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Butterflies do so much for our ecosystem, so why not do something for them in return?

There are so many good reasons to plant a garden, including the ability to provide butterflies and other beneficial insects with the resources that they need to thrive. A well-tended butterfly garden gives as much as it takes, providing your native butterfly population with food, water, and shelter and providing you with a serene space filled with beautiful fluttering friends. It’s a fantastic way to support your local climate and the creatures that inhabit it.

Here’s everything you need to know about how to plant a butterfly garden, from the plants that butterflies like to why you should avoid harmful insecticides (and what you can use instead). So grab your trowel and your seeds, and get to work designing your fairytale-worthy butterfly garden.

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Why You Should Plant a Butterfly Garden

moth
Attracting butterflies to your garden can make it an even more majestic space.
(Photograph by Skillshare student Liza Curman.)

What are the benefits of a butterfly garden? There are plenty, but here are some of the reasons to bring your butterfly garden to bloom, including a few that you might not have thought of before.

It Helps Your Native Butterflies

There are about 750 different species of butterflies in the United States (and about 17,500 in the world), and all areas have their native kinds. Unfortunately, though, changes in our climate have led to declines in many of these native butterfly populations, as have ongoing problems like deforestation and the increased use of chemical pesticides. 

When you focus on butterfly plants in your garden, you provide native butterflies with essential resources that can help combat these more systemic issues. Bringing in plants and flowers for butterflies provides your native population with food, water, shelter, and a place to lay their eggs, which results in both more butterflies and healthier butterflies in your community.

It Supports a Healthier Overall Garden

When you fill your garden with flowers and plants that butterflies like, you also support the health of all your local pollinators, including bees, birds, and beneficial insects like dragonflies, spiders, and ladybugs. Your garden needs all of these creatures to be at its best, and taking direct steps to attract them is one of the easiest things you can do to support your hard work and create a stunning, sustainable outdoor space.

bee
Butterflies aren’t the only beneficial insects that will enjoy your gardening efforts.
(Photograph by Skillshare student Thomas Clanton.)

It Reduces Your Reliance on Pesticides

Widespread pesticide contamination harms our environment and can lead to acute and chronic health problems in humans and animals. It makes sense, then, to do everything possible to reduce our reliance on them, even if the only place you can make a difference is in your own backyard.

Those beneficial insects mentioned above offer you a natural form of biological control since they eat pests that harm your plants. So while the bees and butterflies are busy pollinating, those other insects will be on the ground protecting flowers and other plants from pests that could destroy them.

It’s a Fascinating Educational Tool

A butterfly garden gives you an up-close and personal look at the amazing transition from egg to caterpillar to butterfly. Different species of butterflies lay their eggs at different times, so you should be able to catch this lifecycle from its earliest stages if you stay vigilant. If you have kids, use this as an opportunity to teach them about the butterfly and the metamorphosis that it undergoes. And if you don’t, simply watch it yourself and appreciate just how impressive these powerful pollinators really are.

It Provides You with Great Photo and Watercolor Subjects

A butterfly garden is an artist’s delight, with plenty of inspiring subjects to feature in your work. Put your macro photography skills to work to highlight the many qualities of your native pollinators, or paint a watercolor butterfly that serves as the perfect homage to your outdoor haven.

Because your garden is right in your own backyard, you’ll be able to use it for inspiration whenever you’re looking for a subject idea. You’ll also be able to work across different seasons and times of day to get variety in your work and experiment with new concepts and points of view.

watercolor butterfly
A watercolor butterfly, painted by Skillshare student Meda Halmaciu.

What Types of Butterflies Should You Garden For?

One of the most important things to determine when you’re planning out how to plant a butterfly garden is what butterflies you should be trying to attract. Of the 750 unique butterfly species, there may be only about 100 to 200 native to your region. These native butterflies will have their own needs and preferences as far as butterfly shelter, plants, and flowers go, so you’ll want to know who you’re trying to attract and what you should include in order to help them prosper.

