Plus, Best Flowers for Pollinators!
Many fruits and vegetables can’t produce a crop without help from pollinating insects such as bees, hoverflies, and butterflies. Are you getting enough of them? How do you persuade these essential bugs into your garden?
Unlike animals, plants can’t move around to find a mate, so they have to rely on pollination, mainly from insects. It’s how they reproduce. Our job as gardeners is to help our plants to achieve pollination, so that we can increase our chances of a bumper crop while also helping the survival of our insect friends. It’s a win-win situation.
But the flowers that we like aren’t necessarily what insects are after. Smart flower choice, careful positioning and even letting a few weeds grow can combine to make your garden irresistible to pollinators. So how do we know the difference and how does pollination even work?
First, let’s back up a moment. You’re not alone if you’re garden isn’t buzzing with bees. Bees and other pollinators are in decline for a variety of reasons, including modern agricultural techniques, the spread of towns and cities, and the loss of natural habitat. Bees provide a vital service by pollinating the plants that produce a lot of the food we eat and which feed the insects that fuel the food chain. By helping bees we’re helping both wildlife, and ourselves.
The combined size of domestic gardens is vast, and in towns and cities they provide corridors of plant life that are vital for urban wildlife. By creating bee-friendly spaces within our gardens, we can help to support vulnerable populations and enjoy better harvests.
Tip #1: Know What NOT to Plant for Pollinators
Peer over the garden gate into some of the fanciest gardens, with their big and blousy blooms, and you’d think they’d be a pollinator paradise. Surely bigger flowers are better flowers – and especially these enormous, puffed-up double flowers, right? Unfortunately not. But looks can deceive!
- Modern breeding is prioritizing flower size and impressiveness over pollen and nectar – which is what our pollinators are after.
- Often double flowers have plenty of pollen or nectar, but their prolific petals make it physically impossible for pollinating insects to access it – how ridiculous is that! Avoid double-flowered varieties for this reason.
The best flowers for pollinators wear a lot less ‘makeup’. They’re more restrained! What the likes of bees and butterflies are after is simple, single flowers with an open center that clearly display their pollen-laden anthers and that the pollinator can easily reach. And that’s it – no outrageous fanfare needed! So, let’s look at a few examples.
Tip 2: Choose bee- and pollinator-friendly flowers
Growing flowers among your vegetables will certainly pay off!
- Consider flowers that naturally self-seed from year to year, popping up here and there as they make themselves at home on my plot. One example is poached egg plants. They’re especially good for hoverflies, which – bonus – will feast on aphids. Another example is calendula. And a definite winner is nasturtium; not only do bees love this colorful flower but they also tempt cabbage-eating butterflies away from brassica-family crops.
- Other great self-seeders you might like to consider include Californian poppies or Eschscholzia (try saying that repeatedly!), borage, and phacelia, which works as a fantastic cover crop or green manure. Just lovely!
- Alyssum also stands a good chance of self-seeding,. It’s got a lovely, sweet scent and the hoverflies go mad for it. It will also attract tiny pest-predator wasps.
- Then there are marigolds for a whole range of beneficial bugs, including bees, and zinnia.
- Explore which annual flowers do well in your region!
When it comes to selecting the best flowers for vegetable gardens, we love the Garden Planner. You can narrow the plant selection to show just flowers and also find out which are companion plants to certain crops. Wonderful!
Tip 3: Choose flowers that bloom from spring to fall
Plan for a succession of flowers, so as one finishes flowering another begins, providing a constant supply of pollen and nectar for bees to feed on.
- Many pollinators will be on the wing the moment the sun pokes through in late winter. Spring-flowering bulbs are a winner for this, so too are rosemary, forget-me-nots, pulmonaria and primroses.
- Plants that bloom early in the year offer food for bees emerging from hibernation—willows, hawthorn, the blossom of fruit trees such as apples, cherries and plums, and plants such as crocus and aubretia, are all good choices.
- Excellent summer bloomers include clover, calendula, borage, and poached egg plant.
- Also, look for late-season bloomers to cover the end of the season. Towards the end of the year make sure there are late-season flowers available, for instance aster, sedum, echinacea, and common ivy.
Tip 4: Choose a range of flowers of different shapes, colors, and sizes
- For example, tubular flowers such as honeysuckle, penstemon or these foxgloves are the business for bees with a longer tongue, including many bumblebees.
- Then there are flatter umbel-like flowers, like those parsley flowers or achillea or yarrow, which are a real hoverfly highlight.
- Apparently purple flowers are great for bees, which find it easier to see colors in this spectrum. Lavender, nepeta or catmint, and alliums are all great examples of bee-boosting blooms. And if you’ve ever seen either cardoon or globe artichoke flowers in full bloom, you’ll know just how crazy they drive the bees!
Also, always let a few vegetables and herbs flower, purely for our hard-working pollinators. Examples of some of these: parsley, thyme, oregano, and celery. Carrots are especially good also, as well as onions.
Interestingly, research has shown that, in cities, allotments and productive gardens are the very best environments for pollinators because they offer such a tempting mix of flowers, vegetables and fruits, which give a good variety of blooms to sample.
Tip 5: Plant flowers strategically
Let’s talk about placement. Pollinating insects tend to move from flower to flower of the same plant. So growing just one plant on its own will be a lot less rewarding for these hard-working bugs. If you can, grow multiple plants of the same flower – in clusters – so that bees and butterflies can finish on one plant then move straight onto the next, without having to search far and wide.
