Monday, 28 January 2013

Tried and tested pollinator-friendly flowers for your allotment or vegetable patch

Spring is just around the corner and now is the time to decide what to grow this year in your garden or on your allotment.

Many people will focus on growing vegetables on their plot but maybe you have thought about helping the bees and other pollinators this year and to sow and plant some flowers in between your vegetables.

Maybe you have never grown flowers on your plot before and are unsure what flowers to sow or plant? Or if you already grow flowers every year why not try some you have never grown before? Also have a look at this wildlife-friendly allotment plot and suggestions to attract pollinators and other beneficial wildlife for more ideas and inspiration.

You can also watch the two allotment videos I recently made to see how my own allotment looks now and to get more ideas of what to plant and 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


Below I have compiled a list of suitable flowers for allotments and vegetable plots. All of them I have grown for several years now and are easy to grow, nice to look at and good for pollinators. I have also included some advice for sowing and anything else I thought would be interesting to know about the plants.

Corncockle ( Agrostemma githago): This is a native wildflower but very rare in the wild. The seeds can be sown where they are to flower in March or April and will flower from June/July onwards. The flowers will attract mostly hoverflies and some bees and look beautiful when waving on slender stems in a light breeze. All parts of the plant are poisonous including the seeds but as long as you don`t eat the plant (or the seeds) you should be alright. Corncockle, as a former arable weed, needs a sunny position and fertile well-drained soil to grow well.

Hollyhock (Alcea rosea): A nice cottage garden plant which you often do not even have to sow as it colonises your plot by itself. It is a biennial or short-lived perennial plant which looks best next to a shed or in a flower bed. If it does not come on its own you can sow the seeds in spring where they are to flower. You have to wait a year for the flowers as the plant will grow leaves in the first year with the flower stalks to appear in the second year. Bees and bumblebees will visit the big flowers.

Cape daisy (Arctotis fastuosa): This is quite an unusual plant to have on your plot but has very attractive flowers and is very easy to grow. The plant comes from southern Africa and is adapted to dry soils so is a good choice in a dry summer. You sow the seeds in April/May after the last frosts where they are to flower. Once the seedlings emerge they grow quickly and will reach flowering size in July.
The flowers attract bees and hoverflies and are either bright orange or white.

Arctotis fastuosa is an unusual but very attractive plant

Borage (Borago officinalis): Borage is a very attractive plant for honeybees and bumblebees and has beautiful flowers which can be blue, white or pink. It is also very easy to grow. Sow the big seeds in April directly into the soil outside. Choose the location carefully; borage is quite a big and gangly plant and can smother neighbouring plants. It will also readily self-seed. Therefore it is best so sow the plants in a little wildlife area or unused corner of your plot. Borage will need a sunny position and a fertile soil, otherwise it will not do very well.
The leaves have a cucumber flavour and can be eaten when young (older leaves are quite prickly). The flowers are a nice addition in salads, soups and sandwiches.

Borage has very attractive flowers

Pot marigold (Calendula officinalis): Pot marigold is a classic allotment and vegetable patch flower. You can grow the shorter varieties in between your vegetables to provide a splash of colour from July right until the first frosts in autumn. Sow the seeds where they are to flower in April and you can enjoy the first flowers at the end of June. The plant will readily self-seed but do not get annoying as they are easily hoed off.
Avoid double-flowered pot marigold as bees will not visit these flowers. Stick with single-flowered varieties and the bees will happily come to your plot.

Leaf-cutter bee (Megachile)

Corn marigold (Chrysanthemum segetum): Corn marigold is a native wildflower and colonises lime-free arable fields in Britain. It has cheery yellow daisy flowers which are best sown together with blue corn flowers (Centaurea cyanus) in full sun to give a nice contrast. The seeds can be sown in March or April and will flower from July onwards. Flies and hoverflies are especially attracted to these flowers.

Cosmos sulphureus
Cosmos (Cosmos bipinnatus and Cosmos sulphureus): Cosmos is one of my favourite allotment plants and the flowers provide pollen and nectar for bees, bumblebees and butterflies in late summer and autumn. Cosmos bipinnatus is a tall plant, usually with pink, purple or white flowers and best grown at the back of the vegetable bed or in between taller vegetables. Cosmos sulphureus is smaller and has bright orange flowers. Both can be sown where they are to flower in mid -to late April but the seedlings should be covered with fleece if a sharp frost is forecast. Alternatively you can sow indoors in March and plant the young plants outside after the last frost in late April/May. Both Cosmos species need a sunny position.

