Keep your garden flowering and help polinators too
EXPERIENCED gardeners often try to extend the flowering season in their gardens, aiming to have something flowering for as many months of the year as possible. Recent research by the Royal Horticultural Society and the University of Sheffield found that pollinating insects (mainly bees, butterflies and hoverflies) generally preferred native and closely-related flowers during spring and mid-summer, but more exotic plants played their part by extending the flowering season, providing nectar when other flowers are scarce. This research didn’t set out to recommend specific varieties of flowers, but it has made me think about how we can extend the flowering season in our own gardens to make them more attractive for both pollinators and for us.
Bumblebee queens often emerge on sunny days in late winter and need to find nectar quickly to give them the energy to start building a nest. The evergreen shrub Mahonia is often their choice for that first feed. Its bright yellow, scented flowers help to brighten up the winter garden for us as well. Another early flowering shrub which is popular with bees is Lonicera x purpusii ‘Winter Beauty’ which has sweetly scented flowers. If you don’t have room for shrubs, you could try planting wallflowers. Erysimum ‘Bowles’ Mauve’ is an evergreen perennial wallflower that flowers continuously from late winter until summer. It’s an excellent source of long-lasting colour for a small garden and is great for bees and butterflies. Crocuses provide early flowers and nectar for gardens of all sizes. Autumn is the time to plant crocuses, which can even be planted in containers on a balcony.
The other time of year when native and near-native flowers are in short supply is late summer and autumn. By late summer, many flowers have finished and have already produced seed or fruit. However, this is a time when bumblebees need plenty of food as the queen is now laying eggs that develop into new queens and males – the next generation. So, if your garden has fewer flowers in late summer and autumn, consider planting some nectar-rich, non-native flowers. Good choices include white and dark purple varieties of Buddleja (butterfly bush) and the open, single varieties of dahlia. Also good are various kinds of daisies, including Echinacea (cone flower), Helenium (Helen’s flower) and Aster (Michaelmas daisy). Sedum, including the popular Sedum spectabile (ice plant), are also a good source of late-summer nectar.
It seems that native plants (and their relatives) are good for pollinators most of the time, but if you want to support them during the vital beginning and end of their lifecycles, plant some well-chosen non-natives. You will be rewarded with a more attractive garden for most of the year as well.
Kathy Vivian is a local garden designer with an interest in gardening to attract beneficial wildlife. Read her blog on www. kathyviviangardendesign.com or search for KathyVivgarden on Facebook and Twitter.
Dahlias like this one (Dahlia ‘Pathfinder’) keep our gardens colourful and pollinators fed into autumn