I took this photo in August of this 2017 at our Pollinator Garden in the Oak Lawn Community Garden. We created this garden in early spring of 2017 in the worse soil imaginable.  This space was used for little league baseball for many many years so it was hard compacted clay with a layer of  sand on top.  Mother nature gives you either one or the other, not both at the same time, at least not here in Oak Lawn, Illinois.   It took volunteers with a lot of stamina and muscles to dig out the design and help install the plants, but using basic design and gardening principles, our garden has thrived.
This is a realistic DIY.  You chose how big or small you want to go. Do you want a pollinator condo or a subdivision?
Step #1 Choosing a Space:   A butterfly garden can bloom in a planter, a window box, or a sunny spot in your yard.  The size and location of your Butterfly Garden will be determined by your space, your budget and where your planter or garden bed will be able to get at least 6 hours of sun a day, from mid morning to mid afternoon.
Step #2 Planter or Garden Bed?  Just because you don’t have the space for a traditional garden bed doesn’t mean you can’t make a welcoming home for butterflies.   Pollinators need just a few basics to make your flowers their go to drive-thru. So long as you have enough sun, some protection from the wind, and enough of their favorite blooms, you’re good to go.
Step #3 Apply Simple Design and Gardening Principles
You need only to follow a few steps for a low maintenance garden that is pleasing to the eye all year round.
–       Prepare your soil with good quality compost. I also add peat moss to a new garden bed. Peat moss binds sandy soil so that it will hold water and nutrients and breaks up clay soil so the water drains and the roots can access the nutrients in the soil.  We added a lot of peat moss to our crappy baseball field soil. Over time the peat moss will help the plants change the condition of the soil so that it will become  rich black loam.
–       Go Native! Native plants adapt quickly to their new home and are perfectly suited for our climate temperatures and changes. They have the added benefit of being very low maintenance once established.
–       Choose plants that bloom in the spring, summer, and fall. Perennials can also provide winter interest if you wait until early spring to cut them back. The seed heads of the plants provide food for birds, especially cone flowers and black eyed susans.
–       Layer your plants with tall plants in the back of the garden, mid-size in the middle, and, you guessed it, smaller plants in the front. That goes for annuals and perennials.
–       Group the same plants in 3’s, 5’s, and 7’s. Go for mass plantings in the same color for a visual punch.   You can add what we call a Specimen plant, which is a single plant instead of a group, as an eye catcher. The Specimen can be a single flowering bush or a large perennial grass, planted as the centerpiece of the garden. You would then plant the remainder of the plants around or in front of the Specimen plant.
–       Add good quality organic fertilizer to your new garden if your soil is hard.  This will support your plant’s growth until the roots can suck up the good stuff from your soil on their own.  Then cover the bare soil with 3 inches of mulch to keep out the weeds, hold in the water on hot days, and protect tender roots through the winter months.  Check your garden each spring to see if you need to add more mulch.
–       Water your new garden regularly the first couple of years, making sure even in the winter the new plants have water. If we have a dry winter check the plants to make sure the freeze-thaw cycle hasn’t pushed the roots out (this is called Heaving). If this happens, put them back in, push the mulch back over the roots and Water!! My rule of thumb for a new garden or just a new plant, is to water it each day the first week it is planted, then every other day the second week, every third day the third week and then once a week after that until November. This will insure the roots have grown strong enough for the plant to make it through the winter. Then, hope that it snows!
Step #4 – Choosing your plants
Now that you know the basics, it’s time to go shopping. Use the Butterfly Plant List to create your planting plan and your shopping list.  Remember that if you use Native Plants, you will make your life easier.  After two growing seasons, your garden should not need any fertilizer or water. In fact most native perennials will need no extra help after the first year.
Here is a list of natives for Illinois, Zone 5 which you can use as a shopping list. If you are not in our planting Zone, you can access your state’s university Extension  website for a list of natives. For example, in Illinois go to extension.illinois.edu.  You can also access the master gardener websites for all 50 states and 6 provinces in Canada for questions on native plants.


Whether you are adding to an existing garden, or starting new, here are a few tips to help you choose your plants.  Butterflies prefer red, yellow, orange, pink and purple blossoms that are flat topped or clustered and have short flower tubes.  Group the same plants together to make it easier for the butterflies to find and to create a beautiful mass of color.

