Planting for pollinating insects has never been more important. As insect populations decline across the world, we need to find ways to help these essential invertebrates, for our future as well as theirs.
Gardeners can play a vital part in this recovery. With over 400,000 hectares of garden habitat across the UK, filling our gardens with plants that provide food sources for butterflies, bees and other pollinating insects can have a significant effect.
We asked garden designer, Nic Wilson of dogwooddays, for her thoughts. Here are eight simple suggestions to help make your outside space perfect for pollinators:
1. Add pollinator-friendly trees
Trees provide important sources of pollen and nectar for insects, especially bees, as they have many flowers close together. Flowering cherries like Prunus ‘The Bride’ and Prunus ‘Little Pink Perfection’ are ideal small garden trees, reaching two metres at maturity.
Fruit trees also offer masses of spring flowers and have the advantage of a delicious harvest. My family love the honeyed fruits from our greengage tree and we also grow several apples as cordons and espaliers. With a dwarfing rootstock and a trained form, fruit can be grown in even the smallest of spaces.
2. Consider flower shape
Choose cultivars with single blooms as the pollen and nectar producing organs in double flowers have often been transformed into extra petals. With single-flowered perennials like Geum ‘Totally Tangerine’, Geranium ‘Rozanne’ and Echinacea purpurea, you can fill your garden with food for native insects.
3. Plant in swathes or drifts
Insects use less energy if their food sources are close together, so planting in swathes not only creates a sophisticated effect, it also makes feeding more efficient. For a late summer combination, fill containers with a collection of salvias like Salvia ‘Hot Lips’, ‘Cherry Lips’ and ‘Amethyst Lips’.
Alternatively, plant intertwining drifts of Eryngium planum ‘Blue Hobbit’, Echinacea ‘Rainbow Marcella’ and Perovskia ‘Blue Spire’. The contrasting blue and orange tones will create energy in the border and the pollinators will love this late food source.
4. Fill gaps with pollinator-friendly annuals
Sowing annuals is a flexible way to provide a food source for pollinators as you can vary the mix each year based on which flowers are most popular with the insects. A few of my favourite pollinator-friendly annuals include: borage, calendula, Cerinthe major, snapdragon and rudbeckia.
5. Avoid chemicals
With increasing evidence about the effects of chemicals on wildlife, especially insects, we now know how important it is to avoid chemical control in the garden.
Use physical methods to control unwanted pests like squashing or dislodging aphids with jets of water, or using copper tape and wool pellets to discourage slugs. Try biological solutions like nematodes for slugs, vine weevils and thrips. Encourage ladybirds into your garden to eat aphids rather than reaching for chemical sprays. As Alys Fowler recently wrote in The Guardian: “these are chemicals that silence the soil.”
6. Think seasonally
Pollinators need food sources from early spring into late autumn, so plant with the seasons in mind. Spring flowering perennials such as lungwort, cowslips, honesty and flowering currant are ideal early nectar sources and autumn stalwarts like Michaelmas daisies, dahlias and sedum offer food when many other flowers have faded.
7. Create a herb garden
Planting herbs in a sunny spot is sure to bring in the pollinating insects. My lavender is covered with bees and butterflies in the summer months, while the chives, marjoram and thyme all attract pollinating insects and provide me with harvests for salads, soups and pizza.
8. Make a mini-meadow
One of the most exciting projects we’ve undertaken in the garden this year is to leave a small strip of lawn long and plant wildflower plugs to create a mini-meadow. Bare patches of ground can be sown with a meadow seed mix, but areas of long grass should be planted with wildflower plugs or container-grown plants. We can’t wait to see what pollinating insects are attracted to our mini-meadow later in the year.
By putting nature at the heart of gardening, we can enjoy the beauty of plants and animals working together in healthy ecosystems, knowing that our gardens are contributing to the wellbeing of the living planet that we all inhabit. Learn more information about planting for pollinators, along with interesting facts, by visiting our dedicated hub page.
Nic Wilson is a writer, garden designer and Garden Media Guilds Awards nominee (Beth Chatto Environmental Award, 2019). She enjoys growing flowers and unusual fruit, vegetables and herbs, and loves to encourage nature into the garden. She blogs at www.dogwooddays.net, and Guardian Country Diarist based in North Hertfordshire.
She works for BBC Gardeners’ World Magazine and her writing has featured in anthologies, journals and magazines including The English Garden, The Garden (RHS Magazine), BBC Wildlife Magazine and the John Clare Society Journal.