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How To Create A Butterfly Garden – Plants & Tips For Attracting Butterflies

Creating a butterfly garden is a great way to not only add visual interest to your property but also create a wonderful space that will attract and sustain all life cycles of these beautiful pollinators! 

Butterflies are fun to watch flutter around, but they are also very beneficial to both vegetable and flower gardens. Butterflies feed on the nectar produced by the flowers on plants. While feeding, pollen sticks to the butterfly’s body and legs.

This pollen then gets transferred from flower to flower as a butterfly flies around. While they don’t transfer as much pollen as a bee would, they are actually able to carry what pollen they do transfer for longer distances.

A very simple butterfly garden created with flowers, rocks, and a fence.
Creating an effective butterfly garden doesn’t have to be difficult. With a few basic items and plants, your backyard can be a great oasis for these beautiful pollinators.

This means they are perfect for flying around to all the different locations on your property – all the while pollinating your plants and flowers along the way!  

You can help create a space that allows them to rest, feed, and reproduce right in your own backyard. While butterflies aren’t too picky about their nectar choices, there are a few tips to keep in mind in order to create the perfect habitat for them.

A Butterfly’s Lifecycle

Butterflies are flying insects that feed on the nectar from plants and flowers. They feature two pairs of large wings and often come in a wide variety of colors and patterns. There are around 750 different species of butterflies just in the United States alone. 

Butterflies go through four stages in their life cycle: egg, larva (or caterpillar), pupa (or chrysalis), and adult. 

The first is the egg stage. Adult butterflies will lay eggs on the plants that the larvae will feed on once they hatch. Those larvae are also called caterpillars. Caterpillars will spend the majority of their life cycle eating and growing. 

Caterpillars will then create a chrysalis, often on the underside of a plant’s leaf. It is inside this chrysalis that a metamorphosis (physical change) will take place. That wiggly caterpillar will turn into a beautiful butterfly. Then, the process starts all over again.  

A butterfly about ready to hatch out of their chrysalis. A good butterfly garden has plant options for butterflies and caterpillars.
Butterflies spend part of their lives as chrysalises, often attached to the underside of host plants.

With a little strategic planning, you can add flowers and plants that will not only provide nectar to the adult butterflies but also feed and house the caterpillars and chrysalis as well. 

How To Create A Butterfly Garden

From creating the perfect lighting, to including their favorite food sources and giving them a place to rest, this article will cover the basics of it all. Check out these key tips for ensuring your butterfly garden will be a huge hit with your local winged creatures. 

Pick The Location 

One of the most important factors in creating a successful butterfly garden has to do with the sun. Butterflies need the sun to help keep their bodies warm and to also help dry out their wings after emerging from the chrysalis.

Be sure to choose a location on your property that receives at least 6 plus hours of sunlight each day. 

Also, keep in mind the amount of wind the location receives. A butterfly has delicate wings and cannot handle being in a location with harsh winds. Provide some sort of wind block for best results. 

Size Doesn’t Matter

A good thing to note is that your butterfly garden can be any size. From a wide-open field of flowers to a small cluster of container plants, it all works. In fact, butterflies often prefer several smaller locations scattered throughout your property as opposed to one large area.  

Another idea would be to create a few spots within your already established garden to plant a butterfly’s favorite collection of plants. Maybe even reserve two or three of your raised beds just for the butterflies and other pollinators.  

The Right Plants – How To Create A Butterfly Garden

To have a truly successful butterfly garden, be sure to plant not only flowers that will attract butterflies but also those that will be a great host to their eggs and caterpillars as well. Include a variety of heights, colors, and blooming times for best results. 

Zinnias growing with two monarch butterflies feeding on them. Zinnias are a great choices for easily creating a butterfly garden.
Zinnias are a great addition to butterfly gardens. They provide plenty of nectar for them to feed on.
Best Choices For Butterflies

Unlike some pollinators, butterflies actually need to land in order to feed on the nectar of plants. So choose plants that feature larger, flat petals or ones that are tubular in nature. 

Butterflies will feed on any flower that has nectar, but they do tend to have some types they prefer over others. Some species of butterflies will have their own preferences, so if you are hoping to attract a specific species, be sure to look up information about their favorite and include it in your butterfly garden space.

Flowers like coneflowers, phlox, aster, yarrow, alyssum, bee balm, dianthus, sedum, black-eyed susan, and butterfly bushes are all great options. Be sure to include nectar-rich flowers like cosmos, zinnias, petunias, and lantana as well.  

