wildlife gardening

Small Tortoiseshell Summer

Small tortoiseshell butterfly nectaring on water mint flower head
Small tortoiseshell butterfly nectaring on water mint flower head

Today, a gorgeously golden August bank holiday Monday, I was in Small Tortoiseshell heaven in my back garden with my Olympus 300m lens. With our wildflower meadow newly shorn, I could enjoy wonderful close up views of a late summer brood of Tortoisehell butterflies. They were a beautifully vivid, rich russet-orange colour as they flitted gracefully between the edge of our wildlife pond and our white buddleia, sweeping in to nectar on the pond side water mint. One butterfly cheekily nectared on a water mint flower so close to the water line that it had a narrow escape from becoming dinner with our rather noisy resident frog.

But I’m lucky to be enjoying this sight, because, despite this weeks flurry of emergences, today the Butterfly Conservation Society issued a press release about their worrying decline. The Small Tortoisheshell’s population has plummeted by 73% since the 1970s.

Like many butterflies, habitat loss is an issue, but in addition the growing numbers of a parasitic fly, Sturmia bella may also be a contributory factor.

Due to their complex lifecycle, butterflies need caterpillar food plants for their larval stage, as well as nectar from flowers and fruit after they metamorphose into butterflies. Small Tortoiseshells, like several of the nymphalidae butterfly family, use nettles as their caterpillar host plant.

Gardens are increasingly playing a vital role as a habitat in our rapidly changing environment, so if you are a gardener, allowing a generous patch of nettles somewhere sunny at the edge of your garden really could help a struggling butterfly to recover, and when emerging Small Tortoiseshells grace your flower borders, make late summer days in your garden even more beautifully golden.


Selfheal amidst white clover meadow


Selfheal amidst white clover meadow
A combination of Selfheal and White Clover makes a wonderful, low-maintenance turf-lawn alternative

With our our increasingly busy lives and long commutes, many people these days seem to detest the idea of  spending precious leisure time mowing their lawns every week in high summer. So much so that sales of block paving, pea shingle and even artificial plastic astro-turf are soaring. According to a report by the Committee on Climate change, in the 5 years to 2013 around 55 million square meters of block paving was installed in England, 92% of which was non-permeable.

This is a tragedy for humans, the eco-system and wildlife alike. Most especially because there are some truly beautiful, natural, wildlife friendly alternatives out there , are far more attractive than block or shingle replacements yet are still vastly less effort to maintain than a traditonal turf lawn.

Flooding has become a real issue in urban areas due to block paving of front gardens for maintenance or driveway purposed, so much so that planning permission is now required for non permeable paving with no drainage. As awareness grows of the flooding and ecosystem impact of artificial surfaces, people are starting to look into greener alternatives to paving that avoid resorting to higher maintenance traditional turf lawns. At the same time wildlife gardening is rapidly increasing in popularity as we become more conservation minded.

Grass lawns themselves are a monoculture habitat with very poor biodiversity. Aside from the odd snail or earthworm it has little to offer wildlife, as well as limited visual appeal to the human eye. With a little imagination your dull, bland green lawn could be transformed into an artistic and aromatic patchwork quilt of low level, slow growing wildflowers that will shelter and feed bees, insects and butterflies. Many of these plants are native or long naturalised so cope with our long dry summer weather far better than garden centre grass mixes will do.

Probably the star performer for an alternative turf lawn is white clover, perhaps with a sprinkling of purple-blue selfheal and speedwell dropped in, but there are a whole host of options including the lovely idea of fragrant and herbal flower lawns grown with chamomile, thyme or mint, an innovation first dreamed up by the Elizabethans.

Depending on what flower lawn mix you sow, you may still need just one or two mows on a high setting in spring, but from then on you can leave the sward completely alone through the main summer period, sit back and enjoy the flowers before mowing again once or twice in autumn.

Below is a list some of the best known low growing flower-lawn options to go for as an alternative to a bland green turf lawn, but many  other wild flowers will adapt to low growing and flowering height with regular mowing. You could even plant in some spring bulbs for extra colour.

Blue / White / Pink Flowers for Alternative Low Flowering Lawns

  • White clover (trifolium repens, native, flowers: white, Jun-Oct)- a star lawn alternative, tough and resilient and simply wonderful for garden bees. It is a caterpillar host plant for 14 moth species, in particular burnet, heath, mother shipton and silver y moths. It has a prolonged flowering season and the leaves of this legume stay green during the height of summer unlike most lawns. Note that its relative red clover grows much taller than the white.
  • Selfheal (prunella vulgaris, native, flowers: blue/purple Jun-Oct ) – a good companion to clower, this semi-evergreen herb with beautiful violet flower spikes can flower well into October. As its name suggest, the herb has a long history of medicinal use for healing wounds.
  • Germander Speedwell (veronica chamaedrys, native, flowers: blue Apr-Jun) A host plant for the heath fritillary butterfly, this variety of speedwell displays bright blue flowers in spring and its name references its historic status as a good luck charm for travellers, to speed them well on their way. Other creeping speedwell varieties include Common Field Speedwell (v.  persica) , Grey Field Speedwell (v. polita) Green Field Speedwell (v . agrestis)
  • Ground Ivy (glechoma hederacea, native, flowers: lilac, Mar-Jun) nothing to do with its larger relative it looks a little like bugle and is low growing spring flower oft seen with primroses.
  • Bugle (ajuga reptans, native, flowers: purple Apr-Jun) a member of the mint/dead nettle family with purple flowers on little stalks in spring
  • Yarrow (achillea millefolium, flowers: white to pink, Jun-Oct) a pretty feathery leaved plant in the daisy family with erect flower spikes that flower low with mowing. Great for butterflies and plume moths.
  • Sweet Violet (viola odorata, native, flowers: lilac to deep purple, Mar-May) low growing spring flowers. Sweet violet spreads via rhizomes. Its relative common dog violet flowers a little later.

