Thursday, 13 December 2012

Frozen beauties: Flowers in winter

The strawberry tree (Arbutus unedo) has nectar-rich flowers
Now in winter pollinator activity has nearly ceased. With the exception of the winter active bumblebee Bombus terrestris which is still visiting flowers on milder days in some urban areas and some winter active moths most other pollinators are inactive or hibernating in some form or another (watch this space for a more detailed essay about what pollinators do in winter, coming in January).

Nonetheless, there are still flowers to be found, some even providing much needed nectar for winter active pollinators. The strawberry tree (Arbutus unedo) and winter-flowering Mahonia (Mahonia x media) are both flowering in winter and produce enough nectar to help winter active bumblebees sustain their colonies.

Mahonia x media flowering in winter
Mahonia flowers have a wonderful scent

Winter active Bombus terrestris enjoying Mahonia flowers
Flies are also visiting the Mahonia flowers
Viburnum tinus (picture below) is another winter-flowering shrub with small pinkish fragrant flowers which are visited by pollinators on milder days.

In late winter the first snowdrops (Galanthus nivalis) are peeking through the snow which is always a delight to see. They do not depend on insect pollination and mainly spread by bulb division.

Snowdrops can push trough frozen soil with hardened leaf tips

Some autumn-flowering plants can flower right until December and look beautiful on frosty days even if they are of not much use anymore for pollinators.

A frosted rose flower
Michaelmas daisies (Aster sp.) in the early morning sunshine
Penstemon flowers after a frosty night
Harebell (Campanula rotundifolia)

Even after the flowering is finished, the seed heads of some flowers look very attractive and can be an interesting feature in the winter garden. The seeds of many plants can provide a natural food source for birds and insects like to overwinter in the hollow stems. So when you tidy up your garden in autumn please do not cut dead stems and seed heads, as they can still be of value to wildlife and your garden will look much more interesting.

Hogweed (Heracleum sp.) seed heads on a frosty morning
Frosted teasel (Dipsacus sp.) seed head
Phlomis seed heads left uncut are an attractive sight
Seed heads of rudbeckia
Winter can be a daunting month with cold, dark nights and gloomy days, but you can make the most of any sunny day and have a look around outside. Frosty mornings can be enchanting and if we happen to have a mild day look out for winter active pollinators searching for nectar and pollen.

Friday, 7 December 2012

Phacelia tanacetifolia – a great plant for bees

Phacelia makes a pretty addition to an allotment plot
If bees could make a list of their favourite plants to collect nectar and pollen from, I bet phacelia would be on it. A shame it is not very well-known and not planted more often in gardens and allotments in the UK.

Phacelia tanacetifolia is an annual plant and belongs to the borage family (Boraginaceae) together with other good pollinator plants such as borage (Borago officinalis) and viper's bugloss (Echium vulgare). It is native to California, Arizona and Mexico and colonises dry stony hillsides up to 2000 m above sea level. Phacelia is not very frost-hardy and will only survive light frosts but can overwinter in mild areas.

Phacelia as green manure (in the foreground): still looking good in December
Covering empty beds with Phacelia helps bees and your soil
Phacelia has pretty blue flowers which attract lots of bees

The plants have pretty blue flowers and ferny leaves and can be sown from late March to September in almost any garden soil. Slugs and snails tend to ignore the seedlings so if you have problems with these pests Phacelia is the right plant for you. The plant is pretty enough to grow in a flower border, together with other pollinator-friendly annual plants such as Borage (Borago officinalis), Cosmos (Cosmos bipinnatus and C. sulphureus), Pot marigold (Calendula officinalis) and sunflowers (Helianthemum annuum). It can also be grown in small patches between vegetables on your allotment or as a green manure on empty beds which is dug into the soil after flowering. You also don`t have to incorporate it into a rotation plan as Phacelia is not related to any of the vegetables commonly grown in the UK.

 Phacelia looks good with orange Pot marigold and yellow Sunflowers

Phacelia is a prolific self-seeder but never gets invasive as the seedlings are easy to pull out or hoe off. The plant can also cope with dry soil once established so you don`t have to water in summer.

The flowers produce lots of nectar and will attract countless honeybees, bumblebees and other pollinators (the German name for this plant is Friend-of-the-bees or Bee-feast). It is amazing to see how many bees are actually visiting on a sunny day; I often counted up to 30 bees per 1m2 at a time. If sown later in summer Phacelia will flower right until the first sharp frosts and provide welcome food for young bumblebee queens.

