Small Tortoiseshell on Heather - Allan Drewitt

Five ways to help butterflies and moths in your garden this year

It is resolution time again so why not choose to help butterflies and moths in your garden this year? Here are five suggestions for activities to engage your brain and body. 

1. Watch out for wildlife 

Several butterflies have already been spotted this year – the Brimstone, Painted Lady, Peacock, Red Admiral and Small Tortoiseshell were all seen on New Year’s Day. Check out the first sightings page to keep track of the other species as they emerge.

If you want to know which larger moths are around in your area then try the What’s Flying Tonight app for your computer or phone - just set your location and an illustrated list will appear. The moths currently mentioned for Dorset include The Chestnut, Winter Moth, December Moth and Mottled Umber.

There are also many ways to feed back information to Butterfly Conservation about your sightings throughout the year including recording schemes, surveys and apps.

Why not keep a personal record of your garden through the seasons – either take pictures or keep a nature journal of the plants that are in flower or the butterflies, moths and caterpillars that you see. You might also want to record notable weather and any other wildlife visitors. It is interesting to compare the results from year to year.

2. Provide a nectar source for butterflies and moths all year round.

Erysimum bowles mauve

Your garden records will draw attention to which plants thrive and are popular nectar or food sources and when they are in flower. This will help you to provide nectar for butterflies and moths from spring to autumn and beyond. It could be as simple as planting the evergreen Perennial Wallflower Erysimum ‘Bowles Mauve’ which can have purple flowers all year round and is attractive to moths such as the Silver Y and butterflies like the Small Tortoiseshell. If you can have plants in flower during the winter it is useful for any butterflies coming out of hibernation early on warm days - there are several Heathers which are in flower now. 

For moths chose something scented or white or with tubular flowers. The White Valerian Centranthus ruber 'Albus' in my garden kept flowering up until December and has self-seeded profusely all over the gravel – there will be plenty of free new plants for nectar or to share or swap with friends. 

Check these lists of nectar plants for butterflies and moths to see if there are any more you can add to your garden.

3. Provide foodplants for butterfly and moth caterpillars

Light Orange Underwing (caterpillar) - Garry Barlow

Some caterpillars will eat the leaves of a fairly wide range of plants but most are restricted to a few types of plant or even just one plant species. A simple way of encouraging butterflies and moths to breed in your garden is by leaving a small patch of grass to grow long as some caterpillars eat the leaves and roots of native grasses and plants generally considered weeds, such as docks, plantains and dandelions. 

In addition to grasses, various trees and herbaceous plants can feed hungry butterfly and moth caterpillars.

4. Plant a tree, shrub or hedge 

Holly Blue - Charles J Sharp

Hedges made up of different native shrubs and trees - such as Holly, Hawthorn and Beech - can provide vital food and shelter for garden wildlife such as insects, birds and mammals. Their flowers will provide nectar for butterflies, moths, bees and hoverflies; birds will nest there and feast on berries and nuts; and various invertebrates such as beetles will find cover in the leaf litter under the hedge, along with mice and hedgehogs.

5. Create a pond

Orange-tip - Iain H Leach

Ponds are a wonderful way to attract all kinds of wildlife to your garden. As well as providing much-needed habitat for frogs, toads, newts and dragonflies they also provide a water source for birds and mammals. There are plants to suit all sizes of ponds and depths of water.  Additionally, plants that thrive in the damp, boggy ground next to a pond can be useful for butterflies and moths - Cuckooflower Cardamine pratensis is a foodplant for caterpillars of the lovely spring-flying Orange-tip butterfly. 

Happy Gardening in 2019!
The Secret Gardener