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How to Plant a Butterfly Garden: Our Top Seven Tips

Butterflies are certainly a welcome guest at any garden, but they are far from just a pretty visitor. Pollinating insects like butterflies, bees, and moths are responsible for ⅓ of the world’s food source! [DNR] In recent years these key pollinators have struggled with threats like habit loss and pesticide use. Monarch populations, in particular, have declined in response to a scarcity of milkweed plants. By making your garden attractive and nutritious for native butterflies, you’re not only beautifying your backyard but doing your part to support a healthy local and national environment.

Read on to learn our tips for making your garden butterfly-friendly.

 

Plan for the space you have

You don’t need a huge yard to have a butterfly garden. It’s certainly possible to build a miniature butterfly garden from potted plants, window boxes, and other plant containers. Just make sure to choose larger pots with drainage holes.

 

Plant pollinator-friendly plants

This is the bread and butter of your garden! What you plant will determine which types of butterflies choose to visit, or if they visit at all. 

Learn more about native Michigan wildflowers with our Wildflowers of Michigan Field Guide

 

Here are a few things to remember when choosing your plants:

  • Go for variety. A wide selection of flowers will appeal to a wide variety of butterflies and other pollinators.
  • Mix perennials and annuals to ensure that there are blooming flowers in your garden throughout the season.
  • Popular butterfly garden blooms are those that are brightly colored and shallow, allowing butterflies to easily access the nectar. Try hyssop, coneflowers, and asters.
  • Keep host plants in mind. While nectar plants are just that - plants that butterflies rely on for nectar - host plants are those that butterflies like to lay their eggs on. A mix of both will ensure that butterflies aren’t only stopping by to fuel up, but also to make a home.
  • Many butterflies prefer a specific group of flowers to feed from. Take some time to look up the butterflies most common in your area and what flowers they like most. Here are a few common butterfly species to get you started:

      Monarch

      Favorite host plants: milkweeds including common milkweed, swamp milkweed, and showy milkweed

      Favorite nectar plants: primarily all types of milkweed, but also lilac, red clover, goldenrods, and blazing stars


      Tiger Swallowtail

      Favorite host plants: wild cherry, sweetbay, tulip tree, and birch

      Favorite nectar plants: wild cherry, lilac, milkweed, and Joe-Pye weed




      Northern Crescent

      Favorite host plants: asters and other flowers in the sunflower family

      Favorite nectar plants: dogbane, fleabane, and white clover




      Red-spotted Purple or White Admiral

      Favorite host plants: wild cherry, aspen, poplar, cottonwood, and birch

      Favorite nectar plants: small white flowers like spiraea, privet, and viburnum



      Fun fact: Butterflies like Red-spotted Purple or White Admirals do sip from flowers, but that’s not the only place they dine. Many butterflies also love to snack on sap flows, overripe fruit, and even aphid honeydew. You can attract these butterflies by leaving out overripe fruit. This can be a nice alternative for those who don’t have any room for gardens or large flower pots. Just make sure to replace the fruit often to discourage any attention from ants or squirrels.

      Avoid pesticides

      Pesticides can harm most pollinators, and that includes butterflies! If unwanted insects are still a problem, try including plants that repel pests in your garden, like basil or chives.

      It’s common for plants to be treated with systemic insecticides, which are absorbed as the plant grows and are incorporated into the plant tissues, pollen, and nectar. When buying plants from nurseries and garden centers, double-check to make sure that they’re free of all insecticides, including systemic ones.

      Lilac and honeysuckle are attractive flowers to butterflies and will add a sweet fragrance to your garden.

      Choose a sunny area for your garden

      Did you know that butterflies are cold-blooded? It’s true, butterflies use the sun to warm themselves up. In fact, they need to bask in order to raise their body temperature enough to fly.

      To help your colorful guests warm up, provide basking areas like flat rocks where they can easily land and rest their wings.


      Provide windbreaks and butterfly shelters

      While flat, accessible areas in the sunshine are good for basking, it’s also important to shield these delicate critters from the elements. Butterflies like a place sheltered from wind to land and feed. You can provide a shield with larger yard ornaments and plants like fences, gates, and shrubs.

      In addition, covered shelters can be helpful protections against predators and harsh weather. If you want to get fancy, there are a wide variety of butterfly houses available. But you can also go as simple as a few strategically stacked rocks and logs, or a designated area of tall grass in your garden.


      Add a water source

      Butterflies need a good water source not only to stay hydrated but also to obtain necessary minerals, which they glean from the surrounding soil. These so-called “puddling stations” for butterflies can be created in a few different ways. You can quite literally allow water to puddle in your garden, just make sure your garden soil is free of pesticides! You can also leave out shallow dishes of water mixed with soil and pebbles to a similar effect.


      Be observant

      The best way to understand what types of butterflies frequent your neighborhood is to look for them. Keeping a diary or taking pictures when you see butterflies in your garden or in your neighborhood can help you keep track of which butterflies frequent your area. Once you know which butterflies show up the most, do a little research on the species and tailor your plant variety and garden layout to their needs.


       

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