The Butterfly Borders

‘Butterfly Borders’ – a name that could be given to many of the flowering areas within the gardens: but originally applied to the path between the fruit and wildlife/children’s gardens, towards the centre circle.

“We don’t see as many as we used to” is a familiar comment and statistics show butterflies and moths have been declining owing to habitat loss and use of insecticides.

There are 2.5 million dwellings in the UK, many with a garden. This means gardeners can make a huge impact on the habitat available for insects. Butterflies are much admired for their fine looks, but all the other small green/black/brown ugly ones deserve to be appreciated too.

We need insects because:

  • They pollinate our crops. The annual value of insect pollination of crops has been estimated at in excess of £200 million, per year.** 
  • They are food for birds, bats, frogs. toads and newts.
  • They keep each other in check. A healthy variety of insects ensures there will be predators around, to eat our garden pests.For example; the larvae of butterflies are rapacious predators of greenfly.

To attract insects we must choose plants with something to offer. This usually means the simpler, less highly-bred flowers – such as:

  • Flowers with nectar for butterflies: Buddleja davidii (buddleia), Nepeta sp (catmint), Solidago canadensis (golden rod), Centranthus ruber (red valerian) and Verbena bonariensis (verbena),
  • Flowers with nectar for bees: Echinops ritro (globe thistle), Rosmarinus officinallis (rosemary), Cynara cardunculus (cardoon), Sedum spectabile and decorative Alliums.
  • Flowers with nectar for hoverflies: Limnananthes douglasii (poached egg plant) and Helenium (sunflower).
  • Flowers with nectar for night-flying moths: Oenethera biennis (evening primrose) and Nicotiana (tobacco plant) open their flowers at night.

Don’t forget those bright and early bumble bees that are out and about in February and March. Snowdrops (Galanthus), Lungwort (Pulmonaria) and Willow (Salix) will provide nectar and pollen at this time. Sedums flower late in the year, as will marjoram and valerian if they are cut-back in summer.

Feed your caterpillars

A butterfly is just one stage of a life cycle – at which the pretty adults feed on nectar. The stage where the (less pretty?) juveniles eat leaves is just as vital. Butterfly mothers are rightly fussy about where their caterpillars will feed. We can help, by providing the following in appropriate places in our gardens:

  • Lady’s smock (Cardamine pratensis) and garlic mustard (Alliaria petiolata) for the Orange-tip and Green-veined butterflies.
  • Holly (Ilex aquifolium) and ivy (Hedera helix) for the Holly Blue.
  • Nettles (Urtica diocia) for the Peacock, Red Admiral, Comma and Small Tortoiseshell.
  • A patch of grass left to grow long and cut once a year in late spring, for the Speckled Wood, Meadow Brown and Small Heath.

Where do they go in winter?

Most insects spend the winter in a dormant state but they need sheltered places such as leaf litter or hollow stems in which to hide. It is therefore important not to cut and tidy our borders into inhospitable barren landscapes, Seed heads left standing look stunning when dusted with frost. While the insects hide inside the stems, the goldfinches will be feeding from the seeds at the top.

**NFU Honey Bee Health Briefing 2009




The original planting scheme for the Butterfly Borders at Yalding Organic Gardens, by Stella Caws, can be downloaded as a PDF, here.


Some, or all of the above text may have originally been published by HDRA/Garden Organic ( and is reproduced here, with their kind permission.