Choices For Caterpillars

While butterflies feed on the sweet nectar of the blooms, caterpillars feed on the plant’s foliage instead. Dill, carrot, parsley, fennel, and milkweed are some of the caterpillars’ favorites.

Common Examples

The best choices will really depend on the species of butterfly you are hoping to attract,. With that in mind, here are some of the most common butterflies of North America and their favorite host plants as well as preferred nectar choices:

Black Swallowtail
– Host: Carrot, dill, fennel, milkweed, parsley
– Nectar: Butterfly weed, coneflower, milkweed, oregano, zinnia

Common Buckeye
– Host: Gerardias, monkey flowers, plantains, snapdragons
– Nectar: Sunflower, white clover

A purple butterfly bush providing food to a common buckeye butterfly.
A common buckeye butterfly feeding on a butterfly bush. Be sure to include this popular choice when creating your butterfly garden.

Common Sulphur
– Host: Alfalfa, clovers, partridge pea, Senna
– Nectar: Goldenrod, hibiscus, lantana, sage, zinnia

Cabbage Whites (FYI: These butterflies may be unwanted if you are growing brassicas to eat yourself!)
– Host: Brassicas, mustard greens
– Nectar: Aster, brassicas

Giant Swallowtail
– Host: Citrus, hoptree, lime, prickly ash
– Nectar: Butterfly bush, lantana, milkweed, zinnias

– Host: Milkweed
– Nectar: Aster, coneflower, heliotrope, lantana, marigold, milkweed, mustard greens, zinnia

Painted Lady
– Host: Hollyhock, sunflower, thistle
– Nectar: Aster, buttonbush, cosmos, ironweed, milkweed, red clover, thistle

Red Admiral
– Host: Nettles
– Nectar: Dogbane, lantana, marigold, privet

Tiger Swallowtail
– Host: Ash, aspen, black cherry, butterfly bush, cottonwood, willow
– Nectar: Daisy fleabane, dogbane, garlic chives, milkweed

Dill is often a favorite of monarch caterpillars. They rely on host plants to feed on and turn into the pupa stage.

Provide Water – How To Create A Butterfly Garden

In addition to nectar, butterflies also need water to survive. Create shallow, man-made puddles in a spot or two of your butterfly garden to provide the butterflies with a way to drink water as needed. You will often see some species of butterflies congregate together at “the local watering hole.” 

To create your man-made puddle, use a drip tray from a potted plant or any shallow dish. Just add a few smaller rocks or pebbles inside of the dish and add your water. You can also add a bit of sand or soil as well to add additional minerals to the water. Be sure to keep this source of water fresh, especially on hot days. 

Resting Areas

Butterflies like to rest and sunbathe on rocks, fence posts, or other similar sunny spots. It allows them to warm their bodies while also resting. Incorporate a few of these resting areas, making sure to keep them out of the wind and in full sun. 

Shelter Areas

Along with the plants themselves, you can also create other shelter areas for your butterfly garden. Stacked lumber, trees, and shrubs can all make excellent hiding places for butterflies. It also helps protect them during rainy weather and keeps them hidden from predators. 

In addition, these shelters can make excellent protected places for caterpillars to create their chrysalises. You can even create your own butterfly houses as well. (More on this in a future article!) 

A black and orange butterfly sitting on a log in the sun.
Logs and other wooden items create perfect resting places and shelter for butterflies.

Offer Homemade Food – How To Create A Butterfly Garden

If your plant’s blooms have started to fade, you can also provide nourishment to butterflies in your garden by serving up some homemade food. 

Options like overripe fruit (bananas, peaches, apples, plums, and pears), 100% natural fruit juices, and sugar water are all good options. To really encourage eating, add a few drops of a yeast or sugar mixture like beer, molasses, or white sugar to the fruit as well. 

Offer these items in their favorite resting areas or in a shallow dish. Be sure to replace them frequently, especially during really hot days. 

Say NO To Pesticides!

Just like bees, pesticides will also harm butterflies and other useful pollinators. Avoid using any that can cause death to these insects and opt for more natural methods instead. Also, avoid using Bacillus thuringiensis (Bt) as it will kill caterpillars. 

For four great harmless ways to control aphids and other pests naturally, check out this article “How To Stop Aphids Naturally.” 

Last Thoughts

Adding a butterfly garden is a great way to attract these beautiful insects to your property while adding beauty and interest as well. Consider creating a small butterfly garden with your family and watch the lifecycle of the butterfly happen right in your very own backyard! 

Simple Garden Life is a website dedicated to keeping gardening fun, simple and enjoyable! We publish two new articles each week along with a new garden podcast episode every two weeks. This article may contain affiliate links.