21 Tips for Starting (or Improving) your School Butterfly Garden

Before You Start Your School Butterfly Garden…

Failing To Plan, Is Planning To Fail.  Truer words have never spoken when it comes to starting a school butterfly garden. Let’s make yours a flyaway success!
21 Tips to consider for creating a School Butterfly Garden filled with Magnificent Monarchs and their Pollinator friends.

School butterfly gardens have exploded in popularity over the past decade. Some of them have had great success, while others are missing out on the butterfly garden party.

There are a lot of  basic guides floating around the internet, but most of them don’t stop to consider important questions that could change the entire direction of your school butterfly garden plan.

I recently came across an article by author and butterfly gardener ‘Tom Terrific’ that I believe could benefit all teachers, administrators, and students before digging into their butterfly garden adventures.

The following is a summary review of Tom Terrific’s article about starting a school butterfly garden:

(new additions to the list are in green)

1. Choose One, Attract Many-  Find out which butterflies are most common in your region and when? Focus on attracting those one or two species and add plants to attract others later on. You’ll be happy to know that focusing on one species will bring lots of bonus butterflies to your school:

A Red Admiral and Red Spotted Purple share the sweetness of 'Ellen's Blue' Butterfly Bush
A Monarch Butterfly Garden Attracts Much More Than Monarchs

2. Low Maintenance Plants-  Unless you have students, parents, or teachers willing to tend the garden on an ongoing basis, don’t choose plants that require close monitoring or care. You’ll miss out on some great options if you go for a “no maintenance” garden, but that’s a choice every school needs to make based on its own unique circumstances.

3. A Responsible Adult- While kids may have the best intentions, they can be easily distracted. One adult should be regularly monitoring the garden to ensure its survival.

4. Fall Plant Focus- Butterfly season is in full swing across most of North America when school begins in September, and the magical monarch migration is just beginning.

School Butterfly Garden Tip 4- Butterfly season is in full swing across most of North America when school begins in September, and the magical monarch migration is just beginning. Fall Blooming plants are a must if you want to become a busy migration fuel stop!
Does your School Have what It Takes to Attract the Monarch Migration?

5. Spring Plant Focus?- This depends on your location and what butterflies you are trying to attract. Last season we had “Minnesota Monarchs” in late April so spring blooming plants would have been helpful…but “counting on extreme weather” probably isn’t the best idea.

6. Water Well- Most plants and seedlings require more water at the beginning of the season while their roots get acclimated.

7. Mulching Today, Keeps Tomorrow’s Weeds Away- …it also helps the soil around your plants retain moisture!

8. Mark Your Territory- If you define paths and include edging, your garden will be better protected. If the kids don’t know exactly where the garden is, they’ll run right through it!

9. Available Water Outlets- Don’t make watering the garden inconvenient or it might not get watered! Also, rain barrels are a convenient extra water source and they add a bit of school butterfly garden decor.

10. Sun & Shade- Yes, most butterflies and butterfly plants prefer lots of sun, but shade can also be utilized in a butterfly garden. Over the years, I’ve found that some of the “full sun” plants can perform just as well (if not better) in areas that receive partial shade. Last season I grew my largest Mexican sunflower plant ever in partial shade…it eclipsed 8 feet!

11. Experiment- Just because you read something on a plant label, on a website, or in a book doesn’t mean you’ll have the exact same experience. Embrace the ‘open and curious minds’ of your students and try something different. It might not work, but it might just amaze you:

A School Butterfly Garden is a great place to experiment with unusual species of milkweed like Asclepias physocarpa (balloon plant milkweed)
Great Balls of Milkweed!

12. Don’t Plant A Garden Hog!- When planting perennials, don’t forget they’re going to grow, so space accordingly. While they’re babies fill in extra space with annuals. Otherwise, be prepared to move around perennials you spaced too closely together.

13. Supplement Your Soil- Using topsoil and compost is a great way to improve soil quality if yours isn’t ideal for what you’re planting.

