New Butterfly Garden

brieninsacDecember 28, 2011


I'm new to this site and have been reading through the posts. My wife and I have been planning a butterfly garden for several months. A few weeks ago we completed a garden bed (8' x 5'). We already had a few butterfly plants to start with. But we'll wait until the spring before we really get going on it.

I wanted to share a picture of our garden and our plans. I have a list of other plants and herbs we'd like to use to fill it in. But I'd like to get some feedback from the pros before we get too far ahead of ourselves.

From what I've read I understand a small garden like ours probably won't attract a lot of butterflies. Is that really true? Can we import/place caterpillars on host plants to help establish are garden and if so when?

Thanks for your help and I look forward to learning so much more from everyone.

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Your B. davidii will normally take up the entire 8x5 space and shade out the other plants. Some newer, more compact varieties may be available, otherwise, prune it way down every year.

The Asclepias may attract Monarchs if those butterflies are commonly seen in Sacramento. Asters are generally good. I think of the Hot Lips more as a hummingbird plant. The butterflies will have no use for a fountain unless it barely dribbles out water and mainly wets a solid surface. The fountain could attract birds that might eat some caterpillars.

How many butterflies your garden attracts depends mostly on how many butterflies your see flying around the neighborhood. The small plot will not significantly boost the bfly populations, but any that wander by will be more likely to pause in your yard.

The importing of caterpillars can be tricky and I will leave it to others to comment. The best time to do this is when the hostplant is actively growing and putting out new foliage.

    Bookmark   December 28, 2011 at 10:59PM
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Tbe Asclepias tuberosa is not the best larval host plant for Monarchs, but is a great nectar plant, if you only want to attract nectaring butterflies. Planting larval host plants will draw more butterflies to the garden, but in such a small space, it is probably not practical. You could probably get a few Anise Swallowtails by planting a couple of Fennel or Dill plants.

If you really want Monarchs to find your garden, planting Tropical Milkweed, Swan Milkweed, or Oscar's Milkweed, will certainly get you a few Mama Monarchs to lay eggs. The caterpillars will eat the Milkweed (nothing else, this is their only host), pupate, and you'll have Monarchs flying about. These milkweeds may be perennial in your zone. In my zone they are annuals.

I agree with Larry on the Hot Lips Salvia. I grow it for my hummers. Some of the larger butterflies, such as the Swallowtails, "may" occasionally use it for nectaring, but butterflies and hummingbirds will happily co-exist.

The article I've attached also suggests adding a couple of flat rocks for butterfly basking, and an old bird bath or container fllled with moist sand for "puddling" - they sip the minerals in the moist sand.

If you can add other plants around your garden, you'll be much more likely to attract numerous butterfly species.

Monarchs use milkweed as a larval host, and milkweed blooms attract other butterflies and pollinators.

Anise Swallowtails use Dill, Fennel, Rue, Parsley.

If you have a fence, adding a Pipevine (Aristolochia, but not the species gigantea), will invite the Pipevine Swallowtail to lay eggs.

Adding a Passion Vine (not red bloomers) will attract Gulf Fritillaries.

Google "Butterflies of Sacramento, California" and you'll get lots of information on the species of Lepidoptera found in your location, the host plants the larvae feed on, and favorite nectar plants.

Also recognize that a butterfly friendly garden means absolutely no pesticide use.

Most of all, ENJOY!!!!!


Here is a link that might be useful: Butterfly Gardening in Sacramento

    Bookmark   December 29, 2011 at 7:39AM
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Very nice! I love raised beds. I wish stone wasn't so expensive, I would have more.
For me, asters bloom kind of late and the butterfly numbers are starting to dwindle by then. That may be completely different in California though. I love butterfly weed and salvia. Both have a long bloom time but especially salvia. All your plant choices seem fine to me. You might see a few hummingbirds too.
If you decide to add more host plants for the caterpillars later, they wouldn't have to be right next to your flowers. You can tuck them somewhere else. I would stick to long-bloomers in the raised bed if that's a sunny focal spot in your yard. Butterflies will still lay eggs on host plants if they're in the shade but they like their nectar plants (flowers) in the sun.

