Plant a Garden to Attract Butterflies -in a Pot!

March 1, 2024

If you create a planter for the butterflies you will accomplish two good things! You can plant a functional garden to attract butterflies in a pot.

  • Feed the pollinators- we need them to grow our food
  • You will enjoy watching them at work

Your Goal

Your goal is to bring beneficial butterflies, birds, and bees to your planter. Today we are planting for butterflies, they perform about 20% of all pollination and add beauty to our homes.

They are called “beauty with a purpose” because while we enjoy looking at them as they are carrying pollen from plant to plant and helping fruits, vegetables, and flowers to create new seeds. No pollinators-no breakfast!

You Will Find Enough Butterflies!

Finding enough beautiful butterflies to inhabit your patio garden is not the problem!

  • There are about 20,000 varieties of butterflies in the world.
  • In North America, you will choose from about 750 species, north of Mexico.
  • If you garden anywhere in the US, you should find about 100 species of butterflies in your general area.
  • If your butterfly planters are in the UK you should be able to see about 59 species.
  • Are you in the Arctic? You will find about 6 varieties of butterflies and interestingly their lifespans are measured in years. That’s old for a butterfly!
  • Sorry, if you are in the Antarctic, you will find no butterflies. But everywhere else in the world you will find butterflies.

The Principles Work Everywhere

The principles of butterfly gardening work everywhere. Butterflies are pollinating in the Arctic and in the Tropics. Wherever there are butterflies, they will need local plants for food and as a place to lay their eggs. They need shelter and clean water.

What Happens in Winter?

Most butterflies survive winter in their egg, caterpillar or pupa form by hibernating in sheltered places such as hollow trees, woodpiles or even underground. Butterflies themselves can hibernate and survive the winter.

The North American Monarch is unique among butterflies in making a bird-like, two-way migration every year. Remarkably, their different generations of butterflies can cover 3000 miles in a year!

In Florida, our 200 varieties of butterflies live and feed for most or all of the year.

How to Choose Plants

The Butterflies need plants for two purposes.

Nectar Plants for food. The butterfly is attracted to the smell and color of your flowers. It has taste buds on its feet which direct it to bring out its proboscis and drink.

Passion Flower-Host Plant

Host Plants to lay eggs on and which will feed the caterpillars. You will see a single, or multiple eggs on the underside of a leaf to show you that the butterfly has been there. The egg will hatch, the tiny caterpillar eats the egg residue and starts right in on the leaf.

The caterpillar has only one job: to EAT! Some can consume as much as 27,000 times their weight. They will shed their skin several times as they grow. Each stage between skin shedding is called an Instar. Finally, they will find a secure place to which they will attach themselves with a little pad of silk, shed the last skin, form a chrysalis and wait to become a butterfly.

What the Butterflies Want

Just Four Things

When the butterflies are hunting for a home they require only four things-but they must find them all in order to stay around.

They are looking for:

  • Nectar to live
  • Host plants for reproduction
  • Shelter from predators and bad weather
  • Water

For as thorough a description as I can produce read this. It is based on my Master Gardener training, reading, and working in our butterfly gardens in a variety of planting zones. “What the Butterflies Want”.

Understanding The Initial Search For Nectar

In Greek Mythology the divine drink of the gods was nectar. It was a crime to steal it! The butterflies feel the same way. They are hunting for nectar.

Based on their size and the length of the proboscis, butterflies will be attracted to various flowers, vines, trees, shrubs, or bulbs. Because they need a steady supply of food, it is good to choose plants that bloom in succession. For container gardening, it is wise to choose flowers with a long blooming season.

The butterflies will seek out flowers of varied colors. Mass the colors, this will be easier for the butterflies to see. A heavier butterfly like the Monarch will land on a flat daisy-like blossom. A butterfly with a long proboscis will seek long tubular flowers. You may get a bonus; hummingbirds are attracted to these same tubular flowers.

Choose a variety of plants. Vary the heights and sizes. Fortunately, if you like the flowers the butterflies are likely to agree. Place your pots in a sunny place, with some protection from wind and, if possible, near bushes to shelter in and clean water.

What You Will Need

  • A planter with a drainage hole. Pick one at least 18″ wide at the top.
  • A good quality potting soil, a slow-release fertilizer designed for blooms and clean water.
  • Some pollinator-friendly plants. See the list below.

Choose a Planter

Size: 18″ in top diameter will allow perhaps, 5-7 plants which will offer variety to the butterflies and look full and attractive to you.

Material: you have three major choices.

Ceramic; decorative, heavy, solid, safe from wind, the sealed finish reduces your need to water frequently.

Terra Cotta, plain or decorated; this material is a good combination of natural, organic appearance and in most cases, is inexpensive. Unglazed, this material requires more frequent watering.

Plastic; slightly more inclined to tip, it is inexpensive, easiest to move and requires less frequent watering.

Do you get hurricanes or other rough weather? We get record breakers!This is what we do in the garden to prepare for hurricanes.

The Potting Mix

We, humans, like planting in pots, it is convenient for us. For the plant, it is not a natural place to live. This means we need to anchor the roots and provide the plants with water, oxygen, and nutrition. The product you want is sold under the names; potting mix or sometimes potting soil. It often contains no actual soil.

Read the Label

The label on the bag of potting mix has the information you need. Look for these ingredients; peat or coir to hold moisture, compost for nutrition, a material to lighten the soil, perlite and vermiculite are often used for this purpose. Some brands will include a starter fertilizer.

Am I buying What I Expected?

