You don't need much room to help out the butterflies and bees. You don't even need a large garden. A few well-chosen containers or a small, sheltered garden corner is all you need. However, there are a few things that you can do to make sure that the insects will actually visit. It isn't enough just to grab a few transplants or packs of seeds. A little preparation will make your space inviting and desirable.
What to include in a butterfly garden
The best butterfly and pollinator gardens are sunny and sheltered from the wind. Make sure your chosen location has at least 6 hours of sun each day. The plants that attract these insects bloom best in a sunny location and the insects are more active in the sunshine because it keeps their body temperatures up. They also need a shallow source of water and a few rocks or concrete where they can warm themselves. Butterflies love to sit in the sun and also appreciate a damp spot where they can draw salts from the mud or ground. This practice supplies essential minerals to the male butterflies that are important in breeding. A damp spot where you've sprinkled a little sea salt is perfect. Some gardeners even suspend a small container with a drip hole to keep the area damp with little effort. Butterflies and honeybees appreciate a little rotten fruit as well. However so do wasps and yellow jackets, so use caution when offering fruit.
Prepare the ground or containers
To start a garden in the ground, spade up the soil to between eight and ten inches deep and add a little compost or manure to help enrich it. Plant several species of flowers and the best choices are the non-hybrid selections. Hybrids have been bred for larger and more numerous blooms and no consideration was given to the pollen and nectar production. The wilder versions of daisies, hollyhocks, asters and milkweeds will attract more insects. Bees and butterflies also love mints of all types and I have a large patch of chocolate and apple mint that is always humming with activity. They like oregano and sage when it is blooming, so planting these herbs does double duty. You get an herb garden and the insects get pollen and nectar. The mint attracts insects in my garden because I maintain large clumps of the plants. So, even if you are using containers, plant more than one in each pot. Several zinnias make a much better statement than one lonely one, so fill the containers. Different colors, different shapes and different heights make for an attractive garden for the insects and for humans too. Choose plants with different bloom times too. A garden with something blooming in all the seasons is more likely to attract butterflies and pollinators as well. It is also difficult in late summer and early fall for them to find reliable sources of food, so plan for all seasons.
Avoid insecticides for healthy pollinators
When purchasing seeds or transplants, make sure that none have been treated with neonics or neonicotinoides. This is an insecticide that embeds itself from the seed right into the plant and it is deadly to any insect harvesting the pollen or nectar. It is 5,000 to 10,000 times worse than DDT and tons of it is used every year in commercial greenhouses. This is a chemical that has hurt our honeybee population more than any other and should be banned. In fact, Europe has already banned its use and North America should follow. These types of insecticides only give us pretty plants with no consideration for the environmental consequences. It goes without saying that any type of insecticide use will dismantle a pollinator garden.
Know your host plants
Even the caterpillars serve a purpose, because without them there would be no butterflies. Speaking of caterpillars, do a little research into the types of host plants your local butterfly population uses. Butterflies use specific hosts for their eggs and without them, the caterpillars will not survive. Most everyone knows that milkweed is a host plant for the monarch, however there are many other butterflies that use a wide variety of other plants and by including them in your garden, you have a better chance of maintaining a season-long population.
Enjoy the show
Choose a comfortable spot where you can enjoy the show too. Even a few paving stones that are big enough to hold a chair are all you need. You can purchase ready-made ones or craft your own. Remember that a sheltered area is best, the insects prefer calm conditions because a breeze makes it difficult to fly. However, if all you have are open spaces, they will show up there too. Sun is important because it keeps their body temperatures up and a variety of plants attracts multiple species of insects. Container people should heed the same advice. Even apartment dwellers can do their part and a few well-chosen containers not only brighten up a balcony, they contribute to the survival of our fragile pollinator population.