Butterfly Container Gardening

If you live in an apartment with a small patio or deck you can still have a butterfly garden by planting the right plants in a container.

Remember, butterflies visit a garden for two things: In search of food (nectar), which they get from butterfly-friendly flowers, and for host plants on which to lay their eggs. So if you are making a butterfly garden, ensure you grow both butterfly-friendly flowers that are nectar-rich and host plants, the plants that caterpillars prefer to eat.

A Gulf Fritillary is attracted to a Mexican Sunflower planted in a container. Also shown are Purple Trailing Lantana (Lantana montevidensis), Giant Red Penta
(Pentas lanceolata), and Blue Porterweed (Stachytarpheta cayennensis).

Start with a large container. You can use just about anything that will hold soil, but it has to have holes in the bottom for drainage or you’ll have floating plants after the first thunderstorm. Poor drainage is the most frequent cause of failure in container gardening.

Fill the bottom of the container with empty soda cans. You can also use pinecones if you prefer to use something more natural. This serves two purposes, first, you use less potting soil in the container so that the container is not unbearably heavy, and second, the cans or bottles provide oxygen and room for the roots to grow.

One formula used by designers is to include at least one spiller, one thriller, and one filler in each pot. The filler can be anything bushy, the spiller is a trailing plant to soften the edge, and the thriller can be a bloomer or something with interesting texture or weird foliage to provide the wow factor.

Sweet Potato Vine (Ipomoea batatas) is the spiller, Pincushion Flower (Scabiosa columbaria ‘Butterfly Blue’) is the filler, and Butterfly White Penta (Pentas lanceolata) is the thriller.

Because of the intensive planting, you will need to fertilize and water your containers often. A slow-release fertilizer mixed in the soil at planting time will keep the plants blooming all summer long. Deadheading and grooming the plants will keep them looking gorgeous. Don’t hesitate to shear back bloomers if they look tired and leggy. They will reward you with more blossoms later in the season.

Don’t forget to include host plants such as fennel, dill, and parsley for Black Swallowtails and milkweed for Monarchs.



  • Be sure that any container you use has drainage holes.
  • Avoid small containers. They often can’t store enough water to get through hot days, so will need constant care. Large pots also insulate roots better.
  • Clay pots are usually more attractive than plastic ones, but plastic pots retain moisture better. Consider a plastic pot inside a larger clay pot to get the best of both worlds!
  • New, lightweight materials, such as fiberglass, plastic, or foam composites, make moving pots easier.
  • Use soil-free potting mix; not only is it light, but the fluffy blend provides roots with more oxygen and nutrients.
  •  To plant, place the container where you want your flower to grow. Be sure it receives enough sun.

    A variety of containers can make for an interesting display.


  • Fill the container ⅔ full with potting mix.
  • With your hands, make a hole in the potting mix about the diameter of the pot.
  • Knock the flower out of its pot, spread its roots slightly, and place it in the hole.
  • Add more potting mix to bring the level up to 2 inches below the container top.
  • Water gently, press the mix to reduce air pockets, add more mix if necessary, then water again.
  • Mulch container surfaces to prevent soil compaction or root damage. Heavy rains and high-pressure hose blasts can dislodge potting mix and damage roots or pound the surface creating a hard crust through which water has a difficult time penetrating. Sphagnum moss, aquarium gravel, pebbles, and shredded cedar bark are all attractive barriers that thwart these problems.
  • Feed container plants at least twice a month with liquid fertilizer, following the instructions on the label.
  • Keep the planting medium moist. The container plant is totally at your mercy for water.
  •  Deadhead old flowers to promote new flower formation and to prevent seeds from forming which stops the bloom cycle.

A variety of butterfly-friendly seeds can be purchased at Butterfly Lady’s Etsy Shop.

Annuals for the Butterfly Garden

There are many benefits of adding annuals to your butterfly garden.

Annuals not only bring color and excitement to summer gardens but provide lots more pollen and nectar sources to attract many butterflies, hummingbirds, and bees to your garden. 

Some of the best annuals for butterflies include Zinnias, Pentas, Cosmos, Mexican Sunflowers, Lantana, Verbena, and Scarlet Milkweed. Click here to find seeds.

Annual flowers grow quicker and bloom longer. They have a lot of work to do in one season, so they’re efficient plants, germinating and growing quickly. And they often stay in flower all season long.

