Grow a Butterfly Garden

Plant a butterfly garden to attract all kinds of native pollinators to your yard and enjoy a diversity of wildlife, colorful blooms and natural pest control.

| May/June 2012

  • Choose a wide variety of plants that bloom in different seasons to keep butterflies in your garden from spring through fall.
  • Avoid big flowers bred for their size; they are often poor nectar sources. Watch the butterflies, record their preferences and plant more of the popular blooms next year.

Butterflies across the nation are losing their habitat, but home gardeners can do a lot to help preserve the diversity of these lovely creatures. “We have a lot of habitat in this country, but we are losing it at a rapid pace,” says Chip Taylor, director of Monarch Watch, a nonprofit educational outreach program that works to preserve and encourage monarch butterfly habitats. “Development consumes 6,000 acres a day, a loss of 2.2 million acres per year. The overuse of herbicides is turning diverse areas that support monarchs, pollinators and other wildlife into grass-filled landscapes that support few species.”

In response to an increasing awareness of habitat destruction, many people have begun to preserve and restore natural areas so they might serve as appropriate homes for wildlife. You can join the fun by making your yard more butterfly-friendly and enjoy the many additional benefits these pretty pollinators bring.

Beauty, Butterflies and a Whole Lot More

The butterfly gardener reaps many rewards. If you plant a butterfly garden where there used to be lawn, you’ll reduce mowing, which translates to less work, less water use, and less air and noise pollution. Butterflies like a variety of plants, so creating a garden for them can add incredible biological diversity—and beauty—to your yard. That diversity is likely to reduce populations of pest insects by making it harder for them to find their specific host plants. Plus, butterflies themselves will become an important part of your micro-ecosystem, pollinating many plants. The butterflies in your region will be adapted to its native plants, and that’s good news for you, too. Plants that are already well-suited to grow in a particular location and climate require less maintenance, less water and less fertilizer.

The first step in creating a butterfly garden is research. Find out what butterflies live near you so you can include the plants they need for food. The best way to start is to look for butterflies around your proposed garden, in your neighbors’ yards, or in nearby parks, natural areas, roadsides or gardens. Take note of the species you see. (For a list of butterfly guidebooks, visit the Monarch Watch's reading room.) You can also find out about regional species by talking to your local county extension office (Google your county name and “extension office”), the Xerces Society, the North American Butterfly Association and conservation organizations in your region.

Growing Plants that Attract Butterflies

Your butterfly garden can be any size, from a window box to a portion of your yard to a wild area on your lot. You can include native plants, cultivated species or both. Butterflies feed on nectar, and planting a wide range of nectar plants (see “Sweet Nectar” in this article) is the best strategy for attracting many species. Include flowers that bloom at different times so your garden provides nectar from spring through autumn. Female butterflies will only lay eggs on the specific plants larvae require; be sure to include larval host plants (find a list, organized by butterfly, at Monarch Watch's butterfly gardening page) if you want to see caterpillars transform into butterflies in your garden. Remember, the purpose of these plants is to serve as food for caterpillars—eaten leaves are good signs of your garden’s health.

As you plant, place short plants in front and tall ones in back, and clump them by species and color. As butterflies search for food, they see large splashes of color more easily than individual flowers. Butterflies are particularly attracted to red, orange, yellow and purple flowers. Avoid big flowers bred for their size; they are often poor nectar sources. Watch the butterflies, record their preferences and plant more of the popular blooms next year.

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