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Charming Butterfly Garden Ideas to Refresh Your Yard

Caroline Gilbert
Written by Caroline Gilbert
Updated September 16, 2021
little girl looking at butterfly on purple flower
Tatevosian Yana / Shutterstock.com

Attract a range of beautiful butterflies to your yard with these flower gardening tips and activities

If you’re looking to add color to your yard, why not attract beautiful butterflies at the same time? Designing a butterfly garden can be the perfect summer or spring activity to update your landscaping. There are many ways to attract butterflies and other pollinators, but we’ll help you get started with these beginner butterfly garden ideas. 

In this guide, we’ll go through how to set up a butterfly garden, list several great butterfly-friendly plants, and provide design ideas for your vibrant new space. Since setting up a garden can be a wonderful family activity, we also included some printable butterfly activities to help get the kids involved. 

Follow these tips, and before long, you’ll be able to enjoy the charming scene of colorful wings fluttering around your garden!

How to Create a Butterfly Garden

little girl working in garden
Rawpixel.com / Shutterstock.com

You could simply plant a few flowers and wait to see what happens, but if you’re intent on making your space an attractive destination for as many butterflies as possible, here are some key steps you won’t want to skip. 

1. Determine Your Placement

First, find a sunny spot in your yard for your garden. Butterflies are cold-blooded and often seek places to bask in the sun, so you’ll want to make sure that your garden receives around six hours of sunlight each day.

2. Plan the Layout

Next, make a list of the plants you want to include and how you want to arrange them (we’ll cover plan ideas in the next section). You can craft a layout of your garden beforehand, sketching out the placement and different elements you want to incorporate into the space. Create a garden bed or sectioned-off area of your lawn filled with mulch for your garden.

3. Lay Out Butterfly Food

Adult butterflies feed primarily on nectar. However, they also eat tree sap, pollen, and fruit. This step is optional, but you can easily attract even more butterflies and keep them lingering around your garden with a fruit-feeding station. Place a saucer of overripe orange slices, strawberries, or bananas out in the garden. Then, watch the butterflies gather to feed on the aromatic fruit.

4. Include Butterfly Shelters

Make sure you have shelter for butterflies in your garden. Trees, shrubs, and log piles can provide excellent refuge from the wind, rain, or predators.

5. Incorporate Moisture

Butterflies enjoy drinking nourishing minerals from water in shallow mud puddles, so it’s a good idea to include a water source, such as a birdbath or saucer filled with sand and water. Include pebbles around the edge of your water source for butterflies to perch on.

6. Avoid Pesticides

Butterflies and other pollinators are sensitive to pesticides and chemical fertilizers. To avoid harming the butterflies, steer clear of pesticides in your butterfly garden. Instead, include pest-resistant plants to keep unwanted visitors away. 

7. Add Caterpillar-Friendly Plants

If you want to support multiple generations of butterflies and increase your chances of seeing one emerge from a chrysalis, you’ll need to include both nectar plants and host plants. We’ll cover the best options below.

Butterfly-Friendly Plants

Butterflies are attracted to brightly colored flowers that are rich in nectar, so one viable strategy is to choose flowers that are native to your region and sure to attract local butterflies.

However, if you want your garden to also be a habitat, you’ll want to include larval host plants. Specific butterfly splarvalecies will only lay their eggs on certain types of plants, the leaves of which provide nourishment for growing caterpillars. 

Therefore, you’ll need to include a mixture of nectar sources to attract the adult butterflies and host plants to nourish their young. This will increase your chances of seeing them form and emerge from chrysalises.

Below, we’ve compiled a chart of several common North American butterflies and their host plants.

butterflies and their host plants

Now that you’re familiar with common butterfly host plants, we’ll cover a variety of other great options for both nectar and host plants. Remember to include perennials for year-round attraction and annuals for seasonal variety. 

This is far from an exhaustive list, but these butterfly-friendly plants can be a great place to start with your garden. 

1. Milkweed

Milkweed is the sole food source for monarch butterfly larvae. Not only is milkweed a host plant, but it’s also an excellent nectar source. Because monarchs are endangered, you can help support the species by planting milkweed in your garden. 

Type: Perennial

Climate zones: 5–9

In bloom: Summer

2. Butterfly Bush

Butterfly bush is one of the best plants for attracting multiple species of butterflies, including swallowtails, painted ladies, and skippers. However, it’s an invasive species in some areas, so make sure to check that it’s okay to plant in your area.

