant them in my butterfly garden with the full expectation that they’ll be eaten. Nothing makes me happier than to see a caterpillar slowly munching his way through a dill or parsley plants. Herbs are so easy to grow that I can easily spare a few for the caterpillars.
Some wild trees and shrubs also provide excellent habitats for caterpillars and larvae. Their branches and leaves shelter the cocoons and provide a wind break for mature butterflies during storms. If you have any of these shrubs on your property, count yourself lucky. You can add one or two if you’d like to provide an additional habitat for butterflies as well as birds.
Larvae (Caterpillar) Plants: Plants Butterfly Caterpillars Feed On
- Mustard greens
- Shrubs and Trees
- Native spicebush
- Black cherry
- Tulip tree
You can easily plant a butterfly garden in a container for your patio, deck or poolside. All you need is a large, clean container or pot with drainage holes, sterile potting soil from the garden center, a bright, sunny area, and a selection of host (larvae) and nectar plants.
- Choose a large container that is at least 18 inches in diameter or larger. You can put big containers on wheeled dollies, available at your local garden center, to make them easier to shift around after they’re filled with soil.
- Make sure that the container has drainage holes drilled into the bottom. This allows excess water to wick away after a rainstorm and prevents the plants from rotting. You can place rocks on the bottom of the container to prevent the soil from washing away. Packing peanuts are a lightweight replacement for stones that also prevent soil washout but enable drainage.
- Fill the container halfway with sterile potting soil.
- Choose 4 larvae feeding plants and 6 nectar annuals. I like to mix edibles such as parsley and dill with pretty flowers like petunias, lantana, or verbena in the container.
- When you have your plants, make some test arrangements while they’re still in their containers so you can move them until you’re satisfied you like the arrangement.
- Plant them when you finally like your arrangement. Tip the container over, tap the bottom and pull the plant out gently. Place the roots inside the container and add soil. Pat it down. Plant all of your plants, and then water it well. Keep it watered!
- You can also add rocks and a puddling area for water. Large, flat rocks piled up near the puddling area will be of great value to butterflies. I make puddling areas with large soup bowls or similar platters purchased from my local thrift shop or at yard sales. These mismatched pieces of china often sell for a quarter or less, and make great water elements for container gardens! Bury it to the rim, and then fill with coarse gravel or sand. Put water in it and voila – instant puddling area!
Some gardeners might want to add a new butterfly garden area to an existing landscape, or add a dedicated butterfly garden to their backyards. I built my butterfly garden in a new garden area on the side of my driveway. The area is very steep, and my husband did not want to use the riding mower on the area to cut the grass, so he asked me to plant a few flowers there. Famous last words. I created pathways and dedicated garden areas. One, of course, is for butterflies.
If you decide to add a special area just for butterfly garden plants, make sure it is in bright, direct full sunlight. The area should receive six or more hours of sunshine each day. This provides enough light for both the nectar and larvae plants, as well as enough warmth so that butterflies visiting on a cool day will cherish their time in the garden and warm their wings there.
To create a new, dedicated butterfly garden area, follow these steps:
- Choose an area in your garden that receives bright, direct sunlight for six or more hours a day.
- It’s a good idea to pick an area close to your home or to a deck or other area where you spend most of your time outdoors. This way you can enjoy time in the garden and time with your butterflies.
- Measure the area out if it’s an existing lawn. Geometric shapes, such as rectangles and squares, are more formal than a kidney-shaped area or an area was a softly curved boundary.
- Have the soil tested at your local Cooperative Extension office and follow the suggestions to add amendments to improve the soil for your butterfly garden area.
- Plant shrubs and trees first, then perennials. Leave the recommended space between plants – don’t squash them together. Although the area may look funny at first with so much space between your plants, as they grow, they will fill in the space nicely. You can always plant annual flowers and caterpillar feeding herbs and plants in the empty spaces until the perennials and shrubs grow in.
- Add large, flat rocks for butterflies to sun themselves and a puddling station if there’s room.
One of the easiest ways to attract more butterflies to your garden is to add butterfly nectar plants to an existing landscape. Don’t hesitate to tuck annuals in among the shrubs at the front of your home. Who said that pretty flowers should only be in the back yard? If there’s enough sunlight in your front yard, add marigolds, petunias and other butterfly-attracting annuals.
- For homeowners with more space and full sunlight, nectar-producing perennials added to the garden can also transform an existing garden into a butterfly paradise.
- Keep in mind a few landscape design tips when enhancing your existing garden with butterfly attracting plants:
- Plant flowers in odd numbered groups such as a cluster of 3, 5 or 7 for a natural look.
- Stagger the planting spaces to avoid the “soldiers in a row” look of single-file flowers.
- Work with the existing landscape and architecture of your home to enhance it with butterfly gardening flowers. If your home is informal or country-style, a cottage garden effect created by tall, tumbling flowers would look lovely. Conversely, if your home is modern, with sharp angles and lines, consider some of the more unusual specimens among the list of butterfly garden flowers.