I am regularly asked, “What is the most popular flower in your garden?” Mexican Sunflowers definitely!


Annuals come in a multitude of colors.  Annual blooms are usually bright and vivid. They need to attract pollinators and they don’t have time to waste. You can count on filling up empty beds quickly and dramatically with annuals, mixing colors and heights to create the palate you want.

Butterflies love lantana. Clusters of nectar-filled blooms make lantana a magnet for pollinators.


Annuals are easy to grow from seed. You plant, water, and sit back to enjoy the show.

Zinnias are one of the easiest annuals to grow. Just prepare the soil and sow them directly into the ground. Click here to purchase seeds.


Joe Pye Weed is the Queen of the Meadow

Joe Pye Weed, also known as Spotted Joe Pye Weed, or Queen of the Meadow is a herbaceous native perennial wildflower found throughout much of the United States and Canada. It must be called “Queen of the Meadow” due to the number of butterfly and pollinator parties it hosts!

Tiny mauve flowers of Joe Pye Weed bloom in large clusters atop the stems. These flowers have a sweet vanilla scent.


Joe Pye Weed is an outstanding garden plant and will flourish in any rich garden soil. Reaching heights of 4 to 6 feet, it is topped with huge clusters of mauve flower heads on tall straight stems which are so rich in pollen and nectar that they are like a magnet for butterflies, bees, and other pollinators.

Monarch (Danaus plexippus), Common Buckeye, and Tiger Swallowtail are just some of the butterflies attracted to these fragrant flowers.

Joe Pye Weed does best in average, medium to wet soils in full sun, but tolerates some light afternoon shade in hot summer climates. You can cut the plants to the ground in late winter.

Joe Pye Weed is a very tall plant, up to six feet tall, but strong stems support the flowering plant so it rarely needs to be staked. Click here to purchase seeds.

This is a very low-maintenance native perennial that is simply stunning when planted in groups. It does require large space to grow, but it’s can make a great impact on the back of borders, in cottage gardens, meadows, native plant gardens, wild, naturalized areas, and of course, butterfly gardens.

Tropical Milkweed

Despite the bad rap it has gotten in the past few years, one of my very favorite flowers in the butterfly garden is Asclepias curassavica also known as Tropical Milkweed, Bloodflower, Scarlett Milkweed, and Mexican Butterfly Weed.

A female Monarch butterfly (Danaus plexippus) is nectaring on the bloom of this Tropical Milkweed,

There are many other types of milkweed but Asclepias curassavica is one of the Monarch butterfly’s favorite host plants. Here are eight reasons why it is my personal favorite milkweed.

1. Flowers bloom continuously from spring to fall in temperate climates and in tropical climates they will flower all year.

2. Asclepias curassavica is easy to grow from seeds and is a fast grower.

No need to cold-stratify Tropical Milkweed. Just add the seeds and watch them grow! Click here to purchase seeds.

3. You can also propagate from stem cuttings.

If you have potting soil and containers available, simply place the stems directly into the potting soil. Keep the soil moist until you start to see leaves sprouting from the nodes (the bumps on the stems where leaves used to be). At the same time, roots will be growing from the nodes underground. These are 4-inch (10 cm) nursery pots.

4. Tropical Milkweed is tolerant of different soil types,  growing well in dry, moist, and wet soils.

5. Tropical milkweed can be planted in containers.

Plant Tropical Milkweed in a large plastic or terracotta container for ease of moving. Also, if you grow the milkweed in containers, you can bring them inside to overwinter.


6. Asclepias curassavica attracts both Monarch and Queen butterflies because they use it as a host plant.

Queen (Danaus gilippus) and Monarch (Danaus plexippus) deposting eggs on Tropical Milkweed.

7. Many species of butterflies will nectar on the tropical milkweed flowers.

Tiger Swallowtail, White Peacock, Black Swallowtail, and Spicebush Swallowtail.

8. Hummingbirds also like to feed on the blooms.

Photo by Rhonda Cantu, used with permission.

Tropical Milkweed is a perennial in zones 8-11. It will grow year-round in zones 9b-11. In zones 8-9 it will die back to return in the spring. Elsewhere in the US and Canada, it is grown as an annual.

