Here’s a little family project for this summer:

Sowing your own butterfly garden!

By Larry Hodgson

Summer is fast approaching, and you may have prepared everything for your yard: a productive vegetable garden, superb flower beds, hanging baskets of flowers, etc. But why not also a little garden just to attract butterflies?

Studies over the last two decades have shown that one common belief about attracting butterflies, that is, that you can simply add a flowering plant here and there to a vegetable patch or shade border and pollinators likes bees and butterflies will show up in droves, is not that accurate. They actually don’t tend to visit gardens with such limited flower power. Or, at least, not that much.

However, if you put a flower bed near a vegetable garden, one with masses of bloom, it will attract swarms of pollinators, including butterflies. And they will then visit the vegetable bed assiduously.

Clearly, your butterfly garden could be a classic in-ground garden. Perhaps a corner of your vegetable garden or an addition to your flower bed with a more massive concentration of bloom. Or dig out a new bed from a section of underused lawn. But a container garden would also be quite suitable for a butterfly garden. A beautiful planter loaded with flowers will draw butterflies up to your terrace or balcony, even onto a rooftop. It can even be a garden on wheels if you feel the need for a garden that gets around!

What do you need to create such a butterfly garden?

Well, if you start one from seed, very, very little! Let’s take a look at the project!

Butterfly Flowers

First, you can actually attract butterflies using flowers. There are many studies on their behavior and especially on their preferences. And they really do hone in on colorful blooms, noticing them from a considerable distance.

Nectar First

Giant swallowtail on a cleome flower
Giant swallowtail (Papilio cresphontes) with its proboscis descending into a cleome flower. Photo: krisrobin, depositphotos

First, as much as butterflies are usually very specialized as to where they lay their eggs in order that their larvae, caterpillars, have a proper food source, they are very much generalists when it comes to feeding themselves. Adult butterflies will visit almost any nectar-rich flower. They’re simply looking for nectar and it doesn’t vary all that much in quality from one plant to another. It’s always very sweet and sugar is what attracts butterflies.

As a result, you don’t need to have a specific flower for each butterfly. A cosmos, for example, a popular annual flower, will attract and nourish monarch butterflies as well as tiger butterflies and admiral butterflies and a whole long list of other species.

There are, of course, a few exceptions. In a family as large as the Lepidoptera (the butterfly family), which includes more than 180,000 species of butterflies and moths, the opposite would have been surprising. Some butterflies are even insectivorous (the harvester butterfly [Feniseca tarquinius] feeds on aphids). And others don’t eat at all (their larvae, or caterpillars, eat, but not the adults). But essentially all butterflies with attractively colored wings, the kind that you’ll most likely want to attract, are nectarivorous. In other words, butterflies love flowers!

Nectarivorous butterflies use their long proboscis that can reach into the bottom of flowers, often spots not accessible to honeybees. Moreover, the flowers that attract butterflies will often also attract hummingbirds*, as those long-beaked birds are also nectarivorous. So if your butterfly garden attracts hummingbirds too, is that a problem? No, I didn’t think you’d complain.

*My apologies to readers from outside the Americas, but hummingbirds are limited to North and South America and nearby islands.

Accidental Pollinators

Butterflies are great pollinators. . . but this is essentially by accident. Very few butterflies collect pollen on purpose, but the flowers are so organized that, in order for butterflies to obtain the nectar they seek, they have little choice other than to brush against the flower’s pollen-covered anthers and therefore, as they flit from flower to flower, accidentally carry pollen from one flower to another and thus ensure adequate pollination.

What Do Butterflies Like?

