Tips And Ideas For How To Design And Plant A Butterfly Garden
One good way to enjoy the company of butterflies, and attract swarms of them, is by planting a butterfly garden, or habitat. The perfect butterfly habitat is a simple one, and even the smallest garden can provide the food (from flowers), water, perches, and shelter butterflies need. It's easy to lure these beautiful insects into your backyard - and keep them coming back year after year.

A successful butterfly garden has plants within it that meet butterfly's needs during all four life stages.

Egg:  Eggs are laid on plants by the adult female butterfly. These plants will then become the food for the hatching caterpillars.

Caterpillar:  The next stage is the larva. This is also called a caterpillar if the insect is a butterfly or a moth. The job of the caterpillar is to eat and eat and eat. As the caterpillar grows it splits its skin and sheds it about 4 or 5 times. Food eaten at this time is stored and used later as an adult.

Pupa:  When the caterpillar is full grown and stops eating, it becomes a pupa. The pupa of butterflies is also called a chrysalis, which is often suspended under a branch or hidden in leaves. The larva will become the adult butterfly. 

Adult:  The adult stage is the butterfly we see fluttering around our gardens looking for nectar after it has emerged from the pupa/chrysalis. The caterpillar's main job was to eat. The adult's main job is to mate and lay eggs, and the process starts all over again.

Now that you know the four stages in the life cycle of a butterfly, you can attract butterflies to your garden by providing them with food (plants and flowers), water, shelter, and places to lay their eggs. 

There are two different functions plants serve for butterflies: 

Nectaring Plants

Most butterflies drink nectar, so growing nectar-rich flowers will attract butterflies to your garden. Different species of butterfly might prefer different flowers, but they will generally feed on many types of flowers from annual and perennial plants, shrubs, vines, and trees.

Host Plants

Butterflies only lay their eggs on the types of plants that the caterpillar will eventually eat (this differs from species to species). So growing the right type of plants to feed caterpillars is important, since it will allow female butterflies to lay their eggs in your garden.

Note:  Caterpillars mostly eat leaves; usually the leaves that they were laid on. Don't worry, the plants will grow foliage back.

Suggested Butterfly Garden Plants

When selecting plants to go in your butterfly garden, it's a good idea to know which butterfly species thrive in your area. Then you can look for nectar and host plants these butterflies like and need. 

Host Plants

Since I live and garden in the South, here's a list of the different types of butterflies that live in or visit regions of the South and the host plants they need:

Note:  Many of these host plants are found in the wild so, if you can't find them, don't worry too much about incorporating them into your butterfly garden.

Swallowtails:  snake root, parsley, carrots, parsnips, fennel to name a few
Whites and Sulphurs:  sassia, and the pea family, wild senna, mustards to name a few
Gossamer-wing Butterflies:  witchazel, sheep sorrel, curled dock, mistletoe, wild plum to name a few
Metalmarks:  yellow thistle
Brush-footed Butterflies:  hackberry, passion vine, violets, purslane, and sedums to name a few
Skippers:  wisteria

Nectar Plants

Nectar plants are much easier to find. When in season, you'll find many of these nectar plants available right here in Wilson Bros Gardens. 

My favorites: 

Butterfly Bush One of the most popular plants for butterfly gardens, these easy-to-grow deciduous flowering shrubs blooms summer through fall and are visited my many different species of butterflies.

Lantana - These plants will attract and feed more butterflies than any plant in my gardens. Lantana varieties can be annuals, tender perennials, or very hardy perennials, depending on where you live and garden. The hardiest varieties I've grown in my gardens are Sonset, Miss Huff, Mozelle, Chapel Hill Yellow or Gold, Pink Caprice, Trailing Lavender and New Gold. Wilson Bros Gardens carries these hardy lantana varieties during the spring and summer. 

Salvia / Sage - This includes a diverse group of both annual and perennial varieties. Among my favorites are the hardy 'Black & Blue' Salvia and 'Hot Lip's Salvia. 

Others I grow in my garden:

Autumn Joy Sedum - Sedum spectabilis
Bee Balm - Monarda
Blanket Flowers - Gaillardia
Blue Mist Shrub - Caryopteris
Butterfly Weed - Asclepias tuberosa
Catmint - Nepeta
Coneflowers (Echinacea)
Pincushion Flower - Scabiosa
Stoke's Aster - Stokesia  
Tickseed - Coreopsis
Yarrows - Achillea

Here's some links to help you find butterfly plants available in Wilson Bros Gardens...

