A Church Yard Butterfly Garden Invites Wings into Worship

[Ed. note: This article is part of our series of weekly church activities, Cultivating Community, published on Thursdays]

Peacock butterfly on rosemary

Invite some of God's most astonishing colors and patterns into the church yard. (cc image courtesy nutmeg66 via flickr)

There is a reason why children capture butterflies in nets, why guests release butterflies at weddings, why tourists flock to Mexico each year to watch hundreds of millions of monarch butterflies overwinter in the forests of Michoacan, and why the image of the butterfly is one of the most popular tattoos: Butterflies are an ethereal, captivating, and rare presence; capricious little miracles that catch our breath for a moment before returning us to reality.

These ethereal creatures have earthly importance, too. Butterflies are important pollinators, perpetuating the existence of the native plant species of a given region. The caterpillars of some species also eat harmful insects. But butterflies aren’t common to our heavily manicured landscapes, preferring instead the pockets of native plants often found in roadside brush. They require the presence of particular native plants in their ecosystems so that they have a source of food but also a place to lay their eggs. Cultivating a church yard garden where butterflies can find the species they rely on will not only invite the sacred presence of one of God’s more beautiful creatures into your midst, but it will also be a creative act of conservation that will contribute to the creation’s flourishing.

Get Ready, Get Set …
If your church community has already determined that starting a garden would be a responsible stewardship measure to undertake, planting a butterfly garden is an easy first step. Even if space or time for a full butterfly garden is lacking, a few butterfly-friendly plants can be incorporated into your church’s existing landscaping. Consult with your church’s leadership and custodial or groundskeeping staff to determine if this less intensive landscaping change would be desirable, or if there is a willingness to re-configure at least part of the church’s grounds to accommodate a more extensive butterfly garden.

Location, Location, Location
If an intentional butterfly garden is approved by your church community, congratulations! You’ve been given the opportunity to unleash the creative color palette of God’s creation in a way that benefits that creation, because butterfly-attracting plants are native plants—beneficial components of your local ecosystem. Butterflies will be attracted to the brilliance of this new garden, but where you locate all that color is crucial to getting their attention in the first place. Here are some guidelines to follow as you determine where to start your butterfly garden:

  • Sunlight – Establish your butterfly garden in an area of full sunlight, as most butterfly-attracting plant species require full sun to thrive.
  • Shelter – Make sure to locate your garden in an area that is sheltered from strong winds, as butterflies don’t like having to fight against the wind. Provide a few rocks in the area of the garden so that butterflies can rest on them. Butterflies will also overwinter in small piles of rock or wood, so providing these shelters is also an option.
  • Something to Sip – If possible, locate the butterfly garden in an area where puddles form naturally so that the butterflies can refresh themselves with water. Providing a small bowl of water for them will accomplish the same purpose, but be sure to re-fill it often.
  • Space – Your butterfly garden can be any size and shape that works for your community, from a window box to a sprawling meadow. Really! As stated before, you can even place a few best-loved butterfly plants in your church’s existing landscaping if creating a separate space for them isn’t possible. But however big you make your butterfly destination, be sure to locate it in an area that won’t be sprayed with pesticides, as butterflies are extremely sensitive to them. If there’s no guarantee that pesticides won’t be used near the butterfly-attracting plants, consider posting a little sign to indicate that, at the very least, those plants should not be directly sprayed.

What to Plant
Butterflies need plants for two reasons: for nourishment from nectar as full-grown butterflies, and for nourishment from leaves as caterpillars. But butterflies don’t necessarily lay their eggs on the same plants that they derive nectar from, so

Swallowtail butterfly caterpillar

Providing foraging plants for caterpillars is necessary for welcoming beautiful butterflies to the garden. (cc image courtesy macropoulos via flickr)

you’ll want to plant a variety of both larval host plants and forage plants to feed both adult butterflies and newly hatched caterpillars:

  • Do Your Research – A little research is required on your part to discover what butterflies are native to your area. By learning who your butterfly neighbors are, you’ll learn what plants they rely on and be able to plant your garden accordingly. Visiting The Butterfly Site will give you a general idea of what species are found in your state, but calling your local cooperative extension office will give you an even better, and more localized, understanding. Once you are familiar with the butterflies in your area, learn which particular plants those butterflies use for laying their eggs on (and foraging as caterpillars) and drinking the nectar from. The Butterfly Website lists common butterflies and their host and nectar plants, and and the North American Pollinator Protection Campaign and Pollinator Partnership can direct you to information on plants loved by a variety pollinators in your specific ecoregion. A butterfly field guide will also serve as a portable tool for learning your local butterflies and their habits.
  • Think Perennials – Planting an assortment of perennial flowers will make sustaining your butterfly garden easier and more affordable. Perennials come back, year after year, and many of the plant species butterflies are most attracted to are perennials: butterfly bush, common milkweed, purple coneflower, and New England aster are just a few.
  • Useful and Pretty – As you begin to plot out your butterfly garden, take aesthetics into account. Unless you have plenty of space and license to fill it with an untamed meadow of butterfly-friendly flowers and bushes, you’ll want to carefully plan your garden to be attractive to the human eye as well as to the butterfly’s palate. Caterpillars and butterflies feed on such a great variety of species that you can find lots of suitable shapes and sizes of plants to include in your garden—from low-growing herbs like parsley and dill, to large shrubs like butterfly bushes and Joe Pye weed. Also include in your garden space a selection of plants that will bloom throughout the summer, not only to encourage consistent feeding by butterflies, but to brighten your church grounds with plenty of color all season long.

Keeping Up Appearances
Fortunately, because you will plant native species to attract local butterflies, the upkeep required for your butterfly garden will be much less than that required for a manicured landscape with non-native plants. Native plants are accustomed to the climate and soil types of their native regions, so they don’t require much extra watering or soil amending. However, keeping an eye on your butterfly garden will allow you to notice if it needs watering during some unseasonably hot weather, or if weeds are getting out of control.

Learn about the plants you have include in your butterfly garden; some can be repeatedly deadheaded or pruned to bloom again and again from spring to fall (depending on where you live), and attract butterflies for a long time.

Remember that some of the plants you’ve decided to grow are for the benefit of baby butterflies, aka caterpillars, so don’t be surprised to find holes in the leaves of these plant species—the holes simply mean that future butterflies are being happily fed! Pluck any non-caterpillar pests off of plants with your hands, and try to avoid using pesticides as much as possible.

Enjoy Your Butterfly Garden

Butterflies on a boy

If you're lucky, the butterflies will find you attractive, too! (cc image courtesy txomsy via flickr)

Picnics, outdoor services, nursery school and Sunday school lessons, volunteer workdays, and community education opportunities are just a few of the activities that your butterfly garden can be used for—not to mention simple observation and enjoyment of the butterflies! Encourage your congregation, and your larger community, to learn more about God and to spend some time appreciating his creation through the wondrous, native habitat of a butterfly garden.

Related Posts at Flourish
A Garden Plan for Food and Wildlife
Extending the Front Porch: Is Your Church Ready for a Garden?


Further Reading
The Butterfly Site
The Butterfly Website
Pollinator Partnership


  1. [...] positioned to create outdoor spaces of worship. More and more churches are planting vegetable or native plant gardens. But we can also create prayer gardens, synthesizing art and nature to welcome the reverent person [...]

  2. [...] A Church Yard Butterfly Garden Invites Wings into Worship A butterfly garden is one of the easiest gardens to start and keep up–and one of the most rewarding! [...]

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