Martin Kalaher's butterfly garden

13 July 2020 | Posted in Guest blogger , Insects
Martin Kalaher's butterfly garden
Male Small Skipper nectaring on Birdsfoot Trefoil © Martin Kalaher

Martin Kalaher lives in Storrington and has created a wonderful, butterfly-friendly garden. He tells us a bit about himself and his butterfly haven

I spent my childhood years in Hailsham, East Sussex then studied medicine in London. My wife Mary and I moved to Storrington in 1983, where I was a village GP until 2010.

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I decided to plant a butterfly-friendly garden because we are constantly being told that our countryside is deteriorating, but I don’t think it has to be all doom and gloom. Every gardener can make a bit of a difference, however small. So that’s why I have created a butterfly friendly garden, doing my bit for our local insect population.

In 2004, I hand-dug a garden pond. The following year I dug out a small area of the back garden, which was the beginnings of the wildflower meadows you can see today. 

As the years have passed every decision I take is aimed at making the garden as insect-friendly as possible, and specifically to encourage butterflies to breed in the garden. 

I planted deciduous hedgerows to the west, south and east of the back garden. These hedgerows are now tall and wide and offer a lot of shelter. Otherwise, I have gradually increased the area covered by wildflower meadows, which are full of native plants such as Field Scabious, Devilsbit Scabious, Greater Knapweed and Betony, with an understory of Birdsfoot Trefoil, White and Red Clovers and Germander Speedwell. My aim is for a large variety of native wildflowers, to cater for the needs of a wide range of insects.

Since then, I've recorded 35 butterfly species, of which 27 species have bred in the garden. On a single day last year (August 2nd) I had a count of 140 butterflies in the garden, with 20 different species. Admittedly 60 of those butterflies were Gatekeepers, but it was a great joy to be surrounded by these lovely insects. There is a wide range of other insects including many species of hoverflies and at least six species of Bumblebees.

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Mating pair of Marbled White. I like the idea that butterflies don't just visit the garden, but they stay and breed. This photo shows Greater Knapweed in all its magnificence and the varied colours of Marbled White, depending on the angle of the light

In terms of highlights, three female Small Blues laid their eggs on the Kidney Vetch that I had raised from seed. 

An aberrant Brown Hairstreak visited the garden - never previously been recorded in the wild - so that was special. 

Then we had a brief visit by a Long-tailed Blue, which nectared on Purple Loosestrife.

This year we saw a Grizzled Skipper. We had three freshly-emerged Comma of the Hutchinsoni form (the Comma that are strikingly orange), which I like to think were present because of the hops I planted a few years back. 

And three freshly-emerged Brimstones nectared all afternoon on Betony. I suspect they emerged courtesy of Alder Buckthorn.

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Peacock. One of the many advantages of planting Field Scabious is that it is easy enough to look down on the subject, for nice-looking photos. 

In terms of maintenance, a mature wildflower meadow requires a single cut and rake, sometime in late summer/early autumn. So there is not too much maintenance if you are lucky enough to inherit an ancient flower meadow. I spend a lot of time on my meadows as I am constantly tinkering. I have a nursery area where I grow the wildflowers from seed and then when fully mature, I plant them out in areas of the meadow that I think need some enrichment.

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Small Heath. A small butterfly and therefore not easy to photograph. I like this one on Germander Speedwell. 

The nectar of the following wildflowers are irresistible to our butterflies: Hemp Agrimony, Field Scabious, Devilsbit Scabious, Greater Knapweed, Betony, Ox-eye Daisy, Common Fleabane and Birdsfoot Trefoil. Non-native plants that I would recommend are Verbena Bonariensis and of course our old favourite, Buddleia.

If anyone feels inspired to do something similar in their own garden - as with all garden projects, the preparation is all important. Most nectar-rich wildflowers fare better where the soil is low in fertility. What I have chosen to do is to remove the top 4-5 inches of topsoil, leaving a mix of topsoil and subsoil. 

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Male Essex Skipper. Another uncommon species that breeds in the garden, with dailycounts of around ten not unusual

In this poor-quality soil, the more aggressive plants such as nettles, docks and coarse grasses do not out-compete the wildflowers.

I would always source my plants from a specialist nursery (or better still a friend who already has an established wildflower meadow). Most wildflowers grow very readily from seed, or to speed things along one could buy plugs, pot them up and plant them out when they are a decent size.

A well-balanced wildflower meadow takes a few years to develop, so patience is required but the wait is well worth it.

If space is at a premium, then consider creating a simple flower bed, full of the plants named above. The butterflies and bees will be very happy with your decision and I think you will be too.

MK

Martin has written a series of articles about butterflies in a wildlife garden, see here

Comments

  • Viviane Doussy:

    15 Jul 2020 21:00:00

    A wonderful local Storrington initiative. We’ve been lucky enough to have seen this private garden and it is rather wonderful!

  • Julian:

    16 Jul 2020 12:56:00

    Martin it’s fantastic to read about your garden transformation and like you I also share that same passion. Just got a 25 acre block of land I’m doing the same with, but atm I’m struggling clearing out all the acres of brambles and docks by hand.

    Is you soil alkaline and chalky? Here it’s sandstone and acid.

  • Hannah:

    16 Jul 2020 13:22:00

    What an amazing garden. To have so many butterflies visiting on a daily basis must make you very happy. A real inspiration for me to try and create something similar in my new garden. Any suggestions for sourcing local (Saltdean) ) native chalk Downlands plugs or seeds would be appreciated . Thanks

  • Linda Potter:

    16 Jul 2020 16:55:00

    Hi Martin, lm a professional garden trying to enrich a meadow area in a garden in Bolney. It already has a wide range of natural plants. I planted up an area 2 years ago with a wider variety of plants which seemed to do well until this summer. Would love some advice please

  • Martin Kalaher:

    20 Jul 2020 15:10:00

    Answering the questions above, as best I can. The soil is sandy and very infertile but I still like to remove the topsoil, as I think it gives our native wildflowers the best chance to become established. I do not know of any local suppliers of native plants. I have previously sourced mine from a Nottingham specialist nursery but for the past few years I collect seed from the garden. The problem I have found is that interesting native plants such as Marjoram , very readily become smothered by more aggressive vegetation, especially coarse grass species. That’s why I always use bare soil (in a nursery area) but then am am happy enough to fertilise these native plants to help them become well-established, before moving them elsewhere in the garden. For lots more information, use the link in red beneath the garden photograph.

  • Claire Saxby:

    27 Aug 2020 13:07:00

    Very inspiring. I am in the early stages and experimenting so all very helpful.

  • Patrícia Hall:

    27 Aug 2020 16:39:00

    Your garden looks absolutely wonderful and your photos are beautiful. The Marbled Whites are a male and female, the female having the more ochreous underside. Do you have an open day? I worry about the trend in artificial lawns. In my road, someone has turned his front and back garden into a ghastly plastic desert. Some friends of mine from Surrey say it is becoming very trendy in their cul de sac

  • Pauline Blackwell:

    28 Aug 2020 21:10:00

    Very heartening to read and see your beautiful and interesting garden. I have been a keen wildlife gardener for years ( I am 94) sadly I cannot do much hands on gardening any more, but have a keen gardener who is helpful. We are constantly battling against gale force winds and wet weather. Nevertheless we have an abundance of wild life.
    I have lived most of my life in West Sussex but mostly miss only the trees and hedge rows.

  • Cheryl Eager:

    31 Aug 2020 06:47:00

    Where can I buy seeds to start my own garden meadow?

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