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Planning Your Butterfly Garden

by Dawn
monarch butterfly on snapdragon flower

Five Simple Steps to your Perfect Butterfly Garden

Have you decided you want to plant a butterfly garden but not sure where to start? There are really only 5 simple steps to the butterfly garden of your dreams.

Let’s get started.

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Step One: Research Butterflies Native to your Area

If you absolutely love Gulf Fritillaries but live somewhere they’re not native, you’re not going to have any luck attracting them, no matter how many of their preferred plants you grow.

So, the first step to a successful butterfly garden is to know which butterflies are native in your area.

eastern black swallowtail
Eastern Black Swallowtail- love these beauties!

For instance, Connecticut, where I live, is home to 7 different swallowtail butterfly species and 7 fritillary species as well. But, no matter how many plants I grow for Gulf Fritillaries, I’ll never get any because they’re a southern butterfly.

I already see Eastern Black Swallowtails, Eastern Tiger Swallowtails, Monarchs, Red Spotted Purples, Mourning Cloaks, and Painted Ladies in my garden, among others. However, I plan to expand my host and nectar plant species next year to try to attract more species, particularly of the Swallowtails, as I absolutely love them!

I didn’t know that Giant Swallowtails and Spicebush Swallowtails are native to CT. Now that I know, they’re on my list of butterflies to attract next year for sure!

I couldn’t find a single website that lists butterflies by native state, but if you google “butterflies native to (your state)” you should get the answers you need. You may also find this Field Guide to North American butterflies helpful.

Step Two: Decide which Butterfly Species you Want to Attract

I’ve already alluded to this, but once you know which species are native to your area, you’ll need to decide which you want to specifically try to attract.

monarch butterfly
A gorgeous Monarch female in my garden

You can, of course, plant generally beneficial flowers and trees to attract whatever happens to show up, but if you want specific species, you need to make some choices. For instance, this website lists 54 butterfly species native to CT.

There is no possible way I can plant host and nectar species to attract all 54 butterflies! I’d need acres and acres of land and hundreds to thousands of dollars that I don’t have to do that.

My suggestion would be to make a list of those you already see in your yard, then add 5 species you’d like to attract for the coming year. That way, you won’t be overwhelmed, but you’ll hopefully see some new visitors in the spring. If there’s a lot of overlap in host and nectar plants of certain species (see step three below!), you may be able to add a few extra species to your list.

Step Three: Research Host and Nectar Plants for the Butterflies You’ve Chosen

When you’re deciding what to plant, please keep in mind the entire life cycle of the butterfly species you want.

Not only do you need to supply plants for the adult butterflies to get nectar from, but you need to plant the species they use to lay eggs, and that nourish the caterpillars.

eastern black swallowtail caterpillar
This is an Eastern Black Swallowtail caterpillar.
Isn’t he cute?

For instance, Eastern Black Swallowtails lay their eggs on carrot family plants, such as Queen Anne’s lace, dill, fennel, parsley, and yes, carrots. But, as with most butterflies, you’ll find the adults on lots of different flowers, from butterfly bushes to Roses of Sharon to butterfly weed.

Oh, and don’t assume just because two butterfly species are related that they’ll automatically use the same host plants for their eggs and babies. As mentioned, Eastern Black Swallowtails use carrot family plants, but Eastern Tiger Swallowtails use wild cherries, poplars, birches, ash, and willow trees, among others, to lay their eggs and nourish their young.

It’s a fairly simple matter to figure out the host and nectar plants for your selected species. Just google “host plants for (your species)” or “nectar plants for (your species)” and you’ll get lots of info.

You’ll find that nectar plants are much more general, as many different species will use plants like butterfly bushes, Roses of Sharon, butterfly weed and other blooming plants for their nectar. You’ll want to devote much of the space in your garden to your host plants, as we’ll discuss in Step Five below.

Step Four: Choose your Location

Keep in mind that most butterflies prefer sunny locations protected from strong winds.

Have you ever noticed how many butterflies you see on a warm, sunny day with light winds? Probably a lot. But add some clouds and a stiff breeze and the butterflies disappear.

You’ll want to replicate the butterfly’s favorite conditions in your garden as best as you can. Do you have a sheltered location that gets lots of sun all day? That’s ideal.

