Time to Plant a Butterfly Garden

plant a butterfly garden

Gulf fritillary butterfly on zinnia

It is almost the perfect time to plant a butterfly garden, so start planning now. In the next few weeks, the soil will be warm enough for annual seeds, such as Mexican sunflower and zinnia, to germinate. Choose a sunny location for the needs of both plants and insects. Proper bed preparation, initially, will prevent many problems down the road. Both heavy clay and coarse sandy soils benefit from the addition of compost. Compost enriches the soil with nutrients, beneficial micro-organisms and much more. It gives your plants a jump start and ensures their future success. After the soil is amended, sprinkle the chosen seed crops and lightly rake them into the bed, being careful not to rake too deeply. A thin top dressing of straw mulch ensures gentle watering and a safer environment for seedlings.

Inviting butterflies to your garden is easy, exciting and quite colorful. These delicate creatures are insects and accommodating their four life stages is key when planning the garden.

For butterflies to lay the eggs that hatch to caterpillars, host plants are required. Each butterfly species is picky, but some easy plants to start with are parsley and fennel. These and other members of the parsley family host several swallowtail butterflies. Caterpillars do nothing much but chew and chew, so plant several host plant clumps. The pupae or chrysalis stage is less need-specific. Any sturdy stem or nearby garden bench with protected surroundings will suffice. The complete cycle takes about a month on average. Once the adult, winged insect emerges, nectar plants will be necessary so the cycle can continue.

Butterflies are dependent on the sun for body heat. A warm, sunny garden has more productive, colorful plants and butterflies. Stepping stones for the gardener are also heat-collecting spots for butterflies.

Adult butterflies need nectar for energy. Long-blooming annuals are perfect. Consider the Aster family. Their compound flowers provide one-stop shopping since each contains multiple high-energy drinks. Large waves of color are also more attractive to a butterfly’s compound eyes than single plants. Bright colors and rich nectar are essential.

Remember to provide host plants specific to the butterfly species in our region. The Xerces Society (www.xerces.org) has a tremendous list of species by region, including size, bloom color and water needs.

Although butterflies can’t drink from a water container like birds, they still benefit from moist areas. Create a puddle in the garden by depressing a shallow tray filled with sand. It will collect and hold water without breeding mosquitoes. A little soil in the mix will also provide a beneficial mineral reservoir.

Finally, butterflies can be harmed by broad spectrum insecticides. If insect pests become a problem, apply a soap or oil spray so as not to injure the colorful, beneficial insects.

By Bethany O’Rear, Regional Extension Agent, Alabama Cooperative Extension System.  Contact Bethany at bethany@aces.edu.


The Alabama Cooperative Extension System (ACES) operates as the primary outreach organization for the land-grant functions of Alabama A&M and Auburn Universities. ACES is committed to affirmative action, equal opportunity and the diversity of its workforce.  Educational programs of ACES serve all people regardless of race, color, age, sex, religion, disability, sexual orientation, or national origin.

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Alabama Extension

The Alabama Cooperative Extension System operates as the primary outreach organization for the land-grant functions of Alabama A&M and Auburn Universities and answers home-gardeners' questions each week on Birmingham Gardening Today.

2 thoughts on “Time to Plant a Butterfly Garden

  1. Hey Bethany. Thanks for a good article. I was amazed and distressed when customer after customer complained to me their butterfly garden was being devoured by caterpillars. The disconnect was a very important lesson for me. I learned to tell customers what to expect and not to be distressed but delighted when their plants began to disappear before their eyes. When I had a few free moments at the store I would watch as one leaf after another disappeared by a munching caterpillar. 24/7 all they did was eat. As plants people we all need to understand EDUCATION is the key to our success with the birds and bees.

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