Fall Butterfly Garden Tips

Help butterflies get ready to pass the winter safely with these butterfly garden tips for the fall months.

As temperatures shift and you begin to prepare for the cooler months ahead, butterflies are beginning to do the same. Based on the species, butterflies spend the winter in a variety of ways. Some overwinter as adults, tucked into rock crevices or tree bark. Others survive as eggs, larvae, or pupa by hiding away in leaf litter or soil. And some undertake migratory journeys to avoid the cold altogether. These fall butterfly garden tips will help ensure your garden keeps butterflies safe in the months ahead.

Fall Butterfly Garden Tips
In Texas and other areas along the monarch migration corridor, cut back non-native milkweeds like this Tropical Milkweed (Asclepias curassavica) in late summer to encourage monarchs to continue their migration south.

Add late season nectar plants. Butterflies that overwinter as adults will need food right up until cold weather reaches your area consistently and they enter hibernation. (Mourning Cloaks are even known to wake up on mild January days and look for food.) So add late-season nectar plants like aster, goldenrod, and ironweed to your garden. This will also help migrating monarchs keep their strength during their long journey south.

Fallen fruit helps too. Late-season butterflies often prefer fruit to flowers. Leave fallen apples or peaches on the ground or allow them to stay on the tree to provide a food source for these butterflies until winter truly arrives.

In the Central U.S. (especially Texas), cut back non-native milkweeds. Monarch butterflies need milkweed to survive, and recent programs have focused on adding large amounts in their migration corridor from Texas north to Canada. In some areas, though, non-native milkweeds (especially Asclepias curassavica, Tropical Milkweed) have been added, which continue to grow after summer ends. Recent discoveries indicate the presence of these milkweeds may actually stop migrating monarchs in their tracks, causing them to stop to mate and lay eggs rather than continuing south. The caterpillars that hatch from these eggs will be caught by cold weather and die. If you live in the migration corridor, begin cutting back your non-native milkweeds to the ground by September to encourage monarchs to simply pass through on their way to Mexico for the winter.

Leave leaf litter alone and don’t over-tend your garden. Many butterflies and moths use leaf litter to overwinter. Coral Hairstreaks lay their eggs at the base of their host plant in the fall; the eggs hatch in the early spring when new growth begins on the plant. Red-Spotted Purple caterpillars crawl down to shelter in leaf litter beneath their host trees. Many moths pupate just under the soil and wait for spring. When possible, leave leaf litter and plants that have died back in place until spring, rather than stripping your yard bare in the fall. This will allow these butterflies a place to spend the winter.

Brush and rock piles matter. Butterflies that overwinter as adults seek safe shelter in cracks between rocks or loose bark. Rock and brush piles can provide ideal locations. (Skip the so-called “butterfly houses,” though – butterflies rarely choose to use them and they often become homes for wasps instead.)

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Jill Staake
Jill lives in Tampa, Florida, and writes about gardening, butterflies, outdoor projects and birding. When she's not gardening, you'll find her reading, traveling and happily digging her toes into the sand on the beach.