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Gardening for Butterflies

    Creating a butterfly and moth garden

    Many of us can do a great deal to conserve butterflies and other wildlife in our gardens. With our butterfly and moth species in decline active conservation in our private gardens and in our public spaces can make a real difference to a number of species.

Record your garden butterflies

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    Instead of seeing our gardens as places where we have to keep the grass cut why not see them as habitats for butterflies? Most of our general countryside butterflies and moths are mobile and you stand a good chance of attracting them if you change the management of your garden.

Flowers for butterflies

Plant nectar-rich flowering plants and shrubs in a sunny, sheltered part of your garden. Shrubs that are especially attractive include Butterfly Bush [Buddleja davidii] and hebes [Hebe spp], while Lavender [Lavandula angustifolia], Verbena [Verbena bonariensis], Ice Plant [choose Sedum spectabile], Marjoram [Origanum vulgare], Chives [Allium schoenoprasum], Wild Thyme [Thymus praecox], Michelmas Daisy [Aster novae-belgii) and Grape Hyacinth [Muscari neglectum] will attract butterflies, sometimes in remarkable numbers. These flowers can be planted in a dedicated butterfly border with taller plants like the Butterfly Bush at the back of the border with low growing plants like Thyme and Grape Hyacinth at the front.

Create a wetland associated with a pond by covering part of the pond liner with soil and planting this area with wetland wild flowers such as Lady’s Smock [Cardamine pratensis], Water-mint [Mentha aquatica], Fleabane [Pulicaria dysenterica], Water-cress [Nasturtium offinale] and Purple Loosestrife [Lythrum salicaria] will be of great benefit to wildlife including butterflies and moths.

Wildflower meadow

Wildflower meadow

A wildflower meadow is a more ambitious but highly rewarding undertaking that can produce a rich habitat in which butterflies and moths can feed and breed.

Before deciding to create a wildflower meadow from the beginning, allow a sunny part of your lawn bordering a hedge to grow long and see what happens. Some old lawns are rich in wild flowers but these never have the chance to flower if lawns are mowed regularly. You may be surprised to see clover [Trifolium spp], Field Buttercup [Rununculus acris] and Ox-eye Daisy [Leucanthemum vulgare] appear. These will attract butterflies, moths, bees and hoverflies. A range of wild creatures will be enticed in especially if you allow your wild flowers to set seed. However some lawns are sown with Perennial Rye-grass, a plant that eliminates wild flowers. Application of fertiliser also reduces the chances of wild flowers being present and encourages vigorous grasses that soon crowd out flowers. The best way to create a wildflower meadow when your lawn lacks wild flowers and when your garden soil is too fertile is to create conditions in which wild flowers can thrive. This can be done by removing the top 15cm [six inches] of top soil and using it elsewhere in the garden -  for example to build up a bank on which to plant your native hedgerow. Having removed the topsoil, rotovate the soil that was beneath it. If it is stony and sandy, this is good news. Native wild flowers do best in gritty, free-draining soil (although some wild flowers require damp conditions). The best time to do this work is August – early October.

When the soil is fine and crumbly sow native wildflower seed. Seed can be sourced from suppliers or you can gather your own. Try gathering fresh local seed as this is more likely to thrive in your garden. The majority of the seed sown should be wild flower seed; sow native grass seed in smaller proportions. Mix the seed with dry sand and sow by the ‘broadcast’ method, that is, throw handfuls here and there as you judge best. Next, walk over the area and this will push the seed into contact with the soil.

Holly Blue ovipositing [laying eggs] on variegated Holly

Holly Blue ovipositing [laying eggs] on variegated Holly

For most garden loam soils try a wildflower seed mix consisting of the following: Common Knapweed [Centaurea nigra], Field Scabious [Knautia arvensis], Devil’s-bit Scabious [Succisa pratensis], Wild Carrot [Daucus carota], Common Bird’s-foot-trefoil [Lotus corniculatus], Red Clover [Trifolium pratense], Selfheal [Prunella vulgaris], Lady’s Smock, Ox-eye Daisy, Black Medic [Medicago lupulina], hawkbits [Leontodon spp], hawk’s-beards [Crepis spp], Common Dandelion [Taraxacum officinale], Yellow Rattle [Rhinanthus minor], Cowslip [Primula veris] and Primrose [Primula vulgaris]. These species will provide colour and attract butterflies from March to October.

Cut the meadow at no lower than a 10cm (4 inch) setting on the lawn mower until May and then allow some of the meadow to flower all summer long. Continue to cut some areas on a 10cm setting to provide a variety of sward heights to cater for a range of species. Mow a path through the meadow for access and enjoyment. At the end of the season in September, mow or strim the meadow and remove all the cuttings to a compost heap. Do not allow the cuttings to lie on the meadow as these will hold fertility and promote vigorous grass growth. Leave some patches uncut, as they will provide refuge for insects, butterfly larvae and eggs.