Plant Mini Meadows
One of the easiest ways to add butterfly garden flowers to a yard is to plant them in unused sections of the property. Do you have a stretch of grass between your garage and a fence, for example? How about turning the grass under and planting meadow flowers instead? Many meadow seed mixes contain butterfly garden flowers, and you’ll add back a bit of natural habitat without a major design change in your garden. It’s a win-win for you and for the butterflies!
Children love butterflies, but some over-eager kids might want to start a ‘butterfly collection’ and catch them with a net. I’ve had to discourage some youngsters from their enthusiasm, but I always try to guide them into more productive enjoyment of the butterfly garden. These two ideas for butterfly garden projects with children can help your children not only learn more about butterflies and gardening, but have some fun, too!
- A Photo “Butterfly Collection”: Purchase an inexpensive digital camera for your child. Many good child-friendly digital cameras are under $50 now, and you can upload the pictures to your computer and print out what you’d like to save. Ask your child to record as many butterflies in photos as he can. Then, print the pictures and match them to the species name in a good butterfly identification guide. Start a scrapbook of butterflies your youngster has “collected” via the digital photographs and encourage him or her to write about the butterflies. The compositions can be facts about butterflies or creative stories about the butterflies. Let your child’s imagination soar with the butterflies in the garden!
- Make a Butterfly Puddle: Your child can make a simple butterfly pool or puddle to add to the butterfly garden. All you need is the lid from a container, such as a big plastic lid from a gallon of ice cream or a similar container. Paint the outside the non-toxic paint, and sink it into the ground in the butterfly garden. Add rocks, stones and sand; try to add one big flat rock to the center for the butterflies to use as a landing and sunning perch. Add water, and keep water in the shallow puddling area.
If you’d like some suggestions for your butterfly garden, I’ve put together this list of books and garden accessories for your butterfly garden.
1. Kaufman’s Field Guide to Butterflies of North America: This book is an excellent resource for gardeners seeking to identify butterfly species visiting their gardens. The color-coordinated index really makes identification easy. The book is made with a very durable cover and pages too, which is also great since you are probably going to be flipping through it a lot!
2. Audubon Cedar Butterfly Shelter: While it’s not absolutely necessary to provide a shelter for butterflies in your butterfly garden, it’s kind of fun to hang a butterfly shelter and see if any of the critters fly in and relax there. This Audubon Butterfly shelter is constructed of sturdy, weather-resistant cedar.
3. Kids Butterfly and Hummingbird Habitat Kit: For the child who loves nature, this is the ultimate kit to inspire them to get outside and garden. Kit includes feeders, books, and more.
4. Insect Lure Live Butterfly Culture: This is just an awesome kit for home schooled kids or kids who love science and nature. The kit includes several painted lady butterfly caterpillars inside a clear plastic container with the food they need as larvae. You WILL need a habitat for them once they turn into chrysalis (see below). But this is a great way to easily add raising butterflies to your homeschooling curriculum.
5. Live Butterfly Garden: This is the habitat to grow your butterflies until they’re ready for release into the garden. The kit includes a see-through habitat so that your child can watch the butterflies at every stage of growth and development.
6. Jonathan Green Wild Flowers and Meadow Grass Mixture: This is an easy way to transform an unused portion of your yard into a mini meadow, or to change a labor-intensive traditional lawn into a butterfly meadow. Kit includes a mixture of wildflower seeds that attract a variety of butterflies to a natural meadow-like habitat.
Butterfly Gardening Resources
I’ve put together a number of resources to help you begin your butterfly garden, grow gorgeous flowers for butterflies, identify butterflies in your yard, and enhance your butterfly garden over time.
The resources in this list were developed with Virginia gardeners in mind. The plant list and list of butterfly species, for instance, are targeted to Virginia and especially south central Virginia. However, the general information on how to start a butterfly garden, what butterflies need in a butterfly garden and more is applicable to just about every gardening zone. The plant lists may also apply to gardens in zones 6 – 7 in addition to south central Virginia gardens.
As I develop this website further, more original resources will be added. Until then, the following links to external resources will be helpful to you.
Links to additional resources on butterfly gardening:
- A list of Virginia native plants to attract butterflies.
- What do caterpillars eat?
- Deer-resistant butterfly plants
- Virginia butterfly identification.
Butterfly Gardening Class
The Butterfly Gardening Class is a free 15-30 minute butterfly gardening lecture online. This is the PowerPoint presentation that I created as part of my volunteer work for the Heart of Virginia Master Gardeners. It includes my presentation and the notes and resources I share whenever I lecture to local garden clubs on butterfly gardens. If you’d like me to lecture to your local garden club, please contact me through the Heart of Virginia Master Gardeners group. I also lecture on a variety of other topics to local Prince Edward, Buckingham County, Charlotte Courthouse, and Amelia County garden clubs here in Virginia.
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