How to Attract Butterflies to your Garden
Butterflies have mesmerising qualities, heightened when they are complemented with equally flamboyant flowers. Their names are endearing too, skipper, gatekeeper and painted lady.
This spring their numbers seem to be more buoyant than usual, possibly because the hard winter means they stayed in hibernation, rather than coming out in milder periods and then getting zapped by the damp weather which causes them to rot off.
Marney Hall, the veteran ecologist and garden designer, worked for the Institute of Terrestrial Ecology in the Sixties and Seventies on several projects with these ephemeral beauties including one study looking into their decline in numbers.
This involved monitoring their numbers and studying their habitats. She went to advise staff at Kew Gardens, who were concerned about the drop in populations, especially of the holly blue.
The holly blue hibernates in the dead leaves of the holly, which the gardeners regularly raked up and removed. As soon as this was pointed out to them and the leaf clearance regime changed the population soared.
Many butterflies are very specific as to the type of plants they need, and a good range of these and nectar-rich flowering plants ensures a variety of butterflies.
Plants such as buddleia, teazles and Michaelmas daisies enable the butterflies to top up their sugars, especially necessary before their long winter hibernation.
Fancy, brightly coloured, double forms of plants have often had the nectarines bred out of them, and so are of no use. Think of the bright-coloured, double primulas compared to the humble, native primrose – the latter is a rich, accessible source, the former is not. If you're unsure, buy one of the many packets of special "butterfly flower mixes" now available (Unwins or Marshalls Seeds).
Some butterflies hibernate in their adult form. Those that you see in the bedroom in winter which suddenly wake up when the heating in a room is turned up are the obvious examples. Others winter as larvae or eggs.
Generally butterflies have a longer life than often thought, eight or nine months is not uncommon. I never know what is best for the butterflies woken from their slumbers that flap anxiously on the glass panes.
Marney puts them in a box in the fridge, which sends them back to sleep, then she puts them in her cool garage with the box lid just ajar, so they can go off on their travels again in spring.
Butterflies, like us, respond to shelter, sustenance and sunshine. Indulge them in these essentials and it is likely they will come and decorate your garden.
The types and quantity you attract will also depend on the weather and the area you live in. Apart from planting the more obvious food and nectar plants, many flowering grasses are excellent food plants.
Butterflies such as the meadow brown, gatekeeper and the Essex skipper can be spotted among the grasses, especially in the junction where the longer grasses meet the shorter. The more modern grasses such as Italian Rye are not the grasses they need, rather the native grasses such as Timothy, the fescues, foxtails and quaking grass.
Meadows or even small patches of these when in flower, look quite stunning. Adding perennials such as the knapweeds or hard heads, Centaurea spp will bring in other lepidoptera such as peacocks and tortoiseshell.
Under my new orchard I have a pattern of squares differentiated by mown paths which dissect small three sq metre (nine sq ft) areas of longer grasses and perennials. I love watching the butterflies working these "natural" areas by day and then the bats follow as the twilight comes.
You don't need acres to enjoy butterflies, but choose a suitably sheltered, sunny space and put in a few clumps of popular nectar-rich butterfly plants that will flower in sequence from March to October. Sweet rocket, forget-me-knots and single primulas, are out around now. Hebes, hemp agrimony (Eupatorium cannabinum), marjoram, sedums and buddleia could follow on throughout the summer and autumn.
The food plants for caterpillars are less appealing to gardeners in the main,
with nettles and thistles being excellent sources. Nettles can be cut back
in June, to encourage more tasty, young growth. I tolerate them in my wilder
hedgerow bottoms, but if I had little space I would be sorely tempted to
focus on the less pernicious food plants such as sorrel, grasses, hops,
currants, ivy and bird's foot trefoil.