Mend your Garden so the Butterflies will Come

Don’t waste your time chasing butterflies. Mend your garden, and the butterflies will come.

Mario Quintana

Growing up, we had two big glass picture frames filled with dead butterflies.

Pinned to a board, they were skewered, dry and drained of colour. I hated them, but also liked looking at them too. There weren’t that many butterflies in our garden to look at back then.

They seemed so otherworldly and ephemeral.

It’s unbelieveable to think that people still capture and kill butterflies to sell on a global black market.

One of my favourite kiddy outings was (pre-lockdown) going to butterfly houses. To have those beautiful yet fragile beasts land of you is magical. My kids will stand in the garden for nearly half an hour (a long time for a 3 and 6 year old), waving their flowers in the hope that a butterfly will land on them. Unfortunately, the wild ones aren’t as obliging as the ones in captivity.

A marbled white or dark green fritillary butterfly for example, can flutter determinedly over considerable distances in search of new territory. The adventure for most, will end in starvation, predation or accidental death. But, in the remote event she does find the habitat with the particular plant she is seeking, a female can lay hundreds of eggs which will hatch into caterpillars…

Isabella Tree, Wilding

The thought of butterflies travlleing miles for food made me want to make my garden a butterfly rest spot.

But, I’ve learnt that it’s not just about the flowers. Butterflies need a a place to shelter, lay eggs and find food in early spring right through to early winter – hopefully not contaminated with pesticides.

So what do you need to do, to make your garden a butterfly haven?

What do you need to do to attract butterflies to your garden?

Ditch the pesticides and go organic

No matter what the marketing may say, a pesticide will always affect more than just the pest.

“The UK has lost 97 per cent of its wildflower meadows since the 1930s and 87 per cent of its wetlands, both of which supported a huge array of wildlife. Compounding the destruction of these ecosystems is the fact that 16,900 tonnes of pesticides are applied to the countryside every year, not including additional pesticides use.” (The Independent)

Butterfly numbers have dropped 50% since the 70s due pesticides. While we can all help campaign against the use of harmful pesticides in intensive agricultural practices, the best action we can take to have IMMEDIATE effect is to mend our own back gardens.

By going organic and ditching the chemicals we can make havens for not just butterflies but all insects.

Choose pesticide free plants

Plants that are supposedly “perfect for pollinators” may have been grown with a range of toxic chemicals (e.g. neonicotinoids). Check out Dave Goulson’s book The Garden Jungle. Or Gardening to Save the Planet about his campaign against plants sold laden with toxic chemicals. While he won a small victory against one group of chemicals, new ones are still coming out.

While the pesticide industry has been fighting a rearguard action over neonicotinoids for the last twenty years, it has been preparing the alternatives. They all have tongue-twisting and eminently forgettable names: cyantraniliprole, sulfoxaflor and flupyradifurone are now on the market (I suspect that these names are deliberately complicated and hard to remember or pronounce as a strategy to discourage discussion about them).

Dave Goulson, The Garden Jungle, p77

The best strategy is to try and resist the showy blooms in the garden centre and find organic plants or grow from seed. Its a more labour intensive path to following…but if we are interested in helping insects and butterflies we may as well do it properly.

Find out what butterflies visit your part of the world

Then find out what they like to to lay their eggs on and their preferred flowers. The Butterfly Site has a map of butterflies by State for the US. In the UK, you can search the Butterfly Conservation‘s site to find out what butterflies people have recorded in your area.

So in my part of the world, I know that I might see Speckled Wood, Cryptic Wood White (only found in Northern Ireland), Agent & Sable, and Silver-Washed Fritillary and Marsh Fritillary – but those are incredibly rare.

The Butterfly Conservation site also tells you what types of habitat and caterpillar foodplants that each butterfly likes.

  • Bird’s foot trefoil (Lotus corniculatus) – Orange Tip Butterfly
  • Common sorrel (Rumex acetosa) – Small Copper Butterfly
  • Fescue grass (Meadow Brown Butterfly) – Meadow Brown Butterfly
  • Yorkshire fog grass (Holcus lanatus) – Marbled White, Speckled Wood, Small Skipper Butterfly)
  • Stinging nettles – Comma, Peacock, Red Admiral, Small Tortoiseshell
  • Milkweed – Monarch

Choose native plants with plenty of nectar

When we start messing about with flowers, altering them for our own ends, we are very likely to impair their function. Rapid artificial selection for any particular trait will often have unintended consequences, so that many of the colourful bedding plants one might buy lack scent, or nectar or are sterile hybrids that lack pollen, or have flower structures that are inaccessible to pollinators.”

Dave Goulson, The Garden Jungle, p14

In a very unscientific trail in my garden, I’ve definitely noticed that the butterflies prefer the native Buddleia davidii over the modern varieties.

My lovely pink and white varieties don’t get a look in. I’ve heard the same is true in many other people’s gardens. Nothing can compete with the natives it seems.

All credit to the breeders, but they can’t beat nature and evolution!

Peacock butterfly on an echinacea purpurea flower

Incorporate some weeds and wildflowers in your deisgn

Go for nettles, ragwort, long grass, holly and ivy. These are all great larval foods and resting spots for butterflies.

Leave some messy patches for larvae or chrysalises to survive over the winter

As gardeners we are often fighting to tame nature. Making the messy neat and orderly, but it turns out nature abhors a kondo heavily manicured garden. Gardening wild areas can be challenging to our neat and tidy Victorian mentality.

Let your garden’s hair down.

Support grasslands and meadows

The best thing you can do for butterflies is support the protection of grassland and meadows. They thrives in areas full of bird’s foot trefoil, cowslips, horseshoe vetch. sheep’s sorrel and creeping cinquefoil and native grasses. Even our humble knapweeds, self heal, speedwell, buttercups and dandelions are food for butterflies.

Choose a range of plants with nectar from spring to late autumn?

This is where it gets difficult. There are LOTS of different lists of plants from different sources – some specify what variety and some don’t.

According to Dave Goulson, pollinators prefer specific varieties of lavender. The same is true for my Buddleia. But as there is no definitive list, the best you can go on is trial and error, using organically grown plants. I’ve added some suggestions below, but you will have to conduct your own experiments.

For my garden Erysimium ‘Bowles Mauve and Buddleia are all the Peacock, Tortoiseshell and Red Admirals are interested in.

Spring

  • Bluebells
  • Primrose (Primula vulgaris)
  • Sweet William (Dianthus barbatus)
  • Bugle (Ajuga reptans)
  • Forget-me-knot
  • Erysimum ‘Bowles mauve’

Summer

  • Cornflower
  • French marigold
  • Knapweed, Centaurea scabiosa and Centaurea nigra are thistle looking plants loved by the Common Blue, Chalkhill Blue, Green-veined White, Small White, Painted Lady, Silver-washed Fritillary, Marbled White, Brimstone and the Large Skipper
  • Marjoram
  • Scabious come in many varieties. Go for a perennial which is long flowering or has ‘butterfly’ in its name, like Scabious ‘Butterfly Blue’
  • Purple-loosestrife, Lythrum salicaria. This loves wetland areas, but can be quite invasive

Autumn

  • Flowering ivy
  • Asters
  • Hylotelephiums
  • Bugbane

By mending our gardens, going organic letting things go wild and adding in native florals the butterflies should come.

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