Gardening for butterflies is actually a two-step process, although you don’t have to participate in both parts of the process if you don’t want to. But remember, the adult butterflies that we see are first caterpillars–and those are the more finicky eaters that you hear about when you hear “monarchs will only eat milkweed,” for example.
It’s actually a little more complicated than that. The monarch caterpillars will only eat milkweed. Adult monarchs will seek nectar from a variety of flower sources. But when adult monarchs go back to lay eggs, again, they seek out milkweed. And again, in different regions of the country, different types of milkweed predominate.
So it’s not just as simple as saying “monarchs eat milkweed.” For more on this complicated–or symbiotic–relationship, take a look at this handout prepared by MonarchWatch.
Other butterflies are equally finicky, if you want to put it that way. Every butterfly that visits your area will have a “host” plant–that’s the plant that the caterpillar form of the butterfly feeds on, as well as nectar plants that they prefer (although they are not as fussy about those)
This awesome list of resources from Prairie Nursery lists host plants for a wide range of butterflies as well as additional resources to find out more.
What else is good for butterflies? In general, sunny spots that are protected from wind and protected from their predators, the birds–so that means no birdhouses in the butterfly garden. Birds love caterpillars, remember!
Make a “puddling” area for them to get water. This is even more shallow than the places where bees drink–if possible, it’s just a wet spot on the ground where they can absorb moisture and even salts from the earth. That can be tough to achieve so some folks fill a shallow saucer will sand, water and even some salt.
This site has some ideas and even an embedded video to give you a sense of how it’s all done.
Finally, what’s most important when watching butterflies is time: take the time to be still in your garden and watch them. One of my best moments last year was the 15 minutes I took to sit in the grass and watch the monarch larva on my milkweed. It wasn’t quite “forest bathing,” but it was certainly peaceful. I highly recommend it.