    Bookmark   December 29, 2011 at 8:40AM
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Thank you for all the wonderful advice. It's a lot to digest for a newbie. The butterfly garden is of special significance to my wife and I. We want it to be as successful as possible.

The fountain basically fills up the top rim (about an inch) and then flows down the side of it. It also keeps the ground in front of it moist. I have some smooth river rocks I can put on top of the fountain to allow butterflies a safe harbor for drinking.

I know about the Butterfly Bush growing really big. I actually trimmed it back quite a bit a couple weeks ago. So I think if I trim it back every year it should be ok.

Susan, you mentioned some flat rocks for the butterflies to bask on. I was aware of this and my thinking was by using the brick as the planter they would serve the same purpose. Do you think that should be sufficient or would I still need some flat rocks? The garden was placed facing East to get the morning sun and protect it in the late afternoon as the sun sets behind the fence.

Here are some of the plants I've been considering. However, I'm unsure on what percentage of host plants to nector plants is a good mix. Does anyone have any suggestions on that?

Nector Plants
Aster (Aster spp.)
Butterfly Bush (Buddleia spp.)
Common Milkweed (Asclepias syriaca)
Goldenrod (Solidago spp.)*
Coneflowers (Echinacea purpurea)

Host Plants
Hollyhock (Alcea rosea)
Mallow (Malva spp.)
False Nettle (Boehmeria cylindrica)*
Willow (Salix)

    Bookmark   December 29, 2011 at 7:36PM
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Butterflies will not drink out of your fountain, harbor rocks or not, but the dampened ground at the fountain base is the key. Keep some mineral-rich sand, powdered greenstone, etc., on the ground there.

Keeping a species butterfly bush in check and from re-seeding in a small, open-dirt area: Good luck!

It's mainly a matter of space. Your plant list would fill several of your raised structures. What looks cute and tidy when newly planted quickly becomes a "shoe-horned" garden. The butterflies don't care, but in any collection of closely-space plants, one or two will eventually dominate the others.

    Bookmark   December 29, 2011 at 10:57PM
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terrene(5b MA)

One of the milkweeds is essential for a butterfly garden, however Asclepias syriaca, common milkweed, is a great Monarch host plant but not a very good garden plant. This is because it seems to grow and spreads by runners pretty much where it wants. I have tried to grow it from seed, with little success, and have tried to transplant it OUT of gardens where it insists on growing, also with little success. So I let it grow where it wants, LOL, because every year my small patches attract more than a few egg-laying females.

Perhaps Asclepias speciosa, a very common western species, is better behaved in the garden? Or you could go with Asclepias curassavica - one of the prettier milkweeds, easy to grow from seed, and the foliage has a high cardiac glycoside content for the Monarch larvae.

Echinacea purpurea is a stalwart nectar plant, and one of the prettiest perennials out there. However, the nectar plants most visited in my gardens are the tropical annuals such as tall Zinnia elegans cultivars, and Tithonia rotundifolia.

    Bookmark   December 31, 2011 at 3:17AM
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What species/cultivar/hybrid Butterfly Bush did you plant? I see you say it is Buddleia davidii, but there are lots of hybrids out there. Not all are thugs. Depends on the variety you planted.

Depending on the kind of Aster you're growing, some Aster species serve as a larval host for various checkerspots and crescents in California. Some species of Aster are definite bullies in a garden and as Larry_Gene said, will quickly overtake your other plants. Your Creeping Phlox, for instance, may be at risk by the other larger plants surrounding it.

Milkweed species native to California include Asclepias eriocarpa, A. fascularis (narrow leaf milkweed), A. speciosa (showy milkweed, as Terrene mentioned), A. cordifolia (heartleaf or purple milkweed), A. californica (as the name implies, Califoria milkweed), A. vestita (wooly milkweed), A. eriocarpa (woolypod milkweed). Seeds may be hard to find. One source I know of is Milkweed Farms. Las Pillitas has a nursery in Santa Margarita, and another one in Escondido. Don't know if you are within comfortable driving distance to these nurseries or not. It would be well worth the trip. Las Pallitos has a humongous Salvia collection, too. You can get mail order, too, I believe. Check out their website at

As to the rock, you can use a decorative stepping stone as a basking rock, which would be attractive in your garden bed.

