Ten Basic Principles for Creating a Butterfly Garden

I’m often asked, “How do I start a butterfly garden?” and, “How can I get butterflies to come to my garden?” or, “I have lots of flowers, but why do I never see any butterflies?”

Attracting butterflies to your garden is actually quite easy. Below are ten principles to consider as you begin to plan your butterfly garden.

1. Don’t use pesticides! Yes, that means you are going to have bugs. If you don’t want bugs, then you don’t want butterflies. After all, a butterfly is a bug. Pesticides are the number-one killer of not only butterflies, but also bees, moths and other pollinators. Learn to live with the insects. Every insect serves a purpose and is part of the habitat you’re trying to create for the butterflies.

Butterflies and other pollinators are very sensitive to pesticides so avoid using them in your garden. Insecticides kill insects, so if you want butterflies, don’t use insecticides!

2. Plant your garden in a sunny location. It sounds simple but you would be surprised how many butterfly gardens I see that have been planted in the shade. While it is certainly OK to have some of the garden in shade, or to have shade during part of the day, you will have more success if the majority of the plants are in the sun. Remember, butterflies need the warmth of the sun to be able to fly. Also, flowers need the warm sun to produce nectar.

This is a great design for a butterfly garden but unfortunately, it does not provide sufficient sun throughout the day to attract butterflies.

3. Plant host plants! Host plants are those plants butterflies lay their eggs on. If you do not have host plants in your garden, butterflies may come to visit the flowers for nectar, but then they will leave.

Female butterflies have hundreds of eggs to lay. If you have lots of host plants, you will have lots of butterflies. Yes, the plant will get eaten and look awful and scraggly once eaten by a caterpillar. An amazing thing happens though when you trim that plant. It grows back! And this time the plant is even bigger and bushier. (More places for the butterfly to lay eggs and more food for caterpillars.)

Read more about the importance of adding host plants to your garden here: http://butterfly-lady.com/plant-host-plants/

You cannot have a butterfly without the caterpillar and you cannot have the caterpillar without that host plant. So plant lots of host plants. You can never have too, many.

4. Plant nectar plants. You need to realize that not all flowers provide nectar for butterflies. While roses are quite beautiful, they do not provide nectar for butterflies. Also, many of the beautiful colorful flowers you find at the plant shops are just that, pretty. They have been cultivated to have lots of colorful blooms and in so doing have lost their ability to provide tasty nectar through the hybridization process.

A great way to determine in the plant nursery as to whether a particular bloom will have sweet nectar for butterflies and hummingbirds is to observe whether bees are visiting the plant to extract nectar. If so, you have a winner.

There are so many wonderful flowers that attract butterflies and provide rich nectar. Some of the best are native wildflowers.

Plant these flowers to attract a variety of butterflies.

5. Cluster the same species of plants together in groups of three or more to make it easier for the butterflies to find the plants. If you plant just one milkweed plant among other plants the butterfly might never find it. Remember that butterflies use visual clues, colors and shapes, then smell clues to find the flowers they want to nectar on. Also, planting in clusters of 3, 5, 7, 9… makes the garden more aesthetically pleasing.

6. Plant a variety of flowers with different heights, colors, and blooming seasons.

Anise Hyssop, Black-eyed Susan, Bee Balm, and Joe Pye Weed are some of the flowers in this lovely pollinator garden.

7. Provide a wet area for the butterflies. Many species of male butterflies need to feed on salts and minerals in order to reproduce. They absorb these nutrients from damp sand, dirt, and mulch.

Front and top views of a ceramic bird bath converted into a butterfly puddling station. Click Here to view an assortment of bird baths for your garden.

8. Add a fruit feeder to your butterfly garden. Rotten fruit can help attract butterflies. Many butterflies do not live on flower nectar alone. Some species prefer, even require, overripe fruit to feed on. Butterflies are particularly fond of sliced, rotting oranges, grapefruit, strawberries, peaches, nectarines, apples, and bananas. For ideas on how to add a fruit feeder to your garden, click here: http://butterfly-lady.com/butterflies-and-fruit/

Red-spotted Purple (Limenitis arthemis) butterfly sipping juice from a cantaloupe.

9. Weeds are good. Many species of butterflies feed on various grasses, clover, dandelions, and other so-called “weeds.” A chemical-lawn monoculture is not good if you want more butterflies. If you can’t get rid of the crabgrass and Bermuda grass that take over your garden, you can tell folks that you left them there for the butterflies! You can also leave a section of your yard unmowed. This is especially important in the early spring since “weeds” are some of the only flowers that are in bloom.

A Painted Lady Butterfly (Vanessa cardui) feeds on a dandelion.

10. Learn about the different species of butterflies in your area. This will help you identify the visitors to your garden. There are many different websites and books that can help you.