Woodland edge/hedgerow habitat

Native hedgerow featuring Guelder Rose, Hazel and Irish Whitebeam

Native hedgerow featuring Guelder Rose, Hazel and Irish Whitebeam

Planting a hedgerow, consisting of native plants such as Hawthorn, Blackthorn, Common Holly [Ilex aquifolium], Privet [Ligustrum vulgare], Guelder Rose [Viburnum opulus], Alder Buckthorn [Frangula alnus], Common Buckthorn [Rhamnus catharticus], Ivy [Hedera helix] and Hazel is an attractive feature for butterflies, especially if bordered by native grasses and wild flowers. A native hedgerow provides places for basking, feeding, resting, roosting, mating and egg laying.

These tips can make a huge difference to butterflies that visit your garden

  • Water flowering plants in hot weather. This will increase their nectar release;nectar may be in short supply during drought.
  • If you have a bare patch of soil spray this with water in the early morning during hot weather. Male Holly Blues, wood whites and Green-veined Whites will drink the dissolved mineral salts.
  • Keep some pots of female holly plants, either the native Ilex aquifolium or variegated varieties, and place in full sun against a wall or hedge. Holly Blues will lay on them, with you centimetres away.
  • If you have some Ice Plants in pots move these around in early September so they are always in the sun. Butterflies need their flowers to be in sunny conditions.
  • Do not trim back dense Ivy. Brimstone butterflies will use it for hibernation and the late summer/autumn generation of the Holly Blue will use it for breeding if it is allowed to flower.
  • A log pile in a shaded, wooded part of the garden could be used as a hibernaculum by Peacock butterflies.
  • A wooden garden shed with the door or window left open in September/October will attract Small Tortoiseshell butterflies prospecting for a hibernation spot. But make sure that they can leave in March.
  • A gap in stonework or in a wall vent allows access to the hibernating Small Tortoiseshells so don’t be in a hurry to make unnecessary repairs.
  • Allow over-ripe plums to lie on the ground when they drop from a tree; Red Admirals will feast on them.

The golden rule when planting a hedgerow, meadow or developing a wetland is to think native. Most native butterflies breed only on native, trees, shrubs, herbs and grasses. Adult butterflies are not particular about whether their nectar is derived from native sources but they are very specific about larval foodplants.

Butterfly benefits from habitat creation

There is no doubt that gardens can play a role in providing a place for butterflies to feed and breed if the right habitats and food are provided. In my garden there is a flowering herb bed, a woodland edge, a pond/wetland, native hedgerows and wildflower meadow – all crammed in to about one third of an acre. I have a nettle patch in a sunny, sheltered corner for the Vanessid family (like the Red Admiral) many of which breed on nettles.

The results were dramatic. In 2006 my garden, which I developed from scratch, was eight years old. I saw 17 butterfly species in my garden that summer. The number of individual butterflies seen can be enormous. On one hot day in late June there were 49 butterflies in the meadow feeding chiefly on Rayed Knapweed (Centaurea nigra nemoralis). By replicating a woodland clearing consisting of a wildflower meadow sheltered by a copse on the north facing side of the garden and hedges facing south and east, a sheltered, warm microclimate has been created- ideal conditions for most native butterflies. The butterflies that graced the garden in the summer of 2006 were Cryptic Wood White, Orange-tip, Small White, Large White, Clouded Yellow, Green-veined White, Holly Blue, Common Blue, Small Copper, Red Admiral, Small Tortoiseshell, Peacock, Painted Lady, Silver-washed Fritillary, Speckled Wood, Ringlet and Meadow Brown. The total of seventeen included two surprises, Cryptic Wood White and Silver-washed Fritillary. The former usually frequents tussocky grassland with plenty of trefoils and vetches, its larval foodplants. Was it attracted to the tussocky meadow in the garden that had plenty of Common Bird’s-foot-trefoil, or was it just a wanderer, stimulated to move by a colonising instinct or the hot weather?

Growing ‘butterfly friendly’ flowers from seed

The following native flowers are easy to grow and most are valuable sources of nectar. Some are larval foodplants for moths as well as butterflies.

