Ten Tips for a pollinator-friendly Garden

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Having the right kinds of plants in the right kinds of place at the right time of year can increase the pollinators visiting your garden. For example: this read admiral sunning itself on Verbena bonariensis…

Pick a Sheltered sunny spot

Because pollinators are cold-blooded they depend on their environment for keeping warm. Most pollinators, including butterflies and hover flies, prefer to forage and feed in a sheltered sunny spot where they are warmed by the sun’s rays and protected from the wind. So, when it comes to laying out an area of garden for pollinators, pick the sunniest spot: open but sheltered, with no overhanging shrubs or trees.

One exception to this rule are the bumble bees who will often venture into shade to find food. For them, woodland flowers like lungwort (pulmonaria), bluebells, primroses, foxgloves and aquilegias will be welcome.

Pollinators make great subjects for photography, but because they move about so fast they can be difficult to shoot – something I discovered when taking the photographs on this page. The task is somewhat easier when the temperature is lower early or late in the day, when their metabolism is slower.

Choose plants with multiple small Flowers

Many of the plants favoured by pollinators are made up of a multitude of tiny flowers held in a cluster. Such plants include Alliums with their large spherical heads, or salvia nemerosa with its tall stems clothed with myriad tiny blue or purple flowers. Yarrow and Sedums offer pollinators flat heads composed of hundreds of individual flowers. Among shrubs, Pyracantha and Cotoneaster species stand as pollinator favourites, along with Buddlia, Vitex agnus-castus and Hebe which have large panicles of fertile flowers. To our eye individual daisies look like single flowers, but the yellow central boss is actually composed of hundreds of tiny fertile flowers which open in succession. The outer ‘petals’ are actually ray-florets, attracting pollinators to the true flowers in the centre. Good examples of pollinator-friendly daisies include Aster, Shasta daisies, Echinacea, Dahlias, as well as common lawn daisies Bellis perennis. From the honeysuckle family (Caprifoliaceae) good pollinator plants include scabious, Knautia and teasels. Heathers are another excellent choice; A mature plant can carry thousands of individual flowers and attract crowds of bees.

  • Include native species wherever possible as they are often preferred by pollinators.
  • Allow plants to form large clumps as these will be targeted by larger numbers of bees.
  • Include a variety of different flower shapes as different insects have probosces specialised to different plants.
  • Bees seem to be particularly attracted to purple flowers, but include a variety of colours to appeal to a wide variety of pollinators.

Choose single flowered varieties

Pollinators will visit larger flowers too, but avoid double-flowered varieties. The fertile parts of the flower that produce nectar and pollen (anthers and stamens) are usually found in the centre of the flower surrounded by petals, sepals or bracts. When a flower is bred to produce a semi-double bloom, some of the stamens are replaced with petals, so there is less pollen available. In fully double flowered varieties, there are no stamens at all so no food for pollinators. Single-flowered roses, lilies, campanulas, rock-roses, agapanthus and hollyhock will support more wildlife than semi or double-flowered varieties. The same applies to tree blossom: single-flowered cherry blossom may not be as spectacular to look as the double-flowered varieties, but the single flowered trees will be visited continually by bees throughout April and May.

Herb Gardens

Many of the plants found in herb gardens are very attractive to pollinators and other invertebrates. This is partly because they are have not been over-bred by horticulturalists, so are often closer to wild flowers. Breeding can distort flower shape and make them difficult for pollinators to access the nectar. Another factor in favour of herbs is that many are native to the UK and Europe, so act as hosts for various insects that eat them or lay eggs on them.

Among the culinary herbs that are attractive to pollinators common garden varieties of rosemary, lavender, hyssop, mint, savoury, oregano, basil and thyme are all beneficial. The umbellifer family are great for pollinators and include many herbs such as angelica, fennel, dill, parsley (if you let it flower) and chervil. Growing herbs like these will not only provide you with seasoning for your kitchen, but pull in the wildlife too. Herbs do not need to be grown in a separate area and can easily be mixed in among ornamental perennial plants.

Wild flowers & rough grass

Just outside my house is some rough verge which is only mowed a few times each year. That little patch of unimproved grassland supports dozens of wild plant species including ragwort, yarrow, bindweed and knapweed. Many of these would be considered weeds if appeared in the garden, but to the invertebrates that depend on them they are often more attractive than our over-cultivated non-native plants.

