Archive for February, 2013

February 26, 2013

Gardening for butterfly caterpillars – Grass

26 February 2013

The foodplant used by more butterflies (and moths) than any other is grass. The families of butteflies that use it are the skippers – not so likely to be found in gardens unless you live near suitable habitiat – and the browns, including butterflies you might see in your garden: Speckled Wood, Gatekeeper, Meadow Brown.

Left to right: Speckled Wood, Gatekeeper, Meadow Brown

Left to right: Speckled Wood, Gatekeeper, Meadow Brown

“Well, that’s easy, we’ve got lots of that” I can hear you say – well, yes and no. If you are the type of gardener who likes a close-cut lawn with stripes, this is no good, and even the standard lawn isn’t likely to be ideal – the majority of lawns are mainly made up of rye grass, which is tough to withstand use, but no good for insects.

Annual meadow grass (photo: internet)

Annual meadow grass (photo: internet)

What you need are British native grasses, and I’d guess you need to let them grow, not mow them short, though my knowledge in this area is limited. Looking in the book “Foodplant List for Caterpillars” by Tim Crafer, the single grass which is eaten by the most butterfly and moth caterpillars is annnual meadow grass (Poa annua). I suspect you might have this inyour garden anyway, so it could be a good excuse to leave it if you are bored with weeding….

Other grasses used by butterflies include cocksfoot, couch, tor, yorkshire fog, tufted hair, dog’s tail,  and the fescue and bent families. Couch is one which really tests my butterfly-friendliness: my husband and I have spent two years digging through an herebaceous bed, removing couch and bindweed, so I’d have to say be careful with it – it forms the most amazing root mass, which forces other plants out: I found one piece which only showed about 2″ (5cm) above ground, but the root went on for over 6′ (2m).

Native grass seed/mixes are becoming a lot more easily available these days, sometimes with native wild flowers mixed in. Keeping the grasses, and flowers, you want from becoming swamped by the stronger-growing species is another challenge….

February 25, 2013

Gardening for butterflies – adults v caterpillars

25 February 2013

When people say they want to attract more butterflies to their garden, they are nearly always talking about the adult stage of the insect – the one we see flying around in the sunshine (remember sunshine?). In a small garden, attracting the adults may be all you can sensibly aim at, providing them with nectar-rich flowers to give them energy to fly around and mate, which is very well worth doing.

Painted Lady on Sweet Rocket

Painted Lady on Sweet Rocket

It is good if you can, though, to also provide some plants which will serve as foodplants for caterpillars. I can hear you all groaning at the idea of having to have a garden full of nettles – quieten down! Nettles are good if you can accommodate them, but the butterflies are quite fussy about the nettles they use, which need to be in a sheltered, sunny position, so it’s not as easy as leaving a few behind the shed: do it if you can, but don’t worry about it if you can’t.

What you do have to do, though, is accept that the holes left in the leaves by the munching caterpillars will be visible – but what are a few holes when you’ve had the fun of watching the munching?

The most practical plants to grow to encourage butterflies to breed include:

Sweet rocket/honesty/lady’s smock for the Orange Tip and Green-veined White.  Sweet rocket is very easy, comes in white or purple, and lasts for 2-3 years. You could also grow garlic mustard,  a native wild flower which blooms early and has disappeared by the middle of summer – I’ve got some in the garden, and I can find caterpillars on it or my sweet rocket most years.

Orange tips- left to right: mating pair on sweet rocket, caterpillar on sweet rocket and adult on bluebell

Orange tips- left to right: mating pair on sweet rocket, caterpillar on sweet rocket and adult on bluebell

Holly and ivy for the Holly Blue, which uses both, at different times of year, for it’s egg-laying. You will struggle to see the egg or the caterpillar, though, so look out for the female flying around the bush.

Buckthorn for the Brimstone: this is a shrub and not very exciting to look at, but it does provide nectar in its flowers and berries for the birds, as well as leaves for the Brimstone butterfly, which is said to be able to find buckthorn from a considerable distance. There are two types of buckthorn, and you need to use the one which is good for your soil: purging buckthorn for chalky soils and alder buckthorn for acid soils.

British native grasses are also good – I’ll cover them in more detail in another post, as well as plants for moth caterpillars.

I’ll give the latin names of the flower plants I’ve mentioned here, in case you have difficulty identifying them by the common names, which tend to be different in different parts of the country: Sweet rocket – hesperis matronalis. Honesty – lunaria annua. Lady’s smock – cardamine pratensis. Garlic Mustard (also often called Jack-by-the-hedge) – Alliaria petiolata.

