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Container Gardens for Butterflies and Hummingbirds

Summer is here, and so are the hummingbirds and butterflies we love to enjoy in our gardens. Even with a small space you can plant blooms in containers to encourage local butterflies and hummingbirds to stop in for a visit. 

For more information on pollinators:

In this post, we will primarily discuss summer plants for pollinators that grow well in containers. If you want to learn more about supporting local birds, bees and butterflies, you may be interested in our posts on hosting native caterpillars, planting for pollinators year-round, or attracting hummingbirds.

This purple pollinator container garden features petunias, angelonia, ageratum and gomphrena (design by Peg Bier, Merrifield Plant and Design Specialist).

Selecting Plants for Your Container Garden

Butterflies and hummingbirds both eat nectar from flowers. Both hummingbirds and butterflies will be attracted to brightly colored flowers whose nectar has a high sugar content.

Butterflies prefer blooms with flat landing pads where they can easily land to sip nectar. Hummingbirds prefer blooms that are accessible by their long beak while still in flight. Every gardener will have their own favorites and plants that they swear by, but here are some popular favorites we all agree on for the summer:

Perennials

  • Agastache
  • Asclepias (Butterfly Weed)
  • Coneflower
  • Coreopsis
  • Gaillardia
  • Gaura
  • Heuchera

Annuals

  • Angelonia
  • Begonia
  • Calibrachoa
  • Crossandra
  • Cuphea
  • Dahlia
  • Fuschia
  • Gomphrena
  • Lantana
  • Pentas
  • Petunia
  • Salvia
  • Zinna

There are many plants to choose from, but you may find that your local hummingbirds and butterflies prefer certain types of flowers.

This pollinator container garden features salvia, angelonia and lantana (design by Peg Bier, Merrifield Plant and Design Specialist).

Container Combinations

When creating a pollinator container, your creativity is just about your only limit. While you will want to use mostly pollinator plants, it is perfectly fine to combine other plants you love into your containers as well. Here are some ideas to get you started!

Fresh Pink and White

This combination of pink and white flowers looks natural while maintaining a curated color combination of pink and white blooms. This fresh, vibrant container combines perennial coneflower and heuchera with annual lantana, angelonia and pentas.

Vibrant Red and Yellow

This container makes use of deep burgundy coleus to bring together the vibrant red and yellow blooms. For this combination, you will need perennial coreopsis and euphorbia with annual dahlia and coleus.

Bold Multicolor

This bright, bold container includes salvia, crossandra, gomphrena, cleome and portulaca.

Joe Pye Weed with Monarchs, Perennial, Native

Planting Native to Support Butterflies

By Terry Hershberger, Merrifield Plant Specialist

Every year from June 18-24, we celebrate the pollinators – birds, bees, butterflies and other animals – that we depend on to move pollen from flower to flower and fertilize plants to ensure successful seed and fruit production. One of the most beloved pollinators is the butterfly. We have a multitude of varieties here in the Eastern United States, and anyone can support these important creatures by adding native plants they love to their garden, patio or deck.

Milkweed, Asclepias tuberosa, Plant NOVA Native

Supporting Butterflies in a Small Garden or Patio

Luckily for anyone living in a town-home, apartment or condo, there are plenty of plants butterflies love that can be grown in a small space or a container. Consider planting a mix of plants butterflies enjoy and host plants for baby caterpillars. Doing this can allow you to see the full life cycle of these beautiful insects from your home!

Container friendly native plants for adult butterflies:

Milkweed

Not only is this plant popular among many kinds of adult butterflies, it also serves as the host plant for Monarch caterpillars. They bloom mid to late summer and some varieties are drought tolerant.

Phlox paniculata and spicebush butterfly Plant NOVA Natives

Garden Phlox 

Phlox needs to be watered weekly during dry spells but is a wonderful plant for attracting butterflies with clusters of blooms.

Rudbeckia Plant NOVA Natives

Black-eyed Susan

This vibrant flower blooms from July to October and is drought resistant once established.

New England Aster Plant NOVA Natives

Aster

For a fall blooming flower, add aster. This plant is popular with a wide range of native butterflies.

Joe-Pye Weed

Joe Pye is tolerant of wet soil, so add it to any poorly draining areas in your yard. Blooms from mid-late summer.

Add these plants to your containers if you want to host caterpillars:

Even in a small space you can host a variety of native butterfly caterpillars! In particular, the Monarch, Black Swallowtail, Baltimore Checkerspot and Common Buckeye all lay their eggs on plants that can be grown in small gardens or on decks in containers.

  • For Monarchs, plant milkweed.
  • Add turtlehead – a relative of the snapdragon – for the Baltimore Checkerspot.
  • Plant dill and parsley for the Black Swallowtail.
  • Consider toadflax or spiderwort for the Common Buckeye.

