Gardeners nationwide are being encouraged to do their bit for butterflies by taking part in a national Day of Conservation Action on March 10, to mark the 50th anniversary of the charity Butterfly Conservation.
Planting the right material to help butterflies on their way is vital, says the charity. The insects love nectar-rich plants like buddleia and lavender – but they must also have the right types of breeding grounds.
The charity’s garden expert Natalie Ngo explains: “Creating a haven for butterflies isn’t all about nectar. A lot of them use grasses, including skippers, marbled whites, meadow brown and gatekeeper.”
Most butterflies lay their eggs on plants which will be eaten by the caterpillars when they hatch. The eggs are generally laid on the underside of leaves and each caterpillar type likes only certain kinds of leaves.
Create an area of long grass and wildflowers
Let an area of grass grow long and meadow brown butterflies should breed in it. But it’s not generally lawn grass or ornamental grasses which are used.
Among the best are some of the bents (agrostis), cocksfoot, false brome, fescues and meadow grasses. They are wild grasses, not ornamental.
“Lawns are slightly different grasses. Rye grass isn’t quite right for butterflies,” Ngo explains. “Buy a packet of wild grass seed and find a patch.”
If you have room, sow wildflower seeds. The flowers and grasses provide nectar for butterflies and moths, along with food and shelter for their caterpillars. Even a tiny meadow area in a rural garden or a tub of colourful wildflowers in the city could provide a wonderful refuge for pollinators.
“I had wildflower seeds in a pot which lasted for years. I’ve also got grasses in a pot and I found a caterpillar on the grass. They will find it.”
Use colourful additions
Silver-studded blue will lay their eggs in heather, while honeysuckle provides an ideal spot for white admiral, and violets attract fritillaries to their leaves. Some caterpillars will feast on nasturtiums, which can act as a deterrent to them eating your cabbages.
If you want your planting to remain relatively neat, plant buckthorn within your hedging to attract brimstones, and holly as a hedge, which attracts holly blue butterflies.
Keep clumps of nettles
Many common garden butterflies, such as the red admiral, comma and small tortoiseshell, lay eggs on stinging nettles.
The colourful nymphalid butterflies will lay their eggs on the nettle leaves, which will provide food for the caterpillars. Look out for eggs laid singly by the red admiral and comma or in batches by the small tortoiseshell and peacock. The eggs of all four butterflies will hatch in one to three weeks, depending on temperature.
Make the rest of your garden a magnet for butterflies
Choose sunny, sheltered spots when planting nectar-rich plants, as butterflies like warmth. Put in a variety of plants to attract different types of butterflies and plant the same varieties in blocks.
Make sure you plant to cover all seasons, taking into account the importance of spring flowers when butterflies are coming out of hibernation, to autumn blooms which will help them build up their reserves for winter.
Keep flowers going by deadheading regularly, watering well and mulching with organic matter, to boost nectar supplies.
For more information, go to the Butterfly Conservation website