The prettiest insect of them all, butterflies are always a welcome addition to the garden. This guide covers the basics of how to attract butterflies to your garden so you can enjoy their presence all summer long.
Nothing says a peaceful garden quite like butterflies. With their slow flutters and brilliantly patterned wings, they are a beautiful sight to behold and a joy to have in your garden.
Like bees, butterflies are also pollinators that help plants to reproduce. So they’re an important part of your garden’s ecosystem.
Fortunately, it is quite easy to create a space in your backyard that butterflies will happily flock to.
To attract butterflies, you need to create a safe place that satisfies all their needs with:
- plants that pollinators love to feast on
- plants their larvae can chew on
- places for them to rest
- protection for their eggs and caterpillars
- winter hideaways
- and a source of water
By providing a safe, sunny environment for your butterflies with flowers full of pollen, they will be content to hang out with you all summer long. These pollinators are not only beneficial to our garden, but they are a joy to watch!
Read on for more info on how to create a pollinator-friendly garden.
1 | Plant flowers that attract butterflies
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The first thing you want to do is plant a pollinator friendly garden.
No matter your space, you can make a butterfly friendly area. From a container garden all the way to a meadow, butterflies will be content with as long as they have their favorite flowers.
Here are some tips for choosing the best ones:
Native flowering plants are best
Butterflies love nectar and pollen-rich plants, such as wildflowers, to feed from. So native plants are some of the best ones to attract local butterflies to your yard.
Every region will have their own flowering natives, so I recommend checking out this list to find some for your area.
That way you know they’ll be easy to grow and the butterfly species in your area will be used to them.
Plant a variety of colors
According to the school of bugs, butterflies have better color sensors than we do but see things in more of a blur rather than having clear focus.
So bunches of flowers in bright colors (such as yellow, orange, pink, red, and purple) are easier for them to spot from a distance.
Flower shape matters
Since butterflies drink nectar, they prefer tubular or cup shaped flowers (like butterfly bush) that are easy to drink from.
If you want to attract a variety of butterflies to your yard, you’ll need to include a variety of plants keeping these flower shape tips in mind:
- Flowers that have small clusters work well for all butterflies to feed from.
- Large butterflies like large, flat flowers to land on.
- Smaller butterflies aren’t able to reach the nectar in deep flowers.
Plant full sun plants
Butterflies love to feed in the sun, so any nectar rich plants should be planted areas receiving sun from mid-morning to mid-afternoon.
Plan for all season
Lastly, butterflies are more than summer lovers.
Plant annuals, perennials, and shrubs that bloom from early spring all the way to late fall so there is something for the butterflies throughout the whole season.
2 | Put up a butterfly feeder
In addition to delicious smelling flowers, you can also incorporate some other sweet elements into your garden to attract butterflies.
Butterfly feeders can supply nectar and encourage butterflies to stop and take a drink. To make the sugar water for the feeder, add one-part sugar to 18 parts water.
3 | Make a butterfly plate
You can also utilize any fruit in your kitchen that is going bad by making a butterfly plate.
What foods to butterflies like? Anything juicy, such as rotting bananas, berries, oranges, grapefruit, apples, peaches, and nectarines.
Cut the fruit up and put it on a plate or shallow bowl.
Add a little water to keep the fruit moist and hang it outside for the butterflies to eat.
Keeping the butterfly fruit feeder off the ground prevents squirrels and other animals from getting into it. The easy way to do this is to put the plate inside an empty plant hanger.
4 | Provide host plants for the caterpillars
Butterflies need plants for every stage of their life.
This means places to lay their eggs, food for caterpillars to munch on, places for chrysalides to hang from, as well as nectar sources for adult butterflies.
Research the particular types of butterflies in your region and what their larvae like to feed on most.
Most butterfly caterpillars eat a limited number of plants. Some favorites include dill, fennel, and milkweed.
Then create a spot in your garden where you can plant a bunch of those plants.
Caterpillars eat A LOT. So planting one or two milkweed plants isn’t going to cut it.
5 | Avoid Pesticides
While some insects may not be welcome, it’s important to remember that pesticides are harmful to all organisms.
This means your butterflies can be affected!
Pesticides tend to be a short term solution to get rid of attackers and have longer, more harmful consequences for your garden in the long run. (This is also the case if you’d like to attract hummingbirds to your garden!)
Instead, look for organic alternatives for pesticides.
Companion planting is an excellent way to deter pests while also attracting butterflies.
Here are a few suggestions of companion plants that will help to get rid of bugs (so you don’t need to use pesticide):
- Plants in the allium family, such as onion, chive, and garlic, are great to include in the vegetable garden.
- Petunias are known to repel aphids, squash bugs, and leafhoppers.
- Lavender repels moths and their larvae, flies, mosquitoes, and fleas.