14. Fertilizer?- There is some debate as to whether it’s even necessary to add fertilizer in addition to composted manure, but I think it makes a big difference over an entire growing season. Over the years we have used many different fertilizers both organic and non.

We haven’t had any issues with sick butterflies or caterpillars using non-organic fertilizers, and I’ve talked to countless others who have had the same experience. Use what you feel comfortable with and check out reviews from other gardeners in the trenches:

Find a 5 Star Garden Fertilizer Here

 15. Plant Host And Nectar Plants- While nectar flowers are get all the glory, there’d be no butterflies if the caterpillars had no host plants to feed on. If you have limited space try plants that serve both needs like swamp milkweed (Asclepias incarnata) and tropical milkweed (Asclepias curassavica).

16. Butterfly Gardening Guide- Get more details for creating a successful butterfly garden and discover top notch resources in my 5-star customer rated butterfly gardening guide.

Bring Home the Butterflies ebook- How to Attract More Monarchs to your Butterfly Garden

Purchase the guide or get more info on How To Attract More Monarchs

17. Cuttings Make Great Plant Insurance- No matter how well you care for them, sometimes plants die. There are lots of butterfly plants that can be started with cuttings…in water!! In late summer or fall, just head outside and take cuttings to place in water. For some plants, it’s that simple. Watch the process here.

18. Collect Seeds Each Fall- If you want to start seeds as a class activity in winter/spring, your garden will give you plenty of opportunities to collect them throughout the season…harvesting milkweed seeds each fall is typically the best option for a school butterfly garden.

19. Don’t Get Stuck On ‘Native’- Many people disagree with me on this topic, but Tom and I seem to be on the same page. Native plants are not always the best option for school (or home) gardens. Like Tom, I have many native plants growing at home, but I’m constantly experimenting with non-invasive annual plants too. Teachers should consider bloom times, plant care, invasiveness, and all relevant issues when making their final  plant decisions. That won’t always lead to the “native” conclusion.

20. Raise Your Game- Creating a butterfly garden for kids should give you a window of opportunity to raise butterflies. This is a fun and educational activity for the kids, and you’ll save eggs and caterpillars from garden predators too. For more information on getting started click here.

21. Get Monarch Insurance- The monarch numbers are down and it might take them a season or two to discover your glorious new garden. Fortunately, that doesn’t mean the kids have to miss out on the monarch experience. Eggs and caterpillars are available from butterfly farms for most of North America’s butterfly season. You can find monarch eggs and caterpillar for sale at the bottom of my raising resources page.

22. Get your School Butterfly Garden Wish GRANTED!

If you plan ahead, you can often receive funding for your school butterfly garden. See what’s available:

Garden Grant Opportunities

As you can see, there are lots of important points to consider before you dig into your school butterfly garden. However, you’ll be happy you took the time to consider these things before getting in ‘over your trowel.’ Best of Luck, Tony

Check out Tom Terrific’s original article here: Butterfly Plants for School Gardens 

Do you know a teacher or school administrator who could use this information? Please share this article and help make their butterfly garden a flying success.
Share the Joy of Butterflies

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  1. I am refurbishing a butterfly garden that has been neglected at my grand children’s elementary . I would like to put an informative board beside the garden educating children about butterflies in our area. how can I do this economically… not a budget .. might just be my donation???Is there a site that may have this type board made. ??? Help!!!

    1. Hi Mary, if you are looking for a custom made sign, etsy would probably be a good place to start…good luck!

  2. Hi Tony,
    I am new to butterfly gardening. I live down south in New Orleans. Do you have any suggestions on what would be the best plants for me to start with. My garden will be a container garden. About how many plants should I start with?

    Thank you,

  3. will bits of tin foil on a milkweed plant deter birds from eating my caterpillars. I Recently lost a dozen and today I see 3 new babies. I only have one pot with milkweed.

