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It’s the Royal Horticultural Society’s National Gardening Week (from 2nd to 8th May), aimed at celebrating the joy of gardening. Over the years, my favourite thing about gardening has definitely been the variety of wildlife I’ve been lucky enough to see in mine. As well as lots of bird species, I’ve been able to attract lots of invertebrates including bees, butterflies and moths. These insects are really important pollinators. In fact, research has shown just how many different plants moths visit at night, and how important they are to agriculture. But many insects are in serious decline. So, how can make your own garden pollinator-friendly and help your plants at the same time?
1. Plant Native Flowers and Shrubs
Our pollinators seem to prefer native species to exotic and cultivated plants. This makes sense when you think they will have evolved alongside each other. Our insects have adapted to be able to access nectar and pollen easily from native plants. Cultivars often have designs that put pollen and nectar out of reach for many pollinators. And hybridised species often contain less pollen and nectar. An added bonus is that native wildflowers are often very easy to grow and maintain in your garden.
A pollinator-friendly garden should also have trees or shrubs. Native trees like oak, birch and hawthorn are the food plants of a lot of our moth species, so planting these will also encourage pollinators to your garden.
2. Plant a Variety of Flowering Species
Planting a variety of different shaped flowers will attract a bigger variety of pollinator species. Some insects have different length tongues so look for different shaped flowers. Those with the longest tongues can feed from foxgloves and snapdragons, for example, while shorter-tongued ones head to daisies and other flatter flowers. Bees’ colour vision is good, and they use it to find food flowers, so planting a variety of colours is also a good idea.
3. Plant for All Seasons
Make sure you plant combinations that between them flower at least over the whole spring and summer. If you can also include ones that flower in winter too, even better. This way, you will be providing food for species that fly during different seasons. We may think of insects as spring and summer specialists, but the UK has a number of species that fly in the winter too.
Good plants for winter flowers are snowdrops, ivy and crocuses. Hawthorn, daffodils and flowering cherry are good spring flowering plants. Plant lavender, foxgloves and comfrey for the summer. Autumn asters and stonecrops are good for autumn.
4. Plant Night-Scented Plants
Some plants have evolved to attract night-flying pollinators, so by planting them you will attract more moth species. The majority of our moth species are active from dusk, after all.
Evening primroses, honeysuckle and sweet rocket are all night-scented, along with the ‘butterfly bush’, buddleia. They are all beautiful plants and would grace any garden aesthetically as well.
5. Keep it Natural
One of the best things you can do is to keep things as natural as possible. You could stop mowing your lawn for the spring and summer, letting important bee plants like dandelions and clover flower. Or keep a corner of your garden completely untouched. All sorts of wildlife benefits when we leave gardens messier and less cultivated. Leaving piles of branches or cuttings provides places for invertebrates, and other creatures like hedgehogs, to shelter as well as hibernate over the winter. Some gardeners hate ivy, but leaving it also provides much-needed cover and food in the winter.
You should also avoid using pesticides. They can’t differentiate between ‘good’ and ‘bad’ insects, so you risk killing your pollinators along with the insects you don’t want. You also risk upsetting the balance of your garden’s ecosystem. By not using them, you will end up with a lot of the insects that naturally keep the unwanted species down.
6. Install a Bee Hotel
If you want to go one step further than leaving cuttings and debris around for insects to shelter in, think about installing an insect refuge or bee hotel. These provide a home for solitary bees to nest in. You can either make you own or buy one. Avoid ones that use pinecones and plastic tubes as these have no benefit for the bees.
Do make sure you keep it small to prevent parasites and disease. You should also make sure it faces south to gain as much sun as possible. Take the hotel down in the winter and keep it inside to reduce the risk of damp and mould.
There are some amazing charities looking out for invertebrates in the UK and as well as supporting them, their resources are well worth looking at. The Bumble Conservation Trust, Butterfly Conservation and Buglife are all good places to start.
And don’t forget World Bee Day on May 20th!
Kate Bradbury’s Wildlife Gardening: For Everyone and Everything is a brilliant guide to gardening to attract all sorts of wildlife from bees to birds to hedgehogs. Written with the support of the Wildlife Trusts and RHS, there is something for every size and type of garden.
The Collins Complete Guide to British Insects is one of the best guides to the UK’s insects and will help you identify the species you bring to your garden.