For the last couple of years, two dwarf buddleja ‘Buzz’ bushes have been attracting butterflies into my front garden. This year, they’re gone. Removing them was not a decision I took lightly, but I wanted that space for fruit. However, insect populations are crashing, and since we and the rest of the ecosystem rely on them, it’s time to take their welfare seriously. Creating a butterfly garden is easier than you think, and even a kitchen garden can attract butterflies and other insects. The best place to start is with the way you garden – ditch the pesticides and start growing organically (when you poison ‘bad’ insects you wipe out the good guys, too) and leave the peat in the ground where it is a valuable wildlife habitat. Peat-free composts have improved by leaps and bounds over the last few years, and there’s no reason to use peat in a garden.
I’ve been in my garden in Hampshire for the last couple of days . Sunny , plenty of wildflowers . Not a single butterfly . Not one . Nothing . And in the woods a handful of Speckled Woods . I think we are at a point of absolute crisis in our countryside .
— Chris Packham (@ChrisGPackham) 3 June 2018
Attracting butterflies into the garden is mainly a matter of planting flowers that offer a good supply of nectar for them to feed on. The best choice is buddleja, and (as I have mentioned) there are dwarf varieties that won’t take over, and can be grown in pots. But there are kitchen garden plants that are nearly as good. Herbs are a great choice – they feed us and their flowers feed insects, so they’re ‘win win’ plants. Marjoram, mint, chives, thyme, catmint, hyssop and feverfew are all good, perennial choices. All you need to do is not be too hasty to cut back the flowers!
Other good choices include dahlias (yes, there are edible dahlias), blackberries, perennial alliums that are allowed to flower, runner beans, forget-me-nots, pansies and violas. Butterfly Conservation has a wonderful PDF download of the 100 best nectar plants for butterflies. Most of them will do wonders for bees as well, of course.
If you really want to help butterflies then you also need to grow plants that are good for their caterpillars. In the UK this means holly and ivy, cultivated brassicas (which you may want to eat yourself!) and their wilder relatives (such as garlic mustard and honesty) and ‘weeds’ such as nettles and thistles. If you have an area of the garden you can allow to run a little wild, it will do wonders. Most caterpillars are a little choosy about their food plants, so if you see them on a wild plant, you needn’t worry too much that they’re about to move onto your crops! [And yes, cabbage whites will attack your brassicas and they’re horrid things, and the easiest way to ensure that you get a harvest is to cover your brassicas with insect netting. If you’re soft-hearted and want to feed the cabbage whites, they also like nasturtiums 😉 ] UK Butterflies has a much longer list of larval food plants for butterflies.
This year the Big Butterfly Count runs from 20th July to 12th August. It’s a nationwide survey assessing the health of our environment. Since it launched in 2010 it has become the world’s biggest survey of butterflies. More than 60,000 people took part in 2017, submitting 62,500 counts of butterflies and day-flying moths from across the UK. What could be nicer than planting a few more plant to attract butterflies, then sitting back and watching what flies in to feed?
The scarlet tiger moth. I don’t reliably know how to tell the difference between butterflies and moths, but they’re all welcome!
This post was produced in collaboration with nbg landscapes.