When my friend told me that the butterflies in her garden were one of her great joys during the pandemic, I was a bit envious. She had a home with a yard, whereas I lived in an urban apartment with a small balcony. I didn’t think I had the space to create an enticing setting for butterflies.
I’m also sorely lacking in gardening skills, which hampered my confidence. But when we moved across town to a home with a modest patch of earth, I made it a goal to grow plants that would attract butterflies and other beautiful creatures.
Before I got started, I sought some help from experts. I spoke with Janet Draper, the horticulturist for the Smithsonian Institution’s Mary Livingston Ripley Garden since 1997. The first thing I learned is that I shouldn’t have waited. Her mantra is to plant something now, today. “Seriously, anything that has a flower will attract butterflies and help support other insects also. Even a pot on a patio can support our insect population,” she says.
Although many people rightfully associate spring with planting, Draper says fall is also an opportune time, because it offers plants the winter to settle into their new environment. She cautions, though, that those planting in containers should select varieties that can survive a couple of zones colder than your locations to ensure the plants will survive the winter. “Anything in a pot will get colder than in the ground due to smaller soil mass,” Draper says.
All of the experts I spoke with favor using native plants whenever possible. Kimberly Brown, of New Moon Nursery in New Jersey, likes to call these plants “regionally appropriate.”
They are preferable, Draper says, because they aren’t picky; “they are survivors.” They are easy to grow and will provide beauty while also supporting the entire life cycle of butterflies and insects.
“They also provide sustenance for a variety of other valuable pollinators and invertebrates,” says Neil Diboll, who has championed the use of native plants since 1982, when he started the Wisconsin-based Prairie Nursery. They require fewer fertilizers and pesticides and less irrigation, making them both economical and ecological, he adds.
But where to start? Here are some specific plants recommended by experts, based on how much space you have for your pollinator garden.
For a balcony
Brown and her husband, James, started their wholesale propagation business specializing in native plants in 2003. For those who only have room for pots or hanging planters, she suggests small, drought-tolerant plants.
On a sun-soaked balcony (a minimum of six hours of direct sunlight per day), Brown recommends using nodding onion (Allium cernuum), host to the hairstreak butterfly caterpillar; the black-eyed Susan called American Gold Rush (Rudbeckia fulgida), highly attractive to butterflies; blazing star (Liatris spicata), a host plant for the flower moth; wine cups (Callirhoe involucrata), a host plant for gray hairstreak and checkered skipper butterflies; and lanceleaf tickseed (Coreopsis lanceolata), which attracts a variety of butterflies.
Horticulturalist Janet Davis, of Hill House Farm & Nursery in Castleton, Virginia, says bigger is better when it comes to pots, because too-small containers could restrict roots and require more watering. (Go for something at least 16 inches in diameter.) The less-expensive faux concrete or clay pots made of resin are fine, she says; if you want pricier glazed pots, keep an eye out for fall sales.
For a sunny balcony, Davis likes “meadow-in-a-pot” ensembles, such as Jeana garden phlox (Phlox paniculata ‘Jeana’); butterfly milkweed (Asclepias tuberosa); and Small’s beardtongue (Penstemon smallii). If your balcony is more shaded, try filling a pot with native larkspur (Delphinium exaltatum), heart-leaf skullcap (Scutellaria ovata) and mountain sedge or Appalachian sedge (Carex appalachica).
If you want to add an ornamental grass to the mix, Brown recommends prairie junegrass (Koeleria macrantha), which can attract skipper butterflies and songbirds.
For a small yard
Diboll recommends anchoring your back border with tall ironweed (Vernonia gigantea) and the marsh (red) milkweed (Asclepias incarnata), a favorite food source for the monarch butterfly caterpillar. For the front border, include the butterfly milkweed (Asclepias tuberosa), another host plant for monarch caterpillars, though butterflies of all sorts love the flowers for nectar, he says. In the middle section, incorporate red bee balm (Monarda didyma) and bergamot (Monarda fistulosa).
If you have room for a sunny 4-by-8-foot plot, Davis loves the combination of dwarf switch grass (Panicum virgatum ‘Shenandoah’), black-eyed Susan (Rudbeckia fulgida) and blazing star (Liatris spicata). For a shadier yard, she recommends blue wood sedge (Carex flaccosperma), golden Alexanders (Zizia aurea) and Virginia bluebells (Mertensia virginica). She suggests using two to four species to create a mini-meadow, adding that it’s essential to use a grass or sedge for the framework.
Besides freely incorporating plants that also work in containers, for small backyard spaces, Brown says to explore plants that grow too tall and wide for pots. Those would include the anise hyssop (Agastache foeniculum), which she says is “long-blooming and wildly attractive to pollinators and hummingbirds.” To attract and support the silvery checkerspot butterfly, she suggests various types of aromatic asters (Aster oblongifolius and its cultivars Raydon’s Favorite and October Skies). Coneflowers, a popular native plant in Zones 4 through 9, are another easy-to-grow option, she says.
In addition to plants already mentioned, Draper, who previously served as president of the Perennial Plant Association, is a fan of the White Cloud calamint, which, she says, attracts a wide diversity of pollinators and is usually abuzz with activity.
For a large yard
If space isn’t an issue, Davis suggests using a flexible garden hose to map out the size and shape of your pollinator garden, including curved lines. She cites English landscape designer William Kent, who famously said “nature abhors a straight line.” Before choosing plants, consider height, species and temporal diversity to ensure an exciting assortment that blooms and offers habitat at different times of year.
In addition to the plants that work in smaller yards, a large yard will do well with some “vigorous” plants that grow quickly, Draper says. The golden ragwort (Packera aurea) will suit shady environments, she says, while flashy bee balms (Monarda) — which come in funky colors and attract hummingbirds — are perfect for sunnier spots.
Draper says another point to keep in mind is that large spaces benefit from having a big, bold focal point. Draper likes the statuesque panicum grass Cloud Nine for movement and color, and Joe Pye weed (Eupatorium purpureum), because “it can reach 6 to 8 feet tall and be topped with bushel basket-sized heads of tiny pink flowers that draw in butterflies from miles,” she says.
Seeds make a smart choice for expansive properties, says Diboll. “On larger areas, it’s simply not cost effective to put in hundreds or thousands of plants, so people use seed mixes,” he says.