Regular readers will know that I believe that good gardening and conservation go hand in hand. Good gardeners are great believers in the old adage “waste not, want not” and are past masters of recycling. Lawn mowings, trimmings and prunings, vegetable peelings in fact all so called organic waste becomes soil-improving compost while plant pots and many diverse containers nurture generation after generation of seedlings until they disintegrate, often when containing their most valuable occupant.
The vast majority of gardeners are also true nature lovers who observe and appreciate many of the creatures that share their plot especially the songbirds that are becoming more and more reliant on the diverse habits to be found in suburban gardens.
Many of our favourite songbirds need high protein food for their young and most consume vast numbers of insects during the breeding season. Although the majority of insects are not garden pests, in fact many are beneficial, some have the potential to become extremely destructive to plant life if they occur in sufficient numbers. Caterpillars of certain moths and butterflies have the potential to ruin crops or even strip quite large trees of their leaves and would regularly do so if they weren’t the main food source for the fledglings of birds like blue tits.
Of course not all butterflies and moths are potential pests, and even those that can occasionally cause damage may partially make up for their misdeeds with their beauty.
Most species of butterfly have declined even more than songbirds probably for very similar reasons, mainly the over use of pesticides and destruction of habitat but there are a few things that all gardeners can do to help the situation.
Firstly grow flowers that produce plenty of nectar and pollen, “un-improved” or old-fashioned varieties especially single flowered types and wild species. Although native wildflowers might seem preferable many exotics are in fact better in that they flower over a longer season or even produce more generous supplies of pollen and/or nectar. The buddleia which was introduced from China in the late 1800`s has deservedly earned the title of “butterfly bush” for its ability to attract every butterfly in the neighbourhood. Verbena bonariensis has become very popular in recent years and is widely planted in mixed borders where its delicate flowers are borne on tall wirey stems giving height and creating the impression of a purple haze that shimmers in the breeze, it is also a magnet for butterflies that add another dimension of movement and colour to already magical scene.
Secondly, and probably more importantly, all gardeners should try to grow some food plants for the caterpillars. Most butterfly caterpillars are pretty fussy when it comes to their food plants relying exclusively on a single species but fortunately some of the most beautiful feed on some of the commonest weeds and wild flowers.
An area of rough grass with attendant trefoils, clovers, thistles and plantains could be a nursery for many species including Clouded Yellow, Common Blue, Silver Spotted Skipper, Heath Fritillary and even Painted Lady while a small patch of stinging nettles might tempt Comma, Small Tortoiseshell, Peacock and Red Admiral to lay their eggs.
Many exotic flowers like this bottlebrush are extremely rich in nectar and provide valuable food for native butterflies.
PHOTO CREDIT CHARLES FRANCIS.