Butterfly Gardening


How to build the perfect butterfly habitat

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Letting all that milkweed grow around my yard has paid off, and we have some monarch butterfly caterpillars in there chomping away! Here's how to create a butterfly garden—from a mud puddle to plants!

Though we don't recall seeing any adult monarchs flitting through the garden, they must have visited long enough to deposit some eggs. We have seen plenty of tiger swallowtails and always grow extra dill for the larvae of the black swallowtails to eat.


These big black and green striped caterpillars are actually quite pretty!

Butterflies Need Caterpillar Food

Adult butterflies live for only a few weeks; most of that time is spent mating and laying eggs. To encourage them to carry out their whole life cycle in your yard, you need to provide nectar plants for the adults and host plants on which to lay their eggs and larval food for the emerging caterpillars.


Butterflies like an untidy, natural environment and many of the best plants for feeding larvae are wild. Milkweed, thistle, willow, stinging nettle, violets, mustard, white clover, blueberries, and wild cherry all provide food for the ravenous, newly hatched caterpillars.

A good butterfly book is essential for identifying the butterflies in your yard, and it will tell you the preferred larval food for each one. If the neighbors give you a hard time about letting thistle grow, just let them know that it is the preferred food of the beautiful painted lady butterfly's larvae.


A Word on Milkweed and Monarchs

The leaves of all milkweed species are the ONLY food that the caterpillars of beautiful American monarch butterflies can eat. However, wild-growing milkweeds are disappearing because of widespread pesticide use, and there has been a 90% decline in monarch populations over the last two decades!

The good news is that you can plant milkweed for monarch butterflies! The best time to plant milkweed is in the fall, which is aligned with Mother Nature. In the wild, milkweed plants scatter their seeds quite late in the season. Scratch your milkweed seed and plant directly into the soil in the fall. Then, in early summer next year, keep a sharp eye out for those newly emerging seedlings and water them regularly until they are well established.

The nectar in all milkweed flowers provides valuable food for butterflies, bees, and other pollinators, too. 

Butterflies Need Nectar Flowers

The best flowers are those made of multiple tiny blossoms such as yarrow, lilacs, phlox, buddleia, goldenrod, or Queen Anne's lace. Composite flowers like daisies, zinnias, coneflowers, and asters are also good. Butterflies gather nectar with their tube-like proboscis, which is coiled when not in use, so flowers with a tubular shape, like bee balm, honeysuckle, or columbine, also attract them.

They have an acute sense of "smell" using chemical receptors in their tongues, antennae, and feet. Heavy perfume appeals to them, so plant strong-scented, old-fashioned flowers rather than modern hybrids, which may lack the fragrance of their heirloom parents.

To attract butterflies, you must provide the basics of water, shelter, sunny open spots, and lots of flowers. Color and fragrance are lures, and the shape of the flowers seems to be even more important than the color. Larger butterflies have long legs and need a platform to land on.


A mud puddle is a butterfly's ideal watering hole, but a dish of water or a shallow pool with a basking spot made from a flat rock would be adequate for drinking and sunning. You could even just put a sponge in your birdbath to give them a moist place to perch. It may sound disgusting to us, but they love manure tea and will drink from barnyard puddles to get the minerals they need to supplement a diet of nectar.

Enemies abound! Spiders, rodents, birds, snakes, viruses, and other diseases can take a toll on butterfly populations, but man is the butterfly's number one enemy. Destruction of habitat has led to the decline and even extinction of certain species, and the widespread use of herbicides and pesticides has been lethal to butterfly populations worldwide.

To prevent inadvertently killing off the butterflies visiting your garden, avoid using chemical pesticides or bacterial weapons like Bt. I'm willing to share a little more of my produce with other caterpillars in return for the pleasure I get from watching the butterflies frolic around my yard.

Which flowers and plants are best for butterflies? It depends on the butterfly! Read more about specific Plants That Attract Butterflies.

About The Author

Robin Sweetser

Robin has been a contributor to The Old Farmer’s Almanac and the All-Seasons Garden Guide for many years. Read More from Robin Sweetser

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