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How to Plant a Butterfly Garden

March 14, 2014 | By | 4 Replies More

butterfly garden

Black swallowtail on our buddleia

Attracting wildlife to my yard was one of the many reasons why I got into perennial gardening years ago. Besides adding color, animation, and life to the garden, hummingbirds, songbirds, buzzing bees, and butterflies provide a connection to nature that’s often lost if you live in a city or even the suburbs. Of all the wildlife you can attract to your yard, butterflies are among the easiest to lure simply by choosing the right plants to create a butterfly garden.

The number of butterflies in a particular location can give clues about the overall health of the ecosystem. Butterflies rely on biodiversity for their habitat and their caterpillars are a valuable food source for birds. The reason I want them though is that they’re a joy to watch fluttering about the garden. I swear that watching them lowers my blood pressure and makes my cares gently melt away.

butterfly garden

Monarda or bee balm



This year, I’ll be planting my first ever vegetable garden at our new home and it’s much bigger than my previous garden. I’ll be relying on butterflies to help the bees pollinate my vegetables and provide an abundant harvest. Many butterflies have interesting life cycles. Watching them from larvae to adulthood is very educational. If you have kids, they’ll be fascinated and may even step away from the iPhone for a moment!

Butterfly garden plants

  1. Buddleia or butterfly bush-The name says it all. These lovely and easy to grow bushes are a must-have for any butterfly garden. They produce large, fragrant flowers in shades of purple, pink or white with sweet nectar that butterflies can’t resist. In my yard, we have several of them that lure black and yellow swallowtail butterflies all season. Some butterfly bushes can get very large, so if you have a smaller space, try compact varieties like ‘Miss Molly’ or ‘Miss Ruby’ for non-stop butterfly action. IMPORTANT UPDATEAs I have learned since the publishing of this post, buddleia is considered an invasive plant and is not favored among many in the gardening and horticulture world. It is actually so invasive that it competes with native species that are better for butterflies. Also, it is considered to be like “crack for butterflies” because while adult butterflies do love the flowers’ nectar, the plant offers nothing for butterflies’ other life stages, such as feeding the larvae as milkweed does. I have since lost a few of my butterfly bushes that were planted by the home’s previous owner, so I am not going to replace them. I do have one in my yard now that I don’t plan to dig up. However, I also provide many other plants that serve as food for butterfly larvae as well.

    Purple coneflower

    Purple coneflower

  2. Asclepias or perennial milkweed-This hardy plant blooms in vibrant shades of pink, mauve, orange or yellow. It’s the sole host plant for monarch butterflies, acting as both a source of nectar for adult butterflies and food for monarch caterpillars. Monarchs have fallen victim to habitat destruction over the years and their numbers are dwindling, so do something to help by planting a patch of milkweed. Be on the lookout for the tiny caterpillars when they appear. Just let them do their damage to the plant and you’ll be rewarded with adult monarchs every summer.
  3. Parsley-Besides being a basic culinary herb that is simple to grow, parsley is perfect for a butterfly garden since it’s a host plant for swallowtail caterpillars. Plant enough for you and for the caterpillars and do not pick them off when you see them. In just days, the tiny caterpillars will eat and poop their way to being large green and yellow worms that evolve into adult butterflies. Bonus points for sheltering your parsley plants with a net or cover to keep birds away.
  4. Zinnia-I grow  this annual in pots around my patio for a great butterfly show up close. Zinnias are available in many different colors and they are easy to grow either from seeds-just directly sow them in your pots-or from seedlings at your favorite nursery.
  5. Echinacea or coneflower-I love the cottage garden look that coneflowers provide, particularly the purple variety. They are a great addition to any butterfly garden, but they will spread and self-seed year over year so give them some room.

    butterfly garden


  6. Joe Pye Weed-This dramatic perennial produces large, flat-headed pink flowers from summer through late fall and can grow to 9 feet tall! If that’s not for you, try a smaller variety like ‘Baby Joe’ and you’ll still be rewarded with tons of butterflies. A bonus is that Joe Pye Weed can be left standing once the blooms fade to a brown color in the fall, and they are striking when coated with frost. Just cut them down in late winter and they’ll come back stronger every year.
  7. Monarda or bee balm-Bee balm is a dramatic addition to the garden with its spiky, pom-pom flowers in traditional red or other hues like pink and purple. The flowers produce an irresistible nectar for butterflies and hummingbirds. They form large clumps, multiplying in size every year and are super-easy to grow.

There are so many plants that belong in a butterfly garden, and these are just a few of the most common and easily grown. Plant them, and enjoy the show all summer!



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Category: Flowers, General, Home and Garden

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