How I made my garden more butterfly-friendly – without letting it go completely wild

Interior designer Katharine Pooley in her garden
Interior designer Katharine Pooley in her garden - Kate Matin

Katharine Pooley owns three dogs, one cat, a guinea pig, 22 ducks, 34 chickens and countless bees. But little did she know that it would be the addition of a few hundred wild ­butterflies to her garden in Oxfordshire that would prove so important to her outlook, and her career.

Last spring, after hearing King Charles talk about the importance of leaving one or two fields untouched to grow wild, she decided to do exactly that with a patch of land near the entrance to her idyllic Georgian home, the Coach House. Within weeks, she started noticing flashes of colour as she took her dogs out for an early morning walk. The butterflies had arrived – for the first time in nearly two decades of her family living there.

Instead of mowing the patch of land at the end of the summer, as she had originally intended to, she left it wild, and added more overgrown spaces to her estate this year. The ­butterflies have not only returned, but have proliferated.

“I absolutely love seeing them,” she says. “It’s honestly magic – you feel human in a way that’s hard to describe; it’s such a blessing. Every morning I take the dogs out, and the last field is so overgrown it now has grass up to my knees. As they run through the ­tinkerbell dust – which is what I call the pollen from the flowers – the ­butterflies flutter above them. You feel alive just watching it.”

Pooley's idyllic Georgian home, the Coach House
Pooley's idyllic Georgian home, the Coach House - James McDonald

Slowly, Pooley has started to ­understand what she is seeing, and notes which species are breeding and which are not. “Now, I see yellow, brown and orange butterflies all the time, but we need more blue. I was never educated on butterflies before and it’s wonderful to know about this whole new world.”

It has also given her an even deeper love of gardening and a new appreciation for the land around her house. An interior designer who initially worked in advertising and banking in Hong Kong for 16 years, she became accustomed to a quieter, slower existence when she moved to the Oxfordshire countryside in 2002 with her husband and two children.

After 21 years of living in the Coach House, the garden has become ­integral to her life. First came the organic ­vegetable patch, then the chickens, the busy flowerbeds, and the play area for the children; but despite her ­successful career in interior design, she never felt as confident with ­gardening as she did picking out wallpaper or kitchen cabinets.

“I don’t think I’m a great gardener, even though I really tried hard at it,” she says. “Being an interior designer and a gardener are very different. They don’t go hand in hand and one skill doesn’t help the other. That being said, my garden means everything to me – I’ve been here for two decades and I’ve seen it grow in every possible way. It’s a piece of paradise and I’m so lucky to have it.”

Butterflies have not only returned to Pooley's garden, but they have proliferated
Butterflies have not only returned to Pooley's garden, but they have proliferated - James McDonald

For Pooley, it is a place to escape, and tending to it is the best form of therapy she knows, but it is also tough physical work (“nobody tells you it’s a lot harder than going to the gym”). And yet, after years of trying to tame her garden, she is now starting to wonder if letting nature take its course is ­sometimes the best solution.

“The arrival of the butterflies has certainly made me pause and question whether the grass or even certain flowers need to be cut, and whether we need to control all of it as much as we do,” she says. “From a butterfly’s perspective, the more we cut, the worse their habitat becomes.”

Five easy tips to help encourage butterflies in your garden
Five easy tips to help encourage butterflies in your garden

But while letting nature take over is important, Pooley still exerts some much-needed control. “I’ve installed butterfly houses, as they need places to go to. And it’s important to have a plan – this summer, I’ve grown flowers that attract them: foxgloves and delphiniums and other scented flowers, which has been lovely for us, too.”

Richard Fox, who leads the charity Butterfly Conservation, agrees wholeheartedly that Britain’s well-kept lawns and farmed fields are leaving butterflies with nowhere to live or breed, and that sometimes it’s best to step back from the clippers.

For Pooley, the garden is a place to escape
For Pooley, the garden is a place to escape - James McDonald

“Overly manicured gardens are much poorer for butterflies and all other ­wildlife,” he says. “Nature hates ­tidiness. In addition to any local impact that this might have on butterfly populations, a major disadvantage of the overly ­manicured garden is that it will reduce people’s interaction with butterflies and other wildlife.”