Foodplant Latin name Butterfly larvae Nectar source
Devil’s-bit Scabious Succisa pratensis Marsh Fritillary Yes
Field Scabious Knautia arvensis Yes
Common Knapweed Centaurea nigra Yes
Bird’s-foot-trefoil Lotus corniculatus Cryptic Wood White, Wood White, Common Blue, Dingy Skipper, Green Hairstreak Yes
Violets Viola species (spp) Pearl-bordered Fritillary, Dark Green Fritillary, Silver-washed Fritillary Yes
Primrose Primula vulgaris Yes
Autumnal Hawkbit Leontodon autumnalis Yes
Cuckoo Flower Cardamine pratensis Green-veined White, Orange-tip Yes
Kidney Vetch Anthyllis vulneraria Small Blue Yes
Stinging nettle Urtica dioica Small Tortoiseshell, Peacock, Red Admiral, Painted Lady, Comma
Dandelion Taraxacum officinale Yes
Thistles Cirsium spp Painted Lady Yes
Ragged Robin Lychnis flos-cuculi Yes

 Devil’s-bit Scabious                                                      Field Scabious

Devil’s-bit Scabious                              Field Scabious

Devil’s-bit Scabious

This plant will grow in damp and dry situations. Gather seed from seed heads of Devil’s-bit Scabious in September just as they are about to disintegrate. Rub the seed head between thumb and forefingers - if it disintegrates readily the seed is ripe for harvesting. If the plants are to be sown in pots, fill the pots with peat substitute or with a mixture of fine gravel and soil [50:50]. Ensure the pots are soaked and the surface is level. Then sprinkle the seeds on top and press the seeds in firmly. The seeds can also be sown on an open area in soil that is fine, crumbly and damp. They can also be sown in a gravel driveway/path if the gravel is finely crushed. Always sow fresh seed. Keep pots moist and water from below.

Field Scabious

This plant prefers well-drained soil. Follow the sowing advice given for the Devil’s-bit Scabious but allow the substrate to dry out a little. When the plants are of sufficient size plant them on a dry bank that receives good sunlight.

Common Knapweed

This plant will grow in most garden loams as well as on peaty and gravelly soil. Extract the ripe brown seed from the flower head by dislodging the seed with your fingernail. Follow the sowing advice given for the previous species and sow the seed fresh. It grows rapidly and could flower the following summer.

Common Bird’s-foot-trefoil

The pea-like seeds must first be removed from the pods that should be brown and shrivelled.This plant prefers gravelly soil but it will grow on peaty substrates if marl is present. Follow the advice given for Field Scabious.

Common Bird’s-foot-trefoil

Common Bird’s-foot-trefoil

Ragged Robin

This beautiful pink wetland flower grows in damp soils and provides a good nectar source for several butterflies. Extract the seed by crushing the seedpod and scatter on damp soil, pressing down on the seed with the palm of your hand.

Ragged Robin

Ragged Robin

Primrose

Primroses

Primroses

Collect seed from ripe pods.Seeds are round, black and sticky and attract the attention of ants.You can prolong the flowering and seed production by ‘dead-heading’ some of the flowers. Place pots with garden soil mixed with leaf mulch in a shaded position [preferably with dappled shade].Sprinkle seed onto a pre-wetted surface and press them into the soil. Keep pots moist. Alternatively sow fresh seed directly onto fine crumbly woodland soil.Germination occurs after a few weeks.

Violets

Violets

Collect seed from ripe pods in early summer usually in June. Follow the sowing advice given for the Primrose. Germination occurs after a couple of weeks.

Hawk’s-beards/Hawkbits/Common Dandelion/Thistles

Collect winged seeds from May onwards. Detach from wings and sow onto a gravelly surface, gravelly soil or fine garden loam. Marsh Thistle (Cirsium palustre) grows best in damp soil and will appreciate peaty soils. Place in full sun.

Lady’s Smock/Cuckoo Flower

Cuckoo Flower with male Orange-tip butterfly

Cuckoo Flower with male Orange-tip butterfly

Lady’s Smock (also known as Cuckoo Flower) is available from garden centres. Its seed can be sown in pots of previously soaked garden soil/peat. Extract seed from pods in June/July and sow by pressing into soil but without burying the seed. Place in full sun keeping growing medium moist.Germination occurs quite quickly.

Kidney Vetch

Kidney Vetch

Kidney Vetch

Collect seed from disintegrating seed heads in July. The seed is small, hard and black. Sow into pots of sandy or gravelly soil. Place in full sun. It will flower within two years.

Stinging Nettle

Two Peacock butterflies ovipositing on the underside of a nettle leaf

Two Peacock butterflies ovipositing on the underside of a nettle leaf.

Dig around a clump of nettles and cut some pieces of root. Plant the pieces of root directly in the garden in a sunny position under 2cm of garden loam. It thrives best in rich soils, often near a wall or base of a hedgerow.

Growing a ‘butterfly friendly’ trees from seed.

Trees that benefit butterflies and their larva are easily grown, although some require patience.The following are valuable nectar sources and/or larval foodplants.

