Butterfly and Caterpillar Gardening

by Sharon Peregrine Johnson


In Caterpillars in the Field and Garden, Allen states that “Happily, butterflies are still plentiful throughout much of the United States. However, in the areas where most people live, the urban and suburban population centers, both the diversity of butterfly species and the numbers of individual butterflies have been greatly diminished. The major reason for the reduced numbers of butterflies is that people have destroyed their habitats. Plots of land are replaced by a paved parking lot or the "normal American suburban landscape of a limited palette of non-native shrubs, flowers, and grasses, such as rhododendrons, roses, and lawn grasses that is a sterile environment to butterflies."

This loss of habitat can be changed since "most butterflies are small and do not need vast vistas of wilderness to survive" [Allen].

Why save butterflies?

According to Allen, butterflies are:

  • Early warning indicators of the deterioration of' the environment.
  • Significant actors on the ecological stage.
  • Serve as food for other animals.
  • Act as pollinators of many plants.

Additionally, they represent beauty, freedom, and the human soul to many cultures and civilizations and have a direct positive effect on future generations.


  • Adult food sources/Nectar Plants - In the garden, these are most often plants that provide nectar for adult butterflies.
  • Host plants - Plants that provide a site for the butterfly to lay eggs and a food source for the emerging caterpillar. 
  • Shelter - Woody plants located near the nectar plants will provide butterflies with shelter during bad weather and at night. 
    • Provide windbreaks to shelter butterflies
    • Flat stones on which adult butterflies can bask and warm up.
  • Water - Butterflies cannot drink from open water, but prefer instead prefer very wet sand or soil where they can obtain salts.
  • Pesticides - Treat it manually (if possible). Fire ants are predators on the butterfly larvae and should be controlled using growth hormone treatment (not poisons).

Planning a Successful Butterfly Garden

  1. Be familiar with general gardening techniques.
  2. Determine which species live in your area and which ones you want to attract.
  3. Plan your vegetable garden so that you include sufficient cabbage family plants (cabbage, turnips, broccoli, kale, etc.) and carrot family is (carrots, dill, and parsley) to account for the needs of both your family and butterflies [Opler].
  4. Research - Before you begin planting and determine what species of butterfly you want to attract, which plants to use and how much space is required. Butterfly gardening books, local nurseries, local clubs and organizations, and websites can help you make decisions. Also, ask your local native plant society if there are restrictions on particular plant species in your area.
  5. Select a site – Sunny location with spots for basking, and shelter and rain and sources of fresh water. Mud or sand puddles are used by adult male butterflies to obtain essential salts, needed for reproduction.
  • Allen, T. J., Brock, J. P., & Glassberg, J.(2005) Caterpillars in the field and garden. Oxford: University Press.
  • Central Texas Butterfly Gardening. (2005). Suggestions for making a Butterfly Garden in Central Texas
  • Cowley, M. (2005). Native butterfly gardening. Florida: NSIS.
  • Opler, P. A. , & Wright, A. B. (1999). A Field guide to western butterflies. New York: Houghton Mifflin Co.