Butterflies have certain preferences when it comes to flowers. So, it’s worthwhile for you, the budding butterfly gardener, to know what they’re looking for. Here are some of the things to consider:

White umbellifer with a butterfly.
Umbel-shaped flowers are highly attractive to butterflies. Photo: StockSnap
  • Butterflies (diurnal lepidoptera) generally prefer grouped flowers. They’re not much for zipping from bloom to bloom, taking a quick sip here and there. That’s the domain of moths (nocturnal lepidoptera) and bees. Most butterflies prefer setting themselves down in front of a large clump of tiny flowers for an extended feast. That’s why they find umbels of blooms, such as those produced by plants in the Apiaceae or Umbelliferae family so attractive. But other plants too have evolved similar blooms and get their share of visits. Flowers grouped on tight spikes, such as those of blue verbena (Verbena hastata), are also popular with butterflies.
Cabbage white butterfly on a cosmos flower.
Cabbage white butterfly (Pieria rapae) taking advantage of the landing platform offered by the ray flowers of a cosmos (Cosmos bipinnatus) in order to feed. Photo: HeungSoon,
  • The same butterflies like to take advantage of a “landing platform,” as is often provided by flowers in Asteraceae family (cosmos, daisies, zinnias, etc.). Their compound inflorescences are surrounded by ray flowers where butterflies can perch as they sip from the densely packed florets of the central disc, their proboscis probing bloom after bloom without them have to waste energy flying. A composite flower is like a minibar for butterflies!
  • The favorite flower colors of butterflies are pink and lavender, but. . . don’t stop at that highly limited palette in choosing blooms. Because they will also visit flowers of almost any color, even red*! In general, if the flower looks showy to you, butterflies will also like it.

*Bees can’t see the color red, but butterflies love it!

  • Lepidoptera like sweetly scented flowers. In fact, some moths are also so sensitive to scents that they can trace a flower by its scent from several hundred meters (yards) away! Moreover, there are several flowers that bloom only at night and do so specifically to attract moths. That includes certain common annuals, like flowering tobacco, datura and moonflower. You will find more information about night-blooming flowers in the article Moths: The Forgotten Pollinators.
  • Of course, diurnal butterflies are also attracted to individual flowers, but generally of good size: lilies, daylilies, gladioli, etc. They tend leave the smaller ones to bees;
  • As mentioned, we now know that butterflies love masses of flowers. Inserting a small flowering annual here and there in a vegetable garden will have much less attractive power than a simple container overflowing with flowers placed right next to it.
  • Flowers that are constantly renewed attract them. . . and when there are downtimes, they tend to go elsewhere quickly. In the garden, therefore, try to make sure there is always something in bloom, from small spring bulbs to late-season coneflowers and black-eyed susans.

Beware, however, of flowers that promise nectar, but don’t deliver the goods. As you can read in Double Flowers: Band News for Pollinators, this is particularly the case with certain double flowers: roses, carnations, peonies, and others. Some of these flowers have been so altered from the wild form that they no longer provide access to nectar. Single flowers, closer to the wild form, or the wildflowers themselves, are almost always the best choice for attracting butterflies. Of course, there are exceptions (double zinnias, for example, offer plenty of nectar and butterflies love them), but double flowers are often poor choices as butterfly blooms.

Flowers to Grow from Seed for a Butterfly Garden

A small densely flowered garden
A small, densely flowered garden will attract butterflies from afar. Photo: M. Grau, depositphotos

Here is a list of some best flowers for butterflies that you can easily grow from seed:

