Two Butterfly Garden Designs

Monarch butterfly feeding on swamp milkweed
A monarch butterfly feeds on swamp milkweed.

Everyone loves butterflies, and the threat to monarch populations has spurred increased interest in butterfly gardening. When planning a smart butterfly garden, you want to include plants that feed both adult butterflies and their caterpillars. This is essential because butterfly caterpillars are species specific, meaning they only feed on specific plants.
Color, design, and site conditions are important when creating butterfly gardens. To make the job easy for new pollinator gardeners, we created two designs that are colorful and appeal to black swallowtail and monarch butterflies. Most butterfly plants are sun-loving, so these gardens are all adapted to sunny garden spaces.

Black Swallowtail Garden Plants

Black swallowtail caterpillar feeding on bronze fennel
A black swallowtail caterpillar feeds on bronze fennel. (Image by Jessie Keith)

The caterpillars of black swallowtail butterflies feed on many plants in the carrot family, Apiaceae. These eastern North American butterflies have many native host plants, but none are attractive enough for ornamental gardening. Thankfully, quite a few cultivated flowers also feed them. These include bronze fennel, Queen Anne’s lace, lace flower, and dill. When mixed with colorful, compact Magellan zinnias and Sonata coreopsis, which feed adult butterflies, a wild, lacy flower garden is created.
Black Swallowtail Garden Design: This simple design shows a traditional rectangular flower border, but it can be adapted to fit any garden shape. Just be sure to keep the taller plants towards the center or back of the border. Most of these flowers are annuals, meaning they need to be planted year after year.
Garden design

Monarch Garden Plants

Monarch caterpillars feeding on milkweed plants
Monarch caterpillars only feed on milkweed plants.

All milkweed species (Asclepias spp.) feed monarchs. These colorful perennials contain protective chemicals that the caterpillars feed on, which render both the caterpillars and adult butterflies unpalatable to birds. The prettiest of all milkweeds include the orange-flowered butterflyweed (Asclepias tuberosa (USDA Hardiness Zones 4-9)), pink-flowered swamp milkweed (Asclepias incarnata (USDA Hardiness Zones 3-9), and orange-red flowered Mexican milkweed (Asclepias curassavica (USDA Hardiness Zones 8-10)), which self sows yearly. Monarch adults feed on all manner of butterfly flowers. The best are fall-flowering species that support the butterflies as they head to Mexico late in the season, like goldenrod and asters. [Click here to read more about growing milkweeds for monarchs.]
Monarch Garden Design: This border design includes three showy milkweed species and dwarf late-season asters (such as Symphyotrichum novi-belgii ‘Lady-in-Blue’ (12-inches tall) or ‘Nesthäkchen’ (18-inches tall) and dwarf goldenrod (such as Solidago ‘Golden Baby’ (18-inches tall) or ‘Little Lemon’ (18-inches tall)) to feed migrating monarchs.
Monarch Garden Design
Planting your Butterfly Garden

Fafard Premium Natural & Organic Compost Blend packThese gardens are all designed for full-sun exposures. When planting them, feed the soil with Fafard Premium Natural & Organic Compost to ensure the plants get a good start. You might also consider feeding them with a good flower fertilizer approved for organic gardening. Another important note is to avoid using insecticides, which will damage or kill visiting butterflies.
These simple gardens are pretty and sure to lure lots of beautiful butterflies to your yard. To learn more about pollinator conservation and gardening, visit the Xerces Society’s Pollinator Conservation page.

Cultivating Diversity with Wildlife Gardening

Naturalistic garden sm
Low dense groundcovers, meadow-like perennial plantings, shrubby thickets, trees large and small, and other vegetation types provide a patchwork of habitats for wildlife. (image by Jessie Keith)

Want to invite more of nature into your garden?  Then cultivate diversity —from the ground up.  Even a small garden can feed, shelter, and house an abundance of animals and insects (and plants!).  And it all starts with the soil.

