5 Steps to The Ultimate Butterfly Garden

Monarch caterpillat on MilkweedWhen we think of butterfly gardens, we tend to think of lots of nectar plants for adult butterflies, but to have a successful garden for butterflies there is much more to it than that. You need to understand the Life Cycles of Butterflies so that you can plan for all of their needs.

Find Which Butterflies Are In Your Area

Black Swallowtail ButterflyIn order to plan the ultimate butterfly garden, you first need to know which butterflies are in your area. There’s no point in creating the right habitat for a butterfly that never appears where you live. So your first order of business is to find out which butterflies you can expect.

I love the regional checklist finder at Butterflies and Moths of North America. For example, I live in Pennsylvania, so here is the regional checklist for the butterflies of Pennsylvania. You just enter “US” into the “region” box, and then pick your state. Click “Apply” and you’ll see a list of butterflies native to your region.

Add Host Plants for Caterpillars

Spicebush Swallowtail CaterpillarNow that you know which butterflies live in your area, it’s time to start choosing which butterflies you can attract to your garden by planting the host plant for that butterfly.

Yes, adult butterflies mostly feed on nectar, but if you want butterflies to stay in your garden as opposed to just passing through, you need to plant host plants. Each butterfly species is dependent on a specific plant, or a specific family of plants for the caterpillars to feed on.

No butterfly garden is complete unless you add host plants for new generations of butterflies.

The most complete list of larval host plants for butterflies I have found is produced by the Dallas County Lepidopterist Society.

And I’ve compiled a list of the Top 10 Perennial Plants for Butterflies and Moths, which is an excellent starting point.

Don’t Forget Trees and Shrubs

Butterflies use TreesWhen we think of butterfly gardens we tend to focus on lots of flowering plants, but did you know many more species of butterflies and moths feed on trees and shrubs? You can create a very successful butterfly garden by adding the right trees and shrubs to your wildlife garden.

Trees and shrubs also provide shelter from rain and wind and create the microhabitats that protect butterflies in addition to providing the food they need.

Many butterflies overwinter in tiny crevices in trees and shrubs as well. You should choose these woody plants first, and plan the rest of your butterfly around them.

Mass Plants for Greatest Impact

Pearl Crescent on New England AsterYou will want to avoid the “Plant Zoo” mentality when planning a butterfly garden. (A plant zoo is just a collection of mostly unrelated plants that may be pretty to a collector, but doesn’t provide much in the way of butterfly value).

Instead, you’ll want to mass several plants of the same species together. A planting of 7 Swamp Milkweeds will do far more to attract Monarch Butterflies than a single plant will.

So your goal is to provide the best habitat you can for just a few types of butterflies, rather than trying to create mediocre habitat for a lot of different kinds.

Plan For Three Full Seasons of Bloom

Common Buckeyes on Seaside GoldenrodYou want to stretch the blooming season in your butterfly garden from at least early spring through late fall to provide the most value for these beautiful insects.

So choose a wide variety of nectar plants to support butterflies through all of these seasons. Your reward will be the ultimate butterfly garden filled with the swirling beauty of these winged wonders!

What is your best tip for creating the ultimate butterfly garden?

Carole Sevilla Brown lives in Philadelphia, PA, and she travels the country speaking about Ecosystem Gardening for Wildlife. Check out her new free online course Ecosystem Gardening Essentials, 15 free lessons delivered to your inbox every week.

© 2013 – 2014, Carole Sevilla Brown. All rights reserved. This article is the property of BeautifulWildlifeGarden.com We have received many requests to reprint our work. Our policy is that you are free to use a short excerpt which must give proper credit to the author, and must include a link back to the original post on our site. Please use the contact form above if you have any questions.

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  1. Lisa W says

    Great post! Butterfly bait is good stuff too, Pat Sutton I think probably mentions a recipe, others too–but basically, mushed up overripe bananas, molasses, brown sugar, dark beer, you can add other rotting fruit and spread the mush around for question marks, red-spotted purples and others types that like that rotting stuff.
    For Monarchs, (in addition to their host milkweed), they apparently are attracted to a chemical in Liatris Ligustylis, and on my one such plant in my tiny tiny garden (I guess it is a bit of a mini-plant zoo), it gets swarmed by 7-8 Monarchs at a time.

    • says

      Lisa, Pat Sutton taught me how to set out bowls of rotting fruit like melons, bananas, apples, basically whatever you’ve got laying around to attract tons of butterflies to your garden. She is so amazing, sharing such fun ways to get more butterflies in our gardens!
      Carole Sevilla Brown recently posted..The Traveling Birder

  2. Susan Galyon says

    The butterflies also need water! I use those bird waterers that are too shallow for birds. I fill them mostly to the brim with fine rocks and some fine Georgia clay. I let some of the rocks stick above the brim. I then fill the basin up with fresh water. The butterflies love it!

  3. says

    I really enjoyed your post. I have been working for the past 3 years to reshape my garden so that it will support native butterflies. I appreciated that you shared your information sources and found the photos you used to be very useful. Thank you for sharing.
    Charlie recently posted..Wintergrass

  4. says

    What a wonderful post. Thanks for those fantastic links. I am going to keep my checklist for Jefferson County of NY handy. It will really help me narrow down and identify all the butterflies and moths in my garden. I am also going to read up on more host plants. I have more butterflies each year and I know it’s because I’m planting native and with nature in mind. It’s great that you point out that a butterfly garden isn’t just about flowers – the Eastern Comma likes my compost pile.

  5. says

    Carol, thank you for another informative post. I was surprised to see there are supposed to be zebra swallowtails in my area of Minnesota but not pipevine?!?!?!

    I usually focus on planting for monarchs and enjoy whatever bonus butterflies, bees, and other pollinators come my way. However , I was actually thinking of adding a pipevine host plant this year.I will have to research a little more before making that decision. Thanks, Tony
    Tony recently posted..School Butterfly Garden CHECKLIST

  6. says

    I am in middle of year 2 of a certified butterfly garden. I just ordered seeds to grow and sell butterfly plants through a Growers Co-Op. I was happy to find this site. Last year I had mostly monarchs. This year so far I have 8 species. I will be speaking in the fall, about butterfly gardens, sustainability. This was my second year doing a butterfly count.


  1. […] 5 Steps to the Ultimate Butterfly Garden, “When we think of butterfly gardens, we tend to think of lots of nectar plants for adult butterflies, but to have a successful garden for butterflies there is much more to it than that. You need to understand the Life Cycles of Butterflies so that you can plan for all of their needs.” by Carole Sevilla Brown […]

  2. […] When we think of butterfly gardens, we tend to think of lots of nectar plants for adult butterflies, but to have a successful garden for butterflies there is much more to it than that. You need to understand the Life Cycles of Butterflies so that you can plan for all of their needs. See: 5 Steps to the Ultimate Butterfly Garden […]

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