The lowdown on extending the flowering season for pollinators and people

Early-emerging bumblebees seek out Mahonia

Early-emerging bumblebees seek out Mahonia for its nectar

Keep your garden flowering for longer and help pollinators too.

Experienced gardeners often try to extend the flowering season in their gardens, aiming to have something flowering for as many months of the year as possible. Recent research by the Royal Horticultural Society and the University of Sheffield (Plants for Bugs project) found that pollinating insects (mainly bees, butterflies and hoverflies) generally preferred native and closely-related flowers from spring to mid-summer, but more exotic plants played their part by extending the flowering season, providing nectar when other flowers are scarce. This research paper didn’t set out to recommend specific varieties of flowers, but it has made me think about how we can extend the flowering season in our own gardens to make them more attractive for both pollinators and for us.

Bumblebee queens often emerge on sunny days in late winter and need to find nectar quickly to give them the energy to start building a nest. The evergreen shrub Mahonia is often their choice for that first feed. Its bright yellow, scented flowers help to brighten up the winter garden for us as well. Another early flowering shrub which is popular with bees is Lonicera x purpusii ‘Winter Beauty’ which has sweetly scented flowers. If you don’t have room for shrubs, you could try planting wallflowers. Erysimum ‘Bowles’ Mauve’ is an evergreen perennial wallflower that flowers continuously from late winter until summer. It’s an excellent source of long-lasting colour for a small garden and is great for bees and butterflies. Crocuses provide early flowers and nectar for gardens of all sizes. Autumn is the time to plant crocuses, which can even be planted in containers on a balcony.

Dahlia 'Pathfinder' is a typical single dahlia that bees love

Dahlia ‘Pathfinder’ is a typical single dahlia that bees love

The other time of year when native and near-native flowers are in short supply is late summer and autumn. By late summer, many flowers have finished and have already produced seed or fruit. However, this is a time when bumblebees need plenty of food as the queen is now laying eggs that develop into new queens and males – the next generation. So, if your garden has fewer flowers in late summer and autumn, consider planting some nectar-rich, non-native flowers. Good choices include white and dark purple varieties of Buddleja (butterfly bush) and the open, single varieties of dahlia. Also good are various kinds of daisies, including Echinacea (cone flower), Helenium (Helen’s flower) and Aster (Michaelmas daisy). Sedum, including the popular Sedum spectabile (ice plant), are also a good source of late-summer nectar.

It seems that native plants (and their relatives) are good for pollinators from spring to mid-summer, but if you want to support them during the vital beginning and end of their lifecycles, plant some well-chosen non-natives. You will be rewarded with a more attractive garden for most of the year as well.

Disclaimer: The information given in this blog is very general and results can be affected by many kinds of local conditions, such as weather, soil, aspect, etc. The author therefore does not accept responsibility for any loss or failure as a result of following any suggestions given.

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