Our blog this month comes from Butterfly Conservation’s Supporting Science Officer Rachael Conway, who has led the relaunch of Garden Butterfly Survey this year. Rachael is a horticulturist with a passion for wildlife gardening and wants to bring this joy to your doorstep, regardless of your space or budget.

It doesn’t have to cost the earth to create a wildlife garden, I share my cost-effective top tips to help butterflies and moths which are perfect for petite plots.

Grow willow

Willow cuttings planted in spring of this year CC0
Willow cuttings planted in sprint of this year CC0

Willows are superb wildlife plants and easy to grow. You just shove a stick in some soil, and you don’t need to grow a full-size tree to be of benefit. Willow is the foodplant for around 140 species of moth, such as Buff-tip and Poplar Hawk-moth. Many pollinators including butterflies also use the catkins for nectar and pollen in early spring when little else is available. 

Willow grows in abundance in hedgerows and along the edges of paths such as river walks, it is legal to take a cutting provided you have permission to be on the land. Take a long willow stem about the width of a pencil and cut into pencil length pieces (this can be done in spring or autumn) cut the top end at an angle, so you know which way is up and to allow water to run off. Put the cuttings around the edge of a soil filled pot and wait, you will have flowering willow in one year.  If you have a small garden or even just a doorstep or window box you can keep your cuttings in the pot and take new cuttings every year to make new pot plants. Give away the plants that have outgrown your space to friends.


Plant a blackbird poo

Magpie Moth, Ian Middlebrook
Magpie Moth, Ian Middlebrook

I have been experimenting with the propagation of ivy in the garden. Ivy supports a host of wildlife throughout the season, it is the foodplant of the Holly Blue butterfly and 14 larger moth species including Magpie Moth, Swallow-tailed Moth and Old lady. The autumn flowers provide for pollinators when other food sources are running low and the climbing, dense foliage provides cover and shelter, particularly in small gardens where a tree can’t be accommodated. 

​  Ivy seedlings grown from blackbird poo  ​
​ Ivy seedlings grown from blackbird poo ​

Blackbirds often bring ivy seed into the garden via their droppings, the characteristic large, purplish, poo can be found on regular perches such as shed roofs and fence posts. After the blackbird has digested the flesh of the ivy berry, we are left with the bare seed in its own package of compost which can be planted in a pot. No handling is required, just flick into the pot with a stick and push into the soil. Once your plants have grown to about 15 cm plant them up where you want them or just keep growing in a large pot. Next spring, I will experiment with

planting the poo exactly where I want the ivy, such as the base of a fence, please let me know if you have any success with this method.


Gather wildflower seed

Small Tortoiseshell on Fox and Cubs. Walter Baxter CC BY 2.0
Small Tortoiseshell on Fox and Cubs. Walter Baxter CC BY 2.0

We are approaching seed collecting season, a wonderfully relaxing activity that I look forward to every year. It is legal to collect non-protected wildflower seed from common land such as hedgerows and the verges of public paths (see below for more information and best practice). Gathered seeds can be sown up in pots or scattered into cracks and crevices along walls and other hard landscaping. My favourite is Fox and Cubs, but I also like to grow Wild Carrot, Knapweed, Yarrow, and Hawkbit species. Native wildflowers such as these tend to produce higher levels of nectar than ornamental wildflower mixes and will attract hungry garden butterflies. Once the young plants are ready you can plant out or keep in the pot, they are adapted to withstand challenging conditions such as dry, poor soils so are ideally suited to container gardening. 


Let your veggies bloom.

Parsley and leek flowers CC0
Parsley and leek flowers CC0

You can pick up packets of veg seeds such as carrot, parsnip, and parsley for less than a £1 from budget stores and there are always more seed than you can grow for veg. Try growing spare seed as flowering plants. If you are an allotmenteer, you can bring seed home to grow in a pot. I really like to let leeks go to seed, they make for an attractive structural plant and are much loved by pollinators. Carrot, parsley and parsnip produce large umbels rich in nectar, one parsnip plant can produce up to around seven flower heads and I have recorded many species of pollinators from sawflies to solitary bees on parsnip. Cabbages and other brassica species such as broccoli and cauliflower will attract the Large and Small White to your garden and flowering brassicas provide a nectar source well into the autumn

Things you will need

You can use recycled food packaging and dug up garden soil to grow all of the plants above. If you don’t have soil in your garden, local recycling or online community sites frequently advertise free bags of garden soil to take away, especially in urban areas. I might be tempted to let a few pots grow and see if any free wildflowers lie within.

Tell us about your Wild Space 

We are really keen to receive your photographs, tips, and wildlife gardening highlights. Please contact us at [email protected]

Garden Butterfly Survey queries can also be sent to this address, if you are keen to join in the survey and need help getting started, please do get in touch. Over 2300 people are already taking part in the Garden Butterfly Survey and we are really looking forward to finding out more about your garden butterflies. Don’t forget you can record from a shared or community garden, allotment or even a balcony or window box, so join in and start submitting your garden butterfly sightings.


Collecting plant material from the wild – the law.

It is not illegal to harvest plant material from the wild if you have permission to be on the land. Please gather with the environment in mind and take only what you need and do not gather where the resource is scarce. It is illegal to gather from National Nature Reserves (NNRs) and Sites of Special Scientific Interest (SSSI's) in Britain and Areas of Special Scientific Interest (ASSI's) or other protected sites.  
It is illegal to uproot and remove protected plants such as orchids. Please refer to the Wildlife and Countryside Act 1981 list of protected plants

Garden Butterfly Survey

We recently launched our revamped Garden Butterfly Survey and it is the perfect pastime if you are already missing the Big Butterfly Count. By counting and identifying the butterflies that visit your garden throughout the year, you are sharing unique data that help us understand how they are faring in gardens across the UK. The information we gather will enable us to provide better, evidence-based advice on how to manage gardens to benefit butterflies throughout their life cycle from egg to adult.

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The Garden Butterfly Survey is so easy, you can do it as often as you like and at any time of the year. You don’t even need your own garden to join in, you can take part from an allotment, shared or community garden and balcony or window box.

Renewing Garden Butterfly Survey was made possible by the Department for Digital, Culture, Media & Sport and National Lottery funding, distributed by The Heritage Fund as part of their Digital Skills for Heritage initiative. Thanks also to The Henry C. Hoare Charitable Trust, Sophia Webster Ltd. and The Lochlands Trust. 

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