Give weeds a chance

© Surrey Wildlife Trust

Leave caterpillar food plants to grow and see butterflies thrive

Watching a butterfly flit from flower to flower is one of the true pleasures of summer – and you can enjoy it in a garden of any size, a balcony or even a window box.

By providing food plants for caterpillars and planting nectar species for adult butterflies and moths, you can turn your own patch of green into an oasis. 

You can encourage butterflies to breed in your garden by allowing the right food plants to grow. They lay their eggs on the leaves, so the caterpillars have an immediate source of nourishment when they hatch. 

Nectar provides butterflies and moths with the energy they need for much of the year. In spring it helps them restock after hibernation or recover from the long journey from warmer climes. In summer it helps them fly and find a mate. In autumn it builds up their reserves for winter. A well planned garden can attract more than 20 species of butterfly.

Green-veined white on dandelion

© Katrina Martin/2020VISION

Top tips

Stop weeding so much! Some of the garden’s least welcome inhabitants are favourite food plants for caterpillars, for example: 

Stinging nettles (preferred by comma, peacock, red admiral and small tortoiseshell butterfly caterpillars)

Dandelions (large white, orange-tip and peacock)

Brambles (comma and gatekeeper)

Garlic-mustard or Jack-by-thehedge (green-veined white and orange-tip)

Common sorrel (small copper)

Thistles (painted lady)

Wild teasel (red admiral and peacock)

• Position nectar plants (see panel) in sunny, sheltered spots.

• Different plants attract different species, so choose a range of varieties and plant them in blocks of the same type.

• Prolong the butterfly season in your garden by providing flowers from spring to autumn.

• Encourage plants to keep flowering by deadheading, mulching with organic compost and keeping them well watered.

• Don’t use insecticides and pesticides.

• Avoid peat compost, which is harvested from bogs that are home to many animals and plants. You can buy excellent peat-free alternatives from garden centres.