Designing Your Butterfly Garden

Plant Selection

Before you can design your butterfly garden, you need to make a list of plants that will go in it. If you plan carefully and select a variety of plants that flower at successively later dates, you will be rewarded with butterflies throughout the season.

Here's some tips to help you select a range of plants that will meet the needs of your butterflies.
  • Try to provide a combination of host and nectar plants. If you can't find host plants, don't worry. As mentioned, there are probably plenty in the wild.
  • Select plants of different heights and forms.
  • To provide nectar throughout the season, use a variety of flowering plants with different bloom periods. It's always a good idea to include, butterfly bushes, lantana and salvias, which bloom all season. 
  • Provide a number of different flower colors. Some butterfly species prefer certain colors of flowers.
  • Provide a mix of flower shapes. Different flower shapes provide easier access to nectar for different types of butterflies.
  • Plant in shade and sun if possible. Many forest species prefer shade.
  • Understand each plants requirements for light, water needs and soil so that plants will reach their full potential.

After making your list of plants, spend some time to sketch a basic plan out on paper.

Garden Location

Many of the best butterfly attracting plants grow in full sun to part shade. But there are some that grow in shade, and forest butterfly species will appreciate these. So, if possible, plant your garden in a location that provides both some sun and shade. 

Garden Shape

An important consideration when designing your butterfly garden is its shape. Curved, narrow flower beds in an open area are best because the butterflies can access the blooms from all sides of the plants. Plant your garden near decks, patios, porches or just outside windows of your home so you can view them in up close in action.

Plant Spacing

Don't overcrowd your garden with plants. Butterflies need room to accommodate their wings as they flutter about the blossoms. Note widths of each variety and space plants accordingly in the garden design so they have ample room to grow to their natural size. If you plant a tree in the garden make sure it won't grow so large that it shades out the rest of the garden over time. Do arrange to have several large shrubs and a small tree or two in or near the garden for butterflies to rest and catch some shade in.

TIP:  When you're ready to plant, purchase the plants on your list and in your design that are available and special order any that aren't available.

Other Design Elements

In addition to plants, there are a few other elements you might want to consider adding to your butterfly garden design. Many gardeners supplement the nectar that their plants produce with nectar feeders. Bird baths and a butterfly house make a nice addition. Rocks and boulders provide a warm place for butterflies to sit in the sun.

You may also want to consider having a small puddle of wet sand in your garden since this can keep your butterflies cool even in warmer temperatures. Create the puddle in a shady area if possible. The males of some species will congregate at shallow puddles or damp mud, sipping water to obtain minerals such as salt, which is thought to be important for successful reproduction. You can create a simple "mineral spa" in your backyard by installing a water dripper over an area of bare sand, soil, or gravel in the shade. Adding stale beer, salt, manure, or rotting fruit to this area will make it even more attractive to butterflies.

Planting Tips

There are different methods for planting a butterfly garden and the plants that will go in it. Some folks say its best to till up the entire garden area, however, this can bring lots of buried weed seeds to the surface and also promotes invasiveness of certain types of perennial plants. Of course you can till the entire area if you like, it makes planting a little easier, but I like to just dig individual planting holes for each plant.

Here's some helpful planting tips:

Step 1

Plot the perimeter of the garden shape out with marker paint, baking flour, or a garden hose.

Step 2

Thoroughly spray existing weeds and grass plants inside the garden area thoroughly with a glyphosate-based weed killer (Hi-Yield Killzall is what I use). Mix as directed on label. Always wear protective clothing and eyewear when spraying a chemical. Take a shower afterwards and wash clothes separately. Allow spray to dry for about two hours before planting plants.

Step 3

After spray has dried, use a round point garden shovel to dig a trench about 4 to 6 inches deep around the perimeter of the garden, following your painted line.This will help to define your garden.

Step 4

Before planting, arrange the perennials and any other plants or trees you have purchased, in the garden. If you didn't draw a sketch, place taller varieties (48"' + height) towards the back of the border (or center if the garden will be viewed from all sides). Place mid-size plants (18-48' height) in front or nestled between taller ones. Place lower plants or groundcover plants around towards the front or border of the garden.

