Posted by Brent Wilson on 9/6/2016 to Birds & Wildlife
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 with flowering perennial and other plants.
Planning & Designing Your Butterfly Garden
First, before running out to buy a bunch of plants without a plan, you'll want to do a little looking around to decide on what butterfly plants you will include in your garden. Doing so will help you to know how much space will be required.
Wilson Bros Gardens offers many plants that are attractive to butterflies. If you plan carefully and select a variety of plants that are hardy in your USDA Plant Hardiness Zone, and that bloom at successively later dates, you will be rewarded with butterflies throughout the season, and the butterflies will thank you for it!
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 and sheds its skin 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 of a plant or tree. 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 then 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:
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.
Butterflies only lay their eggs on the types of plants that the caterpillar will eventually eat (this differs from species to species). So having the right type of plants to feed caterpillars is important, since it will allow female butterflies to lay their eggs in your garden. That said, many of the host plants are found everywhere in the wild so aren't as important or necessary to incorporate in the butterfly garden.
Note: Caterpillars mostly eat leaves; usually the leaves that they were laid on. But don't worry, the plants will grow foliage back. Linked items are ones that we do offer on the website at certain times of the year.
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.
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 butterfly species prefer shade.
- Understand each plants requirements for light, water needs and soil so that plants will reach their full potential.
Nectar plants are easier to find and more readily available. When in season, you'll find many of these nectar plants available right here in Wilson Bros Gardens. That said, keep in mind that some plants are only available at certain times of the year and might be in shorter supply during winter.
Some of our top favorite nectar plants...
Butterfly Bush (Buddleia) - Blooming from late spring to first frost in fall, butterfly bushes (Buddleia) are one of the most popular plants for butterfly gardens. They are very easy to grow and visited by many different species of butterflies. You can usually find many Butterfly Bush varieties available on our website year round.
Lantana - Blooming from late spring to first frost in fall, Lantana attract and feed more butterflies than any other types of plants in our gardens. Lantana varieties can be annuals, tender perennials, or very hardy perennials, depending on where you live and garden. The hardiest varieties we've grown in our north-central Georgia gardens (USDA Zone 8a) are Sonset, Miss Huff, Chapel Hill Yellow, Trailing Lavender and New Gold. You can find some or all of these and other Lantana varieties available during the spring and summer months on Wilson Bros Gardens.
Salvia / Sages - This includes a diverse group of both annual and perennial varieties. We offer the hardy Salvia varieties. Check out Salvia varieties.
Other great nectar perennial plants the butterflies will thank you for planting...
Black-Eyed Susan (Rudbeckia)
Blanket Flower (Gaillardia)
Butterfly Weed / Milkweed (Asclepias tuberosa)
False Indigo (Baptisia)
Heuchera (Coral Bells)
Hosta (Hosta/Plantain Lily)
Joe Pye Weed (Eupatorium)
Lily of the Nile (Agapanthus)
Mexican Petunia (Ruellia)
Pincushion Flower (Scabiosa)
Pinks / Carnations (Dianthus)
Shasta Daisy (Leucanthemum)
St. John's Wort (Hypericum)
Yarrow - Achillea
Butterfly Garden Design
After making your list of plants it's a good idea to sketch a basic design out on paper.
An important consideration when designing your butterfly garden is its shape, and where you'll locate it on your property. Sites that receive all day sun or morning sun with afternoon shade are preferred, as many of the plants that produces the flowers butterflies like sun. That said, if you've done some research you found that there are some shade plants that produce flowers butterflies like and feed on.
Curved, narrow flower beds are best, because the butterflies can access the blooms from all sides of the plants. Butterflies need room to accommodate their wings as they flutter about the blossoms, so select a variety of plants that are low to medium to tall in height.
Plant your garden near decks, patios, porches or just outside windows of your home so you can view the pretty plants and the butterflies up close in action.
Don't crowd your garden with large trees or shrubs, but do arrange to have one in or several near the garden where the butterflies can rest and get some shade.
Planting Your Butterfly Garden
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 that will sprout and compete with your desirable butterfly attracting plants. Of course you can till the entire area if you like, however we usually just dig individual holes for each plant.
Below are basic guidelines and helpful tips for planting a butterfly garden in well-drained soil:
- Plot the perimeter of the garden shape out with marker paint, flour, or a garden hose.
- Thoroughly spray existing weeds and grass plants inside the perimeter of the garden with a glyphosate-based weed killer such as Hi-Yield Killzall or Roundup. Mix as directed on label. Always wear protective clothing and eye wear when spraying a chemical. Once the herbicide spray has totally dried, which usually take 2 or more hours, you can begin planting plants in your garden.
NOTE: If you do not want to spray a glyphosate-based weed killer to eliminate weeds and grasses before planting your garden, an alternative method is to cover the planting area with clear plastic film for a week or so until all existing weeds have died.
- If your butterfly garden will be planted in a lawn area use a round point garden shovel to dig a trench at least 4 inches deep around the perimeter of the garden, following your painted line. This will help to define your garden from any surrounding lawn areas.