Researching Your Native Butterflies

Search butterfly species by state to learn what types of butterflies are native to your region. You may also want to inquire with your local nature preserve, which should be able to provide you with information on the species most commonly found in your zip code.

Once you have your list of native butterflies, research the plants and materials that are specific to those species. Use the nature preserve as a guide, or do your own research online.

Year-Round Gardening Guidance 

The Gardening Calendar: What to Do Each Month in the Garden

Flowers That Butterflies Like

Whether you’re planting in containers or garden beds, there is a wide variety of flowers to choose from for attracting butterflies to your garden. 

When choosing flowers for butterflies, you’ll want to go with blooms that are regionally appropriate and pollinator-friendly. Optimal flowers will vary by location, but there are some nectar flowers for butterflies that are almost always a safe bet.

butterfly
A butterfly rests on the colorful cluster of a lantana flower.
(Photograph by Skillshare student Ellen Evers.)

Milkweed

It’s almost a given that you’ll want to plant milkweed for butterflies in your garden. Milkweed is the only flower that can support monarch caterpillars, making them critical for the lifecycle of this popular (and sadly dwindling) species. There are about 115 species of milkweed, so find out which varieties thrive in your area and plant them with a heavy hand.

Coneflower

These pretty purple flowers are native to the central and eastern regions of the U.S., growing wildly in prairies and woodland areas. Butterflies love them, and because they’re perennial, you won’t have to worry about replanting every year. Another perk of coneflowers is that they’re a hardy plant that can stand up to full sun and thickly packed clay soil, which is good to know if you’re working with these conditions.

Black-Eyed Susan

Black-eyed Susan is a type of coneflower that’s particularly enticing to a number of butterfly species. This domesticated wildflower features vibrant yellow petals dotted with a stark black center, which helps it stand out to butterflies and other pollinating insects. It’s easy to grow and a great flower for beginners, so try it out if you’re not quite confident in your green thumb yet.

Lavender

Lavender is fragrant, easy to care for, and a favorite of many butterfly species. Plant it early in the spring for beautiful blooms that last through the heat of the summer, and cut off some dried stems in the fall for a flowering centerpiece you can keep in your home year-round.

Lantana

Lantana are native to the Caribbean, but they’ve made themselves at home throughout the southeast and northern U.S. They can be planted as an annual or perennial and will provide bright pops of color in your garden that attract many species of butterflies—and hummingbirds, too!

Aster

Asters are a native alternative to the invasive butterfly bush, which, contrary to its name, can actually do more harm than good as far as nectar flowers for butterflies go. By opting for aster, you get a low-maintenance flowering plant that is a hotspot for caterpillars and butterflies alike and won’t inadvertently harm the plants around it. It’s also drought-resistant and a fan of full sun, making it a smart pick for hotter, dryer climates.

butterflies
Plant native flowers in your butterfly garden that are appropriate for both your climate conditions and the species of butterfly that live in your area.
Source:Unsplash

Choosing the Best Plants for Butterflies

It isn’t only flowers that appeal to butterflies. Additional butterfly plants to consider include native trees, shrubs, and herbs that are well-acclimated to the temperature, soil type, and weather patterns of your location. You should also choose plants that offer direct benefits to your local butterfly species when it comes to food and shelter.  

Plants That Provide Food for Butterflies

Butterflies eat mostly nectar, so any native nectar plant is likely to help bring them to your garden. Other plants that provide much-needed food for butterfly populations include:

  • Elm trees
  • Oak trees
  • Willow trees
  • Hackberry trees
  • Sassafras
  • Mint
  • Dill
  • Parsley
  • Almond verbena
  • Rosemary
  • Honeysuckle
  • Buckthorn

Plants That Provide Shelter for Butterflies

Any of the tree species mentioned above will act as a butterfly shelter, as will these additional plants, which provide butterflies with large leaves that are perfect for staying out of inclement weather:

  • Ivy
  • Buttonbush
  • Spicebush
  • Serviceberry
  • Evergreen sumac
  • Fragrant sumac
  • Red mulberry

Planting a Monarch Butterfly Garden

Twice a year, monarch butterflies travel across the continental U.S. during their great migration. And during this time, they rely on nectar plants and host plants for survival, which is why one of the best things that you can do in your butterfly garden is plant milkweed for monarchs and support their journey.

