Grow A Secret Garden For Butterflies

Shutterstock © Close up view of a beautiful Peacock butterfly on lavender

There’s nothing better than seeing colourful butterflies and moths fluttering around our garden plants and countryside, but for some species, their numbers are dropping significantly. The Wildlife Trusts and Royal Horticultural Society (RHS) is calling on gardeners to get growing to help the UK’s falling numbers…

What gardeners grow can have a huge impact on butterfly and moth numbers nationally, so find out what plants attract these beautiful insects and what we can do to help them.

Once-common species are vanishing

Small tortoiseshell butterfly, orange and brown wings, on buddleia

Small tortoiseshell butterfly. Copyright Shirley Freeman

Butterflies and moths are important pollinators and, along with caterpillars, are vital food for birds like robins and blue tits as well as bats.

However, their habitats have faced catastrophic declines. Once-common species like the small tortoiseshell have dropped by up to 80% in the last 30 years in some areas.

An ideal butterfly garden has a wide variety of plants throughout the year to support their life cycles – for butterflies and moths emerging from hibernation, egg-laying females, caterpillars and then as adults.

What should I plant to help butterfly and moth numbers?

Early-flowering species such as dandelions, aubretia and native bluebells are good sources of nectar. These could be followed by buddleia and red valerian and, finally, ivy flowers which are a great late-season asset in the autumn.

Brimstone butterfly, pale green with a brown spot, resembling a leaf, feeding on red clover

Brimstone butterfly on red clover. Copyright Jim Higham

Many wildflowers and long grasses are also excellent larval food-plants. Whether your garden is large or small – or simply a flowering window-box – it could throw these declining insects a lifeline, especially in urban areas.

The Wildlife Trusts’ gardening champion, horticulturist and TV presenter Frances Tophill says:

“Our garden flowers and plants provide a rich source of rejuvenating nectar for these much-loved garden visitors as they emerge from hibernation to herald the start of spring.

“Go wild in your garden and leave the dandelions and daisies in the lawn to provide a meal. Aim for year-round flowers. Include a wildflower area for egg-laying females, as well as gardeners’ favourites like lavender, nasturtium and verbena.

“The Wild About Gardens website is packed with information and easy actions we can all take to support butterflies and moths throughout their impressive life cycle.”

Butterfly garden plants

Ellie Brodie, senior policy manager of The Wildlife Trusts says:

“We all love watching moths and butterflies as they flutter by and brighten up our gardens – being in nature replenishes us and makes us happy.

“We know that UK wildlife is in decline and needs our help. That’s why we’re asking gardeners to work together and create a wave of long grass, wildflowers, colour and perfume across the country – a nature recovery network for these gorgeous creatures.”

Elephant hawk moth, velvety khaki and purple moth with pointed wings and abdomen, feeding on lilac

Elephant hawk moth. Copyright Vaughn Matthews

Helen Bostock, Senior Horticultural Advisor at the RHS says:

“Many moth and butterfly species are helpful pollinators and an important part of a balanced, healthy garden.

“With many of their natural habitats under threat, please consider rewilding an area of the garden to provide food and shelter for these fascinating insects or sacrificing a patch of plants.

“For example, a window box bursting with nasturtiums will help attract large white butterflies away from your cabbage crop.”

Pledge for butterflies

Every butterfly garden counts. We want to know about every new wild area, box or border that’s being grown for butterflies.

Each garden contributes towards the network of green spaces that nature needs to survive. Please pledge a bit of garden for butterflies and moths and help us put it on the map.

Painted Lady butterfly on purple statice, red brick cottage in background

Painted lady. Copyright Adam Cormack

Take notice of nature

In the book and film The Secret Garden, the garden eases grief, heals rifts and brings joy to all who experience it, so why not make a special place for wildlife in your very own “secret garden” where you can replenish your soul, reconnect with nature and help wildlife to thrive?

You’ve probably noticed how spotting butterflies or birds, or walking through woodlands, or alongside rivers and streams can help to lift your mood. Make some time for nature today and enjoy the restorative benefits!

Garden plants for caterpillars

Elephant hawk moth caterpillar, scaly appearance, black and copper with eye-like markings at one end. Also lackey moth caterpillar, blue, black, orange and cream lengthwise stripes and ginger hairs

Top: Elephant hawk moth caterpillar. Copyright Andrew Halstead. Above: Lackey moth caterpillar. Copyright Vaughn Matthews.

Favourite foods of caterpillars include:

  • Nasturtiums
  • Cabbage
  • Cuckoo flower (lady’s smock)
  • Common sorrel
  • Bird’s foot trefoil

Butterfly garden plants for window-box

Blue-grey butterfly with delicate markings, sun shining through its wings

Holly blue butterfly. Copyright Margaret Holland

Nectar-rich butterfly delights include:

  • Chives
  • Pale-yellow scabious
  • Forget-me-not
  • Viper’s bugloss
  • Sage
  • Thyme
  • Fennel
  • Mint
  • Aubretia

Butterfly garden plants for borders

Peacock butterfly resting on deep pink asters

Peacock butterfly (Inachis io).

Here are some bigger plants and bushes that could attract clouds of butterflies to your garden! Of course, you could also use any of those suggested above for the window box.

  • Holly
  • Thistle
  • Hops
  • Buddleia
  • Verbena
  • Ivy
  • Lavender
  • Hebe

Download or pick up a booklet

Cover of Grow A Secret Garden For Butterflies bookletThe Wildlife Trusts and RHS have published a beautiful – free – booklet with colourful advice and easy tips designed to make our outdoor spaces more attractive to butterflies, moths and their caterpillars. It’s available here.

Check out the Trusts’ full range of wildlife gardening booklets, advice and inspiration.

Also take a look at turning your garden into a wildlife haven to attract bugs, bees and all sorts of wildlife.

Sarah Proctor

I've worked on a variety of regional newspapers and national magazines. My Weekly and Your Best Ever Christmas are fantastic, warm-hearted brands with an amazing, talented team. I'm a sub-editor and particularly love working on cookery, fiction and advice pages - I feel I should know all the secrets of eternal life, health and happiness by now, but hey, we all need that regular reminder!