Whether you have a sprawling meadow or just enough space for a container garden, the first step when planning a garden is to establish how much room is available, as the overall garden area directly influences plant selection. Avoid the temptation to overcrowd the available space. Plants need room to grow, so think about how much space each plant will require once it matures.
After you have chosen your site location for the garden there are some other factors you will need to consider such as:
Sunlight is essential for the butterfly garden. Butterflies are cold-blooded insects that often start their day by warming their bodies in the sun. Be sure to include a spot in the garden where sunlight will reach the ground early in the day. Large rocks, exposed soil, or even pavement are all surfaces that will warm up in morning sunlight. Try to locate your garden where it will receive at least six hours of direct sunlight each day.
Butterflies get their necessary water from nectar, dew, and tree sap, but puddling stations can also be beneficial. You can create a butterfly puddling station by filling a shallow dish with sand or gravel and burying it to the rim in your garden where there is sun and protection from wind. Fill it with water so that it’s damp but not pooling. Butterflies will use this “puddle” in the hottest part of the day. Puddling stations are thought to provide dissolved salts in addition to water.
While shrubs and trees can create unnecessary shade, they do provide an important feature in the butterfly garden. Properly placed, trees and shrubs will shelter your garden from wind, which makes it easier for butterflies to explore your location. Additionally, trees and shrubs give valuable shelter where butterflies can roost at night or hide from predators. Keep in mind that many shrubs and trees are also caterpillar food plants!
Butterflies are very sensitive to pesticides, so be sure to choose a location that is not near any areas that are treated by you, a neighbor, or your municipality.
Before you can choose your plants, you need to become friends with your soil. Most butterfly plants thrive in soil that drains well and is rich in organic matter. Adding compost will boost the soil structure and add the nutrients necessary for plants to thrive. A standard practice is to add 3″ of compost to the top of your soil and mix it into about the top 8″ of soil.
An easy first step in getting ready to select plants is to check your hardiness zone. The USDA maintains the Plant Hardiness Zone Map, which can be used to help determine appropriate plants for your climate. The map is based on the average annual minimum winter temperature, divided into 10-degree F zones. The USDA also maintains the PLANTS Database, which provides information about the plant’s attributes.
Always try and choose native plants for your area. Native plants are the plant species that are naturally found in your region. Plants introduced from other regions of the United States or other parts of the world are called exotics. Native plants have evolved in your region over the course of hundreds of thousands of years. These plants thrive in the local soils, rainfall levels, weather, and climate conditions. Every region has different native plant communities. Native plants support local ecosystems better than introduced species, primarily by supporting food webs far better than non-natives plants. For help with choosing native plants for your location, please check out our Native Plants Resources under the Links For Gardening.
Many flowering plants will attract butterflies to your location, but not all flowers are created equally in the compound eyes of a butterfly. Selecting native plants that grow naturally in your region will feed butterflies while also encouraging them to stick around for a while, laying eggs, and creating a new generation of butterflies. To do this, you will need to choose native plants that fall into two groups:
- Nectar Plants – the flowers that adult butterflies feed on that will provide them with energy.
- Host Plants – the flowers where butterflies lay their eggs which will provide food for the caterpillars.
With careful selection from these two groups of plants, your garden will provide for the entire life cycle of butterflies. Planting a wide range of nectar and host plants is the best strategy for attracting the largest number of butterfly species. Butterflies may be attracted to the garden by a large patch of bright flowers, but they will linger longer if there are also areas that provide shelter, water, sun and a diverse group of plants that imitate the way plants grow in the wild. Incorporate native plants into your garden whenever possible.
In choosing plants that grow to different heights, with a variety of flower shapes, colors, and fragrance that have different bloom times, you will be creating a garden that is attractive to a wide range of butterflies. Grouping more than one plant of each type together will help to unify the look of the garden and will lessen the distance that butterflies will have to travel when looking for nectar and host plants. If your garden is small and has no room for trees or shrubs, consider an arbor covered with vines to create height. There are many vines to choose from that act as nectar or caterpillar food plants.
Once you have combined careful plant selection with the details of site selection, you will have created a butterfly garden that is a micro-habitat providing a unique location where a wide variety of butterflies can live and grow.