February 23, 2013

Flowers for a gloomy time of year

23 February 2013

The weather has gone cold again (well, by our standards – the commenter in North Toronto would probably say it was mild at 2 degrees centigrade!) and there is no sunshine forecast for the next week, so I’m going to give you some bright and cheerful flower pictures to make up for it – enjoy!

Scabious 'Fama Blue'

Scabious ‘Fama Blue’

Scabious flowers come in several sizes and colours – I’ll do a blog on them some time, but this perennial is one of the most impressive, and quite easily grown from seed.  The plants are not very bushy, so I’m trying them grown quite close together. Good for butterflies and othe insects.
Escholtzia 'Cameo Dream'

Escholtzia ‘Cameo Dream’


The eschscholzia or Californian Poppy is an annual which will sometimes self seed. I grew these in containers, and they were gorgeous; the seedlings didn’t come true, reverting mainly to a single variety, but that was very pretty, too. From memory, I think it was small bees and hoverfies that used them.


Apple Blossom

Apple Blossom

It’s easy to overlook tree blossom, but apples, pears etc all have flowers which are glorious in their purity, and they may be scented – they are not out for long, so they have to work hard to attract those pollinating insects.


Centre of poppy flower

Centre of poppy flower

I think this is papaver orientale ‘Princess Victoria Louise’. It’s certainly wonderfully voluptuous, and bees love crawling around it’s centre, getting covered in pollen.


Lobelia 'Blue Sapphire'

Lobelia ‘Blue Sapphire’

Another close -up – of a flower which is familiar to most of us from countless gardens and hanging baskets – the annual lobelia. This is quite often recorded as attracting butterflies, which it does, but the frequency of the sighting is probably more to do with the amount of lobelia grown than it being hugely popular, but don’t scorn it for that: it is one of the real “do-ers” in the garden flowering for weeks on end.

Do let me know what your real “wow” flowers are.

February 22, 2013


23 February 2013

The seeds in the greenhouse which are germinating most enthusiastically at the moment are the lettuce. I think this is one of the vegetables where growing your own is really worthwhile: in the supermarkets you tend to get cos, butterhead, and that’s it. Even worse are the bags of mixed salad, which are not only very expensive for what you get, but often of dubious quality in my experience.

Close up of lettuce leaves in sunshine

Close up of lettuce leaves in sunshine

If you grow your own lettuce, there is a seemingly endless choice, providing a range of colours, textures and flavours. I tend to stick to loose leaf – also called cut-and-come-again – varieties, so I can pick off a few leaves for a meal and leave the rest to grow on. If you can, leave one plant to go to seed: not only will you then have free seeds to sow next year, but it is remarkable just how tall some varieties can grow. Don’t try saving seed from an F1 variety, though: it will not come true.

Although my seeds are in the greenhouse, they don’t need heat to germintate – in fact, they won’t germinate if the temperature is too high, so keep them cool. Lettuce aren’t just summer vegetables, there are varieties of lettuce you can grow for the winter; though you need to give them some protection, they are a lot tougher than you think.

February 21, 2013

Black pheasant

21 February 2013

Black pheasant in garden

Black pheasant in garden

Had an unexpected visitor in the garden today: a male black pheasant. We’ve seen a few in the fields around us recently, so it’s probably wandered in to see what it can find to eat, including the bits fallen out of the bird feeder. He’s rather handsome.

Cosmos limara lemon

Cosmos limara lemon

In the greenhouse, the short yellow cosmos are coming up slowly. The photo is from the seed catalogue (, so it is what they should look like: I’ll do a photo of what they really look like if they grow. I’ve not tried yellow cosmos before, but have read in the past that they do not grow as strongly as the pink/white ones; this variety is only 12-15″ (30cm) tall, so I may put it in some of the containers on my patio – I’m hoping butterflies or other insects will be attracted to it. It’s always difficult to know when to take the seedbox out of the propagator if the seeds don’t all come up together – you can find the early ones becoming leggy while others have not yet germinated; they look OK as yet, so I’ll wait a bit longer.

February 19, 2013

The best buddleia for butterflies

19 February 2013

I promise this blog isn’t going to be only about buddleias, but at this time of year, when there isn’t much to report in the way of butterfly sightings or goings-on in the garden, it seems a good time to discuss one of the questions I get asked most – which buddleia is best for butterflies? Work is going on in Dorset to identify the best buddleias for attracting butterflies. It is still in its early stages, but the current indication is that the top variety is ‘Dartmoor’: a bright purple variety, which has its flower heads partially merged, so they are very big.

