Bird's-foot Trefoil during drought - Phil Sterling

This summer, parts of the UK have experienced drought conditions, and we’ve all been advised to cut down on our use of water. It has been sad to see people having to watch their garden plants shrivel and die, but it looks like these scenes will become more frequent as our planet heats up. So this month we’ll be looking at ways that we can save water in the garden while actually helping butterflies and moths.


Mulching is one of the best things you can to do help your plants! ‘Mulch’ is basically any material laid onto the surface of soil, and can help enormously by locking in moisture and suppressing weeds. Some organic mulches like home-made compost will also feed the soil, as they break down and release nutrients. But did you know that many species of moth will spend part of their lives within dead plant material such as mulch? Spreading a layer of fallen leaves (or even better, leaf-mould!) over the soil can provide just what they need. Home-made garden compost is another good choice. Caterpillars of these species of moth will make a shallow burrow into the material, then spin their cocoons or hide for the winter. In this case, mulch is mimicking something like a natural woodland floor for moths that feed on trees and shrubs.


There’s been a growing trend to having mini-meadows in gardens, and we love to see it! The caterpillars of lots of species of butterfly and moth will eat common grasses found in lawns – just let them grow and see what you find! But it’s better to add a bit more diversity, and many of the common wildflowers are much more drought-tolerant than grasses, which have relatively shallow roots. This summer we’ve seen pictures of parks where the grass has turned pale and crispy during drought, but the wildflowers among the grass have remained bright green. One of the best for this is Bird’s-foot Trefoil. The yellow flowers are adored by bees, but the leaves are also food for Common Blue butterflies and Six-spot burnet moths.

We also recommend Common Knapweed, Kidney Vetch, Yellow Rattle, Viper’s Bugloss, Red Clover, Hawkbits, Marjoram, Yarrow, Lady’s Bedstraw, Cat’s Ear and Ox-eye Daisy, which are all great nectar-rich plants for insects.

So if you’re finding that your lawn just isn’t giving you joy anymore and you can’t stand to see it crisp up and die, this could be the year to plant wildflower plugs. You can grow these yourself from seed you collect responsibly or buy. Or you can buy small plants and plant them straight into your garden. My recommendation is to always grow them to a decent size (filling an 8cm pot, with a good root system) before you plant them out – it gives them a much better chance of survival. If you have the plants already, they should be planted in late September or October, as the cooler temperatures and higher rainfall will mean they can get established before winter. If you’re just sowing now (which is perfectly fine to do) you won’t be able to plant out until next summer but should be prepared to put in more work with watering them as soil can be very dry. If you can hang off from planting them until next autumn, you’ll have much healthier plants and your mini-meadow will get off to a good start.

When I am making wildflower meadows with volunteers I spend a long time showing them how to plant wildflower plugs. One of the worst things you can do is to dig a round hole and remove the soil, then pop the plant into it. It’s likely that the plant roots will not make good contact with the soil, and soon dry out and die. Instead I recommend that you use your spade to make a rough x-shape in the ground, to at least 10cm. Then use a trowel or spade to prise open the ground from the centre of the x, lifting it back enough so that you can fit your plant and its roots comfortably inside. I often try to get the base of the plant to be a little under soil level. Then step on it! Yes, you really want to ensure that the ground is holding the plant tightly. So walk around the plant, pressing on the soil at each side to ensure it’s snug. You should definitely still be able to see most of the leaves, but don’t worry it the base of the plant is a little deeper, as the plant will adjust. It’s important to remember that soil moves all the time. When it dries or gets wet, or is exposed to frost and ice, soil changes shape. If your plants aren’t planted well, you can find that the wildflower plugs soon get worked out of the soil by processes like this – or by birds like crows and magpies, which I have seen undo a day’s work undertaken by a community group that didn’t plant well enough.

If you’re making a new meadow or continuing to manage one, you can register it as a Wild Space on our website. In future months we’ll be talking a lot more about our goal to create 100,000 new Wild Spaces for butterflies and moths across the UK. Registering your space now is a great way to stay in touch with the campaign and find out more about Wild Spaces.