A garden stocked with plants for butterflies and moths will fill your outdoor space with colour and intoxicating scent.

Comma  - Rob Blanken

From tall plants such as Buddleia, Verbena bonariensis and Hemp Agrimony, to front-of-border staples like Cosmos, Lungwort and Primrose, you can create a spectacular display that’s a feast for your eyes as well as your favourite insects and other wildlife. When planting for butterflies it’s a good idea to have something in flower for as long a season as possible – ideally from March to November. This is because some butterflies and moths emerge from hibernation in early spring, while others are still on the wing in late autumn. Providing a long season of nectar therefore ensures local butterflies and moths never go without food. 

The perfect garden plan 

The planting plan on this page should give you an idea of how to create a herbaceous border that’s perfect for butterflies and moths. Including both nectar plants and caterpillar foodplants, the design represents a fantastic mix of garden-worthy herbaceous plants, shrubs and climbers that work well in an ornamental setting but also play a role for insects. Don’t worry if you can’t find the exact cultivar we have suggested – like any good recipe there’s plenty of room for you to swap and change things around, add your own ingredients and see what works best for your garden.


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Turn your garden into a meadow


It’s not just in your herbaceous borders where you can make a difference to butterflies and moths. Your lawn is full of potential to provide food, shelter and a breeding habitat for a variety of species – you just need to be less hasty with the lawnmower. Different grasses will attract grass breeding butterflies such as the Speckled Wood, Gatekeeper and Ringlet, and wildflowers will offer both a source of nectar and a potential breeding habitat for a range of species.

You don’t need to transform your whole lawn into a wildflower meadow. A small strip can make a huge difference and it needn’t be unattractive. Why not make a feature of the habitat, leaving a circle of grass to grow long around a tree, or create a maze for children to run through? There’s a variety of ways you can create a wildflower meadow but the easiest way is to simply stop mowing your lawn. Then all you need to do is cut it down every autumn and again in spring, removing and composting the grass clippings to gradually reduce the nutrient levels. Over time, wildflowers and native grasses present nearby will hopefully self-seed into the patch and you can watch the meadow slowly begin to take shape. You can also buy wildflower turf, which you lay over the subsoil as a ready-made meadow. This is an expensive, but more instant option.


Urban gardening

You don’t need a large garden to help butterflies and moths. In fact, you don’t need a garden at all. Whether you have a roof terrace or balcony, or even just a window box or a couple of containers outside your front door, you can create a ‘nectar bar’, where insects can stop off and refuel. If you spread the word and encourage your neighbours do the same, then together you will have a whole corridor of nectar plants, which will help butterflies and moths travel more easily between habitats.

Small Tortoiseshell - Iain Lawrie

It’s not just butterflies and moths that benefit from urban gardening. Our towns and cities are becoming increasingly grey: front gardens are paved over to make space for car parking; back gardens are lost under patios, decking and garden offices; urban green spaces are seen as ‘brownfield’ land and earmarked for development. All of this contributes to the‘urban heat island effect’, where temperatures in cities are higher than those in less urban areas. The lack of earth, trees and plants to absorb rain water increases the risk of flooding, and there are fewer plants to provide shelter and food for wildlife.

A little pot of Candy tuft on your doorstep can therefore go a long way. But if you have room to expand your plant selection – to grow plants up walls and clothe your balcony with plants, using a plethora of pots, containers and hanging baskets, you can create a mini butterfly and moth oasis in the heart of the city.

Tips for urban gardening:

  • Elephant Hawk-moth - Bob Eade
    Grow plants in containers – you don’t need expensive terracotta pots, use lightweight, plastic pots, or recycle old olive oil tins, plastic bottles and wine crates. Why not join your local Freecycle group to see what’s going for free nearby?
  • Stand pots on old stools or chairs, to raise their height and make room for other containers.
  • Be creative – an upturned pallet can be used to make a tall, shelved planting area, while small pots can be placed on larger pots to create a multi-layered look.
  • Use your wall space – you can buy planting pockets and container brackets to hang from bare walls.
  • Grow fast-growing climbers such as Honeysuckle, Jasmine, Hop and Clematis. These are good nectar plants but may also be used as caterpillar foodplants.
  • Use hanging baskets to add interest and fill gaps.
  • Choose plants that have a variety of uses, such as herbs, including Rosemary, Chives, Oregano and Sage.
  • Grow a pot of Comfrey – this is a great nectar plant and foodplant, but its leaves are also rich in potassium, the main nutrient that boosts flower growth. To make a simple, free organic plant food, simply harvest a few Comfrey leaves and steep them in water for two weeks. Then dilute the solution one part to 10 parts water, and use to water your flowering plants.
  • If growing on a roof or balcony, use lightweight, multipurpose compost. You may also benefit from filling pots one third with old chunks of polystyrene to save on compost and further reduce the weight of containers.
  • Make a green roof for your shed. There are plenty of easy-to-follow designs online, increasing your potential to grow plants for butterflies and moths.