Gardening for butterflies and moths

Red admiral by Nick Upton/2020VISION

Any garden, no matter how big or small, can attract butterflies and moths. With gardens acting as important stepping stones between habitats, why not turn yours into a secret garden for insects?

Butterflies bring huge joy to gardens with their bright colours and eye-catching patterns, but sadly, they’re in steep decline across the country and really need our help. The story is much the same for moths. Often overlooked in favour of their day-flying cousins, moths can actually be just as bright, beautiful and important and are relying on us to help their numbers recover.

With 75 per cent of British butterflies now in decline, some moths falling by up to 99 per cent and the ability of these incredible insects to bring us immense joy, let’s take a look at how you can give them a helping hand, starting in your garden.

A small skipper butterfly feeding on knapweed

Small skipper butterfly by Chris Gomersall/2020VISION

Grow nectar-rich plants

Butterflies rely on nectar for survival. Without this sweet drink, they wouldn’t have enough energy to fly, mate, or in the case of some butterfly species, refuel after their winter hibernation or gruelling journey to the UK from southern Europe or even Africa.

With the right butterfly-friendly plants, even a balcony can become a secret garden for all manner of insects that depend on nectar and pollen.

Did you know? There are around 59 species of butterfly in the UK, compared to a whopping 2,500 species of moth.

Think seasonally

By including a range of plants that bloom alternately through spring, summer and autumn, butterflies that emerge at different times of the year will always have something to eat.

Spring flowers for butterflies

A group of beautiful purple bugle flowers which are great for butterflies

Bugle by Paul Lane

  • Primroses
  • Bugle
  • Cuckooflower (also known as lady’s smock)
  • Forget-me-not

Summer flowers for butterflies

A bunch of pink hemp agrimony growing in the sunshine

Hemp agrimony by Vaughn Matthews

  • Cornflower
  • Knapweed
  • Field scabious
  • Thistle
  • Purple loosestrife
  • Lavender
  • Hemp agrimony
  • Perennial wallflower
  • Herbs like thyme, oregano and sage

Autumn flowers for butterflies

The purple flowerhead of devil's bit scabious

Devil's bit scabious by Amy Lewis

  • Flowering ivy
  • Asters
  • Buddleia
  • Verbena
  • Devil's-bit scabious
Top tip: Let dandelions grow. Not only are they invaluable sources of nectar for butterflies like the speckled wood, small tortoiseshell and brimstone, but they provide vital early nectar for bees.
An angle shades moth resting on a mossy tree trunk

Angle shades by Amy Lewis

Feed the night-fliers

Though some moths (like burnet moths and silver Y moths) fly and feed during the day, most do so at night, while some moths don’t feed at all, emerging only to reproduce. The best way to feed night-flying moths like elephant hawkmoths and angle shades moths is with plants that release their scent at night. This attracts the night-fliers, and it’s thought that night-scented plants actually evolved alongside moths so they could increase their chances of being pollinated.

Some of the best night-scented plants for moths include:

  • Honeysuckle
  • Jasmine
  • Evening primrose
  • Sweet rocket

Where to plant

Butterflies love feeding in warm, sheltered locations in full sunshine, so reserve a spot like this for your butterfly-friendly plants.

Grow larval food plants

Just like us, caterpillars (or larvae) need lots of nutritious food to help them grow and change into butterflies or moths. In fact, caterpillars can grow 10,000-fold in just a few weeks – that’s like a baby growing to the size of a sperm whale!

While some moths don’t feed on nectar, their caterpillars still need to fill up on plant material from specific plants and grasses, which is where your garden comes in. Here are some of the top larval food plants you can grow in your garden, and the species that depend on them.