If you live in zones 9b-11 where the Tropical Milkweed stays green all year it is recommended to cut it back in the fall or winter so new growth will form. The reason is that Monarchs can get a parasite called OE. OE is a protozoan parasite that is spread to any milkweed plants when an infected adult butterfly flies over the plants. The flapping of monarch butterfly wings exfoliate the OE spores and the spores fall like glitter and stick to the milkweed. When a caterpillar ingests the leaves with the spores they become infected. These spores can survive on the leaves of any Milkweed. So, if Milkweed does not die back and gets new growth then the OE spores may stay present and continue to re-infect caterpillars. This is not an issue in areas where Tropical Milkweed (or any other Milkweed for that matter) dies back in the winter.

Tropical Milkweed should be cut back at least once a year about six inches from the soil.

Since I live in USDA Zone 9b where Tropical Milkweed lives year-round, I cut the plant back twice a year, once in mid-summer and again in late December or in January. I will also cut it back once it gets leggy. This does two things, one, it removes a build-up of OE spores on the plant that can be harmful to the Monarch, and two, it encourages branching and therefore produces a healthier plant and more flower clusters.

This wall of Tropical milkweed growing in my garden attracts Monarchs, Queens, and many other butterflies.

Additional Resources:

Tropical Milkweed -Yes or No? by Edith Smith

Choice of Plant Reduces Parasitic Load: Tropical Milkweed

Tropical Milkweed and the Injurious Effects of Well-Meaning People by Jeffery Glassberg

What is OE by Project Monarch Heath

Spread the word with this t-shirt. Click here to purchase: https://amzn.to/31rUCNE


Butterfly Season

Click Here or on the book to obtain your copy of The Language of Butterflies by Wendy Williams.

My friend Wendy Williams, author of the book The Language of Butterflies, asked, “Christmas is over. When do we get to the Good Stuff? When does Butterfly Season finally start?”

Fortunately for me because I live in south Texas, and for others who live in temperate and tropical climes, butterfly season never ends. We get to enjoy seeing many different species of native butterflies throughout the winter.

I am still seeing several Queen (Danaus gilippus) butterflies in my garden here in South Texas.

There are also many butterfly exhibits where you can enjoy seeing beautiful tropical butterflies year-round in the United States and Canada.

There are many butterfly exhibits where you can enjoy seeing butterflies year-round. To see a list of butterfly exhibits click here.

I also would like to argue that the butterfly season never ends for people who live where it snows. Many butterflies that live in cold climates spend the winter as caterpillars, while almost as many spend the winter as pupae. A few species, mainly the California Tortoiseshell (Nymphalis californica), Mourning Cloak (Nymphalis antiopa), and Comma (Polygonia comma) spend the winter as adults, hibernating in holes in trees, in crevices in man-made structures, or in other shelters. A very few species spend the winter as eggs. By leaving autumn leaves un-raked and yards a little messy with debris, we allow safe places for them to snooze the winter away.

While many butterflies can overwinter in the chrysalis form, there is one that ecloses as an adult in the fall and remains a butterfly for the winter. That champion of the deep freeze is the Mourning Cloak (Nymphalis antiopa). This butterfly finds shelter under loose tree bark, in open sheds, or hides away in woodpiles.

Winter is the perfect time of year to start planning for the butterflies when warmer weather arrives. If you enjoy seeing butterflies in your garden, then you not only need to plant flowers that feed the adults but also plant host plants that will feed the caterpillars of those 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. Click Here or click on the flower and butterfly photos to shop for seeds.

There are many excellent books available as well as online resources to help you learn about the butterflies native to your area and the plants that will attract them. Start finding out about different plants and trees so that you will know what to plant to create a habitat for the butterflies. Start making a list.

Two books I highly recommend are Gardening for Butterflies by the Xerces Society and Raising Butterflies in the Garden by Brenda Dziedzic.

And now is the time to start purchasing seeds! Click Here.

Many seeds, especially native milkweeds and native perennials, need to be cold-stratified for 3 to 6 weeks. If you live where it snows, I think the easiest way to cold stratify seeds is using the milk jug method.

To learn more about cold-stratifying seeds in milk jugs click here.

Seeds can also be cold stratified in the refrigerator. Simply place the seeds on a wet piece of paper towel or sand inside a plastic container or Ziplock bag and place them in the refrigerator. Leave them there for 3-6 weeks or until you are ready to plant them.

Thanks to BASF Living Acres for permission to use this photo!

As you can see, Butterfly Season has already started. Enjoy the flowers and the butterflies!