How to Build a Butterfly Garden in Your Backyard

Planting flowers around your home is nice and all, but if you want your backyard to be truly breathtaking, it doesn't get much better than a butterfly garden. That's right, a growing number of homeowners are planting flowers and shrubs specifically to attracted these colorful, winged wonders, and it's not as hard as you might think.

Here's how to build a butterfly garden that will leave you swooning over nature's beauty.

Do some research

Luckily for butterfly lovers, sanctuaries for these flying creatures can flourish in nearly every climate in the U.S. -- and invaluable information on how to pull it off can be had for free at most state agricultural extension offices, especially those that have master gardener programs.

"Pick up a brochure that lists the native plants in your area, or go to the Lepidopterists' Society's site for this as well as details about which butterflies you'll attract with certain flowers," suggests Jacqueline Y. Miller, associate director of the McGuire Center for lepidoptera and biodiversity at the University of Florida in Gainesville.

Pick the right plants

When planning your butterfly garden, keep in mind that you'll be nurturing two kinds of critters. As you may (or may not!) recall from grade school science class, a butterfly emerges from a caterpillar's cocoon, so it makes sense that each would prefer particular greenery. The plants that caterpillars enjoy are called host plants, while adult butterflies drink from nectar plants. Colors and shapes are important considerations, too, says David Marciniak, a garden designer at Revolutionary Gardens in Culpeper, VA.

"Butterflies (and other pollinators) are most attracted to flowers that are red, yellow, orange, pink, or purple," he explains. And in order to access the nectar, butterflies look for blooms that are either flat or have relatively short tubes.

"Coneflowers, sunflowers, and daisies are good, as are tubular flowers like salvia and mint," according to David Hughes a market farmer at Rock Bridge Trees in Bethpage, TN. Shrubs and small trees also work for butterflies, including viburnum, old-fashioned scented roses, abelia, summersweet, and bottlebrush buckeye.

Plant local foliage

Select plants that are native to your region, Hughes suggests. "West Coast plants are different from East Coast ones, and the butterflies that are attracted to each will differ as well," he says.

When in doubt, Susan Brandt, president of Blooming Secrets, likes to pick native wildflowers for butterfly gardens. Not only are they attractive, they are also hardy and easy to maintain, so you can just kick back and watch rather than slave over your foliage. Because becoming a servant to your butterflies is not the goal here.

Benjamin Vogt/Monarch Gardens (Wildflowers are a source of nectar for butterflies.)

Find the sun

Butterflies are cold-blooded creatures, so they'll thrive best in a spot that gets a good amount of sunlight. Build your butterfly garden in an area that gets at least six hours of sun a day. These insects like to warm themselves in the morning and will gravitate toward rocks or a sidewalk for this activity.

"Butterflies also typically feed and lay eggs in bright light," notes Marciniak. Don't have a sunny yard? "Even if the space is shaded part of the day, a few hours in the sun will usually do the trick," he says.

Healy Design (Butterflies thrive in spots that get a good amount of sunlight.)

Give them shelter

Shrubs and trees throw unwanted shade in your butterfly garden, but they're also key when it comes to protection. Delicate butterflies need refuge from wind and rain, as well as a perch for snuggling at night. You could also add a butterfly house, says Brandt. "It doesn't guarantee you'll have more butterflies, but it does provide shelter in cold, wet weather, and it looks nice, too."

Water is another element to examine. Insects get it from dew and rain, but adding a birdbath or other water element guarantees they'll have the moisture they require. "And to keep butterflies coming back, include a place for them to lay their eggs -- milkweed is a particular favorite," she notes.

Go green

Once you've planted this special space, don't attack unwanted growth or interloper bugs with weed killer or insecticide. "Even some of the 'good' insecticides can be lethal to butterflies," warns Brandt. In fact, systemic pesticides are harmful to all insects.

"Many flowering plants are treated with these before they are sent to the big-box stores, so the best way to avoid harmful chemicals is to shop at a local garden center," Hughes says. They'll be better equipped to tell you what will grow in your yard and will have specific knowledge to help your butterflies thrive.