How to attract more beautiful butterflies into our gardens

First published in Gardens

As a result of two wet summers, I understand butterflies are in trouble, which seems very sad. Seeing these colourful insects surely gives us all pleasure, unless they are white and heading for your cabbage patch!

Perhaps one might ask what benefit butterflies are in a garden?

Well, not much, except they are beautiful and if you have lots of butterflies, the chances are you have plenty of other insects that are beneficial such as bees, bumbles, ladybirds, hoverflies and lacewings.

Butterflies are a sure indication that the environment is healthy and happy.

Have you ever watched carefully to see if butterflies are stopping in your garden, or simply fluttering by? Have you counted how many different species you see? By some careful planning and planting, we can not only attract more in number, but also increase the number of different species significantly. Adult butterflies need nectar rich flowers on which to feed. I am sure we have all enjoyed watching them on Buddleja davidii in the late summer. It is known as the “Butterfly Bush” with good reason.

However, butterflies also need flowers that are out earlier in the year. I noticed the winter heather and aubretia were visited hungrily by the earliest brimstones, commas and peacocks in my garden this year, even as early as March. Wallflowers, honesty and sweet rocket are also popular. By the same token, autumn-flowering plants are crucial for butterflies so they are in fine fettle before the onset of winter. Michaelmas daisies (aster sps.), Sedum spectabile, Ceratostigma, dahlias (single types), helenium, sunflowers and many other daisies will not only flower until the first frosts but will also provide essential nectar for butterflies. There are, of course, many mid-season flowers to choose from but the most popular with the butterflies would include varieties of scabious, thistles (Echinops, Eryngium, cardoons etc), phlox, stock, achillea, red valarian and verbena, especially V. bonariensis.

These are just a handful of many and if you only have a window-box, include some candytuft, heliotropes, forget-me-nots or sweet williams and you are sure to see a butterfly or two stopping to feed.

The most popular flowers of all in my garden tend to be herbs.

Mint, thyme, lavender, hyssop, chives, catmint and – particularly popular – marjoram and oregano, are not only good for the butterflies but are often visited by another wonderful insect, the humming-bird hawk moth, which inserts its long proboscis into the flowers with demon accuracy as it hovers.

Providing a food source for the caterpillars is also important. You can net your brassicas to keep off the white butterflies but you could also plant some nasturtiums for the larvae instead. Most caterpillars seem to live on what we would generally call “weeds”, such as nettles, garlic mustard, thistles and native grasses. If you have space, turn over a corner of the garden to long grass and encourage the nettles and wild flowers. Do not be too hasty to chop it back in the autumn as the pupating insects will mostly be hiding in there: leave it until spring before tidying up. Native mixed hedges are also good for butterflies. They offer somewhere to shelter, as well as a hiding place for other insects and small mammals. The best plants to include in such a hedge would be blackthorn, holly, dogwood, wild privet, hawthorn and buckthorn. Adult butterflies hide in log-piles, behind fence panels or in the shed over the winter. The first sunny days will bring them out of hiding but do not be too hasty to release any you find in the house if the weather is not warm enough. Transfer them instead to the shed or a cool outbuilding if you have one.

Although it may be stating the obvious, do avoid using insecticides. Nature, over time, will control most of your pests and your garden will have a natural balance where, for example, birds and ladybirds control the aphids on your roses. Many insecticides are horribly indiscriminate.

Let’s hope this summer is sunny and warm for our butterflies, and that you have many visiting your gardens in the coming months.

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