Supporting Butterflies in Larger Gardens

If you are unlimited when it comes to space for setting up your butterfly garden, the options available to you are limitless for both attracting adults and caterpillars! In addition to all of the plants listed above, there are a variety of native trees that butterflies and their caterpillars love. Turn your garden into a butterfly sanctuary by adding these native plants!

Prunus serotina, Black Cherry, Plant NOVA Native

Black Cherry

Adult Tiger Swallowtails love this plant, and both eastern tiger swallowtails and red spotted purple butterflies lay their eggs on black cherry trees. Clusters of white flowers bloom in spring.

Sassafras

This tree plays host to both spicebush swallowtail and Eastern Tiger Swallowtail caterpillars.

Willow

This is a host plant for the viceroy caterpillar – a mimic of the monarch butterfly – and also a host for the eastern tiger swallowtail.

Pawpaw

Make a home for the caterpillars of the Zebra Swallowtail by planting the pawpaw. As a native edible fruit-bearing tree, this is a fun addition to any garden.

Thank you to Plant NOVA Natives for contributing the plant photos used in this post. 

Pollinator Garden

Gardening for the Birds, Bees, and Butterflies

Who among us does not enjoy birds, bees and butterflies? By creating plantings that replace even small segments of these beautiful creatures’ diminishing habitats, we can contribute to their preservation. I personally had the opportunity to do this when a retention pond was built on the property bordering mine. The large slope between my garden and the retention pond receives 5-8 hours of sunshine daily, and is the perfect place for a sunny garden devoted to birds, bees and butterflies! Now that it is established, not only do the pollinators enjoy it – my family, friends and neighbors do as well!

Pollinator Garden, Rudbeckia, Echibeckia

Soil Preparation

I was determined to grow lavender at the top of my sloped butterfly garden, so I began my project by amending the top 3-4 ft. of the slope with course sand and perma-til and composted leaves to create good drainage. I mulch my lavender plants as well as the bearded German iris, asclepias and santolina with small gravel. All of these plants require very well-draining soil to thrive. To prepare the soil for the rest of my garden, I worked composted leaves into the clay soil to create better soil conditions for plants to grow.

Pollinator Garden

Seeding and Reseeding Annuals and Biennials

Many hardy annuals and biennials contribute heavily to a pollinator garden. I plant, seed others each year and allow some of the hardiest to reseed themselves. For plants that I allow to reseed, I mulch only very lightly after those plants begin to grow in spring in any areas where I want them to reseed. To lend a helping hand to their growth, I spread additional seed in August and September. Most of these plants will appear as tiny seedlings, and bloom the next spring or summer. These plants can also be seeded in March or April, but they may not bloom the first season. My favorite plants to seed in late summer or early spring are:

  • Bachelor’s Button
  • Cleome
  • Foxglove
  • Larkspur
  • Nigella
  • Parsley
  • Poppy
  • Rudbeckia hirta
  • Feverfew
  • Verbena bonariensis
  • Viola

For any seeds that cannot take the cold and frost, I direct seed after the danger of frost has passed and the soil has warmed. At this time, I also transplant any plants that I purchased, or started from seed indoors. Some of my favorite plants to seed after the danger of frost has passed are:

  • Amaranth globe
  • Calendula
  • Celosia
  • Cosmos
  • Dill
  • Zinnias
Zinnia, Celosia, Pollinator Garden

Seeds for the Birds

I remove spent flowers (deadheading) on some plants to encourage rebloom over the spring and summer, but as fall approaches I stop doing this in order to leave seeds for the birds through the winter. Providing food for the birds during this season when resources are scarce is vital to their health, and allows me to support our native bird population. While I clean up other areas of my garden for the winter, I do not give my bird, bee and butterfly garden it’s fall cleanup until February or March, just in time for spring. This leaves the garden looking a little messy through the winter months, but makes it a haven for wildlife by providing pollinator and seed plants over as long a period as possible. I personally find it quite pleasing to the eye!

Coneflower, Perennial, Native

My Favorite Plants for Pollinator Gardens

The plants I discussed here are only a small portion of plants that make an excellent addition to butterfly gardens!

For more information, check out this pollinator garden plant list I created for anyone looking to start a bird, bee and butterfly garden.

Three Tips to Attract Pollinators to your Garden

Larry Shapira, Merrifield Plant Specialist & Professor Emeritus NVCC

Gardening connects us to nature and gives us an opportunity to enjoy and experience America’s number one hobby. With the right plant selections, you can attract hummingbirds, butterflies, bees and other pollinators for the duration of the growing season.

Here are three tips to attract pollinators

  1. Select a diversity of plants that have a variety of flower shapes, colors and sizes
  2. Choose plants that flower at different times to provide pollen or nectar for the entire growing season
  3. Plant in clumps rather than single plants to better attract pollinators

A few of my favorite pollinators are:

Butterfly bush (Buddleia): A.K.A. Summer Lilac. Hardy, vigorous shrub for sunny locations. Fast grower. Blooms mid-summer. Pink, white, lilac, blue, or purple flowers

Lantana  Grows as a summer annual. Blooms all summer; many varieties, often bi-colored. Very attractive to hummingbirds. Full sun.