- Before planting, arrange the perennials, and any other plants or trees you have purchased, in the garden. If you didn't draw out a plan, place taller varieties towards the back of the border (or center if the garden will be viewed from all sides). Place mid-size plants in front or nestled between taller ones. Place lower growers near the perimeter or front of the bed.
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 (marking 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 are available. 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.
- When you are satisfied that everything is in place, remove one plant at a time from its container and plant it. Under the Planting & Care Advice tab on any and every plant page in WilsonBrosgardens.com you will find helpful tips and advice from our experts.
- Give your newly planted perennials and other plants a good soaking when you've finished planting.
- Mulch your new butterfly garden with a 2" layer of shredded wood mulch or pine straw. We prefer wood mulch at a depth of 1 to 2 inches deep as it provides a better barrier against weed growth.
- Many of the plants that attract butterflies, such as Lantana and Butterfly Bush, require little if any attention to watering once established. But during the first summer, glance over all your plants every day to see if they need watering. If you see wilting or discoloring leaves this could be an indicator your plants could use a soaking. But be careful not to over water. Sometimes the leaves of some types of plants will wilt or discolor due to a constantly soggy or wet soil. Whenever in doubt, use the finger test method to check for soil moisture and provide supplemental water only if necessary.
The base of your butterfly garden is now complete.
Butterfly Garden Care
Your new butterfly garden will need attention throughout the growing season.
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 of plants that are laying on the ground, so if you have plants growing in your butterfly garden that you want to reseed themselves, a weed preventer might kill these seeds.
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 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 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. When fertilizing flowering perennials we always go the safe route and use a "goof proof," non-burning organic plant food in our 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 aged shredded or chipped wood mulch. By "aged" we mean it has cured for at least 6 months. Fresh cut wood mulch can rob much needed nitrogen from the soil. To be effective, the aged mulch should be applied at 1 to 2 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 roots of plants.
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.
Please Note: DO NOT use toxic pesticides on your butterfly plants! If sprayed directly on flowers and foliage, these pesticides can be deadly to butterflies, caterpillars and other beneficial pollinators that make up 95% of the insects that will not harm but are actually beneficial to your plants. For example, ladybugs eat aphids and other pest insects. So you don't want to kill ladybugs. Instead, take preventive measures or select safe, organic pest control substances such as neem oil to help control unwanted garden insects. Even when using Neem Oil, 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.
When planting your garden always leave a little room for "beneficial insect companion plantings." Companion planting is a practice by which you include plant types that draw or lure beneficial insects into your garden. These beneficial insects will either ward off or eat the bad, damaging insects.
Make sure you include some of the following plants in your plantings:
Sweet Alyssum - This plant is very attractive when in bloom and provides a good nectar source for many adult beneficial insect species.
Basil - It's always a good idea to include basil in the vegetable garden at any time of year. The flowers are a rich source of pollen and nectar and you can use the leaves in the kitchen.
Dill - This is one of the best plants for luring beneficial insects into the garden. Dill flowers are very high in nectar and it is also one of the most useful of seasonings for cooking.
Mint - Any member of this family of plants is very useful in drawing beneficial insects into the garden.
Marigolds and Nasturtium - These can handle a slew of buggy challenges. They thwart bugs that can harm your tomatoes, potatoes and strawberries including tomato hornworms, squash bugs, and whiteflies. The smell of marigolds will help to also deter rabbits and squirrels.
Yarrow (Achillea) - Plant these to attract ladybugs and lacewings, both of which will kill and eat many bad bugs.
Here's a listing of beneficial insects and the plants that will attract them to your yard.
Brachonids, Chalcids and Ichneumon Wasps - These small beneficial insects destroy leaf-eating caterpillars. You can attract them to your garden by planting carrots, celery, parsley, caraway and Queen Anne's lace. These plants are easy to grow, and some should be left to flower. It's the flower that attracts the insects.
Ladybugs - These common insects consume aphids, mites, whiteflies and scale. When you see aphids around, and you also see ladybugs, there is no reason to spray a chemical when the ladybugs will do the job naturally. Ladybugs can be attracted to your garden by planting members of the daisies, tansy or yarrow plant families.
Lacewings - Lacewings are avid consumers of aphids, and their larva eat aphids and other varieties of other insect pests. They are attracted to flowers such as yarrow, goldenrod, black-eyed susan's and asters. Lacewings can also be purchased online and released directly into your garden.
Hover-flies - These are avid consumers of aphids, and the larva of hover-flies eat aphids and other insect pests. Like the Lacewings, they are attracted to flowers, such as yarrow, goldenrod, black-eyed susan's and asters. Seeds for these flowers are available online, or at most garden centers.
Praying Mantis - These large insects have an appetite for most garden pests. Praying mantis eggs are set out in the garden where they hatch and quickly grow to adult size. The eggs are available through mail-order catalogs.
Other Helpful Tips
During the first year or so, you might want to plant some butterfly attracting annual flowers, such as Petunia, here and there in the garden for extra-added color.
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.
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