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All About Perennial Butterfly Gardens


A successful butterfly garden has plants that meet butterfly's needs during all four life stages, the egg, caterpillar, chrysalis, and adult. Butterflies and moths undergo complete metamorphosis in which they go through these four different stages:

  • Egg - A butterfly starts its life as an egg.
  • Larva - The larva (caterpillar) hatches from an egg and eats leaves or flowers almost constantly. The caterpillar molts (loses its old skin) many times as it grows.
  • Pupa - It turns into a pupa (chrysalis); this is a resting stage.
  • Adult - A beautiful, flying adult emerges. There is no growth during this stage. This adult will continue the cycle and reproduce.

You can attract butterflies to your garden by providing them with food (plants and flowers), water, shelter, and places to lay their eggs (host plants). Butterflies drink nectar, so growing nectar-rich flowers will attract butterflies to your garden. Also, when their eggs hatch, the caterpillars eat the foliage of the plant they were laid on, so growing the right type of plants to feed caterpillars is important, since it will allow female butterflies to lay their eggs in your garden.

There are two different functions that plants serve for butterflies: nectaring plants, plants that the butterflies will sip nectar from, and host plants, species specific plants that they will lay their eggs on.

Most butterflies only eat flower nectar. Different species of butterfly usually prefer different flowers, but they will generally feed on many types of flowers from plants, shrubs, vines, and trees.

When it comes to laying their eggs, however, butterflies only lay them on the plant that the caterpillar will eventually eat (this differs from species to species). The eggs are frequently laid on the underside of leaves.

Caterpillars mostly eat leaves; usually the leaves that they were laid on. Plants will grow foliage back.



Host Plants - The first step is to determine which species thrive in your area, then determine what host plant the butterfly needs. Many of the host plants are found in the wild so don't worry too much about incorporating these into your garden if you can't find them. The following is a listing of butterfly families that live in or visit Georgia and the host plants they need:

  • Swallowtails (Family Papilionidae) - snake root, parsley, carrots, parsnips, fennel to name a few
  • Whites and Sulphurs (Family Pieridae) - sassia, and the pea family, wild senna, mustards to name a few
  • Gossamer-wing Butterflies (Family Lycaenidae) - witchazel, sheep sorrel, curled dock, mistletoe, wild plum to name a few
    Metalmarks (Family Riodinidae) - yellow thistle
  • Brush-footed Butterflies (Family Nymphalidae) - hackberry, passion vine, violets, purslane, and sedums to name a few
  • Skippers (Family Hesperiidae) - wisteria

For a more complete listing of butterfly species of Georgia and further more extensive detail information about all the sub-families, what they eat, and host plants visit: USGS 'Butterflies of Georgia'

Nectar Producing Plants
- These plants are much easier to find. We sell many species and varieties of butterfly attracting plants. We call the best ones 'butterfly magnets'.

Buddleia (pronounced BUD-lee-ah), also called 'butterfly bush', is one of the most popular selections for butterfly gardens. It produces an abundance of elongated cone-shaped blossoms whose sweet nectar attracts many species of butterflies, moths, hummingbirds, and bees. This easy-to-grow deciduous shrub blooms from mid to late summer and is a magnet for many butterflies. There are many different varieties of butterfly bush available.
'Miss Huff's Hardy' Lantana (left) attracts and feeds more butterflies than any plant we know of. Most lantanas are annuals or tender perennials at best but this one has come back for 17 years in our front bed at the nursery. Just remember not to prune it during the fall or winter. Doing so will ensure death of the plant. Prune back in spring just after new grwoth begins to emerge. Remove all dead stems.


To view a complete listing of other hardy plants for Zone 8 that are attractive to butterflies visit Perennials For Butterflies.


Planning Your Butterfly Garden

Plan your garden so that there are flowers much of the year - so that there is a steady supply of nectar for the butterflies.

We have provided a few Free Butterfly Garden Designs using some of the most hardy and attractive 'butterfly magnets'. Use the plans as they are or take ideas from them and design your own.

If you can find a site on your property that provides full sun in one area and some afternnon shade in another, the butterflies will appreciate this. Butterflies like to feed in cooler places during the hottest part of the day in summer. Some of the plants in our Perennials For Butterflies section tolerate afternoon shade.