It’s an interaction that our grand-­parents were no doubt far more ­accustomed to than we are, as ­butterflies have been in decline in the UK for the past 50 years and around half of all native species are now listed as threatened or near threatened.
Butterflies have also vanished from nearly half of the places where they once flew since 1976. The distribution of 58 native species has fallen by 42 per cent, and those found in particular ­habitats, such as wetlands or chalk grassland, have fared even worse, with numbers falling by 68 per cent.

“Because of the major, long-term decline of Britain’s butterflies, it is no longer sufficient for gardeners who want to help to just plant some nice flowers that might encourage a few of them to visit to drink nectar,” says Fox. “I would encourage anyone who is lucky enough to have a garden, even if it is just a patio or balcony, to create habitats in which butterflies and other wildlife can live and breed.”

Beds tumbling over with roses have that slightly rough, organic feel that will help insects to proliferate
Beds tumbling over with roses have that slightly rough, organic feel that will help insects to proliferate - James McDonald

This includes planting native shrubs such as buckthorn or alder buckthorn, which are the only plants that the ­caterpillars of the brimstone butterfly eat, or ivy (which you need to allow to flower in the autumn) as this is what holly blue caterpillars need to feed on.

“If that feels too daunting, probably the best single thing everyone can do is to leave a patch or strip of grass to grow long,” says Fox. “Grass is the food for several common butterflies that can live in gardens (including speckled wood, meadow brown and gatekeeper) and will also be a home for grasshoppers, ladybirds and other predatory beetles that will keep pests such as aphids at bay.”

Added to this, the wildflowers that will spring up from unmown grass will provide pollen and nectar for bees and hoverflies. “Generally being less tidy, using fewer (or ideally no) pesticides, and not using any peat-containing ­compost in the garden, will all benefit butterflies,” says Fox.

Pooley, who has followed all this advice, now feels that she has a ­different perspective on her garden. “I have a very full-grown vegetable patch, but I’ve also made sure the arches are filled with sweet peas or french peas, because the butterflies love them,” she says. “I now let my chives grow into purple flowers, and I’ve started encouraging my friends to grow flowers that support the wildlife. It’s now my first thought: not just what will look nice, but what will last, and what will nourish the insects and other life that I share my garden with.”

Overly manicured gardens are much poorer for butterflies and all other ­wildlife
Overly manicured gardens are much poorer for butterflies and all other wildlife - James McDonald

Equally, she understands that few people, herself included, would want a completely untouched garden, and agrees that some freshly cut grass is essential for most of us. She has kept her lawn tennis court, which her ­husband and children use throughout the summer, and mows a large patch in front of the house where they sit ­outside and have lunch.

“I think the key here is to reassure yourself that you don’t have to let your garden go completely to encourage insects – you just need to include little pockets of wildness,” she says. “You can still have your clipped topiary and neat borders if that’s what you like, and it’s fine to trim most things back. You cut your flowers and trim your wisteria; there’s no reason why you can’t have wild patches in your garden that are still slightly trimmed.”

Showing her design side, she adds that big baskets filled with wildflowers and beds tumbling over with roses look wonderful but have that slightly rough, organic feel that is both in fashion and will help insects to proliferate.

In an attempt to share what she has learnt, Pooley has hosted lectures on butterflies over the course of the ­summer, and has worked with Butterfly Conservation to raise awareness of the issue.

'The flowerbeds are completely wild now,' observes Pooley
'The flowerbeds are completely wild now,' observes Pooley - James McDonald

To her surprise, her environmental efforts collided with her professional life earlier this year when high-end wallcovering company Fromental approached her about collaborating on a butterfly-­print wallpaper. Both parties agreed that some of the ­proceeds should go towards butterfly charities.

“I’ve put the wallpaper in my dining room and my ­bedroom,” she says, of the resulting design. “It’s quite classical, as opposed to ­modern, and when I lie in bed, I feel like I’m in heaven. I’ve chosen a taupe colour with warm white and celadon blues for the leaves and with the ­butterflies in lovely calm, bright ­colours. I sleep so well in there and I hope everyone else who buys it will too.”

Although, not all species are quite so enamoured by it. “The day after the wallpaper was put up, a bee came and landed on an embroidered flower and tried to feed,” says Pooley. “I felt rather guilty.”

Not that this particular bee wouldn’t have had plenty of other more fruitful options nearby. “The flowerbeds are completely wild now,” she says, about the gardens outside her window. “I love leaning out on summer evenings and looking at the sanctuary we have ­created, and at all the hundreds of ­butterflies that finally have a home.”