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Pollinators 5 May 2024 Reprint from Eynsham News #67

Pollinators please! By Nick Clapton and Peter Taylor

Reprinted from Eynsham News No 67

Pollinators are all those creatures who keep the circle of life going by moving pollen from one flower to another, fertilising the plants and leading to the growth of fruit or seeds. Bees, insects and even some animals do this as they visit flower after flower, plant after plant. Of course, the nectar they collect feeds the bees and insects themselves, but it also feeds us when we harvest the fruit that is produced.

We can help pollinators by growing plants that attract and feed them — and by growing those ‘favourite’ plants near our food crops, we can help them get fertilised too. One of the great excitements for the keen gardener is the appearance of new varieties of plants, often unusual forms of familiar flowers: double primroses, many-petalled roses, and the like. There is one problem with some of these: pollinating insects can’t always get their noses (or rather proboscis) into them to drink nectar and acquire the pollen. So, one way to be certain of attracting pollinating insects to your garden and allowing them to do their very important work is to plant varieties of plants that have simpler flowers. For example, make sure that at least some of your roses have open, flat-faced flowers, often reminiscent of wild types. Excellent examples are the scarlet-flowered climber “Soldier Boy”, the bush rose, “Canary Bird” which is smothered in small flowers of a soft yellow, or “Fru Dagmar Hastrup”, which grows to only 4 feet (1.2 metres) and smells wonderful.

Alongside new varieties of herbaceous plants include some well-tried forms and species, such as the nettle-leaved bellflower Campanula trachelium, which has white and blue forms. Many pollinating insects visit open daisy flowered “composites”, of which there are so many it’s almost impossible to know where to start— try Rudbeckia “Goldsturm” a very reliable yellow daisy at about two foot six (75cm).

On your fences and walls honeysuckle is a must, and one of the best is Lonicera halliana, virtually indestructible and often semi evergreen—its scented flowers even have a way of showing you that they have been pollinated by changing colour from white to cream-yellow.

Many fruit trees hum with bees early in the season, as do crab apples, one of the best of which is Malus “Evereste”, while later in the year that humming transfers to ivy, whose flowers are a valuable late source of nectar, and in winter mahonia can provide the same. At the turn of the year, there is little more charming in the garden than a brave bumble bee blundering about in a patch of snowdrops.

Hedging is another good place for pollinator-friendly plants such as hawthorn and wild rose, and a mixed, “native” hedge is a much more attractive prospect than regimented, clipped conifers. Mixing in other thorny species like sloe and blackberry alongside hazel and guelder rose, will ensure an invader proof barrier that is also wildlife friendly.

On the native front, meadow planting has been much promoted in recent years, not least in being “easy” and “low maintenance”. A word of warning: it isn’t! Digging over a patch of soil and just chucking in a packet of “Wildflower Seeds Mixed” probably won’t work. Vigorous grass seeds will also germinate, as will other nasties, and you might just end up with a confused, weedy mess. Though it’s more expensive, planting good-sized plug plants of wild species is a much better bet, and there are nurseries that specialise in supplying these (a quick internet search will reveal several). If making a meadow in an area of already existing grass you’ll also need to plant yellow rattle, parasitic on grass, which will allow other plants to become established. Also, meadows do not happen overnight, but require careful maintenance over many years —have a look at the meadow areas of the wonderful garden at Great Dixter to see how it’s really done.

Not all pollinators are pretty butterflies and bees. Britain’s climate is too cold for fig wasps to survive, but in warmer countries the one literally cannot survive without the other. If you sit in your garden late of a summer’s evening you may well hear the rapid fluttering of an elephant hawkmoth moth pollinating honeysuckle, while Scottish gardeners should be especially grateful to even the common housefly, since it acts as a useful pollinator in northern latitudes, where bees are often scarce.

On a veg plot or allotment, you can attract pollinators by growing flowers as well as crops. That’s quite a simple idea. But you can take it one step further by experimenting with companion planting, which is an organic method of maintaining a natural balance in your garden by growing plants together that are mutually beneficial. Planted together, certain plant combinations can aid pollination, prevent disease and keep pest numbers down.

Put ‘companion planting’ into a search engine and you’ll find heaps of ideas. Have you ever seen how those big fat caterpillars love nasturtium leaves? So, plant nasturtium round your cabbages, kale and cauliflower, and the butterflies will head to the nasturtium first. In the same way, herbs like mint, chives and basil can help protect your tomatoes, and marigold will help protect your courgettes. Nature has many ‘built-in’ answers.


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