NOTE:  When setting the plants out in the bed make sure to space them properly. If a plant grows 18 inches wide mark out a circle on the ground with an 18" diameter (orange marker paint works great for doing this.) Set the plant in the center of the circle. Also mark out areas where missing plants will be planted later when they arrive. 

After placing all of the plants, step back to take a look to make sure you have things set up the way you want. Make any final placement adjustments.

Step 5

When you are satisfied that everything is in place, remove one plant at a time from its container. Be careful not to damage plants when removing them from their nursery container. If the plant is stuck in the pot, cut the container away.

Step 6

Dig the planting hole 2 to 3 times as wide as the root ball of the plant. Place the native soil around the perimeter of the planting hole, in a wheel barrow, or on a tarp. In heavy clay or poor, infertile soil, thoroughly mix in some mushroom compost or other composted organic matter at a 50/50 ratio with the native soil removed from the hole. 

Step 7

Place plant in hole with the top edge of the root ball even with the ground level, or slightly above to allow for settling. Backfill around plant with soil mixture, tamping lightly as you go to remove air pockets.

Step 8

After planting, give the entire garden a good deep soaking to a 6-inch depth, or to the depth of the planting holes.  

Step 9

Mulch your new butterfly garden with no more than a 2" layer of pine straw or cured, shredded wood mulch. Avoid the use of freshly ground or chipped mulch. 

Care of the Garden

Your new butterfly garden will need attention throughout the growing season. 

Weed Control

Weeds will compete with the desirable plants in your garden. So it's a good idea to keep them under control. When weeds sprout, make sure to pull them or spray with an herbicide as soon as possible. Just be very careful when spraying any herbicide that you don't spray the foliage of the desirable plants in your garden! Mulch can help to suppress weeds. The application of a granular weed preventer can also be helpful. Just know that weed preventers kill the seeds, and if you have plants growing in your butterfly garden that you want to reseed themselves, a weed preventer might kill these seeds, so you might not want to apply a weed preventer. 


When established, many butterfly attracting plants, such as lantana and butterfly bush, are quite drought tolerant. Through the first warm season, in the absence of sufficient rainfall, provide additional moisture to plants that need it. Wilting leaves are a sign your plants could use a drink. That being said, always use the finger test to check soil moisture before watering. If the soil is dry deep soak the plant. If the soil is moist or soggy, hold off until the top inch or two of the soil is somewhat dry. 


Fertilize your annual and perennial plants as needed during the growing season. You can use a flower food to feed plants, though it's a good idea to know the nutritional needs of specific plants in your garden. I always go the safe route and use a "goof proof," non-burning organic plant food in my garden. When using a fertilizer refer to product label for application rates and instructions. Cease fertilization of plants about a month or so before typical first frost date.


The use of a mulch is an attractive and effective means of controlling weeds and maintaining soil moisture and temperature for the root systems of your plants. Mulches that you might consider include shredded wood mulch or pine straw. To be effective, the mulch should be applied at about 4 inches thick around the plants. If you are using shredded wood mulch, go no more than 2 inches thick. When wood mulches are piled too high, it can block moisture from getting to the soil, and funguses can develop in the mulch as well.

Pruning and Deadheading

You may deadhead (remove spent or faded flowers) from your perennials and annuals all season long. Deadheading often encourages the development of new flowers.

In late fall or early winter, when your perennials have died back, you may remove dead foliage.

WARNING: Do not prune back hardy lantanas in the fall as doing so will almost always ensure death of the plant. Wait until new growth begins to emerge in spring to prune back lantana. At that time you can remove all dead growth.

After cutting back dead foliage in late fall or winter you may want to winterize the perennial plants in your butterfly garden garden by applying an inch or two of loose mulch or compost around the plants.

Pest Control

DO NOT use toxic pesticides on your butterfly plants! These can be deadly to butterflies and caterpillars if sprayed directly onto your flowers. Instead, take preventive measures or select safe, organic pest control substances such as neem oil to help control unwanted garden insects. Even then, avoid spraying the flowers of plants and always spray in the early morning or late evening hours when butterflies and other beneficial pollinators are not active.

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