For my top five book recommendations about butterflies click here: http://butterfly-lady.com/top-five-butterfly-books/

Please note, you may have seen wooden butterfly houses placed inside butterfly gardens. They DO NOT attract butterflies, only wasps and spiders. They are colorful, though, and can be used as garden art, if you desire.

This Butterfly Garden sign is the perfect addition to your butterfly garden! https://amzn.to/3e5mwC8

Native Flowers for Monarch Butterflies

Monarch butterflies not only need milkweed to lay their eggs, but they also need nectar-rich plants. Adult monarchs are dependent on nectar plants as a food source during spring and summer breeding, fall migrations, and during overwintering to fuel up and to survive.

Here are twelve native plants that provide Monarch butterflies with nutrient-rich nectar.


Click on the name of each flower to find out more information on that flower:

Asters (Asters, spp.) Buy Asters here:
Ironweed (Vernonia fasciculata) Buy Ironweed here:
Blazing Star (Liatris spp.) Buy Blazing Star Here.
Cone Flowers ((Echinacea spp.) Buy Cone Flowers Here.
Goldenrod (Solidago spp.) Buy Goldenrod Here.
Joe Pye Weed (Eupatorium spp.) Buy Joe Pye Weed Here.
Sunflowers (Helianthus spp.) Buy Sunflowers Here.
Bee Balm (Monarda spp.) Buy Bee Balm Here.
Asters (Aster spp.) Buy Asters Here.
Milkweed (Asclepias spp.) Buy Milkweed Here.
Sedum (Sedum spp.) Buy Sedum Here.
Anise Hyssop (Agastache spp.) Buy Anise Hyssop Here.

The Xerces Society, in partnership with the National Wildlife Federation and Monarch Joint Venture, developed regional monarch-specific nectar plant guides for the continental US. The plant species included in these nectar plant guides are based on monarch nectaring observations compiled from numerous sources, including published and technical reports, research datasets, and personal communications with monarch researchers, botanists, and other experts.

Use the map to identify your area, then click on the map to find the corresponding regional guide.




Plant Wildflowers to Attract Butterflies!

For gardeners who like easy-care plants, native wildflowers can be the foundation of the garden. They’re easy to grow, never weedy, and they attract and nourish wildlife, including birds, bees, beneficial insects, and butterflies.

Whether you like to start flowers from seed or transplants, these easy-growing wildflowers won’t require spraying for pests and diseases or copious amounts of chemical fertilizers to light up your landscape. Plus, they generally are quite tolerant of poor soils and dry conditions, which means you won’t need to amend the soil or be too compulsive about your watering duties.

  1. Native wildflowers are extremely easy to grow. They create easy, low-maintenance color in almost any sunny spot, needing little water once established.
  2. Native wildflowers help our pollinators. Native wildflowers are integral to pollinators’ survival. Planting a wildflower meadow gives bees, butterflies, and hummingbirds a nectar buffet to feed on all season long.
  3. Native wildflowers are good for the environment. Native plants help reduce air pollution sequester or remove, carbon from the air.
  4. Native wildflowers do not require fertilizers and require fewer pesticides than lawns. Pesticides are the number one killer of not only butterflies, but also bees, and moths and other pollinators.
  5. Native wildflowers require less water and help prevent erosion.
    The deep root systems of many native plants increase the soil’s capacity to store water. Native plants can significantly reduce water runoff and, consequently, flooding.
  6. Native wildflowers provide spectacular color and beauty. There’s nothing more awe-inspiring than a wildflower garden or meadow bursting in bloom.
  7. Wildflowers are fun. Whether you’re a new gardener or a seasoned pro, growing, caring for, and cutting wildflowers for summer bouquets is a lot of fun.

    A flower bouquet of wildflowers dresses up a table.

Here are some of my favorite native wildflowers for butterfly gardens. (Click on each plant to learn how to grow.):

Blazing Star (Liatris spp.) Buy Blazing Star Here.
Cone Flowers ((Echinacea spp.) Buy Cone Flowers Here.
Goldenrod (Solidago spp.) Buy Goldenrod Here.
Verbena (Verbena spp.) Buy Verbena Here.
Joe Pye Weed (Eupatorium spp.) Buy Joe Pye Weed Here.
Sunflowers (Helianthus spp.) Buy Sunflowers Here.
Bee Balm (Monarda spp.) Buy Bee Balm Here.
Asters (Aster spp.) Buy Asters Here.
Milkweed (Asclepias spp.) Buy Milkweed Here.
Salvia (Salvia spp.) Buy Salvia Here.
Blanket Flower (Gaillardia spp.) Buy Blanket Flower Here.
Black-eyed Susan (Rudbeckia  spp.) Buy Black-eyed Susan Here.
Sedum (Sedum spp.) Buy Sedum Here.
Yarrow (Achillea spp.) Buy Yarrow Here.
Anise Hyssop (Agastache spp.) Buy Anise Hyssop Here.

Here are resources to help you learn more about native wildflowers by state and region.

