Transforming gardens into a haven for pollinators and beneficial insects has topped the gardening agenda in recent years. Climate change, habitat loss and pesticide use have all been blamed for declines in precious pollinators that form a vital part of our planet’s ecosystem, sparking fears about global food security.
According to the journal Nature, 75% of crop species, 35% of global crop production and up to 88% of flowering plant species are “dependent on insect pollinators to some extent”. By growing flowering plants that are rich in pollen and nectar, our gardens can help to reverse catastrophic insect decline, acting as a magnet for an estimated 1,500 species of pollinating insects in the UK, including bees, butterflies, moths and hoverflies. A garden that’s teaming with pollinators doesn’t simply help nature to survive. As insects zip from plant to plant, they’ll pollinate blooms, which is especially important if you grow your own food.
The Royal Horticultural Society has been at the forefront of tackling pollinator decline and gardeners should look out for its yellow RHS Plants for Pollinators logo, which helps shoppers to choose plants that provide forage for a wide variety of pollinating insects. You don’t need to spend a fortune on plants to provide a feast for pollinators, as many bee-loving blooms can be cheaply raised from seed.
Choose plants with single, open flowers which make it easy for pollinators to access nectar and pollen; fancy, double blooms will not usually attract pollinators. It goes without saying that gardeners should try to avoid pesticides, but if spraying is essential, carry out the treatment in the evening, and only if no pollinators are about, while taking care that spray doesn’t drift onto open flowers. Putting up insect hotels enhances the environment for beneficial insects such as solitary bees while a pond or water feature will help to form a more attractive environment for pollinators. Leaving a small section of lawn to grow wild is a proven way to make your garden more pollinator-friendly, as insects will be lured by flowering weeds.
Helping pollinators throughout the seasons
While borders are awash with pollinators in high summer, planting for seasonal interest will ensure a steady supply of nectar is available for beneficial insects that are on the wing early in the season and as the gardening year draws to a close. As a new year season dawns, trusty springtime favourites such as primrose, crocus, English bluebell, grape hyacinth and wallflowers will bring bees flocking, before the stately blooms of rhododendron lure pollinators with their majestic displays.
As late spring turns to summer, the magnificent, firework-like spheres of alliums – an RHS Chelsea Flower Show favourite – are the destination of choice for bees. It goes without saying that the Mediterranean-style blooms of lavender will be awash with pollinators in midsummer, as will favourites such as delphinium, hardy geranium, campanula and potentilla.
From late summer into autumn, bees and pollinating insects are spoiled for choice. Conical, perfumed blooms of the butterfly bush (Buddleja), are a classic summertime magnet for pollinators, while single-flowered dahlias will lure insects late into autumn. In fact, the autumn garden represents a bounty for bees and insects when the blooms of sedum, coneflower and aster glow in the low, golden sunlight. Fewer pollinators will be in flight during the coldest months, but winter aconites, snowdrops and hellebores will cater for insects that are on the wing – as will stalwarts of winter shrub borders such as mahonia, sweet box and the trusty Viburnum tinus.
Top pollinator-friendly flowers from seed
There’s no need to splash out on ready-grown perennials or shrubs to enhance your garden’s appeal to pollinators. Growing insect-friendly blooms from seed is cheap, fast and rewarding. The choice is huge, but here are five favourites from the Unwins range that’ll have pollinators flocking.
Flowering in June and July, foxgloves bring a touch of woodland charm to semi-shaded parts of the garden. A staple of cottage borders, their tall, spectacular flower spikes are the destination of choice for bees. Try sowing foxglove ‘Excelsior Mixed’, a beautiful blend of white, pink, cream and purple bell-shaped flowers that are at their finest in early summer. Plants self-seed but are not invasive, representing excellent value for money.
Sow Verbena bonariensis and you’ll be rewarded with one of the most architectural and striking border perennials that’ll lure bees, hoverflies and beneficial insects. Also known as purple top, stems soar to around 2m and bear clusters of small purple flowers from summer to autumn that pollinators adore. No wonder this garden glory is on the RHS Plants for Pollinators list.
Commonly known as pot marigold, this old-fashioned hardy annual represents a banquet for bees, hoverflies and lacewings. Sow Calendula ‘Long Flowering Mix’ into beds, borders and containers and dazzling orange, daisy-like flowers will provide pollinators with a banquet of pollen and nectar from midsummer into autumn.
Heavenly hollyhocks are quintessential cottage garden blooms. Aside from their ability to add height and structure to borders while retaining informality, towering stems of flowers are a magnet for pollinators. The secret is to choose a variety that’s packed with accessible, single flowers, such as hollyhock ‘Country Dream Mix’, a hardy perennial that’ll fill sunny or part shady areas with the buzz of pollinators.
Sow a hardy biennial such as teasel ‘Winter Bouquet’ and it’s a win-win for gardeners and nature. Striking architectural blooms in July and August will see plants smothered in bees and butterflies but leave seed heads in situ and wild birds, especially goldfinches, will descend to feast on the seeds.
Sow a biodiversity-enhancing wildflower mix
You don’t need to own an expanse of countryside to create a wildflower area that’ll be awash with colour – and pollinators – over a long season. Pre-selected seed blends, such as Unwins’ Nature’s Haven Flower Biodoversity Mix, can be direct sown where they are to grow and flower, carpeting the ground with nectar-rich annual flowers that are the definition of low-maintenance gardening.
Between March and May, prepare a seed bed by removing weeds and raking soil to provide a fine, level tilth. Water lightly, sow seeds and cover with a light layer of soil, taking care to keep the area watered during dry spells. From July until October, the mini-meadow will be teaming with beneficial insects while gardeners enjoy a magnificent riot of colour.
Frequently Asked Questions
When are bees most active in the garden? Bees will be a common sight between March and September. However, with climate change leading to milder winters, it’s not uncommon to see bees in flight earlier in the season.
How do I deal with pest infestations without harming pollinators? Never spray a plant with insecticide when it’s in flower. If aphids are causing damage, for example, use a hosepipe to blast sap-sucking bugs from stems and foliage. Ladybirds will often descend and feast on aphids, too.
Can I grow pollinator-friendly wildflowers if I don’t have a garden? Yes, sow a wildflower mix into a large container of compost and you’ll soon have a mini-meadow for beneficial insects.
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