Designing a butterfly garden -

how to create a garden to attract British butterflies

Think of your garden as a restaurant for butterflies.  What are the ingredients that will make them stop to take nectar here rather than the next garden?


The first essential is sunshine. You must place your butterfly plants in the warmest, sunniest spot. Observe which parts of your garden get sunshine for most of the day & plant there. Partially-shaded spots can be used too but most butterflies will only visit when the sun shines on that area.


Butterflies prefer to feed on a plant in a sheltered location. They do not like being buffeted by the wind. Can you plant shrubs to minimise the effects of wind?

Overnight Accommodation

Grow shrubs and climbers to add "height" to the garden. Some butterflies will roost overnight in a good spot and they generally like to be well off the ground. I've watched a Large Skipper settle for the night in the top of the honeysuckle growing over a trellis.

Hanging Baskets also work well. I've witnessed a butterfly climb up under the trailing foliage to roost.

Foodplants for caterpillars

Some wildlife enthusiasts go further and grow the foodplants of the caterpillars. Wildlife gardens on television, often have patches of long grass or meadow. Nettles are also popular as they are the larval foodplant of Small Tortoiseshell, Peacock, Red Admiral and Comma butterflies.


I've grown nettles in pots because I wished to keep my suburban town garden looking neat and tidy. You must find the right balance for you. What do you want from your garden? If, like me, you can see all of your garden from your house, then remember

a wildlife-friendly garden does not need to be wild

It can be just as neat and tidy as any other garden.

Grow the plants that you like and remove plants that you don't. Your personal time is too precious to tend plants that do not appeal to you (which is why there are no roses in my garden!)

Choice of Plant for the type of soil

When designing your butterfly garden, find out whether your soil is acid or alkaline. Some plants are fussy about the acidity of the soil and will die if it is the wrong type for them. Check the plant label or the seed packet for information.


Shrubs are used to give structure to a new garden. The most important shrub for the butterfly-gardener is the Buddleia. Other good shrubs are Choisya, Ceanothus, Ceratostigma, Hebe and Lavender.

If you have a very big garden with acid soil, try Lacecap Hydrangea or Clethra.


Lavender is classed as a herb. There are other herbs which are good butterfly plants: Hyssop, Chives, Thyme, Marjoram and Mint.


Autumn-fruiting Raspberries and Blackberries provide nectar in September. Fallen fruit also appeals to the 'late' butterflies, who get 'drunk' on the fermented juices.


Annuals are plants that do everything in one year. They are valuable for a new butterfly gardener because of their almost instant success. Candytuft and Virginian Stock seed are best sown directly in the ground every few weeks from March to May; neither flowers for long so repeated sowing of seed produces a succession of flowers.

French Marigolds and Strawflowers are half-hardy annuals. The seed is sown indoors and the plants are not placed outside until all danger of frost has passed, usually at the start of June.


The flowering plants that exist over a number of years are called perennials. They usually 'die back' during the winter months. Sedum spectabile, Verbena bonariensis, Red Valerian, Sweet Rocket and Aubrieta are good butterfly-attracting perennials.

Heliotrope, Lobelia and Geranium are tender perennials, which means that they can last for more than one season but they are too tender to survive outside in the British winter; they are often grown like annuals.


Great patience and planning is required for growing biennials, which are sown as seed one year and flower in the following one. These include some very useful butterfly plants: Forget-me-not, Honesty and Sweet Williams.


Many of our cultivated flowering plants are related to some wild form of the same species. Generally, the butterflies prefer the wild form. Some make excellent garden plants such as Field Scabious.

Single flowers

Some cultivated garden plants, for example French Marigolds, come in both single and double-flowered forms. Generally, pick the plant that's nearer to the original wild plant - usually a single-flowered variety - as the plant breeders may have removed the scent or other feature that attracted the butterflies in the wild.


When creating a border, place the taller plants at the back and shorter ones at the front. This means planning your garden design by placing Buddleia and other tall shrubs at the rear with the smaller shrubs, herbs and perennials in front to give a good 'structure'.

Verbena bonariensis is interesting. It is a tall, thin plant with narrow leaves and I have grown it amongst shorter plants as it's profile does not prevent light from reaching them.

Don't forget to leave sufficient space for the plants to spread. When the shrubs and other perennials are young, you can fill the gaps with annuals.


Although it's possible for a single plant to attract butterflies, you will have greater success if you put a clump of plants together. Try 3, 5 or 7 plants of one type together. You need a good splash of colour to attract a butterfly's attention.

For photographers

You can paint fences, walls and other garden structures in many exciting colours. However, bright blobs in the background of your butterfly photographs can ruin your pictures. Butterfly photography and bright paintwork do not mix; use dark brown or green preservative to make the fences blend into the background.


Buying plants

Shrubs and perennials are best bought and planted in the Spring or Autumn. This allows their roots time to settle into the ground before the hot, dry conditions of Summer or the cold of Winter.

2 Small Tortoiseshells on Buddleia at Plant Centre, August 2003

If you are at a Garden Centre or Nursery between March and November on a sunny day, do look out for the butterflies on the plants for sale. Check the labels of those plants to see if they are suitable for your garden.

This page last updated April 14, 2004