Coneflower (Echinacea). Easy-to-grow perennial that grows in clumps. Showy flowers are white, crimson, or purple. New introductions include yellows and oranges. Summer blooming.

Aster (Aster x frikartii). Widely-adapted perennial that blooms late summer. Prolific bloomer with lavender to blue-violet flowers. Full sun.

Bee Balm (Monarda). A reliable, old-fashioned, summer-blooming perennial. Flowers range from scarlet to white or pink. Very showy.

Finally, not only is planting to attract pollinators a great way to assist nature, it is also a fun way to get children involved in gardening!

Coneflower and Tiger Swallowtail Butterfly

Plant List for Butterfly Gardens

Flitting from flower to flower in search of nectar, butterflies are absolutely wonderful in the garden.

Unfortunately, because of the loss of habitat and the indiscriminate use of pesticides, the butterfly population is declining.

But with just a little bit of effort, you can encourage more of these delicate beauties to visit your garden – and extend their stay.

Choose a sunny location protected from wind. As butterflies are near-sighted, it’s best to create a large patch of flower species boasting vibrant colors and sweet scents. Select plants of differing heights, colors and bloom times to attract butterflies throughout the season.

Butterflies enjoy sweet liquids, such as nectar from flowers, which supplies them with an energy source.  Annuals provide nectar all summer, while perennials provide it when they’re blooming.

As you might expect, Butterfly Bush and Butterfly Weed are great plants to attract butterflies. But they’re not the only ones. Here are some other plants that butterflies truly love:  Astilbe, Black-Eyed Susan, Catmint, Coneflower, Daylily, Salvia, Tickseed and Yarrow.

In addition to growing a butterfly friendly habitat, make caterpillars welcome in your garden. True, caterpillars feed on plants. But without caterpillars there would be no beautiful butterflies. Watching a caterpillar change into a butterfly is one of the most fascinating things about butterfly gardens.

Caterpillars can be very discriminating in the plants they feed on.  Pipevine Swallowtail feed exclusively on Pipevine, Monarchs on Milkweed and Fritillary on Violas. So if you want to watch these butterflies, select plants for both the larvae and adults.

Annuals

Common Name Botanical Name
Cosmos Cosmos
Flowering Tobacco Nicotiana
French Marigold Tagetes
Heliotrope Heliotropium
Hardy Hibiscus Hibiscus
Lantana Lantana
Mimulus Mimulus
Petunia Petunia
Salvia Salvia
Snapdragon Antirrhinum
Sunflower Helianthus
Verbena Verbena
Violet Violet
Zinnia Zinnia

Perennials

Common Name Botanical Name
Anemone Anemone
Aster Aster
Astilbe Astilbe
Beardstongue Penstemon
Bee Balm Monarda
Bellflower Campanula
Black-eyed Susan Rudbeckia
Blanket Flower Gaillardia
Bleeding Heart Dicentra
Blue Beard Caryopteris
Butterfly Bush Buddleia
Butterfly Weed Asclepias
Candytuft Iberis
Cardinal Flower Lobelia
Catmint Nepeta
Cinquefoil Pontentilla
Cornflower Centaurea
Creeping & Summer Phlox Phlox
Dame’s Rocket Hesperis
Daylily Hemerocalilis
Foxglove Digitalis
Globe Thistle Echinops
Goldenrod Solidago
Hardy Geranium Geranium
Hardy Mem Chrysanthemum
Hollyhock Alcea
Iris Iris
Joe Pye Weed Eupatorium
Lavender Lavandula
Lily Lillium
Onion Allium
Pincushion Flower Scabiosa
Plumbago Ceratostigma
Red Hot Poker Kniphofia
Rockcress Arabis
Rosemary Rosemarinus
Salvia Salvia
Speedwell Veronica
Stoke’s Aster Stokesia
Stonecrop Sedum
Sundrops Oenothera
Sunflower Helianthus
Tickseed Chelone
Verbena Verbena
Whorling Butterflies Gaura
Wormwood Artemesia
Yarrow Achillea

Trees

Common Name Botanical Name
Chaste Tree Vitex
Cherry Prunus
Crabapple Malus
Fringtree Chionanthus
Golden Rain Tree Laburnum
Silk Tree Mimosa
Yellowood Cladrastis

Vines

Common Name Botanical Name
Clematis Clematis
Dragon Lady Crossvine Bigonia
Hardy Passion Vine Passiflora
Honeysuckle Lonicera
Morning Glory Ipomoea
Trumpet Creeper Campsis
Wisteria Wisteria

 

 

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