How to: plant for pollinators
April marks the start of gardening season for many people. Gardening is possibly one of the UK’s most popular hobbies or past times, enjoyed by all ages and backgrounds, right across the country. Whether you live in a rural idyll or in the heart of a bustling city, have acres of land or a small balcony, growing a few flowers, herbs or vegetables is a great way to relax, get in touch with nature. It also gives your mental and physical health a positive boost. Gardening also gives us all a fantastic opportunity to do something to help wildlife.
My ‘How To-’ guide this month is a little look at growing plants to help pollinating insects; a group of species we all rely on every day of our lives. Pollinators are essential for food production, and they are also one part of the foundation of a healthy ecosystem for all wildlife. Healthy populations of insects support our favourite birds, amphibians, reptiles and mammals, allowing all wildlife to thrive. Aside from their value within the ecosystem, many of the pollinators such as bees and butterflies are much loved for their beauty, or for fascinating us as children. The majority of insects need plants at one stage or other of their life cycle, and this is where us gardeners come in.
We all adore flowers. Bright and gaudy, or subtle and scented, our love of blooms is just what the pollinating insects such a bees, butterflies and even moths, need. Flowers provide nectar and pollen as fuel for the short but important lives of these beautiful creatures.
Growing flowers to provide bees and butterflies with an all-day buffet is not as hard as you might think. Even if you have never got your hands dirty or picked up a watering can in your life, I promise you can grow a colourful and beautiful array of plants. The best thing is it can be done with very little money and without needing lots of expertise or special tools.
So, what about space and location?
A pot placed on a balcony or on your doorstep is a convenient way to start growing, especially if you are limited on space. For those lucky enough to have a larger plot, you can grow in a patch of ground with a little bit of preparation.
Before planting or sowing seed, clear the patch of any grass or any thuggish weeds you don’t want, and loosen the soil with a fork. If it is very dusty and grey, the soil may be poor in nutrients, and you can add compost to improve it. Some wildflowers are happiest in poor soils however, so check the requirements of the plants you plan to grow. If you have the flexibility of space, consider carefully where to site your flower patch or pot. A relatively sheltered and sunny spot is ideal, but if you only have shady areas available, there are many flowers that will grow fine in those conditions too.
Basics of growing – the three main things that plants need to grow are some compost/soil to put their roots into, a little water to drink and keep them fresh, and plenty of sunlight, which they convert into food by a clever bit of chemistry in the cells of their leaves! A bit of TLC can help, but many plants are quite happy to just get on with the job of growing with very little intervention from us. If you are growing in the ground as a patch or in an existing flower border, you probably only need to water in hot weather. Pots dry out much faster, so keep an eye on it and don’t let the soil dry out completely – if your plants start to wilt, don’t panic, they will usually pick up after a drink.
Please remember that insects including bees and butterflies are very sensitive to chemicals, so avoid using weed-killers, pesticides or slug pellets. Organic gardening can mean using a little imagination rather than reaching for the poisonous spray bottle, such as placing copper tape or even broken up eggshells around plants to deter slugs. However, if you want to attract and help pollinating insects and other wildlife, the avoidance of harmful chemicals is one rule that is very important to follow.
What shall we grow?
Wildflowers are the obvious choice, as these evolved alongside native insects and therefore have formed partnerships with them. The foxglove for example has flowers that are shaped like a wide tube with a ‘tongue’ or landing platform at the entrance. This makes it perfect for the bumblebees that enter the flowers to get at the nectar inside, and collect pollen on their furry bodies.
Many of our cultivated varieties of flower are also excellent for the pollinator friendly garden. They often flower longer and at different times to our native flowers, meaning your ‘bee buffet’ is open for a far longer season, plus they come in all sorts of bright colours and growth habits to appeal to our own sense of beauty. Look for flowers that are flat and open, such as the daisy shapes, or varieties that have lots of small flowers making up sprays or platforms where the insects can easily feed.
The Usual Suspects
The famous double act, bees and butterflies, are the type of insects that most people think of when flowers for pollinators are mentioned. But the pollinator population is much more varied than we might at first expect. Moths, of course often take over the role come darkness, but did you know that hoverflies, and even beetles are important pollinators too?
Keep your eyes open on hot summer days and you might be lucky enough to spot a hummingbird! Well… not a true hummingbird of course as they don’t live in the UK, but we do have a wonderful hummingbird mimic! The Hummingbird Hawkmoth is a day flying insect (not all moths only come out at night!) that hovers to feed at flowers just like it’s namesake.
Sow to Grow
If you are thinking about growing some flowers for pollinators this summer, you could buy plants from a local nursery or garden centre. Or if you are feeling a little more adventurous why not pick up a packet of seeds? Sowing seeds is a brilliant way for children (and adults!) to learn about how plants grow. It is also economical and fun!
Seeds are inexpensive and accessible, and many varieties are really easy to grow. You could share packets with friends or team up with your neighbours and get competitive!
I’d love to hear how you get on with planting for pollinators – what do you grow and who do you attract? You can post comments or pictures below, or join the conversation on Twitter @sxfieldnotes!