Type: Perennial

Climate zones: 5–9

In bloom: Summer to early fall

3. Aster

With vibrant flowers, aster comes in bright purple, blue, white, and pink varieties. It’s a great nectar source for monarchs, admirals, painted ladies, and buckeyes.

Type: Perennial

Climate zones: 3–8

In bloom: Summer to fall

4. Bee Balm

With its tubular flowers in different colors, such as pink, red, and white, bee balm grows well in most regions and attracts not only butterflies, but other pollinators like honey bees.

Type: Perennial

Climate zones: 3–9

In bloom: Summer

5. Black-Eyed Susan

This popular wildflower has a large black cone surrounded by yellow or red petals. Black-eyed susans often blanket large fields when growing wild, but they can make an attractive addition to any butterfly garden.

Type: Perennial

Climate zones: 3–9

In bloom: Summer

6. Catmint

This low-maintenance mint plant attracts various butterflies as well as hummingbirds and bees. Its most well-known variety is rich purple. 

Type: Rich purple, blue

Climate zones: 3–9

In bloom: Late spring to fall

7. Coneflower

Coneflowers are drought resistant and often spread across dry prairies. They attract lots of butterfly species, including monarchs, with their variety of warm colors.

Type: Perennial

Climate zones: 3–9

In bloom: Summer to early fall

8. Sunflower

Sunflowers are a beloved choice for good reason. A great nectar source for many pollinators, sunflowers can add welcome height to your garden.

Type: Annual

Climate zones: 10–11

In bloom: Summer to fall

9. Lavender

With aromatic blooms of deep purple, lavender will easily draw in butterflies as well as other friendly pollinators. 

Type: Perennial

Climate zones: 5–9

In bloom: Late spring to early fall

10. Floss Flower

With pom-pom-like blue and purple tufts, a floss flower plant could add just the right texture variety and touch of whimsy to your butterfly garden. Because the flowers grow in low clumps, floss flowers are perfect for garden bed borders. 

Type: Annual, perennial in zones 10–11

Climate zones: 9–10

In bloom: Late spring to fall

11. Goldenrod

This late-blooming wildflower includes plumes of soft flowers. Sometimes mistaken for a weed, this golden-yellow plant can provide both nectar and shelter for butterflies.

Type: Perennial

Climate zones: 3–9

In bloom: Late summer to fall

12. Hollyhock

A popular cottage garden flower, hollyhocks come in a plethora of colors. Since hollyhock is a host plant for painted lady butterflies, you can’t go wrong with this old-fashioned staple.

Type: Short-lived perennial

Climate zones: 3–8

In bloom: Summer

13. Lantana

Lantanas attract lots of butterflies, such as admirals, monarchs, and swallowtails. Their small clusters of bright flowers bloom in a range of different colors, from yellow to purple. 

Type: Annual

Climate zones: 9–11

In bloom: Late spring to fall

14. Phlox

Phlox flowers are versatile, with their star-shaped blooms available in a wide range of colors, sizes, and heights. This easy-to-care-for favorite is sure to draw in visitors to your garden.

Type: Perennial

Climate zones: 4–8

In bloom: Summer

15. Zinnia

Zinnia flowers grow bright and tall on solitary stems, making them enticing for passing butterflies. This fast-growing flower thrives in hot areas and full sun.

Type: Annual

Climate zones: 9–11

In bloom: Summer to fall

16. Stonecrop

This diverse group of drought-resistant plants makes great additions to rock gardens in particularly dry areas. Not only are stonecrops hardy, but they’ll attract all sorts of species to their flowers.

Type: Perennial

Climate zones: 3–8

In bloom: Summer to fall

Once you’ve decided on the perfect plants for your garden, you can either purchase them as seedlings or when they’re already in bloom. 

Butterfly Garden Design Ideas

woman painting yellow chair in garden
BlackCAT / E+ via Getty Images

A butterfly garden presents an opportunity not only to decorate your yard with gorgeous flowers, but also to design an area that fits your style. Here are several design ideas to consider.

Layout Ideas

The layout possibilities for your garden are endless. You can easily create different shapes that complement your space by fitting together pieces of wood or bricks around your garden area.

Consider the butterfly garden layout ideas below:

  • Square or rectangle: A classic option, a simple rectangular garden will help you fit the dimensions to the needs of your space.

  • Hexagonal: To add visual interest to your yard, you can create a geometric, six-sided garden.

  • Circle: A round garden is full of charm, allowing you to view the flowers well from every angle.

In terms of plant layout, make sure to:

  • Group similar plants together in drifts so butterflies will spot them and easily move from one flower to the next. 

  • Include height variety in your plants so butterflies will easily find your flowers.

