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How to Plant a Butterfly Garden: 7 Tips for Attracting Butterflies

Written by MasterClass

Last updated: Nov 8, 2020 • 3 min read

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Ron Finley Teaches Gardening

Butterfly gardening is more than just an aesthetic choice to bring color to your garden: Butterflies act as pollinators and can greatly benefit the health of your garden plants.

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Ron Finley Teaches GardeningRon Finley Teaches Gardening

Community activist and self-taught gardener Ron Finley shows you how to garden in any space, nurture your plants, and grow your own food.

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What Is a Butterfly Garden?

A butterfly garden (also known as a butterfly sanctuary or butterfly habitat) is an area for butterflies to feed and thrive. The plants you grow in your butterfly garden attract lepidopterans (butterflies and moths), which help with pollination. A proper butterfly garden can accommodate a variety of butterfly species at each stage of their life cycles: egg, larva, pupa, and adult. Butterflies are most active from spring to late summer when plant growth is at its peak.

7 Steps for Creating a Butterfly Garden

Butterfly gardens aren't difficult to maintain, but these steps will help you ensure both plants and butterflies flourish.

  1. Choose the right location. If planting a butterfly garden in your backyard, ensure that your location gets the right amount of sunlight for flowers to grow and to attract butterflies.
  2. Select flowers that attract butterflies. To benefit your local butterflies, fill your garden with two types of plants: nectar plants and host plants. Adult butterflies drink nectar, so a nectar source will entice them to come to your garden. Host plants provide a place for butterflies to lay eggs, and they serve as food sources for caterpillars once the larvae hatch. The plants you grow also provide a support structure for butterfly chrysalises. Different plants attract different butterfly species. For example, monarch butterflies are primarily attracted to milkweeds, and swallowtail butterflies are drawn to verbena and lantanas. Other examples of butterfly-friendly flowering plants include asters, black-eyed Susans, fritillaries, Joe-Pye weeds, marigolds, purple coneflowers, salvias, echinacea, zinnias, butterfly bush, and butterfly weed. Many garden centers have labels on plants that are butterfly-friendly.
  3. Use organic, homemade bait. In addition to colorful flowers, butterflies are drawn to sugar- and yeast-based baits, which can provide food and essential nutrients for butterflies. You can make homemade bait with a mix of rotting fruit (like bananas, peaches, plums, and apples), white sugar, molasses, or beer. Place the butterfly bait in an area that is easily accessible to butterflies—on flat rocks, tree stumps, or a dish.
  4. Add a water source. A puddling station is essential to help butterflies stay hydrated and receive vitamins and other nutrients from muddy water, like sodium. Fill a shallow dish with water, adding soil, sand, or pebbles to create a watery mud. Add more water and organic matter as the dish empties, especially during warm seasons. You can place puddling stations near the bait stations.
  5. Build butterfly shelters. Trees and shrubs can provide shade and resting places for butterflies, but by building a shelter, you can protect butterflies against predators and harsh weather conditions. A butterfly house can also act as an area for butterflies to rest and hibernate, as well as a place for caterpillars to cocoon. These shelters don't need to be fancy—a wooden box with a small opening will suffice.
  6. Stay clear of toxic pesticides. Many pesticides kill butterflies and other essential pollinators. Avoid chemical-based pesticides, even organic ones. Your best bet for pest control in a butterfly garden is companion planting. In addition to planting flowers that attract butterflies, consider also planting flowers that repel pests.
  7. Keep a diary. Track your flowers' and butterflies' progress with a garden diary. Keep notes of when and where you plant your flowers, when butterflies appear, whether pests are interfering, and any other pertinent details to the development and health of your butterflies. Starting a butterfly garden is an investment of time and labor, and you’ll be able to track your progress (and prepare for next year) by keeping daily logs.
Ron Finley Teaches Gardening
Ron Finley Teaches Gardening
Ron Finley Teaches Gardening
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Grow your own food with Ron Finley, the self-described "Gangster Gardener." Get the MasterClass Annual Membership and learn how to cultivate fresh herbs and vegetables, keep your house plants alive, and use compost to make your community - and the world - a better place.

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