Planting Your Perennial Butterfly Garden

There are different methods for planting butterfly perennials in the garden. Visit Instructions For Planting Perennials to find the way we like to plant them.

Some folks say its best to till up the entire garden area, however, we've found that this usually brings lots of buried weeds seeds to the surface and also promotes invasiveness of certain types of perennials. Of course, you can till the entire area if you like. We prefer not to disturb all the soil in the garden. Instead we do the following:

  • Plot the perimeter of the garden out with marker paint, flour or a garden hose.
  • Then spray to kill any existing weeds or grass in the area with Killzall Super Concentrate (you'll have to wait a week or so to make sure you killed all the weeds). Respray if necessary. For tough to kill grass such as burmuda you should use Over-The-Top spray by Fertilome.
  • While waiting the week or so for the weeds to die use this time to develop a plan by investigating what kinds of butterfly perennials you want to see in your garden. While investigating make sure to write down a list of perennials that you like. Note height and width so that you'll know how to space them in the garden.
  • Once all the weeds are dead cut the dead growth away with a lawn mower or weed eater. Now you are ready to begin planting.
  • Before planting, arrange the plants you have selected and purchased in the garden area placing taller varieties (48"' + height) towards the back (Center if the garden will be viewed from all sides). Place mid-size plants (18-48' height) in front or nestled bewteen taller ones. (Ouside and around taller plants in gardens that will be viewed from all sides.) Place lower plants at the front, or along the outside edge of the bed. NOTE: When setting the plants out in the bed make sure to space them properly. If a plant grows 18 inches wide mark out a circle on the ground with an 18" diameter (orange marker paint works great for this.) Set the plant in the center of the circle. After placing all of the plants step back to take a look.
  • When you are satisfied that everything is in place, remove one plant at a time from its container and plant it. For planting, dig holes three times or more as wide as the container the plant came in. Mix in a good soil ammendment such as Claycutter or mushroom compost at a 50/50 ratio with the soil removed from the hole. Add a little Bloom Start flower fertilzer to the mix.
  • Give your newly planted perennials a good soaking when you have finished planting them.
  • Mulch the garden with pinestraw or wood mulch. We prefer wood mulch at about an inch deep or so.
  • Make sure you check every day for a period of two weeks to see if plants need water.

The base of your perennial butterfly garden is now complete. The first year, you might want to plant some annuals here and there in the garden for extra-added season-long color.


Maintaining Your Buttefly Garden

Summer Care of the Butterfly Garden - Your butterfly garden will need attention throughout the growing season. Weed control and provision for adequate moisture are two important cultural necessities.

When rainfall is less than 1 inch per week, provide additional moisture to the plants that are not drought tolerant. You will be happy to find that many of the perennials in our Perennials For Butterflies listing are extremely drought tolerant.

The use of a mulch is an attractive and effective means of controlling weeds and maintaining constant soil moisture and temperature for the root systems of your plants. Mulches that you might consider include bark chips or shredded bark. Mulch should be applied at least 2 inches deep.

NOTE: Perennial Rock Gardens will require less maintenance as most of these types of plants are extremely drought tolerant.

Fertilization - Fertilize your butterfly plants about every 6 to 8 weeks during the growing season with a good granular flower food such as Bloom Start. If you make your own compost you can substitute fertilizer with it. Discontinue fertilization in late summer to allow the plants to go into dormancy for the winter.

Pruning and Deadheading - You may deadhead (remove spent or faded flowers) all season long. Deadheading encourages the development of new flowers. In late fall or early winter, when your perennials have died back, you may remove dead foliage.

WARNING: Do not prune back Lantanas in the Fall, doing so will ensure death of the plant. Wait until spring when new growth begins to emerge to prune back Lantanas. At this time prune them back to just above where new growth has stopped emerging.

After cuting back dead foliage you may want to winterize your perennial garden by applying an inch or two of loose mulch over the perennials.


Do not use insecticides in your garden! They will kill butterflies and caterpillars.


Perennials For Butterflies

Instructions For Planting Perennials

Free Butterfly Garden Designs

For a more complete listing of butterfly species of Georgia and further more extensive detail information about all the sub-families, what they eat, and host plants visit: USGS Butterflies of Georgia




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