Build a Butterfly Garden

If you consider miniature gardening to be a fun way to bring nature into your life, a butterfly garden will delight you twice as much. Not only are they attractive and fragrant, butterfly gardens attract a plethora of pollinators eager to sample your nectar offerings. 

Establishing a butterfly garden is relatively simple. There are only four things that a butterfly garden needs, and we have outlined them below. Once those elements are in place, you can sit back and enjoy your garden and its many winged visitors. 

Here's what you'll need to establish your very own pollinator paradise:

1. Butterfly Nectar Plants & Larval Food Plants

You must first determine which butterflies in your region you want to attract so you can provide them with their favorite plants. For nectar plants, select an assortment of heights, flower shapes/colors, and blooming times. Near-sighted butterflies are attracted to red, yellow, orange, pink, and purple blossoms that are flat-topped or clustered and have short flower tubes. Stagger bloom times so flowers will always be available for butterflies. For larval food plants, a diversity of plants will entice butterflies to stick around and lay eggs, insuring the next generation of butterflies to populate your garden. It is our view that the single most important element in a successful butterfly garden is the variety and availability of larval food plants. Your selections should include different growth forms, including:

  • Perennials wildflowers (a variety of larval and adult food plants that bloom at different times for year-round flowering)
  • Shrubs (place them to provide butterflies shelter from the wind; shrubs also make good roosting/hiding places for butterflies)
  • Trees (place them to provide butterflies shelter from the rain and wind; trees also make good roosting/hiding places for butterflies)
  • Vines (a great alternative for the smaller yard - cover an arbor with vines to create height instead of planting trees)
Photo by Flickr user wplyyn under CC BY 2.0
2. Puddling Station

Mud-puddling, or simply puddling is behavior in which (usually male) butterflies and moths seek out certain moist substances to suck up the fluid. These fluids contain nutrients (dissolved salts and amino acids) that are an important part of the insect's diet.

The most common puddling media are wet soil, dung, or carrion, but some but Some butterflies (and bees) puddle on mammal sweat, blood, tears, and urine, as well as rotting fruit. Males seem to benefit from the sodium uptake through puddling with an increase in reproductive success, as the collected nutrients are often transferred to the female with the spermatophore during mating. This nutrition enhances the survival rate of the eggs as well. To create a puddling station, fill a ceramic saucer with equal amounts of sand and water. Place a few rocks or sticks on the sand as perching spots for butterflies. In our garden, we have a drip line coming into the puddling station so it doesn't dry out.

Photo by Flickr user USFWS Midwest under CC BY 2.0

3. Morning Sunlight

Cold-blooded butterflies need the sun's warmth to be active. Include a spot in the garden where sunlight will reach the ground early in the day. Large rocks, exposed soil, or even pavement are all surfaces that will warm up in morning sunlight. Locate your garden in a place where it will receive at least six hours of direct sunlight each day. 

Photo by John Flannery by permission

4. Shelter

One or more trees will provide butterflies shelter from the rain and wind. Trees also make good roosting places for butterflies, where they can rest and hide from predators. Don't use butterfly houses; butterflies don't use them and they attract spiders. Make sure that trees don't block the sun where it is needed.

Photo by Flickr user Anita Ritenour under CC BY 2.0

Also consider including:

5. Fruit

Some butterly species prefer, even require, overripe fruit to feed upon. Favorites are bananas, watermelon, and oranges. Place these cut fruits on a dish in a partially shaded nook in the garden where they will attract butterflies that eat rotting fruit. (Bear in mind that you will also attract other wildlife that eats fruit. Keep ants off the cache by filling a plant saucer with water, placing a pot upside-down in the middle, and placing a second smaller saucer of fruit on top of the pot).

6. Seating

Include a place to sit and enjoy your garden. After all that tilling, planting, and watering, don't you want to enjoy the pollinator show that will ensue?

Tips for a Successful Butterfly Garden:
  • When planting, place specimens in groups of the same plant. Aside from unifying the look of the garden, butterflies will more easily spot the flowers and they will not have to travel as far from flower to flower.
  • Use native specimens to maintain a healthier, balanced ecosystem.
  • Use drip irrigation, which feeds the roots more directly and doesn't waste water like sprinklers do.
  • Avoid using pesticides of any kind, or you will harm or kill the insects living in your garden, including butterflies.
  • Avoid using chemical fertilizers, which can harm the larvae feeding on plants.
  • Use 2 to 3 inches of mulch around your plants to prevent moisture evaporation and inhibit weed growth. Mulch also gives the garden a clean look. (Leave about an inch of open space between the plant's stem and the mulch to avoid humidity-borne diseases from getting to your plants). Read more about mulching at the USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service.
  • Use this interactive map to find your USDA plant hardiness zone. Then you can select the right plants for your area.
  • Read our suggestions on organic butterfly gardening.
  • Find the best plants for your butterfly garden.
For more information:
Pollinator Plant Guides by Region from the Xerces Society: