The wildlife-friendly garden:
Which are the best plants for attracting bees, butterflies and hover flies? Here’s what I learned from my own garden…
These are the buzz words behind gardens that buzz — gardens filled with buzzing insects and the hum of nature. To get your garden buzzing you need to plant species that are attractive to pollinators.
Looking back over the my last decade of garden photography, it is easy to see which plants have the most pollinator pulling power.
Just over two years ago, I set about turning my vegetable garden into a mediterranean-style perennial garden. One of my key goals of the new planting was to attract more pollinators: butterflies, bees and hover flies.
The old vegetable beds were already organised in a formal layout around a central pond (see layout plan). I kept the layout, revamped the beds with waist-high flowers that would pull in the pollinators.
Two years on, and you can see the results in the photo below. Compared to the previous decade, 2021 was a bumper year for bees, hover flies and other invertebrates, many of which I captured on camera. Butterflies have yet to appear in large numbers, but I am sure that’s just a matter of time.
My top performing pollinator plants
Verbenas, as a genus, are very popular with pollinators. I have more photos of butterflies and bees on verbenas than any other plant. Especially verbena bonariensis.
Verbenas provide many great garden plants. Annual bedding varieties come in a huge range of colours. I plant them in the gaps between young perennials and shrubs. Among the perennial verbenas, v. bonariensis stands out, flowering four feet tall in late summer and autumn (shown below). Shorter, and flowering from earlier in the year is v. rigida (shown above) Both perennial species are only half-hardy but seed around freely.
Wild yarrow is a known food plant for dozens of invertebrate species. Each flowerhead is composed of many tiny flowers, laid out in an insect-tempting platter.
There are many species of garden-worthy yarrow you can grow. Woolly yarrow (A. tomentosa,) is a dwarf variety (shown in the photo above) which reaches mere 6in high. Common yarrow or milfoil (A. millefolium) is a larger mid-border plant flowering from 18in to 3ft in height. Many colourful hybrids are available for gardeners. If you have the space, Achillea filipendulina ‘gold plate’ grows to 4ft high with flower heads 6 inches across.
Salvias are a huge genus. The popular herbaceous salvias produce thousands of nectar carrying flowers over many months. They will be buzzing with visitors all summer.
The hardy perennial sages (Salvia nemorosa and Salvia x sylvestris) have spawned a multitude of exceptional garden varieties. They generally flower from May until October, especially when deadheaded. They form clumps up to 2 ft high and across. I grow the deep pink “Sensation Deep Rose” (above), white “Snow Hill”, purple “Caradonna” and pink “light pink” (below)
Sedums, are magnets for pollinators of all kinds. You can find varieties that flower as early as June, while others open as late as September. Including a wide selection will keep pollinators happy for longer.
Sedums are a genus of succulent plants which come in all shapes and sizes. In the garden, the most popular large sedums are the hybrids of s. telphium and s. spectabilis, such as Autumn Joy or Strawberries and Cream (shown above). These flower 18in tall. Smaller sedums such as sedum “Plum Dazzled” form mounds 12in tall and have attractive purple foliage. Low, carpet forming s. spurium has many appealing gardens forms such as “Dragon’s Blood” and “Spot on Rose” (shown below)
With flowers held in an umbrella-head arrangement, the umbellifer family is easily recognisable and loved by insects of all kinds.
Some of the most familiar umbellifers include Queen Ann’s Lace, Dill, Fennel, Astrantia, Sweet Cicely, Chervil, Wild Carrot and Angelica. I have grown all of these at one time or another, and they always encourage many species of insect visitors: Above, common red soldier beetles on Dill flowers. In the photo below, this wild carrot (Daucus carota) has four different invertebrates visiting it at once!
Ornamental onions are great garden plants for their striking form and colour, but are highly desired by hungry pollinators too.
There are many ornamental onions available to choose from, but most flower in May/June. Including varieties that flower outside this narrow window keeps pollinators happy for longer. Many varieties are narrow with leaves that die down by flowering time, so you can squeeze them in between other plants. Above, Honey bee visits Allium senescense glaucum, a wonderful clump-forming, August-flowering onion (12in tall). Below: Bumblebees on the flowers of edible onions (I planted onion sets, then let them bolt). Below-right: Chives are a great long-flowering species, visited by many pollinators. Here a Marmalade Hoverfly is feeding.
The central boss of daisies is made up of numerous concentric flowers which attract pollinating insects, such as this Hoverfly. The coloured ‘petals’ are actually ray florets.
“Daisy” is the common name for members of the Asteraceae (previously: compositae) family. Many good garden plants come from this family, including Michaelmas and Shasta daisies, and Chrysanthemums. As long as you avoid the double flowered varieties, thay are generally good at attracting pollinators. Above, the beautiful Aster Mönch. Below-left: Bumblebee on ox-eye daisy. Below-right: single or semi-double dahlias provide nectar for pollinators.
Lamiaceae / Labiatae
Lavender, mint, thyme, hyssop, bergamot, marjoram, lemon balm, self-heal… just some of the great garden plants that come from this large family. Most are highly visited by pollinators.
Flowers of the Lamiaceae family are arranged in whorls around the stem. Most open in succession over a long period. Above, Lavandula Hidcote (60cm high). Below-left: Watermint is particularly attractive in late summer on the margins of the pond. Below-center: Catmint (Nepeta) buzzes for months with bees Below-right: Wall germander (Teucrium chamaedrys)