Maybe you have a sunny area, but it’s subject to some winds. Can you plant a few bushes or hedges to act as windbreaks? Bonus points if they’re also species the butterflies will love, like spicebush (Lindera benzoin) or summersweet (Clethra alnifolia). Just be careful not to plant bushes that will get so tall they block that all-important sunlight!

puddling butterflies
“Puddling” butterflies

Butterflies also need place where they can “puddle”. This is a damp area on the ground that allows them to get liquid, but more importantly, minerals and salt the males need to reproduce. A shallow pie pan buried to the rim and filled with sand works fine. It will, however, have to be kept damp, which may mean watering it one or more times a day when it’s hot out. You’ll also want to sprinkle some salt on it every now and again.

Would you like more specific directions for creating a butterfly puddling area? You can find those here, with some suggestions for how to make it a little easier to keep wet, even in hot summer weather.

Step Five: Prepare Your Area and Plant

Of course, it goes without saying you’ll want a nicely prepared bed with adequately nourished soil, and either healthy purchased plants or seeds. You’ll also want to do a little research on the best growing conditions for your selected plants.

But, there are a couple of other considerations you’ll want to think about.

First, it’s VITALLY important that any plants or seeds you purchase are organic. And even beyond that, you should try to purchase them from a place that sells specifically for butterfly gardens.

Why? Because even organic plants can be treated with things like Bt, a bacteria that’s considered organic, but that can and will kill your caterpillars.

If you can’t be sure your plants are untreated, be aware that they may not be a healthy addition to your butterfly garden for up to 6 months, as the pesticides grow out and wear off.

Of course, should you purchase plants in person and notice caterpillars on those plants, you’re probably fairly safe in assuming they’ll be okay for your garden!

Second, you may not realize this, but caterpillars eat A LOT! I mentioned this in my post on Raising Monarchs, and I’ll say it again: THEY EAT A LOT! You won’t even begin to believe how much certain caterpillars can eat!

monarch caterpillar
I’ve taken to calling these guys pigapillars because they eat so much!

I say this because if you plant a couple of dill plants or a few milkweeds and think they’ll support a healthy population in your garden, you’re sadly mistaken. Plant more than you think you’ll need, and then plant more again (and possibly again….)

I purchased 50 Common Milkweed seed balls for next year on Amazon, and I’m thinking I should have purchased more. I’m just not sure I have any more room! I guess I’ll see how these do and then decide.

Note: If you do purchase (or collect) milkweed seed for planting in areas where winters get cold, they need to be cold stratified, meaning they need to be planted in the fall so they go through the winter outside. There are other cold stratification techniques, but planting in the fall is by far the easiest.

Last, if you have the room, it’s a great idea to have several areas in your garden that are planted in host and nectar plants. The reason for this is that pests will often choose a single area to congregate, and very well may leave other spots alone.

This is better for your plants, of course, but can also give your eggs and caterpillars a better chance at life if predators are concentrated elsewhere.

Over the coming weeks, keep an eye out for some posts on how to attract various specific butterflies to your garden, depending on your area of the country. If you’d like to be kept up-to-date on happenings around the blog, please go here to sign up for updates and my FREE Resource Library. No spam, EVER, just good stuff!

I’ve also got a Facebook group of fun and dedicated gardeners that I’d love you to join! Head over here to answer a few simple questions and I’ll get you approved right away.

I hope you’ve enjoyed today’s post and thank you for reading! You’ll find some pinnable images below, please be sure to pin to your Butterflies or Beneficial Insects board for future reference.

Oh, and if you happen to be slightly butterfly-obsessed (like me!), you may enjoy some of the following books:

Otherwise, smile and have a crazy organic day!

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Sarita 09/09/2019 - 7:18 am

So pretty! We visited the Butterfly Garden at Brookgreen Gardens in South Carolina a couple of years ago and it was a big hit with all of us. Surprisingly, we get quite a variety of butterflies up here as well, but nothing like you all do down south!

Dawn 09/12/2019 - 6:02 pm

Wow, really? I’m surprised. I didn’t realize they got that far north.

Nikki Gwin 09/08/2019 - 11:30 am

I am working on planting butterfly favorites this fall and am excited about it! I made the puddler a few weeks ago, but it is difficult to keep it wet when you are not at home every day.
🙂 gwingal

Dawn 09/12/2019 - 6:00 pm

I had a small puddler a few years back and had the same problem. I’m hoping to try a larger one next season that will (hopefully) stay damp a little longer.


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