Here’s a quick look at the important role of monarchs and why planting milkweed for monarch butterflies is a must for your garden.

butterfly
A monarch butterfly stops in the Shenandoah Valley during its annual migration.
(Photograph by Skillshare student Kevin Barta.)

Understanding Monarch Migration

The monarch migration offers an invaluable service to crops and ecosystems across North America, with the migrating population doing a significant amount of pollinating as they traverse the more than 2,500 miles from Mexico up through the U.S. and Canada in the spring and the reverse in the fall. This migration is astounding for many reasons, including the fact that monarchs are the only species of tropical butterfly to travel so far.

Such a long trek requires a lot of energy. This is especially true for the spring migration since traveling monarchs will also need to focus on reproduction; though they need plenty of energy in the fall too, since they must make a speedy journey to arrive in Mexico before the winter.

Milkweed for Monarchs

Over the course of their migration, female monarchs will lay many eggs. Surviving eggs will turn into caterpillars, which will then turn into more monarchs. Milkweed is the only one of the caterpillar plants that can host monarch caterpillars, so it’s essential for ensuring their survival until they mature into butterflies.

Planting milkweed for monarch butterflies in your garden provides monarch larvae and caterpillars with exactly what they need to develop into their mature form. Without milkweed—and plenty of it—monarchs won’t be able to maintain their population levels, and we could face a future where we no longer have these beautiful butterflies greeting us every spring.

Nectar Plants for Mature Monarchs

Your garden won’t be complete unless you plant milkweed for butterflies, but it’s not only caterpillar plants that have something to offer the migrating and breeding monarchs. Nectar-rich plants for monarchs vary by region and can be just as important as milkweed for helping sustain their numbers. Do some research to find out what nectar plants are native to your area, keeping an eye out for monarch favorites like coastal sand verbena, blueblossom, western vervain, and bluedicks.

Providing Water for Butterflies

Picking out the right plants is obviously a big part of how to design a butterfly garden, but water is just as key.

A butterfly puddler or water dish will provide the butterflies that visit your garden with a place to cool off and relax. It will also give them extra nutrition through a process known as “puddling,” which is when they rest on a wet or damp surface and suck up nutrients from it.

butterflies on a dish
Fruit is a welcome addition to a butterfly water dish or puddler.
Source:Unsplash

Buy or Make a Butterfly Puddler

Butterflies love puddles, but they’ll happily settle for a puddler, too. Butterfly puddlers are shallow dishes that contain a thin layer of sand and soil or compost that’s topped with rocks, moistened with water, and sprinkled with salt. Visiting butterflies will rest on the rocks and extract water from the sand and soil, with the salt (and some overripe fruit too, if you’ve got some) adding in a boost of additional nutrients.

You can buy a puddler or make your own butterfly water dish. Just be sure to keep the sandy layer nice and moist, especially on very dry or hot days.

Caring for Butterflies in Your Garden

Planting a butterfly garden is a wonderful thing to do for native butterfly species in your region. Once they’re there, though, you’ll want to take some extra steps to protect them, such as avoiding neonicotinoids and other insecticides.

Refrain from using insecticides in your butterfly garden, and be careful not to purchase plants from nurseries and stores that have been exposed to them. You can also do a few other things to ensure you create a safe and serene habitat for butterflies, including getting your yard certified as a waystation.

butterfly
Protect butterflies in your garden by refraining from using any insecticides on your plants.

Dangers of Neonicotinoids

Butterfly conservationists have long spoken out against neonicotinoids, which are a type of insecticide with an acutely harmful impact on monarch butterflies, other butterfly species, and other pollinators.