Another method you can use to rid your garden of pests is inviting good predators to the garden like ladybugs, frogs, lacewings, and ants. (They are also more likely to be in your garden if it’s a pesticide-free zone).
Finally, if the butterflies’ caterpillars are munching too much for your liking, try to remember that this is part of having a butterfly friendly garden. Plant extra for you and the caterpillars to enjoy.
6 | Add sunny resting spots
Butterflies are ectotherms. This means that they can’t regulate their internal body temperature.
Instead, they have to rely on the sun to warm their bodies.
Since they can’t fly unless they’re warm enough, you will often see butterflies resting and warming up their bodies.
It is a good idea to make an area where the butterflies can suntan and relax before they take off.
Lay flat stones in sunny areas to create a warm resting place for your butterflies.
If you plan on doing a little bit of butterfly watching, choose a hot and sunny day, grab a chair, settle in, and enjoy.
7 | Create winter hideouts
Many species of butterflies spend their entire life in one area.
Very few will migrate south for the winter. Instead, most butterfly species will find a place to hibernate for during the winter.
Some butterflies hibernate as adults, but a few will spend winter as eggs.
To help butterflies hibernate, make a safe place for them to hide out during the winter.
This can be a pile of grass cuttings, a pile of autumn leaves, hollow trees, under bark, firewood piles, and other nooks and crannies that they can wiggle their little bodies into.
One important thing to note is don’t buy butterfly houses or butterfly boxes.
They are advertised as a place to provide winter cover for butterflies, but the North American Butterfly Association found that butterflies don’t use them. However, wasps do!
The Georgia Department Of Natural Resources compiled the results of a few different studies that all came to the same conclusion. (You can read about them HERE if you’re interested).
Butterflies prefer woody, natural areas to rest for the winter.
8 | Provide a wind break
Flying in the wind takes up a ton of energy for butterflies and they prefer not to do it.
Consider planting your pollinator garden by a house, fence, or line of shrubs and trees to help shelter them from the wind.
9 | Protect from predators
You also want to keep your butterflies (and their caterpillars) away from predators as they can make for a tasty snack.
While we love to watch birds in addition to butterflies, keep bird feeders and birdbaths away from your butterfly habitat to prevent them from munching on the butterflies and caterpillars.
Also, if you have a lot of lizards in your yard, they can devour a whole bunch of caterpillars in a short amount of time.
10 | Add water
After a long day in the sun, butterflies like to refresh with a little drink of water.
They partake in something called “puddling” where they stand and drink from small puddles. This is where they get all their water, salts, nutrients, and minerals.
You can create a butterfly puddling spot by putting coarse sand in a shallow pan.
Place the pan in the soil of your butterfly garden and keep it moist.
Butterflies also enjoy drip irrigation to drink from. So if you see them in the mud on the ground, that’s probably why.
For more information on how to make a butterfly puddle, watch this video from the University of Georgia extension.
Common butterflies (and what they eat)
Do you have a specific butterfly in mind that you want in your garden? Here are three of the most common butterflies and the plants they love most.
The most famous butterfly of them all, monarchs have a very special plant they require in order to make their long migration south.
Milkweed is vital to the monarch’s life cycle as the milky sap from it contains poisons cardenolides.
When this sap is eaten by the monarch butterfly caterpillars, they become toxic to any animal who eats them and therefore, predators avoid them.
This carries on into adulthood as predators associate the colorful butterfly as poisonous.
Adult monarch butterflies also feast on milkweed to build up their strength and fat reserves for their journey.
If you are to plant any specific flower, let it be milkweed!
In addition to milkweed, monarchs also enjoy lilacs, goldenrod, and cosmos.
With a wide wingspan and bright yellow colorings, the tiger swallowtail butterfly is a gorgeous addition to the garden.
The adult butterflies like to drink from blooms that are deep or have open petals, enjoying flowers from nectar plants such as lilacs and bee balm.
Host plants for the caterpillars of Eastern tiger swallowtails include members of the Magnolia and rose family. While the Western tiger swallowtail feeds on cottonwoods, aspens and others.
Tiger swallowtails really love puddling so make sure you have something set up for them to drink from.
The painted lady butterfly is another long-distance flier.
Most often found in dry, open areas, you can also attract painted ladies to your garden.
They adore thistles, so if you are prone to not weeding, this butterfly will probably find you.
In addition to thistles, painted lady butterflies also enjoy aster, mallows, cosmos, milkweed, yellow fiddleneck, and zinnia.
For their caterpillars, provide lupine, thistle, mallow, and hollyhock.
To get a longer list of butterflies and what they eat, read this article from the National Wildlife Federation.
Other gardening ideas you might like
Have questions or other suggestions for how to attract butterflies to your garden? Tell us in the section below.
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This post was originally published on April 21, 2021 but was updated with new content on November 20, 2021.