To your host plant list, you may want to consider adding a couple of milkweed species, and perhaps at least one of the vines I mentioned, Passion Vine for the Gulf Frits, or Pipevine (Aristolochia) for the Pipevine Swallowtails. I see there is a fence along the back of the raised bed. You could put it to the right of the bed, and fix up something for the vines to climb up along the fence. P. incarnata is pretty invasive, so one of the blue or white flowering cultivars (I mentioned 'Lavendar Lady', but P. caerulea would be another good one, with white flowers), or others that are hardy in your zone. Check some out at Grassy Knoll Exotic Plants at They carry at least 120 varieties and have an excellent rating on that "other website". If MissSherry comes in here, she can give you info on what grows well for her.

Aristolochias can be difficult to find as well, and you would want to make sure you don't purchase A. gigantea, which is toxic to the Pipevine caterpillars. There is a native pipevine, A. californica. You can probably find this at a native plant nursery in your area. It is a typical perennial in that 1st year sleeps, 2nd year creeps, 3rd year leaps, so don't plan on it growing large enough to support many caterpillars for 3 years at least. These two butterflies are big, bold, and beautiful.

Be sure to check out our FAQ pages, too, for more info on nectar plants, host plants, sources for seeds and plants, and info on raising caterpillars if you are interested.


Here is a link that might be useful: Xerces Society Article on California Native Milkweeds

    Bookmark   January 1, 2012 at 10:31AM
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8 x 5 is actually a very small area for a butterfly garden, but it's a good start. I agree with others. If your buddleia is a standard size - take it out and move it somewhere else - it will get too large.

Butterfly Weed takes a long time to get established and doesn't get that big. I'd replace it with annual tropical milkweed.

Asters get VERY big also and flop over - I'd take them out.
Lavender also has never been a good attractor for me.

For an area this small you might try to specialze - like black swallowtails - they like parsley, dill, fennel, rue as host plants.

Also download my FREE book - it will give you a good start

Here is a link that might be useful: Free Butterfly Gardening book

    Bookmark   January 1, 2012 at 10:42AM
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Butterflyman - I think it depends on the area of the country as to what attracts butterflies to nectar. Lavendar is excellent in my garden - the Buckeyes especially love it. Sometimes the butterflies preferences just change from year to year - one year they love the coneflowers and the next year they don't in my yard. Definite attractors in my yard are Verbena bonariensis, Zinnias, Lantana, Cosmic Orange Cosmos, and Tropical Milkweed. I am minus the Lantana right now. Need to get a new 'Miss Huff'. The hummers love these nectar rich plants, too.

Butterflyman, thanks for posting the link to your book. I've downloaded it and read part of it with the intent to read all of it. One thing confuses me, though. On page 19 regarding your border, you say you use Roundup to control the grass and weeds at the edge of the border. On Page 45, of your "commandments" warns us not to use any chemicals at all. I don't use any at all. so am not worried about me. Do you not think that gives a mixed message of sorts? Roundup is one of the deadliest chemicals and I would not advise anyone to use it at all. I worry about the potential drifting of Roundup to other plants. You might want to add a disclaimer to use it only on a calm day, and to cover plants close by, if a gardener is intent on using it at all. Just a thought.


    Bookmark   January 1, 2012 at 9:09PM
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Thanks for the information and links. Definitely some good reading here.

The picture of my original design was a work in progress. I had several of the plants others have recommended such as the milkweeds down, just not in the design yet. I've since revised my design taking into account the limited space and recommendations.

I know it's going to be a cramped space and perhaps a little unconventional. But I'm trying to put plants in that are going to attract the largest number of butterflies. If I find it gets too overgrown I can always prune them back in the winter or worst comes to worst pull one or two out. I do have room on both sides of the garden for potted plants and the back fence for vines. I'll also be putting up bamboo along the back fence to give it a nice look.