Small Tortoiseshells on buddleia 'Dartmoor'

Small Tortoiseshells on buddleia ‘Dartmoor’

Second was ‘Autumn Beauty’ (also known as ‘Beijing’). This is a useful variety, as it blooms a bit later than most; it is also useful for schools, so they do not find all the flowers gone over when they getback from their summer break. It is a paler, pinker purple.    

Three Small Tortoiseshells on buddleia 'Autumn Beauty'

Three Small Tortoiseshells on buddleia ‘Autumn Beauty’


Third was ‘White Profusion’.

If the above text isn’t as coherent as I hope it usually is, it’s because I was interrupted by my husband and a friend arriving in a great flurry. They were helping out at a local event, and the electrical sockets in the building proved to be not working, leaving them with 60 people wanting tea and coffee, and no power to boil kettles. We live not far away, so they brought down two kettles to add to our one, tried to boil all three at once, and promptly blew our fuse – which crashed my computer. Chris and John – if you read this, you owe me a “like”!

February 18, 2013

Small buddleias

18 February 2013

If you haven’t got a buddleia in your garden, do try to make space for one – they really are great for butterflies and moths. There is a new variety on the market now which does not grow very big – only about knee height, but it still attracts butterflies – the photo to the right shows one beside a bench we’ve got by our pond, which gives you some idea of its full size.  There are currently three colours available – lavender, magenta and ivory – I think the one in the photo is magenta.

Red Admirals on Buddleia 'Buzz'

Red Admirals on Buddleia ‘Buzz’

If you’ve got room for a big one (and remember, they can be chopped back hard every year), I’ll talk about the best ones for butteflies in a later blog.

February 17, 2013


17 February 2013

I expect I’ll be mentioning  buddleia quite a lot on this blog, as it is such a good plant for supplying butterflies and moths with nectar, but it may not be a bush you are thinking about much at this time of year. February, however, is a good month to cut your buddleia back, as there is time for new growth which will flower in the summer; most buddleias can grow quite large, but can be cut right back, almost to ground level, if you want to reduce their size. I’ve got one I bought as ‘Blue Knight’ (which also seems to be known as ‘Blue Horizon’) which is taller than the shed now, which gives me some problems trying to photograph butterflies on it, so I’m hoping to get it chopped down this month, though time is slipping away.  This is a photo from 2008, when it was smaller.

Red Admirals on buddleia 'Blue Knight'

Red Admirals on buddleia ‘Blue Knight’

Moths will also nectar on buddleias, so, when yours is out, try looking at it with a torch after dark, to see if any moths are present. One moth – the Mullein, will also lay eggs on buddleia, so its caterpillars can feed on the leaves – if you see holes in the leaves, have a look to see if this is what is causing them: it’s quite a pretty green, black and yellow caterpillar, though the adult moth is shades of brown and grey. You may also find these caterpillars on mullein (verbascum) or figwort – I’ve had them on all three in my garden.

February 16, 2013

First bee


16 February 2013


The difference sunshine makes is amazing – yesterday the first butterfly, today the first bee. It didn’t stay around long enough to try and identify it, but it was good to see it was flying strongly; it’s presumably a queen bee looking for somewhere to nest for the year. I keep trying to improve my bee identification skills, but, while some are easy, some are not. Luckily, the Bumblebee Conservation Trust offers to identify photos of bumble bees if you are stuck.


Not much time in the garden today, as our grandson was visiting, from Cardiff. The photo is of young James and his Grandad putting back together our squirrel-proof feeder, which is very nearly grandparent-proof as well – still, according to the American instructions, it will also keep out raccoons, so a mere grandparent doesn’t stand any chance!


Gradad and James putting bird feeder back together

Gradad and James putting bird feeder back together


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February 15, 2013

First butterfly in the garden in 2013

15 February 2013

Whoopee! The first butterfly of the year has turned up – a Peacock, which sat on our conservatory roof for a few minutes, warming up his wings. No doubt tempted out, as I was, by the unusual phenomenon of sunshine.

Peacock butterfly on white buddliea (not the one I saw today)

Peacock butterfly on white buddliea (not the one I saw today)

It’s easy to think butterflies only exist in summer, when we see the adult butterflies flitting about, but really they are there all the time.  Some butterflies, like Peacocks, spend the winter as an adult – perhaps hiding in your shed – but others overwinter as eggs, or caterpillars, or as a chrysalis.

If you want to keep up with what butterflies have been seen in Dorset (as reported to the website) go to; to see first sightings nationally, go to