Creating a pollinator garden
Since starting my beekeeping journey four years ago, I’ve become much more aware of nature generally and pollinators in particular.
We also moved to Shedfield eighteen months ago and I am now fortunate to have a much bigger garden than the patio-style one we had before. It is an older property with an established garden and a variety of mature trees and shrubs and, as it hadn’t been maintained for sometime, there are also patches of overgrown vegetation and other ‘natural’ areas which we are very happy to keep for the benefit of the local wildlife.
I wanted to enhance what was already there and set about planting-up wildflower areas. I have some previous experience of starting wildflowers but with mixed results. In the past, I followed the instructions and prepared the ground as suggested and scattered the seeds as instructed on the box. All too often, the flowers failed to take and I was disappointed. So this time, I planted the seeds in trays and started them in the greenhouse before planting out the seedlings. This was very successful and of course, now they are established, the flowers will self seed. If you have some spare greenhouse capacity and want to grow some wildflowers, I thoroughly recommend starting them in this way.
The next thing I did was create a rockery. At the time of writing (December 2020) it doesn’t look much but the mixture of heathers, herbs and succulents proved incredibly popular with bees, butterflies and other pollinators during the summer. I’m looking forward to the rockery maturing as, being next to the patio, it provides an excellent opportunity to watch the girls working while I’m having my morning coffee!
I also have a dream of creating a double Lavender hedge to run alongside a new path we’re laying down the length of the garden. The path will be approximately thirty metres long and therefore needs a lot of Lavender plants. To save money, I’ve been buying small plants when I see them reduced or on special offer and planting up small sections along the path. I did take a picture to show you but at this time of year, it just looked like a badly-kept lawn!
I have also stopped using chemicals in the garden. In the past, I just didn’t think about the harmful effects that pesticides and even things like lawn feed have on our beneficial insects and other wildlife. I now use coffee grounds , liberally spread, around the base of my vegetables to ward off snails and slugs. Before lockdown, I would go into Costa and other coffee shops where the staff are all too happy to offload the grounds from the shop. Since lockdown, I’ve just had to drink a lot more coffee at home to keep supplies going! I’ve also found washing the shoots of my roses and beans with soapy water has proved just as effective as sprays against greenfly.
Our neighbours Chris and Ian gave me this wonderful gift for Christmas. It contains little clay pellets, each containing a variety of wildflower seeds. The pellets help keep the seeds moist whilst they germinate which makes starting them easier. This wonderful gift came with a comprehensive list of meadow flowers which I share with you here. I’ve also provided some more detailed information on some of my favourite varieties.
- Common Knapweed
- Wild Carrot
- Lady Bedstraw
- Rough Hawkbit
- Oxeye Daisy
- Ribwort Plantain
- Corn Marigold
- Common Sorrel
- Salad Burnet
- White Campion
- Corn Chamomile
Yarrow is one of the most common forage plants for Honeybees. The flowers are great landing pads and all types of bee find them very attractive.
When the flowers are over, the seed pods rattle giving the plant its name. Yellow Rattle is an annual plant and thrives in the long grasses of the meadow. It feeds from the same nutrients the grasses need thereby weakening them slightly allowing more delicate, meadow species to push through.
Cowslip is an early source of nectar for bees and butterflies.
‘Cowslip’ is actually a Mispronunciation of ‘cow slop’, named because the flowers are associated with cow pats in meadows. The plant was traditionally used to treat sleeping problems and coughs. The Spanish sometimes use the leaves in cooking and they have a slightly citrus flavour. The flowers are also used to flavour English wine.
The flowers appear on purple, sometimes pinkish, spikes but the herb is actually a member of mint family.
It’s a great favourite with all types of bees and as it’s name suggests, the plant has long been used in herbal medicine to stop bleeding, treating heart disease and sore throats.
The bright ‘hot pink’ flowers brighten up roadsides, woodlands and hedgerows throughout the summer. Just as the bluebells finish in our woodlands, red campion comes into bloom. They sometimes turn woodlands into a sea of pink and blue. Red campion is a perennial, which means it can live for a number of years, growing in spring and summer and dying back in autumn.
Cornflower is the easiest wild flower to grow and the beautiful colour makes them a firm favourite of mine. You can grow them from a sprinkling of seed in autumn or spring and the flowers emerge from late spring to summer. The buds open into a wonderful ruff of fringed petals in a stunning shade of blue.
Although short-lived, the flowers continually open throughout the summer. As the name suggests, cornflower grows in cultivated cornfields and was brought to Britain by Iron Age farmers, 2,400 years ago.
At one time Cornflower was widespread but as with too many of our native flowers, the of use of herbicides has caused a catastrophic decline of this British flower. The good news is, it’s one of the easiest annuals to grow in and is a great plant for children to get started with.
Sow the seeds directly into the soil where you want plants to them, sowing thinly in shallow drills in autumn or spring. They like well-drained soil in full sun. Autumn-sown plants will flower earlier and produce bigger plants.
The attractiveness of poppies to bees is a big surprise to me! Not only because the flower doesn’t produce nectar but because it’s red which means it must be invisible to bees! But I’ve learnt that bees love poppies because they provide lots of pollen. Apparently this is especially true of the Opium Poppy, Papaver somniferum. That’s a lot of very happy bees!
Poppies are a great way to add colour to your garden but choose a sunny spot with good drainage. Weed the area first and rake the soil. Then sprinkle them thinly over the ground to create natural looking drifts. Keep the soil moist during germination.
