The first step in creating a butterfly garden involves a little scouting and research. The goal is to find out what butterflies live around you so you can include the plants they need for food.
The best way to start is to look for butterflies around your proposed garden. Look at who visits your neighbors' yards, or watch in nearby parks, natural areas, roadsides, or gardens and write down the species you see. You can also find out about the species in your region by looking in books about butterflies and their habitats, or by talking to lepidopterists or organizations interested in butterflies. These organizations include local extension offices, the Xerces Society, the North American Butterfly Association (NABA), and conservation organizations in your region. Some of their addresses are listed in the bibliography.
Butterflies feed on nectar, and good sources of this food will attract them to your garden. Include flowers that bloom at different times so that your garden provides nectar from spring through autumn. Garden shops, county extension offices, and books can help you figure out when a plant blooms, its color and size, and which butterflies like it (to help with planning, it is often useful to make a table of this information). When you plan your garden, place short species in front and tall ones in back, and clump them by species and color. As butterflies search for food, they will see large splashes of color more easily than the small points of individual flowers. Butterflies are particularly attracted to red, orange, yellow, and purple flowers. Avoid big showy flowers bred for their size; they are often poor nectar sources. Don't be disappointed if butterflies ignore some highly recommended plants. Watch the butterflies, record their preferences, and plant more of the popular species next year.
Butterflies require very specific plants as larvae, and females will lay their eggs only on these plants. For example, you will only get monarch larvae if your garden contains milkweed. Use information in books about butterflies to help you choose plants for butterfly larvae. But remember, the purpose of these plants is to serve as a food source for the caterpillars. You are planting them to be eaten by the caterpillars, and eaten leaves are good signs of your garden's health.
As you maintain your garden, DO NOT USE ANY PESTICIDES OR INSECTICIDES on or near your garden. Insecticides kill butterflies too. If you spray nearby areas, the insecticide may drift into your butterfly garden. Planting a diversity of species will keep pest levels down, but sometimes it's best just to tolerate a few pests. Avoiding insecticides also allows the populations of natural predators to increase, and these hunters will help reduce the number of unwanted pests.
Enjoy your garden. Butterflies pay less attention to people than do birds, so you can sit nearby and watch without disturbing them. If you wear bright colors, they may even mistake you for a nectar source and visit you up close!