If you aren’t quite sure where to start, a landscaping professional can help you piece together the perfect garden layout for your yard.

Decor Additions

To add to its appeal, adorn your butterfly garden with additional yard decor. 

Here are just a few ideas:

  • Birth baths will help you attract birds along with butterflies.

  • Garden statues can create a vintage atmosphere.

  • Flower arches make a garden look like a charming portal to another world.

  • Small benches near the garden will provide the perfect place to sit and observe butterflies, hummingbirds, and other garden visitors.

  • Stepping stones through the flowers will give your garden a whimsical touch.

Small Butterfly Garden Ideas

If you have limited space to work with, a simple square or rectangular garden is a good choice. 

You may have slightly fewer design options to choose from, but with these tips, you’ll make the most of a small garden:

  • Prioritize choosing plants that serve as both nectar sources and host plants for local butterflies. Don’t place host plants too far away from nectar sources.

  • Complement your garden with flowering containers that can support larger plants.

  • If your garden lies next to a porch or balcony, you can also complement it with more flowers hanging out of window boxes or hanging baskets. Flowering containers also allow you to change out plants during low-blooming seasons.

Butterfly Garden Activities

There are lots of outdoor activities you can do together as a family to enjoy your butterfly garden. We’ve included several below.

Identify and Learn About Butterflies

Perfect for kids with an interest in the outdoors, these coloring pages will help them practice their observational skills as they color in the butterflies and caterpillars they observe in the garden.

butterfly garden observation sheet
Ediebloom / iStock / Getty Images Plus via Getty Images

Download Butterfly Garden Observation Sheet Here

Start a Garden Journal

If you’d like to keep track of your garden upkeep all in one place, use the garden journal pages below. Print out a fresh page each week to log your watering schedule for each plant, check off your gardening to-dos, and write down your goals and observations about your garden. 

This can make for a great addition to your personal journal or a fun activity to collaborate on each week with your loved ones.

weekly garden journal sheet printable
Magic Cinema / Shutterstock.com

Down Butterfly Garden Weekly Journal Here

With these tips, you can get started planning and enjoying an attractive butterfly garden in no time. If you need help laying out your design, planting your flowers, and maintaining your garden, consider hiring a local landscaper.

Photo credits for Common North American Butterflies and Their Host Plants infographic above: 

Black Swallowtail: marcophotos/ iStock / Getty Images Plus via Getty Images; Selyutina Olga / Shutterstock.com; Nomad_Soul / Shutterstock.com; TairA / Shutterstock.com (from left to right) 

Cloudless Sulphur Butterfly: Hemera Technologies / PhotoObjects.net / Getty Images Plus via Getty Images; Judy M Darby / Shutterstock.com; Zabed Alam / Shutterstock.com; Kunanon / Shutterstock.com (from left to right) 

Common Buckeye: Olovedog / iStock / Getty Images Plus via Getty Images; Nokzd / Shutterstock.com; Anna Gratys / Shutterstock.com; Kalaivani Muthu / Shutterstock.com (from left to right) 

Monarch: Michael Burrell / iStock / Getty Images Plus via Getty Images; Sari ONeal / Shutterstock.com; Pinky Purple / Shutterstock.com; Stacey Welu / Shutterstock.com (from left to right) 

Painted Lady: HeitiPaves / iStock / Getty Images Plus via Getty Images; Skymoon13 / iStock / Getty Images Plus via Getty Images; Cattlaya Art / Shutterstock.com; LearningRamen / Shutterstock.com (from left to right) 

Question Mark: Paul Reeves Photography / iStock / Getty Images Plus via Getty Images; -AZ- / iStock / Getty Images Plus via Getty Images; Alfonso de Tomas / Shutterstock.com; Esa Hiltula / iStock / Getty Images Plus via Getty Images (from left to right) 

Red Admiral: Epantha / iStock / Getty Images Plus via Getty Images; Alfonso de Tomas / Shutterstock.com; Artur Bogacki / Shutterstock.com; Traveller70 / Shutterstock.com (from left to right) 

Tiger Swallowtail: OGphoto / E+ via Getty Images; Mila Usmanova / iStock / Getty Images Plus via Getty Images; Staras/ iStock / Getty Images Plus via Getty Images; Seven75 / iStock / Getty Images Plus via Getty Images (from left to right) 

Zebra Swallowtail: Epantha / iStock / Getty Images Plus via Getty Images; Jon Kraft / iStock / Getty Images Plus via Getty Images; Aimpol Buranet / Shutterstock.com; commons.wikimedia.org via snappygoat.com (from left to right)