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How to Attract Butterflies to Your Garden

Turn your backyard into a flying circus with annuals and perennials that butterflies can’t resist. An Illinois garden offers lessons in wooing nature’s winged wonders.
  • Great spangled fritillary

    Earn your wings

    At the height of summer, Nina and Ron Koziol’s 1-acre garden near Chicago is the O’Hare Airport of butterflies. Majestic monarchs taxi on runways of zinnias, Pentas, milkweed and asters. Super-size swallowtails circle fragrant purple butterfly bush blossoms. Smaller fliers like tortoiseshells, commas, sulphurs, checkerspots and crescents make repeated touch-and-go landings amid beds, borders and containers.

    To attract all the air traffic, Nina relies on blue and violet blooms—natural magnets for pollinators like butterflies that feed on flower nectar. Because most perennials bloom for only a month or so, she plants annuals in beds and pots to ensure color all summer. She also grows species-specific plants for female butterflies to lay their eggs on. The leaves provide food for the larvae that hatch and form chrysalides before morphing into butterflies. Nina says, “Part of the joy of creating a butterfly garden is knowing that we’re helping future populations to thrive.”

    Click ahead to learn more about Nina's and Ron's tips for growing a butterfly-friendly garden. Pictured: A great spangled fritillary fills up on nectar from tall verbena in Nina and Ron's suburban Chicago garden.

  • Up-size a bed

    Up-size a bed

    Butterflies zero in on large beds. This one includes ‘Northwind’ switchgrass, fountain grass and annual flowers.

  • Cosmos

    Grow big blooms

    Many butterflies live only a week or two, so help them make the most of their days. Plants with large, single daisy-type blossoms, such as black-eyed Susans and Mexican sunflowers, let butterflies gather nectar in one spot, which saves them time and energy. Pictured: Cosmos.

  • Container gardens

    Contain yourself

    Back up perennials with potted annuals like red fountain grass, salvia, ‘Stripe Me Pink’ boat lily and ‘Blackie’ sweet potato vine.

  • Dill

    Foster parent

    Create a butterfly nursery by growing favorite food plants for young larvae. Dill (pictured), fennel and parsley are good host plants for caterpillars that will become eastern black swallowtails.

  • Hummingbird food

    Offer free refills

    A hummingbird stops by for sugar water. Butterflies need liquid, too, so provide a shallow dish of wet sand where they can get salt and nutrients not found in nectar.

  • Monarch on tropical milkweed

    Protect offspring

    Keep an eye out for butterflies-to-be. Chrysalides hide on outdoor structures, pots and chairs. And be prudent with pesticides. Many products kill all kinds of caterpillars, destructive or not. (Pictured: Monarch on tropical milkweed.)

  • Bluebird house

    Beckon birds

    Butterfly gardens attract the birds and bees, too. 'Fireworks' rough goldenrod and tall grasses surround a bluebird house.

  • Butterfly-friendly backyard

    Enjoy the show

    Set aside a special spot in your backyard where you can sit and watch the butterflies come and go. This patio seating area gives close-up views of the aerial action.

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