Yellow / Orange / Red Flowers for Alternative Low Flowering Lawns

  • Bird’s foot trefoil (lotus corniculatus, native, flowers: yellow to orange, May-Sep) – Not everyone’s cup of tea with its vivid yellow “bacon and egss” but this is an excellent moth and butterfly caterpillar host plants used by Common Blue, Green Hairstreak, Dingy Skippers and Clouded Yellow butterflies.
  • Creeping Buttercup (ranunulus repens, native, flowers: yellow, May-Jul) one of Britains native  buttercups. Leaves are comparatively large and it does have quite a vigorous creeping habit so be sure you want plenty of glossy yellow flowers before including it in a mix.
  • Daisy (bellis perennis, native, flowers: white-yellow, Apr-Oct) Every perfect lawn should have some. No British summer is complete without a daisy chain and a game of “she loves me, she loves me not”.
  • Scarlet Pimpernel (anagallis arvensis, native, flowers: red, May-Oct) Made famous by the French rebel, this is a delicate tiny little red flower that opens in the morning when the sun shines and will close up in less clement weather.
  • Dandelion (taraxacum officinale, native, flowers: yellow Apr-Oct), a marmite plant hated by many traditional gardeners for its habit of invading lawns, but a whole field full can be a sight to behold.
  • Cat’s Ear (hypochaeris radicata, native, flowers: yellow May-Oct), often confused with dandelions as it alsow grows as a rosette, but its more delicate and low growing with flowers on spikes and is very popular with meadow butterflies like skippers and meadow browns and gatekeepers.

Fragrant or Herbal Flowers for Alternative Low Level Lawns

  • Creeping Thyme (thymus serpyllum, naturalised, flowers:May-Aug ) – a fragrant creeping herb that originated in the mediterranean and was brought to Britain by the Romans.
  • Chamomile (Chamaemelum nobile, native, flowers: Jun-Aug) – another aromatic plant used for tea, this herb became the height of fashion in the Elizabethan era and it was the Elizabethans who first came up with the idea of planting it en masse as a feathery soft lawn fragrant underfoot. A non flowering cultivar is also available.
  • Corsican Mint (Mentha requienii, naturalised, flowers: purple Jul, Aug) – Introduced from Corsica, Sardinia a low growing mint family plant.

Green / Non Flowering

  • Moss (bryophyta)- overlooked and underrated, particularly good for shady areas, it is a gorgeous rich green and bouncy underfoot.

Traditional Wildflower Meadows 

If you don’t need a low level lawn like effect and the height of plants is no issue you could even consider a wildflower meadow patch. For the extra effort of an annual hay or winter cut you could consider a dense flower meadow mix for birds and bees. These are designed to be left overwinter for seeds and are cut around February or sowing a traditional natural grass and wildflower meadow. This has a similar regime timed as a hay cut in late summer.

Abandon your Mower

So there are a whole host of options that can mean your mower is left to gather dust in the garage most of the year, leaving you free to enjoy your low flowering non turf lawn for its natural beauty and the wildlife species it brings into your garden. Not all lawn alternatives will tolerate heavy footfall, so a little thought research and tailoring is required to find the right option and perfect blend for your area.

But whatever you do –  throw that block paving brochure into the recycling and start growing an exciting low maintenance beautiful space for wildlife!

Further Reading

Emorsgate Seeds offer a ready made flowering lawn mix (EL1) and have written a short article


Reading University research shows what can be done creatively


The Committe on Climate Change’s 2014 Paving Survey Report


Wildlife Meadow Matting for Birds and Bees


Red campion and bird bath in the old rose garden
Red campion, daisies and bird bath in the old rose garden


Buttercup and speedwell can be low growing alternatives to a turf lawn
Buttercup and speedwell can be low growing alternatives to a turf lawn


A Spotty New Arrival

Four-spotted chaser dragonfly basking

Our wildlife garden is quite mature now, so we were really excited today to spot our first ever four spotted chaser perched by our our wildlife pond, and even more delighted when he suddenly started zooming round and hooked up with a mate who then started ovipositing!

Four-spotted chaser dragonfly basking
Four-spotted chaser dragonfly basking
Side lit four-spotted chaser dragonfly on perch crop
Side lit four-spotted chaser dragonfly on perch crop

Raising a Yellow Flag…

Yellow flag, or yellow iris is a really beautiful native pond wildflower common in wetlands and marshes and is widespread across Norfolk. It can also make for a wonderful addition to wildlife garden ponds. It can become a little too vigorous in particularly favourable conditions so may be best grown in containers in smaller ponds or bog gardens. Fortunately mine has plenty of companion planting and competition that has so far seems to have kept it in check.

Yellow flag iris and wildlife pond
Yellow flag iris in our wildlife pond