Start a Butterfly Garden

How to Start a Butterfly Garden

Rachel Lark - January 12, 2024

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Many people want to start a butterfly garden at home to protect the species from decline — several populations are increasingly vulnerable to extinction. Others opt to incorporate one as a stunning garden feature they can enjoy while relaxing outside during the summer. Whatever your reasons are, creating a butterfly garden is always one we can support.

A butterfly garden is straightforward enough but still requires plenty of careful thought and consideration. Not any plant will do, as does any water feature or food source. You have to think like a butterfly to understand their needs and wants. 

If you’re ready to dive in, this practical guide will help you plan, design and carry out the ultimate butterfly retreat.

Are Butterflies Endangered?

Scientists have deemed specific pollinators as threatened and endangered in recent years, particularly bees. However, you might wonder whether butterflies are just as at risk. 

Researchers in Europe have estimated a 50% decline in butterfly populations since the early 1990s. Five butterfly species have gone extinct in the U.S. since 1950, while 19% of 800 species are on the verge of extinction. The United Kingdom is also witnessing sharp declines of about three-quarters of its butterflies. 

The biggest threats to butterflies are climate change, habitat loss, pesticides, invasive species and diseases. Urbanization and mowing also have negative implications.

In 2022, the International Union for Conservation of Nature red-listed Monarch butterflies as endangered. However, they quietly overturned their decision in September 2023, stating the species was actually vulnerable to extinction. This was due to models and trends showing their population was decreasing more slowly than initially expected.

While this is undoubtedly good news, butterflies still deserve special awareness and care for long-term survival. 

7 Steps to Start a Butterfly Garden

It’s little wonder that you want to start a butterfly garden. Imagine how serene it will be sitting outside in the spring and summer, watching a sea of colorful butterflies flutter around. 

A butterfly garden is a fun project but must be constructed correctly to attract and sustain them. Here are seven essential steps for creating a beautiful butterfly garden at home.

1. Create a Plan

Before you do anything, it is best to develop a well-thought-out plan, including where you intend to put the butterfly garden, the types of butterfly species you want to attract and what they’ll need to survive. You’ll find that certain plants and features will attract distinct species over others.  

Draw a rough sketch of the area of your yard that you’ll transform, including where you’ll place each garden feature, from flowers to hardscaping and water sources.

2. Plant Butterfly-Friendly Flora

A butterfly garden only appeals to these exceptional pollinators when you include butterfly-friendly plants. For instance, milkweed is the Monarch butterfly’s favorite flower to feed on.

You want to diversify your plant selection for every stage of the butterfly’s life cycle, including caterpillars. Milkweed is nourishing for caterpillars, as is parsley. 

For mature butterflies, your garden should have colorful, nectar-rich perennials, annuals, shrubs and trees — preferably native to your area. The local butterflies will be most familiar with native plants. 

Also, select flowers for active butterfly seasons outside of summer, such as goldenrod and aster in the fall.

3. Ensure Plenty of Sunlight

Butterflies need plenty of sunlight for warmth, so ensure you start a butterfly garden wherever gets the most sun in your yard.

As cold-blood species, butterflies are often less active in the early morning and sundown. Your butterfly garden should receive about six hours of sunshine daily for them to stay warm. Dry surfaces, like rocks and soil, will absorb heat for them, too, so be sure to include plenty without shade.

4. Add Shelter

Shelter is crucial for a butterfly garden. Many of them will use shrubs at different heights to protect themselves from wind. However, butterflies are vulnerable to predators at night.

Birds, lizards, snakes, spiders and frogs all prey on butterflies. Frogs’ saliva helps them catch butterflies in midair with their long tongues. Meanwhile, reptiles prefer eating the butterflies’ bodies over their wings, which lack nutrition.

Of course, a safe haven also protects them from pets — dogs and cats might chase them in the yard — and human activity. 

5. Include a Water Feature

Like any living creature, butterflies require water to survive. However, these tiny critters need a particular water source rather than just for drinking.

Obviously, deep water can drown butterflies. They much prefer shallow puddles and mud. In fact, butterflies are known for “mud puddling” — a behavior in which the male butterfly soaks up sodium and amino acids from wet earth and transfers it to the female. The nutrients are essential for reproductive success.

However, the butterflies will also thank you for a small petri dish of fresh water and sand to quench their thirst on a hot day. 

6. Provide Alternative Foods

If you don’t have much of a green thumb or want to supplement with other nutrient-rich food for your butterflies, they’re quite keen on sweet and liquidy fruits. Consider peaches, pears, grapefruit and strawberries. Fruit juices and sugar water are also their favorite. 

Place the fruit on a shallow dish and remember to change them frequently — otherwise, ants and other insects will take over. 

7. Keep it Organic

Ensure whatever you put in your butterfly garden is organic — meaning there should be no pesticides, fertilizers or herbicides. These chemicals are hazardous to butterfly populations — one of the primary reasons for their decline in different parts of the world.

Studies have shown a 12.5% decline in wingspan for Monarch butterflies exposed to certain fungicides. The best way to protect butterflies is to keep your butterfly garden as natural as possible. 

Start a Butterfly Garden and Save the Pollinators

You can be part of the solution for protecting pollinators by starting a butterfly garden at home. It’s a fun, worthwhile project that significantly affects the species and the local habitat. Start with a plan of action and let your imagination wander, creating the ultimate butterfly oasis.

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About the author

Rachel Lark

Rachel serves as the Assistant Editor of A true foodie and activist at heart, she loves covering topics ranging from veganism to off grid living.