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Container Garden Designs to Attract Butterflies

Updated on May 2, 2016
Jeanne Grunert profile image

Jeanne Grunert is a Virginia Master Gardener, gardening magazine columnist, and book author. She is a full-time freelance writer.


Butterfly Gardening in Containers

You can grow beautiful flowers that attract butterflies, also called butterfly gardening, even if you live in a small apartment or have limited space. Using containers to grow plants that attract butterflies offers apartment dwellers and people with limited space the opportunity to try their hand at butterfly gardening. There are many beautiful flowering annuals that offer sweet nectar and host plants for butterfly larvae. The key is to plant attractive containers that also provide butterflies with what they want and need. Anytime you want to attract wildlife to the garden, you must provide them with the elements they need - food, water, shelter, or places to raise their young. When you provide these four items in a way that's attractive to the creature you wish to attract, they will arrive. Butterflies are no exception. Nearly anyone, anywhere in the world can attract beautiful butterflies to the garden.

Lantana is a good container flower that attracts butterflies.
Lantana is a good container flower that attracts butterflies. | Source

Creating a Container Butterfly Garden

To create a container butterfly garden, you must have a sunny location for the container garden. Butterfly plants love full, bright sunshine, which is defined as six or more hours per day of direct sunlight. If your front porch, balcony, patio or deck receives six or more hours of sunlight per day, you can grow a container butterfly garden.

You should choose a container that's both attractive and functional. The container must be large enough to support one or more plants and not dry out quickly in the hot summer sun. Stone, terra cotta, plastic and resin composites all make attractive planters, but each has advantages and disadvantages. Stone and terra cotta are the most expensive containers to purchase. They will also last the longest with the right amount of care, such as emptying them and storing them indoors during the wintertime. Plastic and resin composite containers are lightweight and relatively inexpensive, but they may crack or discolor over time.

No matter what type of container your choose, be sure that it has several drainage holes in the bottom. You must allow excess rainwater a chance to drain through the soil and out of the container. If you don't have drainage holes, be sure to add them before planting your flowers.

Choose a soil mixture or potting mixture from the garden center rather than using garden dirt. Garden dirt may contain microorganisms or insects that can cause diseases on your plants. A layer of pebbles or stones at the bottom of the container followed by soil improves drainage.

Because planters filled with soil are quite heavy, it's a good idea to place your container in the exact spot where you'll want to view it all season long and where it gets the most sunshine before adding rocks, soil and plants. You can also place it on a wheeled dolly or add castors to the planter if you think you will need to move it frequently, but again, do so before adding the heavy ingredients.

A water source nearby and a watering can make it easy and convenient to water your containers. You may need to water your container garden daily during the hot summer months. Always check the soil moisture before watering. Just stick your finger into the soil. If it feels dry, water it. If it's moist and the soil clings to your finger, you probably don't need to water your container.


Choosing Butterfly Garden Flowers for Container Gardens

Many flowering annuals are quite suitable for containerized butterfly gardens. In the United States, these may include:

  • Alyssum - the white, frothy-looking flowers in the top container garden picture are sweet alyssum, an annual flower. Butterflies love this flower and it has an attractive, cascading quality that makes it wonderful for window boxes or in containers with other annuals such as in this example. (This is an actual container I planted this year as a demonstration garden for this article.)
  • Lantana - lantana is a tropical favorite with gorgeous clusters of flowers. It comes in many colors including yellow, pink and a variegated petal such as the one in the example that changes colors as the flower heads mature. Butterflies love lantana and it will probably attract many beautiful butterflies to your container garden.
  • Marigolds - marigolds are easy to grow and great for hot climates. If you tend to forget to water your plants, marigolds are a good choice as they can withstand some drought.
  • Petunias - petunias are good for climates that tend to have cooler evenings in the summer such as New England or some eastern mountain zones. They come in a wide array of colors that go with most any color palette you choose for your container garden.
  • Snapdragons - while not typically thought of as a butterfly garden flower, snapdragons make an attractive accompaniment to traditional butterfly garden flowers. Hummingbirds love them, and that can add another layer of bird watching to your container garden.
  • Zinnias - garden zinnias are an old-fashioned favorite that butterflies love. Choose dwarf varieties for container gardens.

Host plants suitable for container gardens include parsley, which the yellow swallowtail larvae love. Mints and other herbs may also attract butterflies who will use the herb plants as a nursery for their young. If you see caterpillars on your herb garden, you may have a little nursery going in your herb garden. You can safely hand-pick some herbs to enjoy. The caterpillar will share.