After being sprayed with neonicotinoids, plants show signs of the insecticide in their pollen and nectar. When pollinators eat from the plant, they consume the insecticide and the toxic ingredients within it. This can lead to paralysis and death for the insects, going against crucial efforts to support their populations and survival rates.

Dangers of Other Insecticides

Neonicotinoids aren’t the only insecticides that you’ll want to steer clear of in your butterfly garden. Pretty much any chemical insecticide, pesticide, fungicide, or herbicide is going to pose a risk to pollinators, with possible consequences to their reproductive capabilities, their ability to navigate, and their central nervous systems.

Levels of toxicities vary by product. If you absolutely must use an insecticide or related product, choose one that has a minimal impact on butterflies and other pollinators, and limit your use whenever possible.

Butterfly-Safe Insecticide Alternatives

There is no such thing as a 100% butterfly-safe insecticide, but there are some products that are notably better than others. Remember, it’s best to just not use them at all, but if you must, stick to safer options like insecticidal soaps and horticultural oils or a fungal product like Metarhizium anisopliae. Other alternatives include acequinocyl or pymetrozine, but read the directions carefully and apply during times when pollinators are not active on your plants, such as in the evening or very early morning.

Put Up a Sign

Putting up signage doesn’t benefit butterflies directly, but it does spread awareness about the importance of butterfly habitats. It might even convince other people to start their own pollinator-friendly gardens.

If you’d like, put up a sign that notes what the space is for and that no pesticides are used in the garden. It’s a small but impactful way to celebrate the work you’re doing and also encourages others to stop, take a look, and appreciate your butterfly visitors in all their glory.

Have Your Yard Certified with the North American Butterfly Association

Get certified with the North American Butterfly Association (NABA), and you’ll get a more official sign, plus a place in the larger butterfly conservator community. To have your garden accepted to NABA’s certification program, you must plant a minimum of three native caterpillar food plants and three nectar plants for your native butterfly population. Abstaining from pesticide use is not a requirement, but it is highly recommended.

When you get accepted to the program, you’ll receive a NABA Butterfly Garden and Habitat certificate, and you’ll also be eligible to purchase a weatherproof sign that you can proudly display in your yard.

Get Certified as a Monarch Waystation

Finally, get certified as a Monarch Waystation and let it be known that you’re doing your part for the monarchs as they travel through on their twice-yearly migrations.

Monarch Waystation certification is intended to promote the creation, conservation, and protection of monarch habitats. It’s a way to acknowledge your hard work and encourage others to do the same, and it will also get your garden added to the Monarch Waystation Registry, a national initiative that currently includes nearly 38,000 waystations across the country.

Other Tips to Keep in Mind As You Design a Butterfly Garden

There are several approaches that you can take for how to design a butterfly garden, with variety in the types of plants that you can include and the way that you can lay out your space. As you make your decisions, keep these tips in mind to create a place that’s as butterfly-friendly as possible so that not only do you attract more butterflies to your garden, but you also take the best possible care of them once they get there.

  • Plant flowers in the colors that butterflies love. Some nectar plants are more likely to draw in butterflies than others. In general, butterflies prefer blooms that are purple, pink, orange, or yellow, and planting flowers in these colors may increase your chances of enjoying a highly populated garden in the spring and summer.
  • Bring in some sweet smells with fruit trees. Butterflies are drawn to smells in addition to color. Try to plant one or more sweet-smelling trees to entice them to visit, such as an apple, apricot, or cherry tree. And if you do plant fruit trees, let fallen fruit stay on the ground. The fruit will get sweeter as it sits, and it’ll provide some yummy food for butterflies that come through.
  • Add some window boxes. You don’t need to have a lot of space in order to create a thriving butterfly garden. Window boxes alone can suffice so long as you plant the right blooms, and they can also serve as a nice addition to a larger outdoor space.

If you’re going to plant a garden, make it a butterfly garden and help celebrate these and other pollinators that we rely on so heavily. It’s one of the easiest ways to make a difference for your local ecosystem, and it provides you with your own personal butterfly habitat for watching, learning, and appreciating these magical creatures.

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