butterfly garden

Butterfly Gardening 101: inviting jewels of the garden

Part of the joy of gardening is the panoply of nature, as the insect and animal life discover the riches of your plantings. As in all things, too much of a good thing in a garden is more like misery than joy- we don’t want too much of any plant, insect, or animal and rack our brains to diminish the over enthusiastic species! This article deals mainly with the ideal of “Balance”, inviting those birds and butterflies we so enjoy, and understanding that some of the others will find a place as well.


First, you must make a choice to reduce or eliminate poisons such as pesticides. They do not distinguish between species, so when you kill something you don’t like you also harm butterflies, honeybees, and songbirds. (And unlucky pets, sometimes, too). A diverse garden tends to be healthy, and mixed plantings of bird and butterfly friendly choices results in less need for chemical interventions, usually. Within the scope of the hospitable garden is a whole range of garden features, so please take the plant information and ideas from here and have a field day (literally) with your own creative ideas.


Feed Locally, Find Their Favorites

In reading lists of butterfly attracting plants, it appears that all will be equally attractive to all species. In actual practice, I have found that specific plants often attract a certain type of butterfly, and suppose it ought to have been obvious. Heliotrope, for instance, is filled all summer with the Painted Ladies.

The parsley family and the umbels of dill draw Monarchs. Autumn clematis does, too. I find this clematis is also a haunt of the Tiger Swallowtails.

Cecropia Moths love the white Mulberry tree leaves, and daisies are filled with tiny Blues.

An observant eye, particularly partnered with a journal will keep you busy discovering and expanding the possibilities of your habitat.

I planted the butterfly bush, Buddleia, last year for the first time. This is a butterfly magnet! Its blossoms seem to attract any and all types of butterflies in a nonstop array.

Butterflies 101

monarch butterfly on milkweed

Monarch butterfly on milkweed

Butterflies are denizens of the meadow, and they seem to love the gardens that are closest to that environment. Diverse plantings of annuals and perennials, in dooryards and cottage gardens, little meadow patches, borders of flowers, are all ideal. The fountains, little ponds, and sprinklers that delight us are friendly to them, as well.

Many of us have butterfly gardens without even trying, but if you have a small space and desire butterflies, why not try some containers with heliotrope, petunia, Calendula, and baby Zinnias (Z. angustifolia)? Or a wild corner of the yard, with a white Buddleia, Achillea, blue Erigeron, golden daylily, and Gaillardia? The result is a garden fragrant, beautiful, and alive with butterflies!

Remember that butterflies also need water. A very shallow pebble fountain or birdbath is a good addition to the landscape, or as I noticed in my own garden, splashings on the surrounding rock of your pond. If you have a splash fountain that wets flat rocks, it is a perfect landing area for Lepidoptera.

Intense color attracts butterfliesFlowers in a Cottage Garden are usually old-fashioned , nectar rich types,  planted in billowing drifting groups. Think of puffy summer clouds, and wafting mists, which gives you an idea of how to place your new plantings. This is the ideal environment for these and other pollinators.

This style of gardening is perfetc for attracting and nurturing butterflies in the garden. Old fashioned flowers planted in large drifts will support many pollinators, bees as well as butterflies. The gardener can even tuck in plants such as milkweed, Asclepias syriaca, in the back corners of the garden to provide for Monarchs.

Garden Ideas For You:

Nectar Gardens
A Garden For Swallowtails:
Garlic chives, Asclepsias tuberosa, Asclepsias syriaca, Erigeron, Dames Rocket, Globe thistle. Heliotrope, marigolds, verbenas, petunias, Echinacea, garden phlox, and Buddleia bushes
This would make a very colorful, “Grandma’s quilt” sort of garden. It could be a strongly purple and gold scheme with the right choice of varieties. Although white Heliotrope, Buddleia, Dames Rocket, marigols, petunias, and verbenas could make a very light, maybe even all-white color scheme.
A Garden For Monarchs:
Begin with a foundation of several types of Milkweed plants. Add a Buddleia, a number of asters,including the Heath Aster. Globe Amaranth, Heliotrope, Lantana, Oriental lilies, and zinnias. Natives Joe-Pye Weed and Echinacea. Autumn clematis arranged over a fence or arbor.
This creates a very beautiful cottage like garden that would have drifts of late summer and early fall bloomers
A Patch Of Annuals:
Marigolds, globe amaranth, lantanas, and zinnias grow well in a sunny spot. Add cosmos, verbenas, and tithonia
Perfect for a bare spot or as a row or small corner of the vegetable garden. Be sure it gets plenty of sunshine.
A Collection Of Herbs For Butterflies:
Lavender, oregano, mint, monarda, garlic chives, and sages.
Incorporate these herbs into your garden to attract butterflies.

A Garden Of Host Plants? Umbels and umbels of dill, sweet fennel, parsley, and carrot! Additionally, spikes of toadflax, snapdragons, false loosestrife. Hollyhocks, mallows, clovers and sunflowers. Spicebush, Hawthorn and Hackberry trees, with perennials of false indigo and false nettles. Be prepared to have caterpillars munch on these – that is whole purpose of planting this group of plants!

For a garden calendar for the fall months see Month by Month Garden Calendar

Tips and Trivia
  • Aristolochia, or Dutchman’s Pipe vine (grown for its gorgeous shade-giving leaves) is caterpillar food for the Pipevine Swallowtail
    Liriodendron tulipifera, the tulip tree; Magnolia virginiana, sweet bay magnolias; and runus serotina, the wild or black cherry are food for Eastern Tiger Swallowtail.
  • Plant a small group, instead of just one,of the plants intended for food and reproduction. You will have more success attracting the parents looking for a good spot for their progeny.
  • Place a few large stones or rocks in sunny areas or facing south for basking sites. Places where they can warm their wings in the mornings.
  • Make a puddle site.A shallow terra cotta plant saucer, filled with sand and sunk into a damp spot will work.
  • Butterflies like overripe fruit. Slices of orange or fruit past eating in a spot in the sun helps to attract them.

Poetic Moments

Butterfly poem

Hurt no living thing:
Ladybird, nor butterfly,
Nor moth with dusty wing…

-Christina Georgina Rossetti


The gold-barr’d butterflies to and fro
And over the waterside wander’d and wove
As heedless and idle as clouds that rove
And drift by the peaks of perpetual snow.
Joaquin Miller, Songs of the Sun-Lands–Isles of the Amazons


Make Your Garden

Ready to make your own yard a destination place for these beautiful creatures?

A Butterfly Destination

A selection of books:

The Cottage Gardener’s Companion: A Seasonal Guide to Plants & Plantings for Informal Gardens

Make Your Garden
A Butterfly Destination

…a butterfly area is one that is worth making not just for your own delight (and what is more delightful than a butterfly floating upon the air, or delicately sipping from a flower?), but for the general environment as well.Read More

Monarch butterfly facts:

for a garden calendar for the fall months see Month by Month Garden Calendar

Monarch butterfly

  • The monarch butterfly is sometimes called the “milkweed butterfly” because its larvae eat the plant.
  • Some groups of Monarchs migrate for over 2,000 miles during August-October. Those that live in Eastern USA winter in Florida, along the coast of Texas, and in Mexico, and return to the north in spring.
  • They eat toxins from the milkweed and are poisonous to predators
  • It takes about a month for the egg to mature into an adult
  • The caterpillar is banded with white/cream, black, and yellow stripes

Plant Material for Butterfly Gardens:


Try some of these other plants for butterflies:

Annual flowers:

Perennial plants: