How to Build a Butterfly Garden

How to Build a Butterfly Garden

...think like a butterfly, that's how

By Published April 18, 2017 Updated November 23, 2022

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Who doesn't love a garden that is adorned with beautifully painted butterflies? Design your butterfly garden with us!

This article is the second in a series on butterfly gardens and plants to attract butterflies. You can read the first article, The Top 25 Butterfly Garden Plants. Don't forget to shop all our butterfly attracting plants in one place!

Butterflies are not only beautiful creatures to observe in your garden, but they also play an important role in pollinating plants and supporting local ecosystems. By attracting butterflies to your garden, you can help to promote biodiversity and create a welcoming habitat for these delicate insects. In this article, we will explore some simple yet effective ways to attract butterflies to your garden, from selecting the right plants to providing a suitable environment for their life cycle. Whether you are an avid gardener or simply looking to add more natural beauty to your outdoor space, these tips will help you create a butterfly-friendly garden that both you and these winged wonders will enjoy.

Key features of a good butterfly garden

  1. Food for Butterflies and Caterpillars
  2. Water
  3. Shelter from Weather and Predators
  4. A Place to Warm Up
  5. A Place to Lay Eggs
  6. A Chemical Free Environment

Types of plants that attract butterflies

To give butterflies the right food sources, gardeners should plant both nectar and host plants. Nectar plants will attract and then feed them. Host plants are meant to be a place for adult butterflies to lay their eggs, then the host plant's foliage is used as a sorce of food for the resulting caterpillars to eat. Since the leaves of butterfly host plants serve as a food source for caterpillars, it is very important that you don't spray insecticides on them. A chemical free environment is vital to butterfly survival! As Martha Steward says, a well chewed butterfly garden is a good thing. Growing both butterfly host and nectar plants is guaranteed to sustain a large butterfly population in your garden. Check out our Top 25 Butterfly Garden Plants here to brainstorm what perennials will best suit your garden.

Tips for Attracting Butterflies to Your Garden

Fig. 1 Butterfly Anatomy

Make sure butterflies have a place to warm up

Butterflies are cold blooded so they appreciate a flat, open, sunny site where they can bask to warm up in the morning. That is what they do in the morning instead of drinking coffee like us humans. An ideal location is a flat rock or bare patch of ground positioned in the warm morning sun.

Provide protection from weather and predators

Butterfly wings are large and fragile so they appreciate protective shelter from the weather and predators. The site must be able to protect them from strong winds and rain as well. We all need a safe cozy place to relax, espcially if you're lugging around those giant wings. You can provide this in your garden with piles of loose brush where butterflies can hide to escape heat, rain and predators. So there is no need to keep your butterfly gardens as neat and tidy as you would a formal garden. You can also add a butterfly house as a place for butterflies to rest, be protected from heat, wind, rain, and predators. They are similiar to a bird house, but with narrow slots that only butterflies can pass through.

Add a water feature for butterflies

Butterflies will need a source of water to drink. Bird baths are too deep for them, as they prefer shallow puddles of water with mud, sand or rocks. These locations will provide them with the necessary salts and minerals. You can turn a bucket, bird bath or any decorative pot into a butterfly watering hole by filling it with gravel or sand and keeping it continually moist. Butterflies will suck the water out from between the rocks with their straw-like feeding tube, their antennas. It is best to keep their drinking water cool by partially burying the water pan in cool soil.

Plant plenty of butterfly host plants

It is important to provide butterflies with a place to lay their eggs because it is a critical part of their life cycle and reproductive process. Butterflies lay their eggs on specific plants, known as host plants, which are necessary for the survival of their caterpillars. Different butterfly species have different host plant preferences, and without access to these plants, they cannot lay their eggs or complete their life cycle. Providing host plants in your garden or outdoor space can therefore help to support butterfly populations, and contribute to their conservation. One of the most popular host plants is milkweed or asclepias.

Consider providing additional food sources

In addition to butterfly plants, there are plenty of other food sources that butterflies love. Some butterflies like to eat fruit after it ferments, so feel free to toss your old apples and bananas into the butterfly garden. Those with horses may know that some butterflies feed on manure, so sling some around your butterfly garden, preferably in a hidden spot, and preferably downwind! Not only is manure a source of food for certain butterflies, but it also provides nutrients for each butterfly plant in its vicinity once it ferments.

Avoid the use of pesticides

It is important to avoid using pesticides on butterfly bushes because these chemicals can be harmful or even lethal to butterflies, both in their adult form and during their earlier stages of development. Butterflies lay their eggs on host plants, which their larvae will then feed on. If these plants have been treated with pesticides, the larvae may consume the chemicals along with their food, which can disrupt their development or even kill them.

Why are butterflies attracted to certain plants?

Choosing the best plants to attract butterflies is a lot easier if you understand butterfly anatomy and biology. Butterflies cannot focus their eyes so the world appears blurry. Therefore they are more attracted to mass plantings of brightly colored butterfly flowers than those planted individually. Butterfly eyes are sensitive to different colors than humans and they see blue, purple, green, yellow and orange far better than they see red. So the plants for your butterfly garden should lean away from shades of red. They can also see ultraviolet light so a key feature of a butterfly flower is to have distinct patterns that only appear under ultraviolet light.

Butterflies have a great sense of smell due to their antennae so fragrant flowers are a favorite. Butterflies reproduce by laying eggs on the leaves of butterfly host plants so it is best if you do not remove spent leaves right away as you may inadvertently be removing butterfly eggs. It’s best to leave perennials standing over the winter, or at least to pile them into a loose pile in some out-of-sight corner of the butterfly garden. 

Are you ready to start planting?

Now that you know the best plants to use and have a better undertanding of how butterflies function it is time to get started! Find a sunny spot in your garden and start designing. If this is one of your first gardens? You might want to check out our best practices video for planting perennials. Happy planting!


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