The key to creating a wildlife-friendly yard is to grow lots of plants and plant species —especially natives.  This is mostly about food: nectar, pollen, fruits, nuts, and leaves.  More plant diversity means more dietary options and niches, supporting more furry and feathered (and warty and creeping) things.  A diversely planted garden is alive with feeding activity.  Bumblebees mob the pollen-rich blooms of blueberries and shooting-stars (as assassin bugs lie in wait).  Butterflies flutter about the sweetly scented flower-heads of spice viburnums and meadow rues.  Caterpillars and other insect larvae browse the foliage of their favored (and —in some cases—exclusive) hosts.  And at the upper end of the food chain, birds, amphibians, mammals, and other omnivores gobble down fruits, nuts, and insects (while hummingbirds buzz in to sip from the tubular, brightly hued, nectar-rich flowers of penstemons and salvias).  Plant more species (especially natives), and they will come – and eat.

More plants also mean more places for your local wildlife to hang out.  Low dense groundcovers, meadow-like perennial plantings, shrubby thickets, trees large and small, and other vegetation types provide a patchwork of habitats where animals and insects can forage, nest, shelter, advertise for mates, and do all that other wild stuff.  Accessorize with some bird feeders, bird (or bat or bee) houses, toad abodes, bird baths, butterfly puddles, and other wildlife-appropriate man-made features, and you’ll have a place for just about every critter in the hood.

Bee on Ageratum houstonianum
Planting for pollinators with favorite bee and butterfly blooms is one simple way to plant for wildlife. (image by Jessie Keith)

If the thought of all that up-close, wildlife-friendly habitat gives you (and your neighbors) a touch of the creepy-crawlies —then keep it at a comfortable distance.  Border it with some hardscape and lawn where the children and dogs (rather than the deer and the garter snake) can play.  Provide some observation areas from which you can safely monitor the children and the wildlife.  But consider leaving some lawn-free corridors to connect your plantings with those of your neighbors (hint, hint).  Together, you can form one contiguous neighborhood mega-wildlife-garden.

And put away the pesticides.  No matter that your spray-can trigger-finger instinctually starts twitching at the very mention of insect-hosting plants.  You’ll doubtless find that insect damage is far less noticeable and less troubling in your wildlife planting than in other, more pampered areas of your yard.  More diversity means less likelihood of one critter spiraling out of control.  So protect that diversity by not spraying it with poison (although in some areas a deer fence might be in order).

As with all gardens, the best way to proceed is from the ground up.  And I do mean ground – as in good old dirt (a.k.a. soil), the base layer of terrestrial life.  For it is life in the underground (comprising mind-numbingly large numbers of bacteria, protozoa, fungi, and other soil microbes), which supports life up in the sunlight, including the plants that populate our gardens.  The healthier the soil is, the greater the possibilities for our gardens – and for their human and non-human inhabitants.

So before you plant anything, check with the soil.  Is it heavy clay or porous sand?  Does it have a nice topsoil layer or none?  Is it in the sun or the shade?  If possible, send a soil sample off to your state’s horticultural extension service for analysis and recommendations (most states offer soil testing for a relatively modest fee).  And in most cases, add organic matter such as Fafard® Premium Organic Compost. This top-quality compost is at the top of the menu for most soil microbes.

To convert a whole swath of lawn to a wildlife perennial planting, use the technique known as sheet mulching.  Blanket the erstwhile lawn with a thick layer of wet newspaper or cardboard, and cover the paper with Fafard Premium Organic Compost (1 cubic foot per square yard) and several inches of “soft”, seed-free organic material (such as leaves or straw).  Add more compost and top with 3 or 4 inches of wood chips.  Allow your mulch parfait to decay for a few months before planting into it, or plant immediately by creating topsoil-filled hollows in the bark layer.  Keep the border edged and weeded while your new planting establishes – and then watch diversity happen.

Scarlet beebalm, purple coneflower and orange butterfly weed
Natives like scarlet beebalm, purple coneflower and orange butterfly weed are sure to draw lots of wildlife pollinators. (image by Jessie Keith)