Below you can see some pictures of pollinators enjoying the nectar and pollen feast: 

Even hoverflies are attracted to the flowers
A Common carder bee (Bombus pascuorum) visits the flowers
Phacelia is a great plant for bees
A Red-tailed bumblebee (Bombus lapidarius)
Phacelia pollen is bright blue
An Early bumblebee (Bombus pratorum) collecting nectar

If you have not grown this plant before, give it a try. Sown as green manure it will help increase soil fertility and you will be rewarded with pretty flowers and lots and lots of pollinators.

Monday, 5 November 2012

Reading flower meadows in late autumn 2012

Autumn is upon us and the flowering season draws to a close. But as we didn`t have a proper frost so far in Reading there are still some flowers to be found in the annual meadows.

Cosmidium (picture below) is still flowering and the yellow and red flowers are glowing in the late autumn sunshine.

Cosmos (Cosmos bipinnatus; pictures below) is another late flower which will be in flower until the first frosts.

This little spider has found quite a cunning way of catching insects, making use of the Cosmos flower which will attract late pollinators:

Late poppies (Papaver rhoeas) and pot marigolds (Calendula officinalis) were also still flowering:

Interestingly, in the annual meadow in Victoria Recreation Ground, Tilehurst, bumblebees were still flying around, collecting pollen from poppy flowers. I have seen at least 10 bumblebees which looked like Bombus terrestris/lucorum. The bumblebee in the picture below was so eager to get at the pollen in the flower that it was falling backwards out of the flower and just managed to get hold of the petal with one tarsus.

As poppy flowers don`t have nectar the bumblebees must have been after the pollen. But I did wonder why they were still collecting pollen this late in the year, as by now there should be no more larvae to feed. Maybe it has something to do with the erratic weather we had this year.

Update: Apparently Bombus terrestris can, as only bumblebee species in the UK, maintain colonies over winter. They forage on winter flowering ornamental shrubs such as Mahonia, Erica carnea (winter flowering heather) and Arbutus unedo (Strawberry tree). Read more about it here:

Monday, 29 October 2012

A wildlife-friendly allotment plot and some suggestions to attract pollinators and other beneficial wildlife

Pollinator activity has mostly ceased now, and this is a good opportunity to spend some thoughts on general ways to improve garden habitats for pollinators and other wildlife. I this decided to write a little about my allotment plot which I manage as wildlife-friendly as possible (with a special emphasis on pollinators), and to give some tips on how to attract beneficial wildlife, and in particular pollinators, to your allotment or vegetable garden.

You can also watch the two allotment videos I recently made to see how my allotment looks now and to get more ideas of how to make your plot more wildlife-friendly.

My wildlife-friendly allotment in June/July 2015

My wildlife-friendly allotment plot in early August 2015

My allotment plot in July

Bumblebees love Sunflowers
On my plot, I plant flowers, vegetables and fruit together and I try to avoid planting large areas with the same vegetable. This way the vegetables are more difficult to find for pest insects, and the plot looks more interesting. If you plant the right flowers you can also attract pollinators.  Single-flowered annuals such as Cornflowers (Centaurea cyanus), Nasturtiums (Tropaeolus major), Pot marigolds (Calendula officinalis), Borage (Borago officinalis) and Sunflowers (Helianthus annuus) are usually a good choice. Another well-suited late-summer and autumn flowering annual is Cosmos (Cosmos spp.). It is very attractive to bees and keeps flowering until the first frosts set in. Many annuals will self-seed if you let them do so, which means they may re-appear in the following year without the need for re-sowing.

Have a look here for suitable pollinator-friendly flowers for allotments.

Annuals like Calendula and Cleome mixed together with vegetables
Cosmos is a great plant for late pollinators
Birds like to eat the sunflower seeds
There are also many herbs that are well-liked by pollinators. For example, with Wild majoram (Oreganum vulgare), Mint (Mentha sp.), Lavender (Lavandula angustifolia) and Fennel (Foeniculum vulgare) you are almost guaranteed to see a wide range of butterflies, bees and hoverflies (hoverflies particularly like fennel!) visiting your allotment plot.

