Small Tortoiseshell on Sedum - Steve Maskell

Gardeners and butterflies are relishing the last burst of warmth before Jack Frost arrives to dust our plants with his icy shimmer.

You are most likely to see butterflies on days when the air temperature is above 14C and there is at least 50% sun, or in bright or sunny conditions above 17C.

The species that overwinter as adults (Brimstone, Small Tortoiseshell, Red Admiral, Peacock and Comma) are stocking up on nectar before they seek shelter in outbuildings, log piles or other nooks and crannies in your garden.

Plants

Provide supplies for these late-flying species with Sedum (Hylotelephium). Also known as Stonecrop or Ice Plant, the bright pink flowers grow on upright stems and huddle in tufts over waxy green leaves. Sedum will grow in partial shade but butterflies are more likely to appreciate full sun. Don’t be tempted to dead head them once they’ve finished flowering - the seed heads are beautiful when frosty.

Helenium with bees (Nat Ngo)
Helenium

Helenium is another fantastic autumn flower that brings bright sunshiny colours and valuable nectar to your ‘beds. Find out more about them in last month’s blog.

If you take a trip to the garden centre you will be spoilt for choice with heather this month. Look for Heath Erica carnea or native Heather Calluna vulgaris and avoid varieties that have been unnaturally coloured or bred to stay in bud form, as they will not produce anything of value to butterflies or moths.

Bulbs

When hibernating butterflies wake up, the first thing they will want to do is feed. Take advantage of the ground still being warm enough to dig and add some bulbs that will bloom next spring. Plant into well-drained, moisture retentive soil and keep to the rule of positioning bulbs twice as deep as their height. If you are planting into a container don’t place the bulbs too close to the edge and remember they will need more water. Crocus bulbs give maximum impact for minimum effort with their vibrant flowers that will resurface every year.

Grape Hyacinth (Roger Wasley)
Grape Hyacinth

Grape Hyacinth Muscari armeniacum is another low maintenance, nectar source for spring that can be planted as a bulb this month. The distinctive purple flowers, which look like tiny bunches of grapes, are favoured by Small Tortoiseshells in my garden and the bees love them too.

Seeds

Wildflower seed can be scattered in late autumn to flower the following summer. Hardy annuals like Cornflower Centaurea cyanus and Candytuft Iberis can also be sown now. Simply scatter the seeds into finely raked soil where you would like them to grow.

When choosing your wildflower mix don’t forget to check the origin of the seeds. Exotic plants will not be as beneficial to UK wildlife and may affect the growth of native plants. Wild flowers could self-seed and spread beyond your control, so make sure you are only introducing plants that will help butterflies, moths and other pollinators.

There are still plenty of jobs to do outdoors in October but the best part of autumnal gardening is the tea break. Admire the impressive spider webs interlaced with the last of the blackberries while inhaling the essence of bonfire that is being carried on the breeze.

Happy Gardening!