- Growing in groups or weaving rivers of flowers is visually more impactful anyhow. Plant in groups of three or five – it gives a pleasing look and should give a reasonable clump of that plant.
- If you have the time, be sure to remove old flowers as they fade. Known as ‘deadheading’ this will encourage plants to produce more flowers, extending the display and the benefit to our pollinators.
Most bee-friendly flowers prefer a sunny, sheltered location. Grow plants in blocks or swathes to maximise their useful impact for bees.
Include flowers as companion plants amongst your fruits and vegetables—either at the margins, at the ends of beds, or between crops. Don’t forget that flowering vegetables such as beans will also attract bees. Use the Garden Planner to select, drop and then drag rows and blocks of flowers to size in your plan, making them an integral part of your cropping plan.
Tip 6: Leave some areas a little wild and wonderful!
As a rule, native flowers or wildflowers will attract, on average, more pollinators than non-natives. It makes sense, after all the pollinators in your region will have evolved alongside these wildflowers. But what does that mean in a garden environment?
Well, it means we should leave a few more ‘weeds’ to grow if possible!
- Allow your lawn (or some areas of your lawn) to grow a little longer in the spring before you start mowing. This gives naturally occurring flowers a chance to establish and flower. Early in the season there are pops of yellow from dandelions. Other lawn flowers include clover, tiny violets, and selfheal. Of course, what you see in your lawn may be very different – but rest assured it will be a good thing for our hard-working pollinators.
- Cut part of your lawn less frequently. For example, if each area gets mown on average about once every three weeks, there’s always something in flower for the pollinators. Some areas could be mown once or twice a year, providing thick thatch for nesting and overwintering.
- Allow some wilder ‘weeds’ to grow in quieter corners of the yard or garden, to the edges. This provides valuable habitat for bees. For exampale, nettles are the caterpillar foodplant of a number of butterflies – the butterflies will lay their eggs on it, so when they hatch the caterpillars have all they need to sustain them. Another example of a fantastic foodplant is milkweed, which is the foodplant of monarch caterpillars, which are found in North and Central America. They’ll eat much of the foliage but in return you’ll get a wonderful kaleidoscope of butterflies – and yes, kaleidoscope really is the collective noun for butterflies; how lovely is that!
- In winter, allow the hollow stems of perennials to remain standing to offer additional shelter, and let the grass grow longer.
Tip 7: Make a bee hotel to give bees more habitat
Did you know that solitary bees – that’s bees that don’t live together in a big colony – are significantly better pollinators than the humble honeybee. How much better is up for debate, but at least four times better is often quoted. We can help them by making a bee hotel.
- Use hollow stems of varying diameters to get a good range of bees – one tenth to four tenths of an inch. Bamboo canes work well. Cut them into sections about 6 inches in length.
- Stuff your stems into a surround of untreated wood, screwed together so as not to leave a gap at the top for water to drip through. If possible, ensure an overhang of an inch or two, to keep the entrances dry.
- Hang off the ground (at least 3 feet or a meter off the ground, so it’s out of the way of predators). Somewhere that gets morning sun so these cold-blooded creatures can warm up promptly and get on out to start their shift. Ideally the hotel will be shaded in the afternoon, so it doesn’t overheat.
- Ideally, you’ll want some bare, wet soil close by. Explanation of why – using an occupied bee hotel, showing the mud-sealed tubes being actively used.
- Each egg is separated by a mud wall, so the females need to be able to access moist soil to facilitate this.
Bumblebees are also fantastic pollinators. These guys typically nest in the ground, and it really is a joy when you come across them buzzing in and out of the nest. Great homes for bumblebees include compost heaps, areas of longer grass, and areas of piled up, undisturbed leaves.
Tip 8: Avoid chemicals in the garden
Gardeners in tune with nature shouldn’t have to use chemical pesticides or weed killers. These unnatural controls disrupt the food chain, depleting populations of pollinators and pest predators as well as pests, and locking the gardener into a dependency on yet more chemicals.
Instead, choose natural pest controls, including netting, garden fleece or mesh barriers and companion plants, and natural weed controls such as regular hoeing and mulching. Learn more about natural pest controls as well as how to make homemade soap spray pesticides.
Tip 9: Discover the Unusual Pollinators
We all know that bees, butterflies and hoverflies and the like are great pollinators, and if you’re lucky enough to live where you find them, hummingbirds too. But other pollinators aren’t so obvious!
- Ants are wonderful at farming aphids. Leave them alone!
- Tiny pollen beetles (which you may find in squash flowers) do eat some of the pollen but they also help to spread it around, so let them go about their business!
- Wasps are fantastically beneficial in the garden. Only around 1% of wasp species actually sting, though of course, that’s not much comfort to someone who has just been stung! On the plus side, research has shown that wasp stings may have anti-cancer properties. As long as you don’t bother wasps, it’s worth living alongside them for the pollinating and pest-control benefits they bring – they eat lots of soft-bodied pests like aphids.
Pollinators come in all shapes and sizes, and with all the distressing news about their decline, it’s great to know we can do something about it in our own gardens. We need our pollinators – to grow crops such as squash, strawberries, apples and more; to boost yields of peas, beans and tomatoes; and to keep our garden generally thriving and healthy.
What flowers do you recommend for pollinators where you’re growing? Let us know in the comments below.
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