Most gardeners welcome the sight of butterflies tumbling around our herbaceous borders. Common species such as the small tortoiseshell and peacock are as colourful as some of the prettiest garden flowers, and complement them perfectly.
Sadly, many butterfly species are in decline, due to a combination of climate change, pesticide use and habitat loss.
However, there’s a lot we can do to help butterflies in our gardens. The main thing to do is to grow nectar-rich flowers from March to November. Planting caterpillar foodplants will also enable them to complete their lifecycles in your garden.
More on gardening for butterflies:
Find out more about gardening for butterflies, below.
Grow flowers in a sunny, sheltered spot
Gardening for butterflies – cranesbill geranium and chamomile flowers
Butterflies feed and bask in full sun, so grow nectar-rich flowers in a sunny, sheltered spot, such as in front of a hedge.
Grow nectar-rich plants in spring
Gardening for butterflies – spring-flowering wallflowers
Spring flowers are vital for butterflies coming out of hibernation or those that have migrated here from the Continent. Good, nectar-rich plants for spring include Erysimum ‘Bowles’s Mauve’ (which flowers in summer and autumn, too), aubretia, violet, wallflowers, primrose, hyacinth, bluebell, grape hyacinth, lilac and sweet rocket.
Grow nectar-rich flowers in summer
Gardening for butterflies – small tortoiseshell butterfly on Verbena bonariensis
Some of the best plants for summer nectar include buddleja, Verbena bonariensis, lavender, marjoram (Origanum), red valerian and hebe. You could also include honeysuckle, cranesbill, catmint, cosmos, feverfew, helenium, echinacea and heliotrope.
Grow nectar-rich flowers in autumn
Gardening for butterflies – peacock butterfly on Michaelmas daisies
Autumn flowers help butterflies build up their energy reserves for winter. Good sources include Hylotelephium (Sedum) spectabile, Michaelmas daisy, ivy, single chrysanthemums and heather.
Water flowering plants during dry spells
Gardening for butterflies – watering flowering plants
Water your plants well – this means they will keep producing nectar during dry periods, when other plants dry up. Mulching around the base of plants will help the soil retain moisture and will nourish them, too, keeping them healthy.
Deadhead spent flowers
Gardening for butterflies – deadheading buddleja
Deadheading spent flowers helps to keep plants blooming for longer, which means more nectar for butterflies. Find out how to deadhead your plants.
Grow caterpillar food plants
Gardening for butterflies – grow caterpillar foodplants, like ivy
While adult butterflies feed on nectar, their caterpillars feed on the leaves and buds of specific plants, such as nettles, holly and ivy, and lady’s smock (Cardamine pratensis). Growing these plants in your garden will enable butterflies to complete their lifecycles.
Don’t use pesticides
Gardening for butterflies – avoid using pesticides
Insecticides, especially when used on or near flowering plants or caterpillar food plants, can kill butterflies and other pollinating insects, as well as spiders, ground beetles and ladybirds. Other pesticides, such as weedkillers, remove important caterpillar foodplants from your garden.
Leave fallen fruit in autumn
Gardening for butterflies – leave fallen fruit in autumn
If you leave windfall fruit under your pear, apple or plum tree, some butterflies, including red admiral and painted lady, may feed on the sugary juices.
Plant a meadow
Gardening for butterflies – grow a meadow
The caterpillars of several butterflies, including skippers, the meadow brown and gatekeeper, feed on native grasses. Simply leave an area of grass to grow long and they may breed there. Laying wildflower turf or growing native wildflowers among the grasses, will provide nectar for visiting adults, too.
Provide a basking place
Butterflies love to spread their wings and bask in the sun – it raises their body temperature, which means they are able to fly and remain active. If you can, provide somewhere for them to bask – large leaved plants, rocks or stepping stones and bare soil are all ideal.