Zinnias attract butterflies
Zinnias attract butterflies | Source

Container Garden Ideas: Butterfly Gardens

Planting your container garden to attract butterflies is the last step. Choose the flowering annuals from the list above, and once purchased, grab your trowel and head out to the garden where you have your container. Dig a hole as wide and as deep as the container. Gently slide the plant out of the pot. If it doesn't come out easily, tap the sides of the pot. Never pull by the stem; if the stem breaks you may have injured the plant. A few missing leaves are easy for the plant to repair (it also has more!) but it usually has only one stem. Be gentle when transplanting your flowers.

Arrange the flowers according to height. Window boxes benefit from having a taller plant in the middle. Cascading plants or smaller plants can be arranged on either side. For a round container, choose a taller plant for the center and small or cascading plants around it. Choosing pairs of flowering plants adds symmetry, which creates a pleasing balance to the appearance of the container.

Which colors go together? Nature paints a broad palette with her brush in the wild, but butterflies do tend to go for big drifts of similar colors. A container butterfly garden benefits from like colors in the same container or containers nearby with similar colored flowers. My own container butterfly garden shown in the top picture includes lantana in the center, dark burgundy petunias (which pick up on the pink color in the lantana) and white sweet alyssum. Nearby in a flower bed are pink impatiens and begonias as well as pink zinnias, so the pink and burgundy colors will appear to the butterflies like a mass of like or similarly colored flowers. And while I don't have any host plants in the container, I do have a few parsley plants in a vegetable garden about 30 feet away - and yes, there are butterfly swallowtail caterpillars munching on the parsley as I type this.

After planting your annual flowers, water your container well. You can fertilize with a gentle balanced fertilizer for flowering plants, either a 5-10-5 or a 10-10-10, according to the package directions. Organic gardeners may choose to use a compost tea, seaweed or similar organic fertilizer.

One last word about container butterfly gardens. Like other types of butterfly gardens, it is best if you avoid using pesticides of any kind on your butterfly garden. Butterflies are insects, albeit pretty ones. Any insecticide or chemicals used in the garden to kill bad bugs can also kill the good ones like butterflies. Keep your beautiful butterflies healthy and happy and grow your container butterfly garden organically.


© 2012 Jeanne Grunert


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    • Chantelle Porter profile image

      Chantelle Porter 2 years ago from Chicago

      Interesting idea. I have plants for butterflies but not in containers. Shared.

    • CherylsArt profile image

      Cheryl Paton 3 years ago from West Virginia

      I like the idea of growing some snap dragons for the birds.

    • profile image

      ignugent17 4 years ago

      Thanks for sharing the ideas.

      Voted up and useful. :-)

    • Jeanne Grunert profile image

      Jeanne Grunert 5 years ago from Virginia

      Thanks Cassandra, how nice of you to say so! I appreciate it. I love butterfly gardening and if you choose a few flowers that attract them, you may just see a difference. Enjoy!

    • Cassandra Gregg profile image

      Cassandra Gregg 5 years ago

      Your pictures are just beautiful! We're fortunate enough to live in an area that sees a LOT of butterflies, and even the blossoms in our little veggie plot are enough to attract plenty of pretty little visitors. Looking at how striking they are with your lovely flowers, though, I'm considering making a little spot in this year's garden just for the butterflies.

    • grandmapearl profile image

      Connie Smith 5 years ago from Southern Tier New York State

      I have bookmarked this for future reference. You can be sure I will be planting lots of zinnias next spring for my butterflies. Thanks for reminding me about them. My Mom used to plant loads of zinnias, and she had lots of butterflies flitting about all summer long! Voted Way Up! Also shared.

    • Melis Ann profile image

      Melis Ann 5 years ago from Mom On A Health Hunt

      Love butterflies ~ it's always wonderful to see that they like your garden. This year the butterflies loved my chives when they flowered. Where I live, chives would probably do quite well in a container.

      One tip for keeping containers from getting too heavy is to add packing peanuts for drainage instead of gravel (and not the kind that dissolve in water:).

    • Express10 profile image

      H C Palting 5 years ago from East Coast

      These are very good tips that are easy to follow and beautiful photos.

    • Jeanne Grunert profile image

      Jeanne Grunert 5 years ago from Virginia

      Jojosi, I love them too! Thanks for your kind words. DONNA thank you too!

    • Jojosi profile image

      Gillian Namele 5 years ago from Complicated

      Butterflies, my God! how I love watching them. Good ideas for inviting them to the garden. Great hub. Voted up

    • Jeanne Grunert profile image

      Jeanne Grunert 5 years ago from Virginia

      Hi Dagny, the pink flower is an annual flower called a zinnia. I'm not sure of the type. Thanks for your kind comments.

    • dagny roth profile image

      dagny roth 5 years ago from Neverland

      Hi Jeanne...great hub! I love the photos. What kind of flower is in the last picture (pink) with the butterfly? It's gorgeous!

    • Donna Sundblad profile image

      Donna Sundblad 5 years ago from Georgia

      What a great idea. I never thought of a container garden to attract butterflies. Thanks for all the great information. Voted up!