Butterfly Garden: How to Design One

Monarch butterflies flying around aster flowers

You love your trips to the butterfly museum, but why not save on tickets and grow a butterfly garden right in your backyard? Watch monarch butterflies emerge from their chrysalis and swoon over their magic wings, all from the comfort of your own garden. 

Growing a butterfly garden is easy. Your goal is to get these beautiful pollinators to stick around and settle down in your garden rather than giving them a quick vacation spot they’ll soon want to leave. 

Think of this as your DIY butterfly garden kit: With the right flowering plants, nectar sources, water supply, and environment, you can get these butterflies to stay and multiply in your garden.

Take a look at the guide below on how to design a butterfly garden, and your garden will soon become the most popular butterfly real estate on the market. 

What is a butterfly garden?

A butterfly garden doesn’t only attract a variety of butterflies –– it gets them to stay, reproduce, and live out their life cycle. It’s a suitable, thriving butterfly habitat filled with colorful blooms, bounds of nectar, caterpillar food, puddling stations, shelter, and even scrumptious fruits. 

How to design a butterfly garden

Select your butterfly garden plants

Monarch butterfly on milkweed
Photo Credit: Image Catalog / Flickr

Planting butterfly-friendly flowers in your garden may seem pretty obvious for a butterfly garden. 

But there’s a trick to it: 

The secret here is to find flowers that will get these butterflies to linger, lay their eggs, and multiply. 

You’ll also want to target flowers that will attract the butterflies in your area. To determine which local butterflies are likely to shop around for a home, you have a few options: 

  • Visit a nearby butterfly house or butterfly museum and speak with a professional about butterflies in your area. 
  • Speak with nearby butterfly gardeners. They will have helpful tips. 
  • Invest in a field guide. This handy tool will provide information on different kinds of butterflies and the food plants they prefer. 

So, what plants will attract butterflies to your yard? Butterflies love bright colors and nectar plants, including: 

  • Butterfly bushes (Keep in mind that despite having “butterfly” in its name, a butterfly bush is not an appropriate “host plant.” Read more about host plants below. The butterfly bush only provides nectar for adult butterflies and is an invasive species in most U.S. regions.)
  • Zinnias
  • Asters
  • Purple coneflowers
  • Black-eyed Susans
  • Marigolds

But remember: 

Growing only “butterfly-friendly” flowers won’t be enough to make these pollinators stick around. We want to make your butterfly garden a permanent home, even for the next butterfly generation. 

That’s why you want caterpillar-friendly host plants in your butterfly garden, too. 

Grow caterpillar-friendly host plants

Your butterfly garden can feature plants that attract butterflies, plants that feed caterpillars, or plants that do both, such as milkweed. Milkweed attracts monarch butterflies and is the only food monarch caterpillars can eat. 

Some butterfly species will lay eggs on only one type of host plant, like the monarch butterfly, while other butterflies may have a range of host plants. 

Your goal is to find host plants that will encourage adult butterflies to lay their eggs and multiply. A butterfly isn’t going to linger in your garden for long if there aren’t any plants its offspring can eat. 

Which flowering plants make suitable food for hungry caterpillar larvae? Try a few of these:

  • Passionflower vines: Gulf fritillary caterpillars love to munch on these scrummy vines. 
  • Sunflowers: Painted lady caterpillars are easy going and will feast upon many plant varieties, including your yummy yellow sunflowers. 
  • Willows:  Eastern tiger swallowtail caterpillars adore the leaves of these woody plants. 

Provide supplemental food

Butterflies feeding on orange slices
Photo Credit: Hans Braxmeier / Pixabay 

Sometimes a butterfly’s favorite flower is scarce or not in bloom. That’s where alternative food sources come in. 

You can attract these hungry butterflies with a delicious meal of decaying fruits, like bananas, oranges, peaches, and strawberries. Place these aging fruits in a shallow container. 

Drizzle an enticing mixture of brown sugar, molasses, and beer over the fruits. The butterflies will love this sugary brew, and it keeps the fruit moist. 

Give them a butterfly puddling station

Three Rajah Brooke's birdwing butterflies puddling
Photo Credit: Lian Pin Koh / CC BY 2.0

What’s puddling? Mud-puddling or puddling is a behavior in butterflies and other insects. Butterflies seek out moist, muddy areas where they can perch and suck up water with their proboscis.

As they slurp the fluids from the mud or sand, they’re able to obtain the vital minerals they need to survive and reproduce. 

How do you make a puddling station? It’s simple. 

Fill a shallow container or saucer with mud or sand to the rim. Ensure the mud and sand are free of fertilizer and pesticides, as the chemicals may harm the butterflies. For a good source of minerals, sprinkle in compost or natural sea salt. 

Fill the container with water until the mixture is moist. You don’t want the water level to get too high so that the butterflies have nowhere to perch. The mix should be just wet enough so the butterflies can get their fluids and have a safe spot to perch. 

