How I Attract Butterflies to My Garden

Butterflies are a flagship species for conservation.

Summer nature view of a beautiful butterfly with colorful meadow.

Levente Bodo / Getty Images

"No Mow May" is upon us, and gardeners are being urged to leave lawns un-mowed this month to benefit spring pollinators. This is part of the growing interest in replacing mono-crop grass lawns with diverse areas of meadow planting filled with weeds and wildflowers. One of the beneficiaries is butterflies since the beautiful pollinators are just one of the many creatures which will benefit from the increased diversity of plant life this brings. 

As a keen organic gardener and garden designer, I fully understand the importance of attracting wildlife to my garden. Maintaining an area of organic meadow rather than a lawn and creating other diverse planting schemes is just one of the things I do to attract and aid butterflies in my garden. 

Butterflies are a flagship species for conservation. And when we create gardens for the benefit of butterflies, many other creatures will benefit too. Like bees and other invertebrates, butterflies play important roles in pollination. They are also an important part of the food chain, providing food for birds, bats, and other animals. 

Biodiversity losses are rapid and worrying. Here in the United Kingdom, we've already lost four butterfly species during the last 150 years. Three-quarters of the remaining species are in decline. Similar pictures are emerging around the world.

As gardeners, the onus is on us to help tackle this biodiversity crisis. So to help you help butterflies in your garden, here are some of the main strategies to consider.

Planting for Butterflies

Choose native plants. 

Native butterflies have formed symbiotic relationships with certain native plants and so when we plant native species or allow wild plants to flourish in wilder corners of our gardens, we help specific butterfly and moth species. Some plants are a place for butterflies to lay their eggs, and provide food for larvae and caterpillars. Others provide nectar for adult butterflies and moths. And some plants provide shelter through the seasons, particularly for overwintering species. 

While some non-native species can be included to benefit butterflies in your garden, filling your garden predominantly with native plants is a good idea. In my own garden, I let plenty of wildflowers and 'weeds' proliferate throughout the different zones. And my garden designs always include native plants specific to the area. 

Buddleia, a butterfly bush, is well known for attracting butterflies. But it can be invasive. Fortunately, there are always native shrubs that will work just as well. 

Think about flower color and form. 

Bold swathes of blooms will keep butterflies happy. Butterflies are particularly attracted to blue, yellow, and red, though a wide range of different colors can be beneficial and diversity is key. The shape of flowers is also important. Simple, flat, single flowers will be better for butterflies, who will find it easier to extract the nectar from such blooms.

 Place Butterfly Flower Gardens in the Right Place. 

Adult butterflies will love to visit flowers in a sunny spot. And it should be relatively sheltered too since butterflies will struggle to fly in windier conditions. By planting trees, shrubs, and taller perennials in the right places, I create more sheltered areas where butterflies can thrive. 

Habitat For Butterflies

As well as providing plants to benefit butterflies in your garden, you should also think about their other needs. 

Making sure there is moisture available is one key thing to consider. Water availability in a garden is crucial if you want to cater to wildlife in the space. 

In my garden, we have a wildlife pond that has been designed to aid as many different creatures as possible. One edge of the pond shelves to a very shallow gravel "beach," and to a small muddy area. I see butterflies resting on the small flat stones to soak up the sun, and also 'puddling' (Sucking up water from the mud) in this area. 

If you can create a wildlife pond in your garden, I highly recommend it. A pond greatly enriches the biodiversity in your garden and should help the butterflies in your area as well as many other creatures. 

But even if you cannot make a small pond, you should still make sure there are shallow containers filled with wet sand/ soil close to nectar-filled flower gardens so there is a water source for butterflies. You should also place flat rocks or stones in a sunny spot for butterflies to rest on and warm up. 

One other thing to think about is how zealous you are in 'tidying up' your herbaceous perennials in fall. Leaving dead-standing stems and some 'overgrown' areas in your garden can provide habitats for overwintering butterfly species. I leave some dead stalks etc. standing over winter, before tidying things up a little in spring—though there are always still plenty of wild corners in my garden. 

Butterfly habitats which I cultivate in my garden are:

  • Sunny glades and dappled shade areas in my forest garden, with yarrow and many other flowering plants.
  • A wild perennial meadow area with wildflowers and weeds.
  • Herbaceous perennial borders with many flowering perennials and herbs.
  • Diverse planting around a wildlife pond in a 'wild' corner. 
  • Annual vegetable beds with companion planting.

In all of these areas, butterflies are frequent, and very welcome, residents or visitors. Diversity is key, and diverse planting schemes and habitats mean diverse butterflies and moths are present. 

Though thinking carefully about what you plant and the habitats you create, you too can attract and aid butterflies in your garden. 

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