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 Florence Fennel,  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.