  1. Agastache (Agastache spp.) perennial, zones* 4–9
  2. Ageratum (Ageratum spp.) annual
  3. Alyssum, Sweet (Lobularia maritima) annual
  4. Baby’s breath (Gypsophila elegans) annual
  5. Beebalm or monarda (Monarda spp.) perennial, zones 3-8
  6. Black-eyed susan (Rudbeckia hirta) annual or perennial (zones 3–10)
  7. Catchfly, Sweet William (Silene armeria) zones 4–8
Monarch butterfly on Chinese forget-me-not flowers
The sky-blue flowers of Chinese forget-me-not will attract almost any butterfly, including the monarch (Danaus plexippus) Photo: okiepony, depositphotos
  1. Chinese forget-me-not (Cynoglossum amabile) annual
  2. Cleome (Cleome hassleriana) annual
  3. Clover, crimson (Trifolium incarnatum) annual
  4. Cosmos (Cosmos bipnnatus) annual
  5. Dahlia (Dahlia × hortensis) annual
  6. Datura (Datura stramonium) annual
  7. Echinacea or purple coneflower (Echinacea purpurea) perennial, zones 3–9
  8. Heliotrope (Heliotropium arborescens) annual
  9. Larkspur (Consolida regalis, syn. Delphinium consolida) annual
  10. Lavatera (Malva trimestris, syn. Lavatera trimestris) annual
  11. Lupin (Lupinus perennis) perennial, zones 3–9
  12. Marigold, French (Tagetes patula) annual
  13. Milkweed (Asclepias spp.) perennial, zones 3-9
  14. Moonflower (Ipomoea alba) annual
  15. Moroccan toadflax (Linaria maroccana) annual
  16. Nasturtium (Tropaeolum majus) annual
  17. Phlox, annual (Phlox drummondii) annual
  18. Poppy, Shirley (Papaver rhoeas) annual
  19. Salvia (Salvia spp.) annual
  20. Sunflower (Helianthus annuus)
  21. Sunflower, Mexican (Tithonia rotundifolia)
  22. Tobacco, flowering (Nicotiana sylvestris) annual
Black swallowtail on a zinnia flower
Black swallowtail (Papilio polyxenes asterius) visiting a zinnia flower. In my own gardens, zinnias are the flowers most popular with butterflies. Photo: okiepony, depositphotos
  1. Vervain, blue (Verbena hastata) perennial, zones 3–9
  2. Vervain, tall (Verbena bonariensis) annual
  3. Yarrow (Achillea spp.) perennial, zones 2–9
  4. Zinnia (Zinnia elegans and others) annual

*Zones refer to the hardiness zones of the plants mentioned.

An Inviting Environment

Echinacea and coneflower garden with a monarch butterfly.
A garden in the sun filled with coneflowers and black-eyed susans. It’s heaven on earth for this monarch butterfly! Photo: Media Marketing, depositphotos

Butterflies also have certain preferences when it comes to where you place their garden, including the following:

  • They like a warm, sunny location;
  • Provide protection against strong winds;
  • Put it somewhere you never use pesticides.

Putting Together a Butterfly Garden: So Simple!

This is an easy project to do and requires very few resources.

Herbionik Butterfly and Bird Wildflower Seeds
Herbionik Butterfly and Bird Wildflower Seeds. Photo: Gloco

Seed Search

First, check to see if you can find a butterfly flower seed blend locally. Or look online. That will be cheaper (and a lot less effort) than assembling a mix of seeds of interesting plants on your own.

I was able to find one brand, Herbionik Eco-Rustik Butterfly and Bird Wildflower Seeds, in a local store, but I don’t know how far they distribute beyond Québec. Their blend includes a mixture of 15 wildflowers of interest to butterflies . . . and which also produce, at the end of the season, winter fodder for seed-eating birds. Killing two birds with one stone, so to speak. . . Except that, in this case, we don’t want to harm any birds!

In general, commercial wildflower seed blends, including this one, contain mostly seeds of annual flowers. In other words, varieties that are quick to bloom, flowering the first year so you’ll be pleased with the results. They should also contain a certain percentage of seeds of perennials in order to guarantee bloom the following years. These won’t bloom the first year, but will develop into solid young plants ready to burst into flower the second year.

Here’s How to Get Started:

There are two ways of going about this, depending on whether you’re creating a container garden or an in-ground garden.

1.     Container Garden

Homemade wooden container garden filled with soil
Homemade wooden container garden for use as a butterfly garden. Here, the soil has been added. All that remains is to sow! Photo: vilaxlt, depositphotos

The easiest way to get going is to start from scratch with a container garden! Essentially, all you have to do is fill a large pot or tray with quality potting soil to within 5 cm (2 inches) of the rim and start sowing!

Shake the bag of seeds well to mix them thoroughly. Scatter them lightly over the surface of the potting soil and cover them with 6 mm (1/4 inch) of potting soil. Then water well. In less than a week, germination should begin. And in about 6 weeks, you ought to be seeing the first flowers! In most cases, you can start sowing about 2 weeks before the last frost date in your region.

As for summer maintenance, it’s pretty basic. Every 2 or 3 days, simply stick your finger into the soil to the second knuckle. If it feels dry, water well. Otherwise, don’t water.