If you are serious about wildlife gardening, it is important to keep some areas of rough grass with weeds if you can. In my case, these are just outside the back and front of my garden. Within the garden, try to grow wild species, or garden varieties that are close to the wild form. In my garden I tolerate – among others – self-heal (Prunella vulgaris), stonecrop (sedum acre), dwarf marjoram (origanum vulgaris compactum) and dwarf dead nettle (lamium purpureum). If you can spare the space, a wildflower meadow is a challenge worth attempting. For the rest of us, an unkempt lawn will suffice. I am currently creating a small wildflower lawn at the far end of my garden, adjacent the local fields.

Planning for high season

You will see almost no pollinators in the garden in winter. Most are hibernating. Bees (honey bees and bumble bees) are some of the first to emerge in spring, but hover flies and butterflies only really get going from late spring once the weather warms up. The main focus in the garden, therefore, should be on plants that flower between May and September. Ideally one should have a wide variety of flowers opening in succession, ensuring there is always a good diversity of food available in the busiest months.

In my Mediterranean Pond Garden the sequence goes something like this:

May/JuneJuly/AugSep
AlliumsChivesAster
Salvia nemerosaSmall sedumsLarge sedums
ThymeHebeVerbena
CampanulaLavenderLavender
Iris sibiricaHyssopSingle Dahlias
NepetaNepetaScabious
Ruddy cloverCosmosVitex Agnus-castus
VerbascumAgapanthusSingle roses
AquilegiaGeraniumPenstemon
AchilleaWater liliesPerovskia

Helping Early and Late Season Pollinators

As already noted, some species (usually bees) emerge early in the year, on the lookout for pollen-rich flowers. I have seen small numbers of bumble bees and honey bees out and about on mild days in February (and just this week dozens of hover flies were visiting my white crocus!) To help these species along, it is good to have some early blooming plants at hand. I have found crocus (February), star flower (March) and pasque flower (April) are favourites with bees in the spring (see my post: 10 winter flowering perennials). Suitable early shrubs and flowering trees include prunus subhirtella autumnalis, single camellias, Viburnum bodnantense Dawn and winter heathers.

At the other end of the season, bees can be found furiously searching for food as late as October or November in an attempt to gather resources to see them through winter. Late flowering plants such as penstemon, verbenas and single roses will be appreciated by them in the Autumn. For late flowering shrubs: mahonia, ceratostigma, fuchsia, camellia sasanqua and hebe ‘Autumn Glory’ are good candidates.

Trees and Shrubs

Trees and shrubs can provide huge amounts of pollen and nectar when they are in full flower. Among the larger trees maple, horse-chestnut, acacia and lime are famous for their honey production. The best small trees and large shrubs for pollinators are those with large amounts of simple flowers: hawthorn, blackthorn, cherry, apple, pear, elderflower, berberis, escallonia, ceanothus, cotoneaster, daphne and hebe. Double-flowers varieties may look nice but are far less useful to pollinators. Likewise, shrubs with sterile flowers such as hydrangeas will largely be ignored (although h. paniculate is an exception). Wind-pollinated trees such as birch, oak and willow do not provide nectar for insects, but are still great wildlife magnets as their foliage, bark and old wood provide food and shelter for hundreds of invertebrate species and their larvae.

Providing Homes and Shelter

Pollinators – and invertebrates in general – need somewhere to sleep, hide and hibernate. Many of the pollinators in your garden will be commuters, coming in from nearby hedges, woods, waste ground and scrubland. Unkempt areas like these often provide a wealth of good nesting and roosting sites for invertebrates, but may be low in pollen sources at certain times of the year. This is where gardens are invaluable, providing a wealth of nectar and pollen-containing flowers. If you want to help encourage insects to take up residence in your garden, though, you need to leave patches of the garden unkempt or wild. A pile of logs or bricks or even an old piece of corrugated iron, can make the perfect hide-aways for garden wildlife. ‘Insect hotels’, like the ones, above, that I made out of off-cuts, have become popular in recent years, but it isn’t clear if they offer much that an undeveloped corner of the garden can provide. Another popular hide-out for insects are old stems of perennials. In nature, the old stems often persist from one year to the next, with the new shoots pushing their way up between. In our gardens, we often clear away the old plant remains at the end of the year, removing insect homes.