Nettles

Peacock caterpillars feeding on nettles

Peacock caterpillars by Vaughn Matthews

​​​​​Moths: Mother of pearl, burnished brass, Jersey tiger, beautiful golden Y, spectacle, snout
Butterflies: Comma, peacock, red admiral, small tortoiseshell

Ivy

A holly blue butterfly feeding on garden flowers

Holly blue butterfly by Rachel Scopes

​​​​​​Moths: Double-striped, old lady
Butterflies: Holly blue

Fuschia

An elephant hawkmoth sitting on the trunk of the tree

Elephant hawkmoth by Margaret Holland

Moths: Elephant hawkmoth

Bedstraws

Sweet woodruff is a member of the bedstraw family of plants

Sweet woodruff, a kind of bedstraw, by Paul Lane

​​​​​Moths: Hummingbird hawkmoth, barred straw, red twin-spot carpet

Dandelion

A garden tiger moth caterpillar, or woolly bear, crawling up a plant stem

Garden tiger moth caterpillar by Amy Lewis

​​​​​Moths: Ruby tiger, muslin moth, white ermine, blood vein, garden tiger

Bramble

A beautiful white bramble flower open in the sunshine

Bramble flower by Vaughn Matthews

​​​​​​Moths: Peach blossom, buff arches
Butterflies: Green hairstreak, holly blue

Cock’s-foot

A ringlet butterfly perched on a grass seed head

Ringlet butterfly by Ross Hoddinott/2020VISION

​​​​Butterflies: Large skipper, meadow brown, ringlet, small skipper, speckled wood

Yorkshire fog

Moths: Lempke’s gold spot, lunar underwing
Butterflies: Marbled white, speckled wood, small skipper

Did you know? Caterpillars can grow 10,000-fold in just a few weeks – that’s like a baby growing to the size of a sperm whale!
A rural garden with a pond and wild overgrown areas for wildlife

Garden by Anna Williams

Leave untidy areas

Luckily, gardening for butterflies and moths doesn’t always involve that much work – feel free to take a back seat and let some areas of your outdoor space grow wild.

Plants you might see as weeds (like dandelions and brambles), long grass and leaf litter are crucial to many types of butterfly and moth. Some butterflies spend winter in a kind of hibernation amongst the leaf litter, while lots of moths spend the winter as pupae, all tucked up in their cocoons. They do this in the top layer of garden soil or in piles of leaves and plant debris on the ground – what better excuse to save your back and do a little less gardening? The caterpillars generally hatch after around two weeks and then eat almost constantly until they’re ready to pupate, shedding their skin a few times along the way to accommodate their extra bulk.

Cultivate a chemical and peat-free garden

Pesticides and herbicides can kill moths, butterflies and their caterpillars when they feed on your plants. Organic gardening free from chemicals is one of the best ways to help all kinds of insects thrive in your garden. By cutting out, or at least cutting down on chemicals you’ll also see an increase in insects that help to naturally control garden ‘pests’.

Peat compost is also bad news for the environment. In fact, the effects of peat extraction are devastating.

The comparison between a healthy peat bog and one destroyed by peat extraction

The comparison between a healthy peat bog (by Ben Hall/2020VISION) and one destroyed by peat extraction

The peat in horticultural compost is ripped out of peat bogs. These incredible wild places formed many thousands of years ago as the waterlogged plants began decomposing very slowly; never completely breaking down and instead forming peat. As a result, peat is an incredible carbon store, and the world’s peatlands hold more than twice the carbon stored in all the world’s forests. Not only that, but they are invaluable habitats in their own right, home to rare carnivorous plants and some of the UK’s rarest butterflies and moths, like the large heath butterfly and argent and sable moth. Birds like snipe and dunlin breed on peatlands, and healthy peatland vegetation can even slow the flow of rainfall, helping to prevent flooding in local towns and villages.

Good peat compost is better than bad compost made with peat – all it takes is a little research. Peat-free compost is now available at places like B&Q, Waitrose and Wickes, though you might want to research further to find out how sustainable, ethical or effective some of the alternatives are. Some of the best peat-free composts include Dalefoot Composts, Carbon Gold and Sylva Grow.

More ways to take action for insects

Give our insects a Wilder Future

Butterflies, moths and other insects pollinate our crops, wildflowers and garden flowers; they feed bats, birds, amphibians and more creatures; and they bring us so much joy.

We don’t want to see them disappear – do you?

Please help us protect our incredible insects. By becoming a member, you’ll be supporting our work to safeguard peat bogs, plant new meadows and reintroduce locally extinct species to help insects flourish in our region once more.

Become a member today

Ross Hoddinott/2020VISION