Dig It - March Tips from the Secret Gardener

Red Admiral on Scabious

Why have wildflowers in your garden?

Butterflies are declining more rapidly in urban areas than in the countryside. The Royal Horticultural Society, in its Greening Grey Britain campaign, drew attention to the fact that over five million front gardens now have no plants growing in them (that’s one in three for the UK) and four and a half million front gardens (one in four) are completely paved over.

All of us can contribute to improving the area around our homes for wildlife - whether rural or urban - and one way is by sowing wildflower seeds. Meadows in the countryside have a great variety of wildlife associated with them. 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.

What to sow

Annual wildflowers, such as the intensely blue Cornflower Centaurea cyanus and bright yellow Corn Marigold Glebionis segetum will provide nectar or pollen for insects. Cornflower bloom from June to August and are attractive to the Common Blue and Gatekeeper. 

Mullein moth caterpillar

Note that Corn Poppy Papaver rhoeas has pollen for the bees but doesn’t produce nectar. Annuals will bloom in their first season, giving a show of colour from early summer onwards before dying and setting seed in late summer or autumn.

The biennial Dark Mullein Verbascum nigrum has tall stems of yellow flowers with purple-haired stamens from June to Sep. It is a foodplant for the large and easily spotted Mullein moth caterpillars from late May to July. After that, from July to mid-Sep, the flowers are also food for the similar looking but scarce Striped Lychnis caterpillars. Formerly more widespread in parts of southern England, the species has suffered a period of rapid decline and is now only found in West Sussex, Hampshire, Berks, Bucks and Oxfordshire. If you live in these areas, please help this moth by sowing some Dark Mullein seed.

There are many colourful, native, perennial wildflowers to choose from:

  • Bladder Campion Silene vulgaris, with white flowers from May to Aug, emits a clove-like scent at night to attract long-tongued moths.
  • Common Bird’s-foot-trefoil Lotus corniculatus, with yellow flowers, is a foodplant for the Common Blue and a number of moths including the Six-spot Burnet.
  • Common Knapweed Centaurea nigra has purple, thistle-like flowers from June to Sep and is also a foodplant for the Lime-speck Pug
  • Greater Knapweed Centaurea scabiosa is similar and particularly attractive to the Marbled White.
  • Meadow Cranesbill Geranium pratense, with violet-blue flowers from June to Sep, is the parent to many garden varieties of hardy geranium.
  • Field Scabious Knautia arvensis has blue-violet flowers from June to Oct and attracts large numbers of pollinators.
  • Ox-eye Daisy Leucanthemum vulgare is the largest-flowered native daisy with white petals and a yellow centre and it will enthusiastically self-seed.
  • Red Clover Trifolium pratense can be a foodplant for the Silver Y moth.
  • Yarrow Achillea millefolium has tiny white or pink flowers arranged in flat umbel-like heads, which are great landing pads for insects, and it is also the foodplant for a number of species of moth.

How to grow

Peacock and HoverflyYou could select a native wildflower seed mix or just a few individual species. The perennial wildflowers listed can be sown from late March to April in either the ground or a container. Watch out for other seeds that should be sown in the autumn as they need a period of cold weather to encourage germination. To sow in the ground, chose a sunny site and prepare the soil so it is weed-free and raked to form a fine bed in which the seeds can germinate. Delay sowing if the ground is too waterlogged. Scatter the seed thinly (if necessary you can mix the seed with dry sand to help with even dispersal) then rake or push onto the soil without covering too much as some wildflowers germinate better when exposed to light. Finally, water very gently to avoid washing the seeds away. If sowing in a tub or window box, use garden soil mixed with a little peat-free compost as wildflowers generally don’t like soil that is too rich in nutrients.

Many plants will flower six to eight weeks after sowing, so you should have a lovely display in the summer attracting butterflies such as the Small Tortoiseshell, Gatekeeper and Common Blue. After flowering you can leave the plants to self-seed.

Where to obtain

B&Q, sponsors of our Garden Butterfly Survey, sell packets of Suttons Wildflower Seeds – Annual Mix in-store.

Habitat Aid has two websites: for small amounts of local, native seed mixes, try British Wildflower Meadow Seeds

If your meadow project is larger than 250 square metres, then visit the main Habitat Aid website for various native selections, including a butterfly and moth wildflower and grass seed mix.

or a pollen and nectar mix without grass. (Butterfly Conservation receives half of the profit from sales of these products.)

For further suppliers of native seed in Britain and Ireland, visit Flora Locale.

If you are planning your wedding then why not consider giving wildflower favours, from which Butterfly Conservation also benefits.

Happy Gardening!

The Secret Gardener