Cosmos bipinnatus with a Common carder bumblebee visiting

Sunflower (Helianthus annuus): Every allotment should have at least one sunflower as they are such impressive plants and the huge flowers are really attractive for bees and bumblebees. You can sow the big seeds straight into the soil outside in April or start them indoors in pots in March. Sunflowers need full sun and a fertile soil and as more you feed and water as taller your sunflowers will grow (if you have chosen to grow a tall variety such as `Russian Giant`).

Common Carder bumblebee (Bombus pascuorum)
Red-tailed bumblebee male (Bombus lapidarius)

Poached-egg plant (Limnanthes douglasii): A really nice plant to cover the ground and protect the soil. It likes a sunny position and moist soil but will grow in any ordinary garden soil if it is not too dry. 
Poached-egg plant is low-growing and a good choice to cover the soil around fruit bushes. It can be sown in March and flowers quite early in late May/June. Early hoverflies like the flowers and by planting poached-egg plant you can lure them to your plot.
The plant readily self-seeds and if you have sown it once you don`t have to sow it again.

Limnanthes douglasii sown together with Osteospermum
Solitary bee visiting

Common madia (Madia elegans): Another unusual plant for your allotment. Common madia is a native of western North America and grows in dry open places and on roadsides. Sow the seeds in April where they are to flower. The plant flowers  July - August and the bright yellow flowers will only open in the morning. There is one thing about the plant which is really special: the leaves have a scent of tropical fruit, so grow this plant near a seating area or somewhere you walk past often.

Madia elegans planted together with Cosmos and Physostegia

Obedient plant (Physostegia virginiana): This is a perennial plant so it is best you buy a young plant instead of sowing the seeds. Obedient plant is native to North America and likes fertile moist soil in sun or part-shade. Physostegia flowers from August to September and the pink tubular flowers are loved by bumblebees. There is something special about this plant as well: you can move the flowers in any direction without braking them off, once moved the flowers will stay in the new position without springing back in their original position. This is quite addictive  and you will soon find yourself moving the flowers of this plant around the flower stalk every time you visit your plot.

Black-eyed susan (Rudbeckia hirta): In contrast to perennial Rudbeckia`s commonly planted in gardens this is an annual plant which flowers in August and September if sown in April. Black-eyed susan is best sown indoors and grown on individually in pots until it is safe to plant it outside (after the last frosts in late April/May). It needs a sunny position and fertile soil and will quickly establish if the soil is not too dry. Bees and bumblebees like the flowers but I have also seen butterflies visiting.
There are varieties with pure yellow flowers and varieties with a mix of yellow and dark red flowers. I normally grow a mix of both and it is a good plant to provide pollen and nectar late in the season. You can grow the shorter varieties of black-eyed susan in between your vegetables or if you like the taller varieties more grow them together with other taller plants such as borage and cosmos.

Black-eyed susan is a magnet for bees and bumblebees

Honeywort (Cerinthe major): Honeywort is an upright annual plant and grows up to 60 cm tall. The blue-green leaves and tubular purple-yellow flowers look quite pretty and will attract mainly bumblebees. The plants need well drained ordinary soil in full sun. The large seeds can be sown in March or April outside (earlier when sowing indoors) and the first flowers will normally appear in June or early July. Honeywort self-seeds freely but the seedlings need to be overwintered in a cold greenhouse or cold frame as they will not survive cold winters.

Cerinthe major is a pretty but more unusual looking plant

Zinnia: Zinnias are great plants for butterflies in late summer (avoid double-flowered Zinnias). They are easy to grow and can be sown either directly outside from May onwards or inside a greenhouse in early April. They are sturdy plants and stand upright whatever the weather throws at them.

Phacelia (Phacelia tanacetifolia): A great plant for bumblebees and butterflies. Sow directly outside where you want it to grow. Also good ground-cover plants and green manure.

Wild marjoram (Origanum vulgare): Probably one of the best plants for pollinators. Great for bumblebees, hoverflies and butterflies. Needs sunshine and grows in any soil which does not get water-logged.

Volucell inanis, a large hoverfly

Lavender (Lavandula angustifolia): Great for bumblebees, butterflies and moths. Needs well-drained soil and sunshine for most of the day.

Common carder bumblebee (Bombus pascuorum)

Other good allotment flowers are lemon marigold (Tagetes tenuifolia), nasturtium (Tropaeolum major) and royal mallow (Lavatera trimestris). All three can be sown in April where they are to flower and are visited by pollinators.

Bombus terrestris/lucorum visiting a nasturtium flower

I hope I could give you some inspiration about what flowers to grow this year. Maybe you will even try one of the more unusual plants I mentioned. Once you have done the hard work of sowing and planting sit back and relax and enjoy your flower spectacle and all the pollinators you will attract to your plot.

