Small-Space Butterfly Gardens
Containers of nectar-rich blooms attract "flying flowers."
By Kris Wetherbee, Oakland, Oregon
There's no doubt that a container garden can add an instant punch of color to balconies, patios, porches and small yards. But did you know that planting the right selection of flowers can transform these small spaces into culinary havens for butterflies, too?
Imagine the excitement of watching as a myriad of butterflies—from small skippers to sizeable swallowtails—drift from one pot of flowers to another. They'll uncoil their tongues and sip nectar from each bloom...right before your eyes!
Just about any nectar-rich flowering plant, shrub, vine or small tree will grow in a container. Garden centers and nurseries offer a variety of pots and planters in various styles, colors, materials and sizes.
Options include plastic, wood, metal, stone, glazed pottery or clay, as well as lightweight planters made of polyethylene, fiberglass resin or other materials.
And, if you think beyond the confines of a standard pot, you'll uncover a wealth of items to recycle into creative containers. For example, a rustic wash basin, worn wheelbarrow or leaky birdbath can make stylish containers for butterfly plants.
Pots as small as 10 inches in diameter are fine for single plant displays, but 18 inches or larger is best when growing shrubs, trees or multiple plants. Larger containers are also less subject to temperature changes, and because they hold more soil, plant roots stay moist longer.
Whatever container you use, be sure it drains well. If a pot lacks adequate drainage, add holes to the bottom. Elevating containers on pottery feet, bricks, stones or even an upside-down pot also helps improve drainage.
Want to know how to create a stunning plant display? The same design elements that make winning plant combinations for people to enjoy are also essential for attracting butterflies.
The key is to balance unity with variety—having some of the same colors and plant types in a container while still varying the heights, hues and bloom times. This will create multilayered and multi-season container gardens that appeal to many types of butterflies.
Plants arranged at varying heights also draw a diverse crowd of butterflies because they offer nectar flowers at different levels. Achieve this by mixing plants with trailing, bushy and upright growth habits.
For instance, grow a butterfly buffet featuring a chaste tree (Vitex agnus-castus) with catmint and trailing scaevola underneath. Or grow butterfly bush in a container with coral bells and garden verbena or sweet peas spilling over the edge. Garden phlox with candytuft and trailing geraniums (Pelargonium) also make an attractive combination.
If you find that a single tree or shrub looks lonely in its pot, fill it out by adding low-growing or trailing flowers, such as sedums, trailing lantana or verbena.
You can also feature a single species in a container and create the multilayered appeal by grouping several containers at varying heights. Use items like bricks, cement blocks, plant stands, pedestals, wooden stools or upside-down pots to raise the containers.
Blooms for Butterflies
While a flower's color, shape or scent will
attract butterflies to some degree, the biggest draw by far is the bloom's nectar.
Adult butterflies typically have very cosmopolitan tastes, best served with a smorgasbord of nectar-rich flowers, especially those with flower clusters or daisy-like blooms, such as purple coneflower, mums, yarrow and butterfly weed, as well as tubular or bell-shaped flowers.
Not every nectar flower is suitable as food for butterflies. The amount of nectar a flower produces can vary within the species. Sometimes more fanciful double-flowered varieties are bred to impress the eye and not the
appetite. So go with species plants whenever possible, rather than cultivars.
Don't Forget the Caterpillars
In addition to attracting adult butterflies, you can transform any small area into a butterfly nursery. Just grow a few containers of host plants, such as milkweed, mallow or asters. Adult female butterflies lay their eggs on these plants, and young caterpillars feed on them after hatching. Growing caterpillar foods also will bring in more butterflies for longer periods of time. You might even catch sight of species you've never seen before.
Unlike adult butterflies, caterpillars are very picky eaters. As a result, each species seeks out a specific plant or plants for its eggs.
Monarch caterpillars, for example, feed exclusively on milkweed, while skippers mostly feed on grasses, sedges and legumes like wisteria and peas. Host plant preferences can vary within a species. Tiger swallowtails seek out trees like poplars, cherries and tulips, while black and anise swallowtail caterpillars dine on dill, fennel and parsley.
Some winning container combinations to attract several species are milkweed, fennel and grasses; and dogwood and violets with mallow.
With a little planning, you can also make your container garden do double duty. Some nectar sources, like penstemon and nasturtium, also are tasty meals for caterpillars.
Remember that a butterfly container garden isn't limited to patios, decks and entrance areas. Use potted plants to fill in bare spaces in a newly planted perennial bed or garden border. Stagger them on steps, encircle a tree or use them to line a walkway or path. Northern gardeners will need to provide protection for their overwintering plants and shrubs.
One thing is certain: A group of containers in a bright, sunny area can go a long way to providing habitat for butterflies...and a beautiful oasis for you.
Top Butterfly Picks for Containers
- Floss flower
- Globe amaranth
- Moss rose
- Sweet alyssum
- Sweet william
- Butterfly bush
- Butterfly weed
- Purple coneflower
- Sea pink