Dig It – May Tips from the Secret Gardener

Meadow Browns

B&Q has just launched a report called The Nature of Gardens, which summarises 10 simple steps to bring wildlife closer to home. One of their suggestions is to help wildflowers and grasses flourish – to ‘liberate the lawn’. We also recommend letting an area of grass grow long or sowing an area with a mix of wildflowers and grasses to provide food and shelter for butterflies, moths and other wildlife.

Grasses for butterflies

If you live in the south of the UK, you are most likely to find Speckled Wood breeding in your garden. However, in the north it is more constrained to woodlands. You don’t have to make any effort as it could breed in shady little corners of the garden where the grass has grown long – for example under a hedge or a bench.

Meadow Brown (Will Langdon)If you have a modest sized garden with an area of long grass or a small meadow area, you might attract the Gatekeeper or Meadow Brown to breed. Gatekeepers are especially drawn to gardens that have flowering herbs such as Wild Marjoram. Other purple flowers such as Knapweed are also popular nectar sources for the brown butterflies.

If you have a large garden in the countryside, with an area of long grass, near suitable habitat, you might have Marbled White and Large, Small or Essex Skippers. Ringlets could also breed in the shady areas of a woodland garden.

There is a lot of advice available about the best time of year to cut different kinds of meadows. There are likely to be various life cycle stages present throughout the year, so for butterflies and moths there is never an ideal time. The grass will have to be cut to avoid nettles and brambles taking over and also to help the flowers to thrive, which are good nectar sources. The best advice we can offer is, in late autumn, to cut only half of the area each year. This will leave half of the habitat and species undisturbed. Any long grass cut with a scythe or shears can be left for a while for wildlife to escape, before it is gathered up.

Large Skipper eggIf you want to create a grassy breeding area, then you could leave an area of lawn to grow long but it is likely that it will be mainly rye-grass – depending on the history of the garden. It will also be rather flat, and a useful habitat consists of some tussocky grasses so that caterpillars can hide at the base. There are plenty of grass seed mixes available - with or without wildflowers.

The brown butterflies use a range of fine and coarse grasses as foodplants. For the Gatekeeper, Meadow Brown and Ringlet you are really aiming for a mix of fine grasses such as bents Agrostis spp., fescues (various) Festuca spp. and meadow-grasses Poa spp. The Small Skipper and Speckled Wood will use Yorkshire-fog Holcus lanatus and other grasses. The Large Skipper, Essex Skipper, Ringlet and Speckled Wood will all use the coarse Cock’s-foot Dactylis glomerata. Common Couch Elytrigia repens – the gardener’s nemesis – can also be used by several butterflies!

Grasses for moths

Don’t forget that some moth caterpillars also consume grasses – either as a main food source or in combination with other herbaceous plants. In many cases the moths will shelter over winter as caterpillars, often hiding low down in the vegetation or in grass tussocks during the day and coming up at night to feed. Some then pupate underground and others in a cocoon spun above ground, for example near the base of the grass stem. In bigger gardens with grass tussocks you might find some of the following moths.

Drinker caterpillar (Bob Eade)Common Wainscot is present in a wide range of dry and damp grasslands including in urban areas. Foodplants are various grasses, including Tufted Hair-grass Deschampsia cespitosa, Annual Meadow-grass Poa annua, Common Couch and Cock’s-foot. Smoky Wainscot caterpillars also eat a range of grasses including Cock’s-foot and Common Reed Phragmites australis. The Clay, another wainscot moth, is also a user of Cock’s-foot and meadow grasses. The striking Drinker frequents tall, damp grassland but also occurs in drier places. It uses a wide range of coarse grasses and reeds including Cock’s-foot, couches, Common Reed and Wood Small-reed Calamagrostis epigejos.

Large Yellow Underwing uses a wide range of herbaceous plants along with grasses such as Annual Meadow-grass. Eggs are laid from July onwards in large batches, which can sometimes be seen on grasses or other vegetation. Black Rustic consumes various woody and herbaceous plants, including Tufted Hair-grass, Heather and clovers.

Common Swift and Flounced Rustic overwinter as caterpillars, eating the roots of grasses.

Feathered Gothic and Hedge Rustic moths overwinter as eggs. They are caterpillars from March to July and consume hard-bladed grasses. They feed at night at first on the leaves and when larger at ground level on the stems.

Sourcing seeds

You could collect a handful of seeds from some local grasses, which are then likely to suit your soil.

Emorsgate Seeds has many grass mixes including a tussock grass mixture, with or without flowers:

To find further seed suppliers look back at the March blog about wildflowers.

Let us know how marvellous your meadow or tiny tussock patch turns out.

Happy Gardening!

The Secret Gardener