  4. I was wondering if certain scents deter the butterflies. I have dill and parsley near a trumpet vine, queen Annes Lace, oregano, and mint and I have never seen any butterflies near them.

    1. Hello Laura, I’m not aware that any of those plants would repel butterflies…I’ve heard that oregano will repel cabbage butterflies but I have never heard any first-hand accounts from gardeners that noticed an issue. The other plants should attract butterflies.

  5. How do you convince a school district that milkweed plants are needed for a monarch butterfly garden when maintenance dept has policy against milkweed?

    1. Hi Gail, my guess is this milkweed ban might be for Asclepias syriaca (common milkweed). It can be controlled better, if it has a separate growing space outside the garden.This has worked well for us.

      Two varieties that play nicer in a garden setting they don’t spread through underground rhizomes:

      Swamp Milkweed

      Tropical Milkweed

      Good luck!

  6. Hi! I have a smaller butterfly garden at our house and I just wanted to thank for all these great tips! I love butterflies and half of these tips I did not think of yet. Thanks again! Wonderful website!

  7. Hi,

    I have a hot house in my school and was interested in putting butterflies in there. Does anyone know where I can get information on how to start this. The school is located on Long Island, NY


    1. Hi Theresa, are you talking about having a butterfly house where you keep and breed butterflies or for raising and releasing them?

  8. I have a very small garden and I have to use containers, will I have enough milkweed to attract the butterflies? I also live in Vancouver WA and looking at the map, it does not seem as though the butterflies come this far north. I do so much want to attract the monarchs but will it be possible?

    1. Hi Valerie, how far north the monarchs venture probably depends heavily on weather patterns. If you don’t have much space, you can probably get by with 4 containers. Keep in mind, one hungry monarch caterpillar can devour an entire plant in a two week time period, so you won’t be equipped to host more than 4-5 monarchs at one time. Check out my western resources page to get more monarch info specific to your region:

      Western Monarch Resources

  9. Great post! I put a butterfly garden in at our elementary school in May. I would love to do some cuttings, as I think that’s fun learning experience for the kids too. What are your favorite plants for cutting?
    For other kid friendly ideas, I’ve had success growing a radish plant from a radish. I watched a cabbage white flit there for hours yesterday. I’ve also had the kids plant marigolds and sunflowers from seed.
    Also, we have some drama from an article in the paper last week as school was starting about milkweed blindness. I think I’ll have to put a small fence around the milkweed to calm fears. I suppose this will help protect the caterpillars from little hands tough. Any advice on milkweed toxicity?

    1. Hi Lauri, milkweed blindness is certainly an attention grabbing headline! Milkweed sap can be an eye irritant. Unless you’re picking leaves you won’t get any sap on your hands..if you do, simply wash it off.

      Most people never have any issue with this. I’ve handled milkweed without gloves for 35 years (since I was 8) and never had a problem. In my opinion, this issue is mostly hype. If it wasn’t, there would be a lot of blind middle-aged monarch enthusiasts 😉

      For stem cuttings, tropical milkweed can be propagated in water, as can native butterfly weed. Milkweed seeds can also be started in water, which would make an interesting class experiment….

      Starting Tropical Milkweed Cuttings

      Starting Milkweed Seeds in Water

  10. Great info, thanks. I have a concern, however, on the initial photo. Buddleja is a controversial plant in many regions of the country because of it’s invasive status, other regions should use caution when planting this exotic as climate and zones are changing rapidly. Just saying we need to be careful what we promote for pollinators and DOUBLE check invasive characters in nearby states and zones.

    1. Hi Julia, I agree that non-natives need to be monitored for potential issues, but I also believe there are a lot of unsubstantiated claims about the “invasive nature” of butterfly bush. Curiously, all the gardeners I talk to that actually grow it have no issues with it being invasive in their gardens or surrounding area. There are also cultivars of butterfly bush that have low germination rates or are even sterile.

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