That’s really all. You could fertilize if you want too, but it isn’t really necessary. Do not deadhead, as you’ll want the flowers to go to seed to supply seeds for next year’s garden. . . and to feed birds in the winter. So, again, you really only need to water!

2.     In-Ground Gardening

This way is not much more complex than the other method, but you will need to prepare the space before you start, so that’s an extra step or two. If you try to sow directly onto a soil covered with plants and dead stems, leaves and other debris, where will the seeds find space to germinate?

So, start by clearing the soil surface of debris, rocks and weeds. Then loosen the soil to a depth of about 10 cm (4 inches). Again, since these are wildflowers, you don’t need to improve the soil in any other way. Just level the soil.

Hand applying seeds.
Hand broadcasting the seeds over the soil. Photo: juvelez, depositphotos

From here on it, it’s the same technique. Shake the bag to mix the seeds, spread them lightly over the soil, cover them with 6 mm (1/4 inch) of soil and water! These are wildflowers: they won’t need any coddling.

In-ground gardens usually dry out less quickly than container gardens, so that reduces the need to water. Even so, it’s best to do the finger test every few days to check the humidity level all the same.

A Final but Important Tip

Black swallowtail caterpillar
When possible, create a space for native plants. . . the ones that feed butterfly caterpillars. Here, a Black swallowtail caterpillar (Papilio polyxenes asterius). Photo: Leo Pictures, depositphotos

If you have enough space, you could help a lot of local butterflies by providing them with habitat for their larvae. That means a little patch of wildflowers and native plants somewhere on on your lot where you accept to tolerate those hungry little caterpillars! Somewhere nibbled leaves and less-than-perfect growth are acceptable. After all, while growing flowers to feed adult butterflies is great, if their caterpillars have no place to feed, the butterfly population will still struggle. So, a native plant garden meant to house caterpillars, maybe just one that springs up on its own and you allow to grow wild, would be a great asset for butterflies. . .and all sorts of other native animals.

You can read more about this in the post Feed Creepy Caterpillars to Attract Beautiful Butterflies.

May your butterfly gardens attract dozens of pretty butterflies daily during the coming summer!

Garden writer and blogger, author of 65 gardening books, lecturer and communicator, the Laidback Gardener, Larry Hodgson, passed away in October 2022. Known for his great generosity, his thoroughness and his sense of humor, he reached several generations of amateur and professional gardeners over his 40-year career. Thanks to his son, Mathieu Hodgson, and a team of contributors, will continue its mission of demystifying gardening and making it more accessible to all.

12 comments on “Sow Your Own Mini Butterfly Garden!

  1. don’t forget to include a muddy puddle for the butterflies to drink from. They obtain many of their minerals from the soil.

  2. marianwhit

    THIS is what we are overlooking…both in common awareness and scientific inquiry (a hard thing to design experiments for does NOT mean it is not happening). Just because the bees “love” this or that exotic plant, they were doing another job before the plant was introduced…what is the impact of 100s of introduced plants? It is too bad we may figure this out too late.

    • marianwhit

      Bees pollinate our crops and make honey, but they are responsible for much of the sexual reproduction, and genetic diversity of our native plants…so they are losing the opportunity for resilience in the face of climate change.

    • Food for thought!

  3. Monarch Grove near Los Osos, and another with the same name in Monterey County, attracts swarms of monarch butterflies in season. It is actually a tourist attraction. However, it is a naturalized colony of exotic and feral blue gum, which, although very popular with the monarch butterflies, distracts the butterflies from pollinating native flora.

  4. Good article.

  5. marianwhit

    One thing I have learned that utterly astonished me, is that providing a patch of native grasses, sedges, and ferns and accumulating leaves in beds under trees rather than removing them completely. These steps help butterflies with their whole life cycle, as adults need cover from predators and discrete places to rest. It is kind of like putting out a Tim Hortons for them vs making a home. Birds will also appreciate your efforts! We had been planting (mostly native) flowers for butterflies for years, but certain species did not show up. But when we added these habitat needs to our garden, we went from 5 species to 22, and are even home to a healthy population of an imperiled species.

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