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Gardening for pollinators: a guide

Gardening for pollinators: a guide

By Alex Lyneel @theEnglishGardener

Over millions of years, plants and pollinators have developed a symbiotic relationship in which pollen is distributed for reproduction in exchange for nectar and pollen as a food source.

In this article, we’ll explore what this relationship means and some simple steps you could take to help pollinators in your garden.

The symbiotic relationship between plants and pollinators

By foraging from one flower to the other, a variety of pollinators disseminate pollen from male to female flowers which enables crops to bear more fruits than if they were simply wind pollinated. Among them, bees are said to be responsible for one-third of the food on our plates. This makes bees a keystone species, without which our ecosystem would collapse.

Often a flower relies on a particular pollinator species for pollination. For instance, Foxgloves require pollinators with a proboscis (that is, a straw-like tongue) that’s long enough to reach the nectar inside each flower. Bumblebees and solitary bees are prime candidates for this role, over short-tongued honeybees.

Other plants such as Lavender or Salvia have developed different strategies to attract pollinators, using the way the colour purple is reflected in the vision of honeybees. Since bees are able to perceive UV light, they can distinguish nuances of violet and purple which humans cannot and are therefore most attracted to flowering plants with purple, violet and blue blooms. It’s no wonder they flock toward Alliums, Lavender or Salvias! 

During its foraging flights, a bee’s hairs become positively charged with static electricity. Since flowers are negatively charged, when the bee lands on a flower they attract each other — very much like a magnet — and the pollen will ‘stick’ to the bee’s hair. This phenomenon makes bees one of nature’s most efficient pollinators.

One common misconception is that all bees are the same. In fact, there are thousands of bee species in the world, the vast majority of which are solitary bees (for example, mason bees and leafcutter bees). Only a minority of bees, such as honeybees or bumblebees, live in colonies. All feed on nectar and pollen.

The European honeybee is the most commonly known bee to produce honey, and was domesticated by beekeepers over five thousand years ago in ancient Egypt. While honeybees and bumblebees usually get more publicity, it’s crucial to recognise the importance of solitary bees in pollinating our gardens.

So what can I do to help pollinators?

The most important thing to keep in mind when planting for pollinators is to ensure the plants you select will complement each other for year-long blooms throughout the growing season, especially in late winter and late spring when there is less nectar available. In later winter, Crocuses and small open-flowered Narcissi are an important food source for pollinators; in late spring, Sicilian honey garlic, Foxgloves, Geraniums and herbs such as Borage or Rosemary will provide invaluable nectar until the first blooms of summer appear.

Honeybees only forage one variety of flower per flight — this is called ‘flower fidelity’. As a result, mass planting can be a good way to reduce the effort required for them to fly from flower to flower. For instance, you could plant Salvias or Lavender in groups of two or three. From the perspective of garden design, this can also reinforce a plant’s visual impact in your garden.

Grow more than you need

If you’re growing flowers for cutting, plant a bit more than you need and leave some flowers in the ground for bees. During the year, deadhead regularly to prevent your flowers from setting seeds — this will increase the number of blooms you get from one plant, as well as the amount of nectar they’ll generate for pollinators.

You’ll be amazed as some such as Salvias can bloom up to four times a year if you deadhead them each time! Once winter sets, leave all dead stems in the ground to help create nesting sites for overwintering insects. You can also leave dead plant material in your garden to create further habitat areas.

When you’re choosing flowers to add to your garden, keep a balance between decorative showy varieties and single-flowered varieties. For instance, many popular decorative Dahlias have limited benefit to pollinators, because very few can access the centre of the flower. However, planting a few open-flowered collarette Dahlias will transform your garden into a pollinator heaven.

Alternatively to planting pollinator-friendly flowers throughout your garden, you could instead dedicate a section of a border or devote some of your patio pots to pollinators.

This a fun project to undertake, and can be a good opportunity to teach children and grandchildren about native plants and the benefits of wildlife gardening. It’s also a way to limit a bee’s flight path to a specific section of the garden for those who may be afraid of them. Over time, you’ll be able to see how your pollinator border evolves, and which types of pollinator you attract most.

Finally, don’t forget to use pollinators to your advantage by bringing them close to where you need them to pollinate — for instance nearby Tomato plants, Squashes, Cucumbers and so on which depend on pollinators. To do so, attract their attention by planting some of their favourites flowers nearby and they’ll reward you by visiting your plants and increasing their fruit yield.

The best flowers for pollinators

Below is a short list of some of the best flowers you can plant to attract pollinators to your garden all year long. Plant these in advance and deadhead annuals and perennials throughout the year to keep pollinators coming back for more!

Flowers In:

  • Winter
    • Bulbs – Flowers from late winter:
      – Crocuses
      – Open-flowered Narcissi varieties such as ‘Tête-à-Tête’, ‘Minnow’, ‘Arctic Bells’
      – Fritillaria
      – Snowdrops
      – Iris reticulata (Dwarf Iris)
  • Spring
    • Bulbs
      – Crocuses
      – Open flowered-Narcissi varieties
      – Alliums
      – Allium siculum (Sicilian Honey Garlic)
    • Annuals – From late Spring
      – Borage
      – Snapdragons
      – Poppies
    • Biennials – Flowers from late spring
      – Foxgloves
  • Summer
    • Bulbs
      – Allium spherocephalon
  • Summer & Autumn
    • Annuals
      – Cosmos
      – Nasturtiums
      – Sweet Peas
      – Umbels: Ammi majus and visnaga, Fennel, Giant fennel
      – Nicotiana grandiflora
      – Sunflowers (choose open-flowered varieties)
    • Perennials
      – Salvia ‘Hot Lips’, ‘Amistad’, ‘Caradonna’
      – Agastache
      – Echinops
      – Verbena bonariensis
      – Geranium ‘Rozanne’
      – Lavender ‘Hidcote’
      – Echinacea (Coneflower)
      – Veronicastrum
      – Single-flowered Dahlias such as ‘Clair de Lune’, ‘Bishop of Dover’, ‘Totally tangerine’
      – Open-flowered Roses
      – Centaurea macrocephala
      – Erigeron karvinskianus
      – Sedum or Hylotelephium
      – Herbs: Rosemary, Thyme, Mint

    • Biennials
      – Echium pininana (Viper’s Bugloss)
yellow petaled flower by elias sorey unsplash

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