Monday, 21 January 2013

Footprints in the snow – the secret life of allotments

If you ever wondered what is happening on your allotment (or in your garden) when you are not there, now is the time to find out. At the moment, snow covers much of the ground and this gives you a pretty good clue about what urban wildlife frequents your local area. You just have to look to the ground and you will be amazed about how many different animal trails you can find.
Sometimes, you can also see what the animals were up to, if they were running or walking slowly, if they were looking for food or if they were unlucky and got eaten by a predator. If you find half-eaten vegetables on your allotment or in your garden the footprints will give away the culprit and if you have fenced in your vegetable patch now is the time to check if it is really rabbit-proof. 

a faster rabbit
a rabbit hopping slowly

This fence is obviously not rabbit proof

A fox trail
A pigeon, probably looking for cabbages

A cat trail
A rat coming out of its burrow

A pigeon trail

with rat and mice trails you can always see the impression of the tail in the snow   

Small birds looking for seeds

Have a look when you are out and about the next time, it will be nice to hear what animal trails you have discovered.

Monday, 14 January 2013

Mahonia: a magnificent magnet for winter-active pollinators

There are not many flowers to be found at this time of year. You will probably spot some flowers of winter jasmine (Jasminum nudiflorum) and winter-flowering Viburnum species scattered around the gardens, but what is really standing out are the bright yellow scented flowers of winter-flowering mahonia.

Mahonia is often present in low-maintenance plantings together with other shrubs around buildings and in parks and easy to spot as it is often the only bright colour around at this time of year. Some people  have it planted in their garden but especially the tall mahonias such as Mahonia x media need quite a lot of space so not an option if you only garden in a small space.

The bright yellow racemes of Mahonia x media
There are several species of mahonia which flower in winter such as Mahonia japonica, Mahonia oiwakensis ssp. lomariifolia and Mahonia aquifolium (starts flowering in late winter) but the most commonly planted mahonia is probably Mahonia x media (a hybrid between Mahonia oiwakensis ssp. lomariifolia and Mahonia japonica) with its large, glossy leaves and bright yellow racemes. The flowers of Mahonia x media start to open in November and the plant will continue flowering until February.

It is not only us who are drawn to the flowers; they are also very attractive for winter-active pollinators as the flowers produce quite a lot of nectar. Have a closer look and you will be surprised at the pollinators you can see visiting the flowers on milder days in the middle of winter. 

Mahonia flowers produce a lot of nectar
The most obvious flower visitors are bumblebees of the species Bombus terrestris (Buff-tailed bumblebee) which can maintain winter colonies in urban and suburban habitats in the south of England. Beside strawberry tree (Arbutus unedo), winter-flowering heather and some other winter-flowering plants, winter-flowering mahonias are one of the most important food sources for the winter-active bumblebee Bombus terrestris and up to 75% of winter flower visitations are to mahonia flowers.

In the majority of cases you will see the bumblebee workers, busily collecting nectar and sometimes also pollen. They can fly in temperatures close to 0 °C and on overcast days and I have also seen them flying at dusk. If you are lucky you may sometimes spot a bumblebee queen which is markedly bigger than the workers. 
A buff-tailed bumblebee (Bombus terrestris) queen
A worker collecting pollen
Bumblebee queens are a lot bigger than worker bees

If you want to read more about winter-active bumblebees in the UK have a look at this interesting research paper.

You can also submit your sightings of winter-active bumblebees to BWARS, the Bees, Wasps and Ants Recording Society.
Other pollinators visiting mahonia flowers are different species of hoverflies such as from the genus Eristalis as well as other flies such as green bottles and flesh flies. The flowers also provide a convenient hiding place to survive cold nights.
Milder winter days will bring out honeybees which only forage if temperatures are around or above 10 °C. In late autumn and early winter you can also see the last wasps drinking nectar from the flowers. But don`t be afraid, they are more interested in the nectar than in you.

A wasp drinking nectar from the flowers
Two wasps meeting each other
Eristalis tenax is a common hoverfly in autumn
Common carder bees (Bombus pascuorum) are still around in late autumn
Honeybees only forage for nectar and pollen on milder days
A honeybee approaching a mahonia flower
Mahonia flowers provide lots of nectar for hungry hoverflies
A wasp searching for an open flower
Flies like to drink nectar from the flowers as well
A convenient hiding place for a fly

So next time you pass by some flowering mahonia bushes have a closer look, maybe you can spot some busy bumblebees or other pollinators flying around the flowers.

For more pollinator-friendly winter flowers have a look here.