Annuals – 

Sweet Alyssum – It is small, but mighty, with a beautiful scent. Use Alyssum as a border plant. An added benefit to Alyssum is that it will often self-sow, meaning once it goes to seed, if you don’t cut it back right away, it will spread it seeds and start growing new plants the following spring.
Marigold –Marigolds come in many sizes – very small to vary large and are sooooo easy to grow by seed.
Zinnia – These also come in many sizes, small to large, and are compact so make a good border plant. These also are easy to grow by seed.
Ageratum – small compact plant best used in containers
Bachelor’s Button – Their clear blue hue & rich nectar is prized by many different types of butterflies.
Cosmos –large billowy orange flowers, good for middle to back of the bed.
Nicotiana – flowering tobacco – great for containers.
Calendula- (Pot Marigold) 1-2ft tall with 6inch yellow to orange blooms.
Mexican Sunflower – 4-6ft tall, vibrant red, orange or yellow blooms. Easy to grow by seed, also large bright and billowy.
Snap Dragons – my personal favorites, come in many sizes, many colors and even different textures.

Perennials – there are soooo many to choose from!

Dianthus – 6in tall, grows in clusters, blooms mid-spring through fall if it is regularly dead-headed.  If you buy the Dianthus that is sold as an annual, it will come back next spring, even in pots!!!
Nasturtium-small compact plant that blooms all summer and comes in a variety of colors and they’re edible.
Blue Asters –18 inches to 2 ft  Compact blue flowers bloom Aug-Oct
Cat Mint –  18inches to 2ft Purple flowers that bloom Mid-Season
Coreopsis Moonbeam  – 18inches, has small yellow daisy-like blooms from mid to late summer.
Coreopsis Ticksead – 18 inch Clumps, medium yellow flowers, blooms all summer if dead headed.
Day Lillies – 1 to 2 ft tall, comes in many colors, drought resistant
Lavender – 1ft to 18 inch tall, small purple flowers that bloom in mid summer. Needs well drained soil
Yarrow-18inches to 2 ft, blooms June through Sept, comes in many colors, most popular yellow and pink
Sedum Autumn Joy – 2ftx2ft – blooms in the fall, and so easy to grow that it will establish its roots and double it’s size in one year. You can root cutting of this plant in a glass of water. So if you are a patient gardener, you can fill your garden and pots with freebies for years off of one plant, or off your neighbors.
Purple Coneflower (Echinacea) – 2-3 ft tall, drought resistant
Butterfly Weed – 2ft x 2ft bright orange flowers blooms July-August with cool seed pods in the fall
Globe Thistle– 2-4ft tall, blue thistle flowers bloom from July-August
Golden Rod – 2-4ft tall golden yellow fronds that bloom in late summer
Liatris (Prairie Blazing Star) -3-5ft tall, purple blooms July to Aug, spectacular in the back of  the garden
Bee Balm (Monarda) 2-3ft, tubular red flowers in dense clusters bloom July-Sept.
Phlox –Spring bloomers are low mounding and make great borders, Mid-Summer bloomers are 2-4ft tall
Delphinium– 12-14 inches, deep blue blossoms blue
Milkweed – 3ft tall , orange, red and yellow blooms from late spring to midsummer. Milkweed has really cool seed pods. They look almost alien.
Joe Pye Weed – 4-8feet tall. Large heads of rosy pink flowers on purple stalks bloom Aug-Oct
The number of flowers to choose from can be overwhelming.  To start, keep it simple. Chose just a few plants in your favorite colors, in different sizes and bloom times.  Over time you can swap out the plants or add more.  Remember to plant the same flowers together to catch the butterflies’ attention, grouping the plants in  3’s, 5’s and 7’s. That should help you narrow down your choices.
One more photo from our Butterfly Garden. That is my 80 year old Mom, Mae, chillin on the bench. Shout out to her for all her help in the garden this year. I hope I’m still gardening at 80.  You rock Mom!!

Send us photos of your Butterfly Gardens and their visitors!!!


  1. Anne says:

    Thanks. I enjoyed our time together in your garden. Love you. Mom

  2. Love you too Mom. You’re an inspiration.

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