The last butterflies I saw this year were stunning Red Admirals that were taking nectar from the final few flowers of the Eupatorium I have growing beside the front door. Every day for a week, each time I walked past the plant a cloud of butterflies would surround me, and I came to know why the word for a group of butterflies is a ‘kaleidoscope’. Then one day there was only a single Red Admiral remaining, and eventually there were none.

The stalks of the Eupatorium still stand, and are topped with the brown and withered flowers that had once sustained those butterflies. But the journey for the butterflies themselves hasn’t stalled; by now the butterflies from my Perthshire garden may be over 500 miles away in southern England, or could even have made it across to continental Europe and beyond. In some mild parts of the UK adults and caterpillars might survive the winter, but the great majority keep flying south to warmer climates where they can mate and lay eggs. 

This epic migration is triggered in the butterflies by cooling temperatures, and they just get the urge to fly south. It’s humbling to think that the nectar from my garden might be used to produce Red Admiral eggs far away in a garden in Spain or Portugal, and that those eggs will hatch and become butterflies that are admired by the gardeners there. Someday the descendents of those butterflies will fly north to the UK again, and the cycle never stops.

I see this as a reminder that even the smallest of changes in gardens can have great consequences, whether we appreciate them or not. In a time when are confronted with the seemingly unstoppable tide of wildlife extinction and decline, it’s more important than ever that we all do our bit to help in whatever ways we can. When I see paved-over gardens it makes me wonder if my small contribution is making a difference. But then I ask myself: what else would I do? Give up? As a conservationist, I can never sit back and do nothing. I have to hope that what I do is helping, and that things will get better.

It’s this hope that gets me out on damp November days to plant bulbs of Allium and Muscari, and corms of Crocus. While I do grow some daffodils and tulips for the display, I know that they aren’t much use for insects so I just grew a few of them for cut flowers now. I’m also about to plant some new apple trees – autumn and early winter is an ideal time for this as the soil is still warm and moist enough. The great thing about apples is that you get one for almost any size of garden, and even larger containers. If you only have a small space, you can buy one on a ‘dwarf rootstock’ which means it will stay small and manageable. The same goes for cherry and plum trees.

Apples provide for every stage: in May the flowers are full of nectar and pollen for insects, and the leaves can be food for dozens of caterpillar species. A few years ago I had Vapourer Moth caterpillars on my trees, and this year I found some Angle Shades caterpillars. I recently found an Adult Angle Shades in my garden, and felt glad that I had left the caterpillars to do their thing. Ultimately the damage they do is miniscule and the trees are barely affected, producing more fruit than I could eat! When apples fall and get bruised, I just leave them on the ground to provide food for insects including butterflies. So if I was to give a gift of just one plant to every garden in the UK, I think I’d pick an apple.

The most recent storms have blown most of the leaves off the lawn and into the flower beds or around trees and shrubs; I tend to leave them there as there may be caterpillars hiding in them, and I know that hedgehogs and other small animals feel safer when they hidden among the mounds of leaves. The leaves also feed the earthworms and other creatures in the soil, which turn the leaves into new, nutritious soil that sustains the plants. I believe that gardening this way, gratefully sharing the space with wildlife, leads to greater abundance in everything. There are more insects, more birds, more bats and other mammals; more life. 

There is a saying that from small acorns grow mighty oaks, and I hold this to be true. Taking this further I could say that from my Scottish garden flowers come beautiful Red Admirals somewhere in Europe. 

It’s a reminder that we gardeners just need to give nature the space it needs, and the results can be magnificent.