U.S. Forest Service: Gardening for Pollinators

Ladybird Johnson Wildflower Center: Plant Lists and Collections

Here are books about using native plants to attract butterflies:

Gardening for Butterflies: How You Can Attract and Protect Beautiful, Beneficial Insects by The Xerces Society. Click here to purchase: https://amzn.to/3dnVEgh

Bringing Nature Home: How You Can Sustain Wildlife with Native Plants, Updated and Expanded by Douglas W. Tallamy Click here to purchase: https://amzn.to/3drqkgJ

Advice from a Wildflower – 5″ x 10″ Wood Plaque Sign https://amzn.to/2xKMT0G

Spring Migration

There is nothing more exciting than finding a field full of native Milkweed plants. Even more exhilarating is when you discover Monarch butterfly eggs on the leaves of those plants!

Looking for Monarch butterfly eggs on young milkweed plants.

Monarchs are leaving a trail of eggs as they travel north. The first generation departing overwintering sites in central Mexico only migrates as far north as Texas and Oklahoma. The second, third, and fourth generations return to their northern breeding locations in the United States and Canada as spring progresses.

Female Monarchs find milkweed on their journey north through a combination of visual and chemical cues. When they land on a plant that might be Milkweed, they drum their forelegs on the surface to release chemicals. Then, sensors on their legs and antennae called chemoreceptors to identify if it’s Milkweed and the quality of the plant. They like placing their eggs on tender new leaves of the Milkweed plant, probably making it easier for the young larva to feed on.

Female Monarch depositing eggs on Tropical Milkweed (Asclepias curassavica). Purchase Tropical Milkweed seeds here: https://amzn.to/2xU5M1c

You can report your sightings at Journey North

Spring migratory routes are considerably more difficult to identify and study than fall routes because in the spring Monarchs are dispersed and consequently less noticeable than the fall migrants, which form roosts. Scientists are still learning about the Monarchs’ spring migration thanks to the help of citizen scientists from every US state and seven Canadian provinces. They report their first sightings of Monarch butterflies every spring. Through these reports, we can learn about when and where Monarchs travel as they migrate north in the spring.

Generation 1 monarchs are the offspring of the monarchs who overwintered in Mexico. Each successive generation travels farther north. It will take 3-4 generations to reach the northern United States and Canada.

High-quality habitat with abundant Milkweed is critical for Monarchs at this stage of their annual cycle. Explore Monarch Watch’s Milkweed Market and Monarch Joint Venture’s Milkweed & Wildflower Vendor Map. Plan and plant your pollinator garden today!

Young Common Milkweed (Asclepias syriaca). Purchase seeds here: https://amzn.to/3cK8ANe

Winter Sowing Milkweed Seeds

Recently, I saw a post on Facebook about how to winter sow milkweed seeds using milk jugs.

Native milkweed seeds and many other perennial plants need a period of cold stratification in order to germinate. Cold stratification is simply exposing the seed to a period of cold treatment. I’ve always prepared milkweed seeds by using the artificial stratification method (click here for instructions), however, was intrigued by this unique method.

Daria Fedorovich Murphy shared her method for sowing milkweed seeds on Facebook.

The holidays were spent at my son’s house in Michigan. I brought some milkweed seeds as a Christmas gift. He and his wife recently purchased a home and expressed an interest in planting a butterfly garden. I had planned to sow them directly into the ground but wanted to try using the “milk jug method” instead.

Using individual biodegradable planter cups to plant the milkweed seeds, I figured would make it easier to transplant the seedlings when they are ready. I placed potting soil inside the cups and watered the soil to moisten it, then three to four seeds were placed on top of the dirt and gently patted them down. (You do not cover the seeds with soil because they need light to germinate.)

To prepare the milk jugs punch four drainage holes on the bottom of the jug using an awl. (You could also use the tip of a heated glue gun or drill the holes with a small power drill.) The holes need to be about ¼ inch in diameter to allow good drainage.  Cut the milk jug in half with sharp scissors, leaving about an inch for a hinge.

Leaving a hinge is essential to keep the top attached to the base.

Place the planter cups inside the milk jugs and use duct tape to seal them closed. Be sure to leave the caps off of the containers so the milkweed seeds will get watered from Mother Nature. I placed the milk jugs inside some planter trays for stability. Oh yes, and don’t forget to label the milk jugs! (I used a permanent marker, but a grease pencil will also work. Or you can use a planter label for each individual cup.)

Labeling your plantings eliminates confusion later in the season.

Now you just leave the milk jugs outside and let Mother Nature do her magic!

Even in the snow, the seedlings are protected inside the milk jugs.

Click here for more detailed instructions on how to winter sow seeds using milk jugs: https://springcreekhomesteading.files.wordpress.com/2011/09/milk-jug-sowing.pdf

You can purchase these native milkweed seeds here: https://amzn.to/2UsvcKn

Spread the message with this “Plant Milkweed” T-shirt by Butterfly Lady: https://amzn.to/2PFvZn4