Monday, August 24, 2015

Designing and Planting Your Very Own Butterfly Garden: Part 3


Now that you have selected the plants you wish to plant in your butterfly garden, let's design your layout.

Observe your location throughout the day, and if possible, throughout the seasons so you can watch the path of the sun. You will want to make sure your sun-loving plants receive as much light as possible, and place the shade-tolerant ones in areas that are more shaded.

You also want to gauge the moisture levels of your chosen spot.

If you have a low wet spot, for instance, you can select plants that do well under these conditions. Around here, some good selections would be Joe Pye Weed (Eupatorium fistulosum), Cardinal Flower (Lobelia cardinalis), Blue Flag (Iris virginica), Swamp Rose Mallow (Hibiscus moscheutos), Swamp Milkweed (Asclepius incarnata) and Buttonbush (Cephalanthus occidentalis). The great thing about this type of garden is that it can double as a rain garden! (Read more about that here.)

Watershed Council
Be sure to study the height, spread, color, bloom times, light and soil preferences of your chosen plants.

Place the taller ones towards the back of your garden, and try to have a variety of colors & shapes blooming at any given time. It's nice to have a blend of warm and cool colors for good contrast, and to have flowers whose bloom times overlap one another.

For instance: Blue Star (Amsonia tabernaemontana) and Yellow Baptisia (Baptisia sphaerocarpa) bloom at the same time, and look lovely next to one another. New England Asters contrast nicely with Coreopsis. Mountain Mint (Pycnanthemum sp.) and Black-Eyed Susans (Rudbeckia sp.) go very well together. And so on.

You also want to try and provide nectar sources for as long as seasonally possible, so be sure to plant early and late-blooming plants, in addition to those that bloom at the height of summer. Spring Beauties and Virginia Bluebells are good early season plants, and sunflowers and asters provide nectar for the fall.

A Black Swallowtail enjoying some late summer nectar from Appalachian Sunflowers (Helianthus atrorubens)
It's also a good idea to select plants and shrubs that offer visual interest during the fall and winter landscapes.

The purple fruit of American Beautyberry (Callacarpa americana) looks stunning against the fall foliage, and will also provide food for wild birds
When drawing up your plans, make sure to give every plant enough room. A good rule of thumb is to space your new plants at least 2-3 feet apart, depending on their growth habits. (Shrubs and trees obviously need a lot more space.)

Measure your garden space, and draw it out to scale on graph paper. This will help make sure you have enough room for all the plants you wish to include.

Now that you have that all figured out, let's discuss some other elements you might wish to incorporate into your garden.

So far you will be providing a food source for all life stages of the butterflies, but what about water and shelter?

Shelter is easy! As long as you have trees and shrubs in your nearby landscape, the butterflies will have plenty of places to take shelter overnight or during inclement weather.

So, what about butterfly houses?

Kids Lake
Well, they're cute and all, but I've never known butterflies to use them. They typically just become homes for paper wasps to nest in (which isn't necessarily a bad thing, since they are beneficial species too). Butterfly houses are more of a novelty item. Your money would be better spent planting some extra shrubs instead.

And what about water? How do butterflies drink?

Butterflies cannot drink from standing water. Instead, they soak up water from wet sand, mud or moist surfaces like rocks or pavement.

A Zebra Swallowtail drinking water from a wet rock by the lake shore
Providing water can be as simple as wetting down rocks or pavement a couple of times a day, or creating a mud puddle for them. You can also use a regular bird bath and immerse rocks with their surfaces exposed.

I buried a plastic bird bath basin, filled it with aquarium gravel, and then surrounded it with rocks. It provided a place for butterflies (and other critters) to drink, and made a nice basking spot for this American Snout butterfly.
Another option is to bury a bucket of sand or gravel and keep it moist.

The males of many butterflies often spend more time drinking in moist places like these, a behavior known as "puddling." They are in search of salt and other minerals, and can sometimes appear in very large numbers.

Pipevine and Eastern Tiger Swallowtail butterflies puddling at a river's edge
Sprinkling a little salt or even stale beer on your mud or sand pit will attract these guys.

Providing basking sites is another great idea. Try placing large rocks and driftwood in your garden. They will not only provide interest in your design, but they will make great places for the butterflies to warm themselves in the early morning (and provide habitat for other critters!).

This Northern Cloudywing is basking on a garden bench
Something else to consider is that not all butterfly species feed on nectar.

Some species prefer rotting fruit, feces and even rotting meat!

It's up to you whether or not you want to incorporate the latter two food sources, but you can always set up a feeder with overripe fruit to attract different species.

A fruit feeder can be as simple as a pie plate with overripe fruit and peels. This Tawny Emperor was especially drawn to the cantaloupe rinds.
Be aware that this may also attract yellow jackets and other species of wasps. To help prevent raccoons and opossums from taking advantage of this food source, simply bring it indoors (or into a garage) at night.

Designing your butterfly garden can seem a little overwhelming at first, but as long as you remember to include food, water and shelter, it will be a success.

Now that you've seen a few other ideas to consider, let's get down to planting! 


  1. Wow, you have so many butterflies! Thanks for another great installment of this series. Thanks for sharing at My Flagstaff Home!


  2. Such great pictures! You really know your butterflies!

    Thanks again for linking up with Green Thumb Thursday. We'd love to see you back again this week!