There are many benefits to planting a butterfly garden. As well as the joy of seeing butterflies flitting from flower to flower in search of nectar, we depend on pollinators like butterflies, moths, bees, and hummingbirds to keep our ecosystems healthy.
It’s surprisingly easy to attract butterflies to your garden, and you don’t need loads of space. Whether you plant a small wildflower patch or an entire forest, you’ll be providing essential pollinators with food, shelter, and a safe place to lay caterpillar eggs.
Here are our tips on how to plant a butterfly garden, including examples of plants that butterflies love.
Plant Your Butterfly Garden in a Sunny Location
Butterflies need sunlight to stay warm, and many of their favorite flowers thrive in sunlight. When planning your butterfly garden, choose a spot that gets lots of sunlight during the day and is sheltered from cold, harsh winds.
Choose a variety of plants that bloom at different times of the year so you have flowers for butterflies for as much of the year as possible. For example, primroses flower from early spring to early summer, while achilleas (yarrow) flower from early to late summer.
It’s well known that pollinators have color preferences. For example, bees prefer blue flowers, while butterflies like most colors but don’t seem to like blue. So, if you want flowers to attract more butterflies than bees, go for their favorite colors – pink, purple, red, orange, yellow, and white. Grouping plants of the same color can help butterflies spot their favorites from afar.
Chemical pest control can harm wildlife, including butterflies, so go for natural alternatives. For example:
- Mulch flower beds to suppress weeds
- Try chemical-free slug control
- Plant pest decoys. For example, aphids love nasturtiums which stops them from infesting other plants
There are around 750 butterfly species in the US. Many of these species, such as the red admiral, can be found everywhere and enjoy a variety of habitats. Other species have more specific habitat needs, so they only live in certain areas. Some species, such as the monarch butterfly, migrate throughout the year.
Before planting your butterfly garden, research which species are native to your area and whether they need any particular plants to thrive.
The monarch butterfly is one of the world’s most famous butterflies, but it’s endangered, partly due to loss of habitat. Adult monarchs like many kinds of nectar-rich flowers but require milkweed to lay their eggs and feed caterpillars. To attract monarch butterflies to your garden, it’s vital to plant at least one type of native milkweed, such as butterfly weed, alongside other butterfly-friendly flowers.
Perennials are plants that regrow year after year. Many are hardy and can survive cold winters without any protection – perfect staples for a low-maintenance butterfly garden.
Examples of perennial butterfly garden plants:
- Tall verbena – towering stems topped with clusters of purple flowers that will reseed vigorously, filling your butterfly garden with color.
- English lavender – a fragrant herb that blooms right up until the first frost, feeding butterflies late into the year.
- Common coneflower– known for its huge flowers with dramatic central ‘cones,’ this prairie native will bring butterflies flocking to your borders.
Although annual flowers only live for one year, they’re cheap to buy and are often quick and easy to grow – ideal for feeding butterflies throughout late spring and summer.
Examples of annual butterfly flowers:
- French marigolds – these jazzy flowers are not only great for butterflies, but they’re also great at deterring pests.
- Pentas – with their joyful clusters of star-shaped blooms, it’s no wonder butterflies can’t resist these flowers.
- Common zinnias– choose from a huge variety of shades and fill your butterfly garden with a rainbow of color.
Trees and shrubs also provide habitats for butterflies and other pollinators such as hummingbirds. If you’re short on space, many trees and shrubs will happily grow in shallow beds or containers.
Examples of trees that attract butterflies:
Eastern Redbud (Cercis canadensis)
The Eastern Redbud is native to Eastern and Midwestern United States and grows well in USDA Zones 4 through 9. This impressive tree is one of the earliest to bloom with showy pink blossoms butterflies will love.
Willows (Salix species)
Shrubs and trees in the willow family provide excellent habitats for butterflies and their caterpillars. Willows are fast growing and come in a variety of sizes and shapes to fit any garden.
For more examples here are 12 small trees and shrubs to attract butterflies and birds to your garden.
Providing caterpillar habitats is an essential part of gardening for butterflies. But you don’t have to sacrifice your borders to satisfy hungry caterpillars. The easiest way to encourage butterflies to lay their eggs in your garden is to grow a wildflower patch or trees for butterflies that can handle the butterfly larvae.
Creating a butterfly garden is an affordable way to support local wildlife and much easier than many people think – you don’t need to be a gardening or butterfly expert to get started.
But every species has different needs and attracting endangered butterflies, in particular, can be tricky. If you want to attract a specific kind of butterfly to your garden, check out our tips on pairing garden plants with butterflies.