Look for this logo on the bag: Mulch and Soil Council Certificate. This will tell you that what it says on the label should be in the bag. This organization tests the potting soil sold in stores. For more information on potting soil and how to use it read this article. Choosing Potting Soil.

Fertilizer and Water

Add to the potting mix in the pot a time-release fertilizer to encourage blooming. A fertilizer to maximize blooms has an NPK ratio of 10-20-10 which should be listed on the container.

Once the plants are established keep a fertilizer schedule. For most flowering annuals you will feed at least every 1-3 weeks.


Once planted, water your pot and enjoy it! Try to utilize plants with similar requirements for sun and moisture. These will perform best. This information will be on the labels at the garden center.


Butterflies are insects! Use only plants produced without insecticides. When buying plants, ask if insecticides were used by the grower. A gardener who avoids insecticides needs to be proactive to keep a healthy garden. Inspect plants frequently. Remove damaged leaves, use water pressure to remove invaders. If you feel you need to use insecticides do so in the evening when the insects you value are not in flight.

How Much Soil-How Many Plants-Per Pot

Pot SizeApproximate Soil Amount # Plants
12″-14″.8-1 Cubic Foot3-5
16″-18″1.5-2.3 “4-7
24″-30″3.8-4.6 “6-8
* These quantities are approximate. Plantings should appear full after 2-3 weeks of growth.

What About Style?

When choosing plants for your pot, vary the mature height and width. The larger growing companies will list this information clearly on the label. Often you can scan the label with your phone for further information. If buying from a small grower, just ask them.

This variety of size will attract butterflies. How you arrange the sizes is up to you.

A full mounding style. If you use plants without very extreme size variations your mature planter will have a solid oval appearance.

Thriller, filler, spiller style. If you like this drama, use in the center, a plant with height, add around it full spreading plants. For the spiller part, use plants that trail down the side of the pot.

infographic attracting butterflies

How to Choose the Plants

To help you succeed I have made a list of suggested plants. These are plants that are often long-lasting in our Florida climate and many are warm-weather annuals, useful, in cooler climates.

The criteria for butterfly gardens in containers are as follows:

  • Compact Plants-these should not outgrow the pot during their lives.
  • Long Blooming Plants-plants which stay in flower for an entire season will require fewer changes in the pot.
  • Accessible plants-these choices should be available in most garden centers.

Plants for Container Butterfly Gardens in South Florida

  1. Dwarf Penta (Penta lanceolata)

    Red, Pink, White, Lavender-Zone 8b-11, 14u0022

  2. Lantana (Lantana depressa)-Pineland Trailing Lantana
    Yellow, N. Zone 8a-11 -1-2′

    Giant Swallowtail, Longtailed Skipper, Monarch

  3. Marigold, Mountain Marigold (Tagetes lemmonii), French Marigold (T. patula), Mexican tarragon (T. lucida), Signet Marigold (T. tenuifolia)

    Medium-sized butterflies can perch on these plants.

  4. Petunia (Petunia x hybrida)
    White, Pinks, Reds, Yellows +Varigated, Zone 8-11.
    Pipevine Swallowtail, Eastern Tiger Swallowtail, etc. Butterflies with Proboscis and Hummingbirds.n


  5. Zinnia

    Reds, Pinks, Yellows, Varigated (use single blooms for butterflies) Annual, plant in fall.
    Monarchs, Swallowtails, Painted Ladies

  6. Scarlet Sage (Salvia coccinea)
    Red, Pinks, White, Zone 9-10.

  7. Vinca (Catharanthus roseus)Periwinkle, Annual, Zones 10-11

    Multiple colors.
    Gulf Fritillary, Various butterflies

  8. Lobelia (Lobelia erinus)

    Blue, Violet, Purple, Red, Pink, often yellow u0026 white eyes. Zone 10-11.
    Upright forms for edging and trailing forms.
    Various butterflies and hummingbirds.

  9. Corky Stemed Passion Vine (Passiflora suberosa) N.

    Green -Zones 8-11.
    Zebra Longwing, Gulf Fritillary, Julia, Variegated Fritillary

  10. Fennel, Parsley, Dill
    Annual Herbs,
    Black Swallowtail, var Swallowtails

  11. Milkweed Tropical-Asclepias curavassica
    Yellow and Red, Zones 8-11

    Monarchs, Queen, Giant Swallowtail

  12. Milkweed-Native for SW Florida

    Asclepias tuberosa, Asclepias perennis (white), Asclepias huministrata (Pinewood milkweed)
    Difficult to find

  13. Coreopsis, Ticckseed (Coreopsis spp.)

    Yellow, Zones 4-10
    Monarchs, Skippers, Buckeyes, Painted Ladies

  14. Begonia (1300 species and hybreds)
    Pink, Red, White, Bicolor Zone 10-11
    Tiger Swallowtail

  15. Citrus
    various, small varieties

  16. Blue Porter Weed-Stachytarpheta jamaicensis
    Blue, Pink
    Gulf Frittilary, Julia, Monarch, Orange Sulphur, red admiral

    This is the Florida native plant, it is about 1′ tall below the blue spire, and does spread. It does well in containers but takes space. You might like to give it its own pot.
    Host plant of the Tropical Buckeye, Nectar Plant for others.

Resources You Can Use:

‘What the Butterflies Want.’

‘The Monarch Butterfly Migration-The Survival of a Species.’

Your County Agricultural Extension Office-put in your zip code.

Your Favorite Local Garden Center- They sell in a very local area and should have accurate knowledge.

NABA-North American Butterfly Association-Check this map for a guide to plants and butterflies for your region.