Gardening Help FAQs

Here are answers to some of the most common questions we receive about garden plants. You will find concise information on general gardening techniques as well as plant selection and care. For detailed information on specific plant pests and problems refer to our Common Garden Pests and Problems page.

Do you have additional gardening questions? Please contact us. Here's how.

Horticulture Questions and Answers

How do I plant a butterfly garden?

Butterflies--symbols of beauty, nature, freedom and hope--are universally admired. Unfortunately, rapid urban expansion has caused a dramatic decline in many butterfly populations. You can encourage their survival, and have fun doing so, by planting a butterfly garden.

Butterfly gardening is a concept designed to conserve the natural environment and attract butterflies back into populated areas through native plant gardening. When land is developed, native plants are often destroyed in the construction process and replaced with commercially popular exotic varieties. Because the native butterflies cannot complete their life cycles on the new plants, they are forced to travel further and further away in search of the naturally growing species they need to survive.

Missouri has 200 kinds of butterflies, due to the varied types of wild habitats in the state. All have a life cycle which includes a leaf-eating caterpillar and a free-flying adult butterfly. Both stages need food. Caterpillars eat leaves of certain wild plants, while flying adults eat the sugary nectar from various flowers.

To have butterflies in your yard, there must be food for both adults and their caterpillars nearby. Ideally, you can create or restore areas of natural vegetation around your home, spicing it up with extra flowers and plants which butterflies love.

If you live in the suburbs and there are partially wild forest edges or unmowed fields nearby, you can attract the adult butterflies to your garden simply by planting flowers. They will visit your garden to feed and find mates, but will lay their eggs and complete the rest of their life cycle in nearby weedy fields. If you live near the city, it may be necessary to provide both flowers and larval food plants, unless you live close to unmowed sections of parks or other property. Fortunately, you can attract butterflies simply by planting the right kind of flowers.

There are several considerations in laying out a butterfly garden. First, butterflies will only fly around flowers that grow in bright sun. Choose a site that is sunny most of the day and is sheltered from strong wind. Design the garden with plants clumped in stairstep fashion so that the taller plants do not block sun from the smaller plants. Place a few rocks in the garden in the path of the early morning sun, and you will be rewarded on cool days by butterflies basking there to warm up.

Second, choose a mix of annual and perennial flowering plants which are good sources of nectar for the hungry adult butterflies. Butterflies prefer to alight on a flower which points almost upward; they shy away from sideways and downward-pointing flowers. They prefer flowers with heads of small clumped flowers, or flowers with broad petals which act as landing pads for them to rest while they eat.

Flower color is not critical. Most plants in the daisy family are good choices, but some fancy varieties offered in nurseries (especially the "double" flowers) have little nectar. It is best to stick to the simple varieties. Excellent choices for our area are asters, black-eyed Susan, lantana, blazing star, milkweeds, phlox, thistles, coneflowers, dogbane, zinnias, buttonbush, butterfly bush, and rose verbena.

Third, do not use pesticide dust or sprays. Butterflies are extremely sensitive to insecticides. Yard fogging and mosquito spraying programs take a terrible toll on these beauties.

Finally, get a copy of the booklet Butterfly Gardening and Conservation published by the state Department of Conservation. This has detailed lists of larval and adult food plants, and lists many contacts for further information about butterfly gardening.