I’m also lucky to have another neighbour Dawn, who’s a gardener. She and her partner Colin have shown great interest in the bees and have shown plenty of early promise as beekeepers! They will be joining Louise’s course in the next couple of weeks and have already got a hive in their garden. I asked Dawn for a few tips for shrubs and flowers that are attractive to bees and here are some of her suggestions.
Buddleja globosa is also known as the Orange Ball Tree and is a wonderful plant for pollinators and very much underrated by gardeners. It is a medium to large shrub with long, pointed leaves and scented, globular, orange flowers that open in abundance in early to mid-Summer. Orange Ball Tree is just as popular with the bees and butterflies as it’s invasive purple cousin so beloved by railways lines!
Dawn also recommended Asters especially those with blue flowers.
Aster ericoides ‘Blue Star’
Asters have simple lance-shaped leaves and daisy-like flowerheads which is the reason they are grown. The central disc florets are typically yellow and are rich in pollen which is why they are attractive to bees. There are also pink, purple and white varieties.
Blue Star is a compact herbaceous perennial which can grow to 75cm, with narrow bright green leaves and pale lavender-blue flowers about 12mm wide.
Cotoneaster horizontalis is a spreading shrub which as the name suggests grows along the ground and is a useful plant for ground coverage or to ornament the top of a retaining wall. It is deciduous and grows to 2m wide and has distinctive foliage with small glossy leaves that turn orange and red in autumn. The pink-tinged flowers are very attractive to pollinators especially honey bees and the plant shows very attractive red berries later in the year.
Phalesia is a member of the Borage family. It likes full sun and grows in any type of soil as long as it’s well drained. It flowers between June and September and is a hardy annual.
It has lavender-blue, bell-shaped flowers, which are laden with nectar which makes them very attractive to bees and other beneficial insects. These flowers are perfect in wildflower meadows or natural planting schemes. The fast growing foliage helps to suppress weeds and makes attractive groundcover.
The seeds can be sown in small pots filled with compost ideally in a greenhouse. The growing tips can be pinched out to encourage bushier growth. The seedlings should be harden off before planting out. Alternatively, the seeds can be sown directly into the ground in autumn in a sunny, well-prepared seed bed.
The flowers are in shades of pink or white and appear late in the season on these hardy, herbaceous perennials. They are easy to grow and ideal for boarders or as ground cover. The best flower and leaf colour is achieved when grown in full sun. ‘Firetail’ has slender spikes clustered with tiny, fluffy, red flowers which appear from mid summer to early autumn above semi-evergreen, lance-shaped leaves. The plant is an excellent source of late forage for honey bees and other pollinators.
Having a bigger garden means that the tasks are never finished. It’s always a work in progress! But it has taught me to be more patient which is something I had already started to learn from Beekeeping. Planting for pollinators
Update July 2021
Over-winter I’d been reading up on different ways to avoid chemicals in the garden and was particularly drawn to the concept of companion planting.
The idea is to place plants that provide mutual benefit next to each other and to keep those that don’t apart. The ‘companion’ plants help each other to thrive by attracting beneficial insects, repelling pests or by luring pests away by sacrificing themselves as an alternative food.
Plants complement each other by:
- Reduced competition – put shallow roots beside a plant with deep roots and they will seek nutrients at different levels of the soil allowing it to support more variety.
- Improving soil – Some plants can improve the soil for others by enriching the nitrogen content.
- Pest repellent – certain plants repel certain types of pests.
Top tips for companion planting:
- Avoid planting all of the same plants together or in rows; pests find their favourite plant and spread quickly.
- Try ‘intercropping’: plant fast growing edible plants between slow growing ones
- Plant herbs to repel insects
- Use tall plants to create shade for others
- Plant lots of insect and bird friendly plants throughout your garden
There’s some really good information on companion planting on the Wildlife Trust website, it provides a comprehensive list of plants which can be grown together for maximum effect:
I tried Spinach and Kale paired with Calendula (which has become a personal favourite) and Nasturtium. The gardening website Sarah Raven also has some good ideas and I tried growing Basil with Tomatoes at its suggestion.
Generally , I have been pleased with the outcomes; the tomatoes and cucumbers are coming on well as are the potatoes but some of the vegetable beds have been disappointing. It,s possible to prevent rabbits using physical barriers like nets (but where I didn’t, they had a field day!) and the slugs have been a real problem this year despite coffee grounds, salt and beer traps. I’m not ready to give up on chemical-free just yet; Spring was relentlessly wet which provided ideal conditions for slugs and snails and in normal years, this would not have been the case.
The real highlight for me is the Calendula which I’ve gown in pots and planted throughout the garden. Calendula has been grown through the centuries but for me, this was the first year I had grown them. It is sometimes used instead of Saffron and the petals can be used to add colour to salads. I also found out that many herbal creams contain Calendula and one day, I plan to try making some myself.
The Nasturtium is also edible and the flower had a peppery taste which again looks amazing in a salad.
The rockery I started last year has developed very quickly. The succulents have spread to meet all the rocks which has squeezed out most of the weeds!
As well as looking beautiful, the rockery is very attractive to a wide range of pollinating species. My Californian poppies also decided to self-seed in it and whilst they may not be a traditional rockery plant, they add a wonderful splash of colour.
My newly ‘wilded’ areas have started to flourish too with Oxeye Daisies, Red Campion and Foxgloves making an early appearance. Its fascinating to watch the insects, moths, butterflies and bees that have been encouraged by these new wild areas. Comfrey has also become well-established and has inspired my granddaughter to take an interest in the different types of pollinators visiting it each day.
I’ll update you again as the garden progresses and hopefully next year with an even more encouraging report on chemical-free vegetable gardening.