Quick and Dirty: Shedding a Light on Butterfly Gardens

If you’re looking to lure butterflies to your backyard, you have to start like they do: with the caterpillar.
Monarch Butterfly on Milkweed Plant

Monarch Butterfly Perched on Milkweed Plant

A monarch butterfly feeds from the blossom of the milkweed plant. Monarch butterflies use milkweed both for nectar and a place to lay their eggs. When the eggs hatch, the caterpillars can also feed on the milkweed.

Photo by: Shutterstock/Kari K

Shutterstock/Kari K

We swat at flies and run from bees but butterflies don’t bug us at all. They’re immortalized in jewelry and decor, but we love them best when they’re dancing around our yards, dazzling us with their wildly covered wings. “They’re like flying flowers,” says Angelica Elliott, landscaping and gardening education coordinator at the Desert Botanical Garden in Phoenix, Arizona. “The coloration and patterns are so unique and there’s something mystical and peaceful about them.” Butterflies are definitely in the air, but if you’re looking to lure butterflies to your backyard, you have to start like they do: with the caterpillar.

Take it from Elliott: If you build a butterfly garden, they will come. “Two or three years after we built our butterfly garden along the wildflower trail, we saw increased traffic,” she says. “And we’re in the middle of the city, not in the wild where there’s already a large and diverse population of butterflies.” There’s no need to wing it; here’s how to get started:

Feed the Masses

”If you want to attract butterflies, you have to provide larval and adult food plants,” Elliott says. Milkweed serves both purposes: Monarch butterflies use it for nectar and lay their eggs on it. Then when the eggs hatch, the caterpillars feed on the milkweed. “They ingest the poison from that plant, and as they become adults the poison protects them from predators,” Elliott says. 

Mass Construction

Since they can’t read signs saying “Butterfly Garden, This Way,” do groupings of plants to help butterflies find their way. “Be as diverse as you can with your plantings and plant in masses,” Elliott says. “And as hard as it may be for some gardeners, butterflies don’t always like a nice and tidy garden. They look for leaf litter to wait out periods of dormancy.”

Curb the Chemicals

Avoid pesticides so the butterflies can exist in a natural environment. “The chemicals will kill the adult and caterpillar,” Elliott says.


These pretty pollinators need water and minerals just like everyone else. “Fill a shallow dish with soil and let your air conditioner condensation run into it,” Elliott says. “Butterflies go to the ground to get moisture and minerals from the soil.”

Cover the Bases

Locate your butterfly garden in a spot that sees at least 6-8 hours of sunlight a day, with shade options nearby. “We provide shade in the southwest because it gives the butterflies somewhere to go in the heat of the summer and fall,” Elliott says.

Here’s another insider tip from Elliott: Leave out plates filled with orange slices to attract butterflies. Unlike hummingbirds who hover, butterflies like to land on things and love sweet citrus juices.

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