I have a couple of specific questions...

What's considered a good mix of host to nectar plants to have? I'd love to maintain the whole life cycle or as closely to it as we can.

For the front open area I'm thinking about smaller / low profile plants (i.e. Daisies, purple coneflowers, zinnias and golden rods) and ground cover. Does anyone have suggestions on ground cover if even needed? Along the permitter we'd incorporate the butterfly friendly herbs. Does that sound appropriate of should I re-think that.

Also, do butterflies really use butterfly houses? My parents bought us one for Christmas from Nature's Touch.

Thanks again for all the info and help. I hope I'm not being too draining with all my questions.

    Bookmark   January 2, 2012 at 2:17PM
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It is the low season on this forum and we are recharged for the New Year, so your questions are just fine.

Butterfly houses: No. Good reason to install it: You just like the way it looks. Good reason not to: Your parents are amenable to having it exchanged for something more practical.

    Bookmark   January 2, 2012 at 10:47PM
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Concurring with Larry, I now see there are butterfly FEEDERs out there on the market. A much better purchase than a house, that the BFs won't use. Some butterflies do not nectar, or nectar very little on flowers. They prefer very ripe and/or rotting fruit. I feed mine bananas when they get overripe. I use a suet feeder that I can hang so it is not accessible to the ground critters. There are colorful plastic ones you can buy, or ones you can make (see FAQs for instructions), or you can purchase a suet feeder that you can purchase at Walmart for a couple of bucks.

Butterflies that feed on fruit include Red Admirals, Hackberry Emperors, Mourning Cloaks, Lorquin's and Weidermeier Admirals. Maybe some of our California members will come in with an accurate list of California fruit-feeding butterflies. It's kind of out of my realm of familiarity. You may get some, and not all of those I've listed.

A groundcover, I really don't know. Maybe Pussytoes, or Antennaria. It is also a larval host for the American Lady butterfly. Very drought tolerant.

Not sure about ration of host plants to nectar plants either. I probably have a few more nectar plants than I do host plants. But, many host plants serve as great nectar plants, too, like Tropical Milkweed, and other milkweeds, for instance.


    Bookmark   January 3, 2012 at 12:22AM
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I also live in Sacramento and have been gardening for butterflies for many years.I have many types of host plant seeds I would be happy to share (mostly milkweed varieties).I also have 1 and 2 year old asclepias curassavica(tropical milkweed)and aristolochia californica(dutchmans pipevine)in pots. Go to my member page and e-mail me if you are intrested. Jim

    Bookmark   January 25, 2012 at 3:25PM
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I constructed a raised butterfly garden last year, out of cedar wood planks. It's 8'x10', as space is limited, I'm in a mobile home. It's been very successful. I planted 3 petite Butterfly Bushes, 2 blue, the other lavendar. The Monarchs absolutly love them! I'll be adding more this year. I got them from Loewes for under $20 each. I bought Zinnias in a hanging plant for $5. It didn't do well, so I transplanted it into the garden where it thrived. It turned out to be the unexpected focal point. I also planted Black Eyed Susans, Roxy Fox Glove, Galardia, Salvia, Coreospis, Phlox, Bee Balm, Purple Coneflower & Tuberosa Milkweed. I won't know how they like the Milkweed until this summer, it was very small last year, but I already plan on adding more, it's very pretty. I'm rearranging & adding their favorites after seeing which plants they liked the most. We had Monarchs, Red Admirals, a Fritillary and 3 other kinds that I haven't identified yet. I'm going to try Meadow Laitris this year, it's supposed to be a butterfly magnet. Your garden is small but will be very sucessful with the right plants. Try a small planting at first, then add more as you see which plants they prefer. I suggest planting several each of Coreospis, Zinnias & Butterfly Weed, & Milkweed for the Monarch to lay her eggs on. You won't go wrong with these favorites, they are guaranteed to attract butterflies.

    Bookmark   March 11, 2012 at 7:37PM
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