Fennel and Lavatera are looking good planted together

Planting fruit bushes such as Gooseberries, Black, white and red currants, Blueberries and Honeyberries, cane fruit such as Raspberries and Blackberries, and small fruit trees (if allowed) will provide much needed pollen and nectar for pollinators in spring and early summer. Especially Gooseberries and Black currants are useful for emerging queen bumblebees as they flower quite early in the year.

Red-tailed bumblebee queen drinking nectar from Gooseberry flowers

Phacelia is one of the best plants to attract bees
Green manure, especially if left to flower, can also provide a valuable resource for wildlife. My personal favourite green manure is Phacelia (Phacelia tanacetifolia). You can sow it in any gap on the plot and it will quickly cover the soil. It has pretty purple flowers which are very attractive for honeybees, bumblebees and moths. In fact, they are possibly even more attractive to the bees than anything else on your plot, so while they are definitely a good option to attract them, it may be best not to ‘overdo’ it, and not to sow large parts of the plot with Phacelia, but rather smaller areas in different places.  
Other green manure good for pollinators and other wildlife are Buckwheat (Fagopyrum esculentum) and clovers such as Crimson clover (Trifolium incarnatum), Red clover (T. pratense) and Creeping clover (T. repens).

A small area planted with single-flowered perennials will also look very nice and is nearly maintenance-free. Especially early-flowering plants such as Leopards bane (Doronicum sp.), Pasque flower (Pulsatilla vulgaris) and spring bulbs such as specimen crocus (for example C. tommasinianus) are of high value and provide food for emerging bumblebee queens and honeybees in early spring.
If you plant late-flowering plants such as Cosmos, single Dahlias (Dahlia x hybrida) and Michaelmas daisies (Aster spp.) you can provide a much needed food source for young bumblebee queens preparing for hibernation.

Here are more ideas of pollinator-friendly plants for spring / early summer, late summer / early autumn and autumn.

Pasque flowers provide food for early bees
A small area with pollinator-friendly perennial plants can look very attractive

Compost area with wildflower patch & surrounded by comfrey
A compost area provides not only compost for improving the soil but also a home for all sorts of wildlife. From tiny springtails and mites to larger worms, beetles, earwigs and centipedes to the much bigger slow-worms, toads and even hedgehogs (I once had a whole hedgehog family living in a composter); all will find a home in a compost heap to either help with decomposition, to hide during the day or to keep warm in winter. I have 4 wooden composters which I have surrounded with Comfrey (Symphytum officinale). The leaves of this plant can be used to make comfrey ‘tea’ which is a liquid fertiliser rich in potassium and nitrogen (they are fermented in water and the resulting liquid is diluted 1:10 with water before being used). The flowers of Comfrey provide a lot of nectar for bumblebees but will also attract nectar thieves.

My little pond in January ready for frogs + other wildlife
Adding water to your plot is probably one of the most important things you can do for the wildlife in your area. It will not only give frogs, toads, newts, dragonflies, damselflies and other water-dependent animals a home but will also attract birds and mammals which will come to drink, bath or hunt for food. You do not need to build a huge pond, any watertight container sunken into the ground and filled with rainwater will do. You just need to make sure (especially if the container has steep walls) that you always install a safe exit (such as stones or a wooden plank) for the animals so they cannot drown. If you add plants such as Marsh marigold and Water forget-me-not your little pond will be even more attractive to wildlife. Also try to surround you pond at least on 3 sites with flowers to give the animals shelter, food and somewhere to hide.

This bee hotel has many guests
Last but not least if you have a shed, you can provide bee nesting boxes for solitary bees as I have done. You can buy them or make your own (look here to see how). It may take some time for the solitary bees to find the nesting box, but after about a year the bees should flock to your bee hotel providing that you have surrounded the area with lots of pollinator friendly plants.

Attracting wildlife to your plot is not difficult and should not be expensive. If you are not too tidy, avoid spraying pesticides, plant some pretty pollinator-friendly plants in between your rows of vegetables, have a herb bed and a compost area and let some of the green manure flower you are already doing a good deal for wildlife. You will also realise that you get less pest damage and a better pollination of your crops.

Early autumn and still lots of flowers to provide food for late pollinators
Surround a seating area with wildflowers to attract pollinators
Making space for wildlife on your allotment is not difficult