There’s nothing more satisfying than growing your own food, but that means it hits really hard when your crops are devastated by insects. Caterpillars, in particular, are very hungry critters (hence the name of the much-loved children’s book) and can chomp through a patch of cabbages in no time.
However, they’re also very important in our ecosystem. They’re a nutritious snack for birds, shrews and other insects such as spiders. They also transform into butterflies, which are important pollinators.
Native butterfly species are under threat from pesticides and habitat loss in the UK; 19 of our 56 species are threatened (Critically Endangered, Endangered or Vulnerable). The positive is that there are many things you can do to help with butterfly conservation, including taking part in the Big Butterfly Count from 17th July to 9th August 2020. All you need to do is choose a place to spot butterflies and moths, and keep track of how many you see in the space of 15 minutes. Then, submit your findings online. This helps keep track of butterfly populations around the UK, and helps the Butterfly Conservation assess the health of our environment!
Another thing you can do is avoid killing caterpillars with pesticides. Using pesticides is usually the first thought that comes to mind when dealing with a caterpillar infestation in a vegetable garden. However, it can often do more damage than good: chemical pesticides affect the quality of your produce; create a hazard for children and pets; and can even kill other important wildlife like birds and bees.
Instead, if you have the space, you can create a caterpillar garden! This is a small collection of plants that attract butterflies, and that the caterpillars in your green space can feed on – rather than eating all your veggies!
How to create a caterpillar garden
Find out which butterflies are most common in your area
There’s no point in creating a garden for caterpillars that are most common in the Scottish Highlands when you live in Cornwall! Use this handy map to search for the most common butterflies in your area, and plan your garden accordingly.
First of all, make sure that your caterpillar garden is positioned in a sunny area with shelter from high winds. Butterflies only lay their eggs in areas where they know they’ll be safe.
Plants that butterflies can lay their eggs on
Butterflies usually lay their eggs on the undersides of the leaves of certain plants. The larvae then hatch and eat the plant before forming a chrysalis – and turning into healthy butterflies!
Different butterflies prefer different host plants to lay their eggs on. The Monarch butterfly, one of the largest and rarest migrants in the UK, lays its eggs almost exclusively on milkweed.
The much more common Red Admiral, Small Tortoiseshell and Peacock butterflies prefer nettles.
The Gatekeeper, Meadow Brown and Ringlet butterflies, three very common and similar-looking butterflies, like to lay eggs in tall grasses such as bentgrass, tall fescue and meadow grasses.
Cabbage butterflies – yes, the ones that decimate cabbage crops – can be diverted away from cabbages with nearby Nasturtiums.
If you’re in the Norfolk Broads, you’re very lucky to have one of the most localised types of butterflies in the UK: the Swallowtail. These butterflies like to lay their eggs milk parsley, and they tend to pick the tallest plants.
Leave your garden to thrive
Apart from carefully watering your caterpillar garden so that you don’t knock the eggs off the leaves (try using a small watering can and watering directly over the soil around the plants), the best thing you can do is to leave it alone! Butterflies lay their eggs where they feel is most safe, so if there’s a nosy human lurking around all the time, they won’t lay. Leave your caterpillar garden to thrive – and enjoy a caterpillar-free veggie patch!
I would love to see a photo of your caterpillar garden! Tag me on social media @mr_plantgeek.
For more eco-friendly garden ideas, click here.
Michael has been involved with gardening and plants since he was just five years old. He is a self-professed Plant Geek, and was listed in the Sunday Times top 20 most influential people in the gardening world, thanks to his plant hunter role at Thompson & Morgan. Michael was responsible for new plant introductions such as the Egg and Chips plant and the FuchsiaBerry and keeps busy travelling the world in search of new plants as well as lecturing worldwide, including stints in Japan. He is very active on social media – so why not give him a follow at @mr_plantgeek or Facebook – and writes a plant-focused Substack called Grow This, Not That.
Michael has been involved with gardening and plants since he was just five years old. He is a self-professed Plant Geek, and was listed in the Sunday Times top 20 most influential people in the gardening world, thanks to his plant hunter role at Thompson & Morgan.
Michael was responsible for new plant introductions such as the Egg and Chips plant and the FuchsiaBerry and keeps busy travelling the world in search of new plants as well as lecturing worldwide, including stints in Japan. He is very active on social media – so why not give him a follow at @mr_plantgeek or Facebook – and writes a plant-focused Substack called Grow This, Not That.