7 Steps to Easily Create a Butterfly Garden

A butterfly garden or pollinator garden is an area in which butterflies and pollinators like bumblebees feed and thrive.

Here, you’ll grow plants that attract both butterflies and other pollinators and encourage pollination and breeding to support your local ecosystem.

As butterflies are most active from late spring to late summer, you’ll want to have your plan in place by then. However, creating a butterfly garden to support multiple generations of butterflies or pollinators will take at least two years - so you should start now!

Below, we cover everything you need to know about preparing your butterfly garden for success. Let’s get started.

Select the best type of plants for butterflies

You’ll want two types of plants in your butterfly garden: nectar plants and host plants.

Adult butterflies drink nectar, so this is a source of nutrients for them in addition to attracting them to the garden. As a bonus, you'll want to plant native plants to your area to maximize the blooms and health of your plant, which will maximize the amount of nectar they produce.

Nectar Plant for Monarch Butterfly

On the other hand, host plants provide a spot for butterflies to lay eggs a well as food sources for caterpillars once the larvae hatch. Monarch butterflies, specifically, need milkweed plants. There are no other host plants for Monarchs other than milkweed.

Other host plants include: Golden Alexanders (Black Swallowtail host), Cottonwood trees/Magnolia trees (Tiger Swallowtail host), Common violet (Great Spangled Fritillary host), Little Bluestem (Ottoe Skipper host), Wild Lupine (Karner Blue host), Wild Senna (Sulphur Butterfly host), Ironweed (Painted Lady host), White Turtlehead (Baltimore Checkerspot host), Blue False Indigo (Wild Indigo Duskywing host), New Jersey Tea (Spring Azure host), Rose Mallow Hibiscus (Painted Lady host) and Purple Prairie Clover (Southern Dog Face host).

Planting both nectar plants and host plants in your garden can help you attract and maintain your butterflies properly.

Choose the right location for your plants

    Selecting the right location for your butterfly garden can make all the difference. You’ll want a spot that gets adequate sunlight for flowers to grow, which will attract butterflies.

    Butterflies are cold-blooded and need the light from the sun to warm their muscles so they're able to fly from flower to flower and produce eggs. Typically the magic number of hours of sunlight is 6 hours.

    You could grow a butterfly garden in partial sun or semi-shade for waystation purposes, as well, but it will be much tougher to get those areas established.

    Sunny Butterfly Garden

    Make your own butterfly bait

    You can also create baits to draw butterflies to your garden. Sugar and yeast-based baits will provide food and essential nutrients to butterflies. You can make your own by using rotting fruit (bananas, peaches, plums, apples), white, sugar, molasses, and beer. The best place to put your bait is on flat rocks, tree stumps, or a dish.

    These baits are that they may attract flies, mosquitoes or animals so make sure to keep that in mind.

    It's also important to keep in mind that the best way to attract butterflies to your garden is to add native plants that attract butterflies.

    Add a water source

    Butterflies need water to stay hydrated. Create a puddling station from a shallow dish and soil, sand, or pebbles to provide essential vitamins and nutrients like sodium from muddy water. The water source should be placed near the bait stations and nectar sources.

    Build a shelter or cover for butterflies

    Butterflies need protection from predators and harsh weather conditions. Add

    Shelter for Monarch Butterfly

    trees, shrubs, and a butterfly house to your garden to fit all of their needs.

    Native and ornamental grasses also provide excellent protection, shade, a resting place, and a spot to hibernate and cocoon.

    One common pollinator, the Ottoe Skipper, uses Little Bluestem as a larval host plant and some bumblebee queens will even nest at the base of ornamental grasses like Prairie Dropseed.

    Steer clear of pesticides and Neonicotinoids

    While well-intentioned, many butterfly gardeners end up killing their butterflies with chemical-based pesticides (even organic ones!). If you’re looking to control pests in your garden, read up on companion planting. This can help keep any issues at bay.

    Neonicotinoids are neurotoxic insecticides that have been commonly used in agriculture and garden pest sprays. They have had a devastating impact on pollinator survival in the US and are a major source of species decline. Here is a list of insecticides to avoid.

    It's important to understand, as well, that some "pests" are naturally-occurring and are important parts of the environment in your area. Here's more information on how to control aphid pests if you're interested.

    Track your progress

    How do you know if your butterfly garden is successful? Through progress tracking! Make note of how your butterflies are doing and when/where they most appear.

    Is there a pest that is interfering with their well-being? Is there something else you could change or improve? Paying attention to these details can help ensure a thriving butterfly garden and give you benchmarks for the next season.

    It also helps to maintain a journal of when your plants are blooming and at which time. If you're struggling at attracting butterflies to your garden during the spring, for example, you may need to add native flowering plants that bloom in the springtime to support early-arriving species.

    Final Thoughts

    There you have it! Before you know it, you’ll have a thriving butterfly garden. Just be sure to monitor your garden for progress or issues that arise.

    If you're unsure of which plants to pair together in your butterfly garden you can check out our article on Perennial Companion Plants for more information about what to plant in your butterfly garden and which plants work best with each other.

    Good luck!