Want simple ways to attract butterflies and encourage these essential pollinators to frequent your garden? Along with monarch butterflies, these seven tips will not only encourage butterflies, but benefit the entire circle of life in your growing space.
For more ideas, also see 48 Butterfly Garden Plants to Grow.
What’s Good for the Pollinators is Essential for Everything
The threats to monarch butterfly and honeybee populations are making the headlines, but the problems are more widespread. Habitat loss, climate change, chemical applications like neonicotinoids, and diseases also affect countless other living things in our gardens and natural habitats.
It’s our job as gardeners to do what we can to support nature, not work against it. Organic, earth-friendly practices have so many beneficial effects. It’s better for the earth, the plants, everything that lives in the garden, safer for food growing, and you get more bees, butterflies, and other living things, who in turn give us more flowers. On a sober note, if we screw up as stewards of this earth, there is no second chance, so as superficial as it sounds to celebrate bees, butterflies, and flowers, they represent the health of life on earth. Bam.
If you only do one thing on this list, the most important one is gardening organically. Buy organic plants. Buy organic seeds. And tend to your garden organically. There is no sense in doing any of this if our actions kill off the very beings we need to make it all work. Butterflies, of course, are one of these key players.
Pollinator Friendly Gardening by Rhonda Fleming Hayes shares the secret life of pollinators in an easy-to-read and interesting way. It’s an exploration of the underbelly of the garden where an intriguing soap opera with births, deaths, mating, and all the other factors of village life are taking place every single day. Dive in and be amazed. You’ll see your garden differently (with greater interest and respect) if you do.
1 Plant Milkweed (Asclepias)
Some butterflies including monarchs rely on a single plant species, others have evolved with a range of plants.
Find out which butterflies live or migrate through your area and plant what they need to survive. This example is about monarch butterflies.
Think of milkweed plants as the baby nursery for monarchs. Without these hardy, low-maintenance plants, monarch butterflies cannot survive. The females lay their eggs on milkweed plants because it’s the only plant their offspring—monarch caterpillars—can eat. And that’s why the milkweed shortage is so serious.
There are over 100 milkweed species but just 30 (or so) of these that the monarch butterflies will lay their eggs on, so do your homework before adding plants.
You can see some of the essential milkweed species in this article on milkweed growing tips. The best plan is to find out which varieties are suitable for your growing region (hardy and non-invasive) and plant those.
If you live in a monarch zone, once you have established several milkweed plants in your garden, watch for signs that something is eating the leaves. This is a positive indicator that the monarch caterpillars are feeding on your plants and getting ready to pupate (form a chrysalis). In just a few short weeks, new monarchs will emerge.
Wait! Before You Plant…
Always check first that plants are:
- Recommended for your growing zone.
- Not invasive in your area.
- Suit your growing conditions (sun, soil, water).
- Can cope with your specific location and weather conditions (e.g. high winds).
2 Choose Native & Well-Adapted Plants
We hear the term ‘native plants’ a lot, but what does it mean? At what point in the history of the earth—an ever-changing planet with shifting continents—should a plant have taken root to be considered native? It’s a good question and answers vary.
A more helpful suggestion is to choose plants that grow readily in your region without being invasive or too tender, growing for and with the living things in your eco-system.
Butterflies need a variety of familiar flowering plants from spring to fall. This will provide food for the migrations passing through, and nourishment for any populations that remain in your area.
Bright flower colors (reds, orange, purple) may attract butterflies, but it’s the truly nectar-rich plants that will sustain them. Butterflies also take sap from flowers on trees, rotting fruits, and animal droppings.
These are some of the plants I have in my garden (Ontario, Canada). Some of them are (so-called) native (known to grow in the wild here for centuries), others are well-adapted to my growing zone.
• Bee balm (Monarda)
• Daisies (Bellis perennis)
• Coneflowers (Echinacea)
• Black-eyed Susan (Rudbeckia hirta)
• Blazing stars (Listris)
• Evening primrose (Oenothera)
• Yarrow (Achillea millefolium)
• Asters and golden rod (both are good for fall blooms)
You may notice that butterflies will have different preferences in each garden, even those right next to one another. I like to plant a variety of selections, see what the butterflies (and bees, hummingbirds, birds, and other insects.) prefer, and then plant more of those.
How to Find Your Frost Dates and Hardiness Zone
3 Provide Sunny Resting Places
The goal is not just to attract butterflies but to provide an environment where they want to stay. In addition to providing flowering nectar plants, give the butterflies a place to sun themselves and relax. These cold-blooded creatures love nothing more than to rest on a flat stone that has been warmed in the afternoon sun.
4 Provide Shelter from the Wind
Strong winds make it very hard for butterflies to reach flowers. They are literally blown away. Surround your flower garden with wind breaks such as fences, shrubs, and trees—anything that can provide shelter from the wind without blocking the sunshine.
5 Provide Water
Butterflies drink water from natural sources like shallow puddles on the ground. If water is not readily available, consider keeping a very shallow dish of clean water near their nectar plants. The more it mimics a puddle, the better. The birds will thank you too.
I hang up this homemade water feeder from a tree branch. It is used by butterflies, bees, birds, chipmunks, and squirrels.
6 Garden Organically
Life in a garden depends not only on the plants themselves but an entire, intricate, self-reliant, circle of life from the tiniest soil microbes to the birds, bees, butterflies, and more.
There is no sense planting anything to attract butterflies or any wildlife when poisons (herbicides, pesticides, or insecticides) are present.
Organic gardening practices (without the use of harmful agents) ensures we have healthy, thriving gardens that benefit the entire web of life including the butterflies. And us.
7 Provide Winter Habitat
Did you know dead trees are a major life source for insects and animals?
We’re so quick to remove old tree stumps and leaves, but it is during the decomposition process that they give life to others, providing both food and shelter.
It depends on your location, but in some areas, butterflies spend the cold winter months nestled in old leaves, insulated from the cold until spring returns. Always leave some debris available for the wildlife in your garden.
Now go plant some milkweed and other flowering plants! The butterflies are waiting.
~Melissa the Empress of Dirt ♛
More About Butterflies
- How to Identify Butterflies in Your Garden
- How to Make a Trashcan Pollinator Garden
- Fruits and Veggies that Depend on Insect Pollination
- Host Plants for Butterflies
Creative Butterfly Projects