Many bumblebees make their nests in abandoned mouse holes in banks and hedges. Bark mulch can make these inaccessible. Butterflies and moths often die in the winter, relying on the overwintering of their offspring which hibernate as chrysalises. These, along with as ladybirds and hover flies, will hide away in crevices in bark or garden timber. Wooden fences and sheds are often used. Solitary bees form individual nests in suitable holes in south-facing wood or masonry. One problem with building large insect hotels is the possibility of encouraging parasites. There is lots to learn. A good article can be found here: Insect Hotels: A Refuge or a Fad?

bee hotels must be positioned in full sun, facing south east or south, at least a metre off the ground, with no vegetation in front of it obscuring the entrances to the tunnels. It must also be fixed securely to prevent shaking and swaying from wind.

Final Thoughts

Although we love to see insects, butterflies and moths in our gardens, we are offended when they (or their caterpillars) start eating or damaging our plants. Learning to tolerate such pests will pay dividends in the long run, as their numbers can only increase for so long. Either they will eat all of your plants, or their predators will turn up and eat them. Interestingly, more mature gardens rarely suffer from the former (devastating pest outbreaks) as they have more of the latter (hungry predators) on hand. Excesses of caterpillars will attract birds to the garden, whereas aphids will help boost ladybird populations. The ecology of a garden can take time to reach a maximum and develop a dynamic (and bio-diverse) equilibrium. Another point to bear in mind, then, is that rapid or extensive changes to your garden (such as wholesale redesigns) will often decimate invertebrate populations and increase pest problems in the subsequent years. Some species may never return. In the long run, a mature garden which only experiences incremental change will favour wildlife and biodiversity. A study of the wonderful gardens at Great Dixter confirmed this (See How Great Dixter astounded ecologists)

Of all pollinators, butterflies are some of the most beautiful but also the most difficult to attract to your garden. This is because many butterflies and moths need specific plants on which to lay their eggs. Their larvae can be quite particular about the species they will feed on. Many of these host-plants are not garden favourites, so they need to be growing in the natural areas outside your garden if you are to have any chance of attracting such butterflies in. Learning about the plants that support them can be helpful. Check out this list of butterfly food plants.


Garden photography

For me, photography opened up a whole new perspective on my garden. I have learned so much about the insects that I see there: which plants they prefer, and the time of day and year. By photographing them, not only have I looked at them more closely, but I have also gained an invaluable visual record, stamped with a date and time. Identifying these tiny creatures is much easier when you have a photo to look at later. Although a macro lens will help you capture super fine detail, typically you will have to get so close that you will frighten your subject away. It is sometimes better to use a long lens (e.g. 75mm focal length) and stand further back. That said, many of my shots have been with a Nikon dx 40mm macro lens (equivalent to a 60mm lens), but rarely using the macro function. The longer the lens, however, the greater the effects of vibration, which can cause blurry images. One solution is to use a tripod, but that brings its own problems as most pollinators keep moving from flower to flower. Personally, I prefer to shoot hand-held as I find it more spontaneous and flexible. To reduce hand-shake I use a fast lens and shoot with aperture priority (f1.8 – f5), so that shutter speeds can be kept below 1/250 second. The only problem then is the tight depth of field which requires precise focusing. The autofocus on my old-tech Nikon d3300 is rather slow, so I still miss many shots, but on balance, this set up works well enough for me. One final tip for better hand-held shots: check if your camera has an auto ISO setting. This allows you to set a maximum shutter time (say 125ms) so that your shots are always sharper. The downside will be that sometimes the ISO is ramped up to compensate so you may get extra grain.


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2 thoughts on “Ten Tips for a pollinator-friendly Garden”

  1. Such interesting and helpful articles. I particularly like the one on wildlife hotels/refuges – the positive and negative aspects; also what to grow to flower at appropriate times to benefit pollinators. I’ll be drawing on these at my allotment and will keep a small area of ‘weedy’ grass there.

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