Place your puddling station in an area with plenty of sunlight –– butterflies love the sun. 

Check on your puddling station daily to ensure enough moisture, as the sun may dry it quickly. Refill the station with water as needed. 

To attract butterflies to your puddling station, add a couple of overripe fruits. 

Say no to harmful chemicals

Garden sign reads: Pesticide Free Zone
Photo Credit: Seattle Parks / CC BY 2.0

Butterflies are sensitive to pesticides, so they won’t be sticking around your garden for long if you smother it with pest control chemicals. 

If pests are an issue in your butterfly garden, it’s best to approach your pest control with natural, safe methods. Use insect-repelling flowers to ward off specific bugs. Chrysanthemums are highly sought after to keep away ants, Japanese beetles, roaches, silverfish, spider mites, and ticks. 

If you must use pesticides in your butterfly garden, the safest option is to use non-toxic pesticides or pesticides designed not to target butterflies and other beneficial insects. 

Vary blooming heights

Garden with various blooming heights, including arbors and hanging baskets
Photo Credit: Nancy Hann / CC BY 2.0

Give your butterflies various blooming heights to satisfy different feeding behaviors. If a butterfly is fluttering high above your garden, grab its attention with a colorful hanging flower basket or tall arched trellis covered in blooming vines

Not only will varied food heights attract more butterflies, but it will also make your walk through the butterfly garden more enjoyable. You’ll have butterflies dancing above your head, flitting past your ankles, and maybe even perching on your arms. 

Diversify blooming times

Seasonal clock cycle that includes four images of a tree growing in the seasons of spring, summer, autumn, and winter
Photo Credit: joiseyshowaa / CC BY-SA 2.0

When it comes to your butterfly garden, avoid growing plants that will all bloom at once. While a simultaneous bloom may look wonderful for a few short weeks, this is not enough time to sustain multiple butterflies and their offspring. 

For a long-lasting butterfly garden that attracts butterflies throughout most of the year, grow plants that will bloom at various times between spring and fall. You’ll get to enjoy new blooms every few weeks, and your butterflies will love the varying attractions. 

Bring out the sun

Monarch butterfly rests in the sun on a rock
Photo Credit: Pxfuel

Butterflies are cold-blooded creatures that can’t regulate their body temperature. That’s why they need to bask in the sun for ample warmth. 

What does that mean for your butterfly garden? 

Don’t grow it in the shade. 

Build your butterfly garden in an area that gets at least six hours of sunlight every day. Lay down a few of your favorite flat rocks, so the butterflies have a warm surface to rest and bask in the sun. 

Create shelter

Butterfly in lemon tree
Photo Credit: NAVEENMATT / CC BY-SA 4.0

As butterflies check out the sites for their new home, one thing they’ll be looking for is shelter. 

So how do you add shelter to your butterfly garden?

Grow shrubs and trees. These woody plants offer a safe place for butterflies to rest at night, are a refuge on rainy days, and act as protective windbreakers. 

Not just a garden, but a habitat

Most flower gardens attract butterflies with their bright colors and available nectar. But few can stop these delicate fliers from moving on to the next pretty garden.

That’s why your butterfly garden needs to be so irresistible that your visiting butterflies will be ready for a lifelong commitment. 

FAQ About Butterfly Gardens

Why is a butterfly garden important?

As natural habitats begin to dwindle due to wildfires, climate change, and deforestation, your butterfly garden can act as a sanctuary for these beautiful creatures, especially for endangered butterflies.

Building a butterfly garden becomes an easier task once you know it will become a safe habitat for butterflies seeking refuge. 

How long is the butterfly life cycle?

Lifespans vary among butterfly species. Some live for a few months, while others may complete their life cycle in a few short weeks. 

According to the U.S. Forest Service, monarch butterflies typically live between two and six weeks, except for the last generation of the year, which can live up to eight or nine months. 

The Black Swallowtail has a very short lifespan, only living up to about 10 to 12 days. 

When to Call a Professional Landscaper

Sometimes arranging the flowers in your butterfly garden can feel like a challenge if you haven’t got an eye for texture and color. And if you’re not a green thumb, digging in the dirt may not be your strong suit. 

So whether you’re new to butterfly gardening or need design advice, there’s no reason to away from building a butterfly garden in your backyard. Call a professional landscaper near you for assistance with design ideas, planting, or maintenance.

With the help of a professional, you can turn your butterfly garden dreams into reality. 

Main image credit: Butterfly Garden in Frank Starr Park, Storm Lake, Iowa / Laura Bernhardt / CC BY-ND 2.0

Jane Purnell

Jane Purnell

Jane Purnell is a freelance writer and actor in New York City. She earned her B.A. from the University of Virginia and enjoys a warm cup of French press coffee.