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Soar with Your Butterfly Garden

by Charlie Nardozzi

asclepias milkweed

Butterflies gathered on a Milkweed flower

While I love to design perennial gardens to provide constant color from spring until fall, you can add even more interest, color, and activity to your garden by selecting perennials that attract butterflies. Not only will you have the joy of watching them flit around your garden, you'll be creating a habitat to preserve these winged beauties.

The key to success is designing a butterfly garden with perennial plants and annual flowers that will provide blooms all season - which will offer nectar and leaves for the larval caterpillars to feed on. It's also helpful to create butterfly habitat, so plants and structures to provide shelter and water for butterflies.

painted lady butterfly on garden phlox

A Painted Lady Butterfly on Garden Phlox

Butterfly Attracting Perennial Plants

Butterflies are mostly attracted to bright colors such as red, orange, yellow and purple. Select full-sun loving perennials in these bright colors that will bloom throughout the growing season to give your butterflies a continual nectar source.

  • For early season blooms, try Super Star Coreopsis with its yellow flowers with a bright red center.
  • For mid-summer bloomers, try Echinacea Purpurea or Magnus Echinacea with striking magenta-colored flowers and textured center cones. Gaillardia's brght flowers are another great option - butterflies are sure not to miss these. (Plants are available seasonally!)
  • For late summer and fall flowers, grow some butterfly bushes. These shrubs are hardy to USDA zone 5 and consistently produce 3- to 5-foot tall and wide shrubs - and true to their name, butterflies flock to these fragrant shrubs. Tall garden phlox are also a late summer/fall butterfly favorite. 

Butterfly Attracting Wildflowers

To ensure constant color and food for your butterflies, plant some annual wildflowers such as zinnias or cosmos amongst your perennial flowers.

It's not just about growing flowers with blooms and nectar for the adults to feed. Caterpillars need food, too. Grow caterpillar-loving plants nearby such as willow, black cherry, parsley, and fennel for adults to lay eggs on and the caterpillar young to feed.

I have milkweed growing in my meadow for the monarch butterflies to use. Milkweed is a host plant for Monarchs - an essential plant for all stages of their growth. 

Do not spray any pesticides in your butterfly garden or on host plants. In the butterfly garden, you want to see leaf damage. It means you have larval butterflies (caterpillars) and the adults are not too far behind.

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Butterfly Habitat

Your butterflies will need other features in your yard in order to stay around and be happy.

  • Plant evergreen shrubs or deciduous shrubs such as lilacs close to the butterfly garden. They will use the shrubs as protection from wind and weather, a hiding place from predators, and a place to rest between feedings. 
  • Have a water source, such as a bird bath, or even a small bucket sunk in the ground filled with pebbles, sand and water, for the adults to drink from.

With a little planning and choosing colorful perennials, you'll create a butterfly garden that will be filled with color and activity all summer long.

Happy Gardening!