    Alder Buckthorn (Frangula alnus) Brimstone larvae

    Blackthorn (Prunus spinosa) Brown Hairstreak/moth larvae

    Hazel (Coryllus avellana) moth larvae/shelter

    Holly (Ilex aquifolium) Holly Blue larvae

    Oak (Quercus robur/Q. petraea) Purple Hairstreak/moth larvae

Alder Buckthorn

Alder Buckthorn showing ripe (black) and unripe fruit

Alder Buckthorn showing ripe (black) and unripe fruit

This scarce plant is the larval foodplant of the Brimstone butterfly and if it were more widespread the range of the butterfly would certainly expand. From late summer (from late July onwards until early November) gather the black, glossy berries. Crush them under water and extract the seed. Sow seeds by pressing them into the surface of damp peat placed in a shallow seed tray. Germination is usually very reliable and will occur the following spring, probably in April. Remove from the seed tray after a month of growth and plant each sapling into individual pots with garden compost or peat substrate with slow release fertilizer granules. If placed in a sunny situation growth is rapid. It will reach a metre or higher in two years and the plant will flower and produce fruit in its second year. It reaches a mature height of c.4 metres.

Blackthorn

This common hedgerow plant reproduces by seed and by vegetative means. Plants send out lateral roots that extend a short distance (often about ½ metre) from the parent and then produce a new plant.This new plant can be transplanted by severing the root connecting it to the parent plant and digging carefully around the young sapling to remove it from the ground. Re-plant immediately in good, well aerated soil. Wait until after leaf fall before digging up any deciduous tree or shrub. Alternatively, collect sloe berries in autumn and remove the seeds. Place a 50:50 sharp sand [not builders’ sand]/compost mixture in a shallow seed tray and water well. Mix seeds in with this [ensuring that all seeds are covered by the substrate] and await germination, which could require the passing of a second winter. Keep outdoors in an exposed position so as to allow the winter cold to get at the seed tray. Nurseries often sell Blackthorn saplings sometimes at low cost.

Hazel

Crack the outer coating (shell) when this is pale brown- this is usually in September. Remove the nut and sow in a shallow seed tray with a mixture of garden loam and sharp sand] at a ratio of 70:30 respectively. Place each nut about 1cm below the surface and apply protective netting if mice are a problem. Like all the native trees and herbaceous plants described here, ensure the tray is left outside in an exposed position. This is to allow the cold weather to break down the seed’s resistance to germination. Germination occurs the following spring. When your seedlings are large enough, transplant into pots and follow the advice given for oak. Hazel is an excellent hedgerow or woodland edge/under storey plant.

Holly

Collect red berries in early December and crush to remove the seeds. Sow the seeds and treat as described for Blackthorn. Germination always takes two winters to accomplish. When your precious long-awaited seedlings have germinated, avoid over-watering the compost and at the first sign of damping off disease (drooping leaves, blackening stalks) spray with a copper fungicide. When the seedlings produce the first prickly leaves transplant to a garden trough or pots containing a good rich compost or peat substitute with slow release fertilizer. Placing the seedlings in a warm position near a south-facing wall can speed up growth considerably. Keep the plants in pots for three or more growing seasons and then plant in their final positions. Plants become fertile after about six years.

Oak

Gather acorns in late September/October and sow immediately in pots of good garden loam. Place the acorn horizontally and cover with 2cm of soil. Germination occurs quite quickly and next spring, you will see your seedling oak send up its first shoot. After a season in the pot plant the saplings into a bed of garden loam.

Oak

Oak

Points to Note

    Watering plants in pots is preferably done from below, using capillary matting or by placing pots in saucers.

    Do not allow compost to become too wet [excepting Cuckoo Flower, which will tolerate this].

    Never allow compost to dry out.

    It is best to place the resulting plants into their final positions the following spring (March) rather than trying to maintain them in pots. Plant flowers in drifts so that you can have a colour continuum.

    Place plants in the correct place i.e. Cuckoo Flower in marshy conditions or wet grassland, Kidney Vetch onto a fine gravelled drive or sunny dry bank with short, open turf, etc.

    Butterflies and moths are cold-blooded animals and plants must [with some exceptions] be located in sunny, sheltered locations for best results.

Survey your garden butterflies

Why not survey your garden butterflies? You can download Butterfly Conservation Ireland’s National Garden Butterfly Survey form from this website[see above]and monitor the species you see from March to November. Return it to the address given on the survey. Provide us with your e-mail contact details and we willl send you a copy of our survey results in our annual report

Text and photographs by Jesmond Harding [copyright] are taken from his book

“Discovering Irish Butterflies & their Habitats” available by emailing author at deniseharding@eircom.net.