A large pollinator friendly container garden designed by Dee Sewell. Image courtesy of Carlow Local Enterprise Office
A question I’m being asked almost daily at this time of year is “what pollinator friendly plants do you recommend for my hanging baskets and window boxes?” In order to address the queries, I’ve spent some time researching to see if there’s any new or helpful advice for us to consider. You can fine some suggestions below.
Edible Plants for Containers
Having spent the past ten years mostly concentrating on fruit, vegetables, herbs, green manures and companion planting, my initial thoughts turned to anything edible. Almost all edibles can grow in containers once there’s drainage. Container gardening can be more costly in terms of extra compost, more time consuming given the amount of watering, but you get the satisfaction of being able to walk outside and pick fruit, vegetables and herbs right outside your door, windowsill or balcony and you can move them around. Pollinator friendly edibles include:
- Broad beans
- Baby tomatoes
- Dwarf runner and French beans
- Salad leaves
- Flowering herbs such as lavender, thyme, rosemary, oregano, marjoram and sage.
As horticulturalists begin to turn away from years of growing flowers for people rather than insects, or perhaps try to keep us all satisfied, more pollinator friendly ornamental plants are becoming available in local garden centres which is great news for us all.
Creating a Raised Pollinator Friendly Flower Bed
I was recently asked by Carlow Town Development Forum to design a pilot flower bed in the centre of town for the launch of Carlow town’s biodiversity plan. Due to soil conditions and services below the grass, I opted for a raised bed which was beautifully enclosed in willow wattle by the talented Beth and Paul from Willow Wonder. When designing a garden plan, there are thousands of choices to consider, including natural Irish Wildflowers like those donated to the project by Sandro Cafolla of wildflowers.ie that we guerrilla planted around the nearby trees.
However, as a showcase garden, I decided to raise awareness of some of the beautiful herbaceous perennials that pollinators love to visit, choosing varieties of cone flowers and salvias, with a backbone of pollinator friendly evergreen plants for all year interest running throughout. Overplanted for initial impact, the idea is that the garden will be low maintenance. After the initial outlay for plants and soil, this bed will need very little maintenance over the coming years other than watering, deadheading, some light pruning and moving plants to new beds as they grow into their space and squeeze others out.
Pollinator Friendly Plant Lists
There are several resources online to help with our plant choices. Biodiversity Ireland are looking after us with their excellent pollinators.ie website and list of pollinator friendly plants, as are the Royal Horticultural Society in the UK. All of the plant genus I chose for the garden above are mentioned in these lists, with various pollinator friendly species available from local garden centres.
If you’re travelling through Carlow town and spot the pollinator friendly flower bed photographed above, or if you’re local to it and will be watching it develop over the coming months, these are the plants you’ll find there, all obtained from an Irish nursery:
Pollinator Friendly Bedding Plants
Whilst my summer favourite bedding Impatiens (Busy Lizzie) doesn’t fall on either of the pollinator lists, thankfully the very pretty Chaenostoma also known as Bacopa does. A trailing plant that flowers from mid-June through to the end of August, this is an excellent addition to any summer container display.
Peter Cuthbert also recommends another favourite of mine in his article Summer Bedding for People and Pollinators, Bidens. We planted these annuals in containers in Castle Activation Unit one year and the hanging baskets were beautiful. Peter also mentions that adding pollinator friendly plants to traditional displays will “make a significant difference to the overall sustainability of the planting scheme”, so perhaps my Busy Lizzie’s are safe for a while longer.
One plant I can guarantee that’s a bee and hoverfly magnet is the colourful Limnanthes douglasii or poached egg plant. I scattered some seeds in the vegetable patch a few years back and it self seeded all over the place thereinafter. A container might contain it better and has the advantage of being easy to move around so that this plant that resembles its popular namesake is closer to plants that attract aphids. Hoverfly larvae are veracious eaters of aphis, making Limnanthes a win for the pollinators and their offspring. You can find more information about beneficial insects here.
Herbs for Bees
Many herb varieties are attractive, functional and pollinator friendly such as chives, lavender, rosemary, oregano and thyme. Single flower germaniums (not pelargoniums), snapdragons and fuchsia, dahlias, calendula, cosmos, agastache, salvias, calendula, asters (daisies, sunflowers and zinnias), scabious and alyssum are all attractive to pollinators and colourful too.
You might also consider having a few containers dotted around with borage, phacelia and crimson and white clover, champagne and caviar for our pollinator friends.
Many of our usual summer bedding plants have been grown for show rather than energy for our pollinators, and sadly these will have been sprayed with chemicals to keep them in top condition for retailers rather than bees. However, we can live in hope that these practices will change as we read startling headlines such as ‘how plummeting insect numbers threaten the collapse of nature.’
In the meantime, try growing plants from seed yourself to avoid this practice, avoid spraying with any kind of insecticide during the day (including homemade ones and preferably none at all). Choose single rather than double flowers as pollinators tend to prefer them, and make more pollinator friendly plant choices. More tips for creating pollinator friendly gardens with additional plant choices can be found in this article.
In the UK, the RHS are involved with a citizen science project called Blooms for Bees where they are asking gardeners to promote and improve gardening for bumblebees. Keep an eye out for updates and results as they come in.
Have you changed your gardening practices to encourage and help pollinators, insects, wildlife and biodiversity at large? Please share your experiences so we can all learn from them.