Vegetables can’t move about the garden, so how do they reproduce? That’s where pollinators come in, and the more you’ve got, the better yields you’ll get from your crops. The question is, are you getting enough?
What Not to Plant
Modern flower breeding has resulted in many double-flowered cultivars which are beautiful, but which prioritize flower size and impressiveness over the pollen and nectar our pollinators need. Often double flowers have plenty of pollen or nectar, but their prolific petals make it physically impossible for pollinating insects to access it – how ridiculous is that!
The best flowers for pollinators wear a lot less ‘makeup’. They’re more restrained! What the likes of bees and butterflies need is simple, single flowers with an open center that clearly display their pollen-laden anthers and that the pollinator can easily reach. And that’s it – no outrageous fanfare needed! So, let’s look at a few examples.
Vegetable Garden Flowers
I’ve made a concerted effort to grow more flowers among my vegetables this year, and boy is it paying off! Some of the flowers I’m growing will naturally self-seed from year to year, popping up here and there as they make themselves at home on my plot. One example is poached egg plants (Limnanthes douglasii). They’re especially good for attracting pollinating hoverflies, which (bonus!) will feast on aphids. I’m also growing nasturtiums, partly to tempt cabbage-eating butterflies away from brassica-family crops, and partly because the blooms and leaves are edible, but mainly because I think they’re just gorgeous – and the bees think so too!
Other great self-seeders you might like to consider include Californian poppies (Eschscholzia) borage, and phacelia, which makes a great summer green manure to help improve soil. Just lovely!
Dotted here, there and everywhere around my vegetable garden is alyssum. This will need sowing every spring as it’s not frost-hardy, but it is well worth growing. It’s got a lovely, sweet scent and the hoverflies go mad for it. It will also attract tiny pest-predator wasps. I’m growing marigolds for a whole range of beneficial bugs, plus calendula and zinnia. These are all annual flowers particularly well suited to my summers. What works in your situation may differ, so do a little research before growing.
I always let a few vegetables and herbs flower, purely for our hard-working pollinators. Parsley, thyme, oregano, and celery are all effective pollinator-attractors. Carrots and onions are especially good too.
Interestingly, research has shown that in cities, community gardens and productive gardens are the very best environments for pollinators because they offer such a tempting mix of flowers, vegetables and fruits, which give a good variety of blooms to sample.
When it comes to selecting the best flowers for vegetable gardens I love our Garden Planner. You can use the plant filters to show only flowers that are well-suited to growing among vegetables. Click on the ‘i’ information button for any flower to find its growing requirements, plus its effectiveness as a companion plant and the crops it grows best with. Wonderful, right?
Flowers for Pollinators
We should, of course be making more of an effort to include more pollinator-friendly flowers everywhere in our gardens, not just among our veggies. Diversity is important, because different types of flower will attract different types of pollinators. For example, tubular flowers such as honeysuckle, penstemon or foxgloves are the business for bees with a longer tongue, including many bumblebees. Then there are flatter umbelliferous flowers, like parsley flowers or yarrow (Achillea), which are a real hoverfly highlight. Purple flowers are great for bees, who find it easier to see colors in this spectrum: lavender, catmint or catnip (Nepeta), and alliums are all great examples of bee-boosting blooms. And if you’ve ever seen either cardoon or globe artichoke flowers in full bloom, you’ll know just how crazy they drive the bees!
Include a range of flowers that bloom at different times of the year. Many pollinators will be on the wing the moment the sun pokes through in late winter, so spring-flowering bulbs, rosemary, forget-me-nots, pulmonaria, primroses, and, of course, spring-flowering fruit trees are all winners for this.
Don’t forget late-season bloomers to cover the end of the season too. Here in my region that means reliable stalwarts like ivy and sedum, but seek out flowers most suited to your climate and location. What grows great in one garden may fail to thrive in another or, perhaps even worse, may prove incredibly invasive – so plant with caution!
Pollinating insects tend to move from flower to flower of the same plant, so growing just one plant on its own will be a lot less rewarding for these hard-working bugs. If you can, grow clusters of flowers of the same type so that bees and butterflies can finish on one plant then move straight onto the next, without having to search far and wide for nourishing nectar. Growing in groups or weaving rivers of flowers can be visually very impactful.
If you have the time, remove old flowers as they fade. Known as ‘deadheading’, this will encourage plants to produce more flowers, extending the display and the benefit to our pollinators for longer.
A Wild and Wonderful Garden
As a rule, native flowers or wildflowers will attract more pollinators than non-natives. It makes sense – after all, the pollinators in your region will have evolved alongside these wildflowers to be perfectly adapted to each other. In a garden environment, this means we should leave a few more ‘weeds’ to grow if possible! In my garden I manage this in two ways.
First, I allow areas of the lawn to grow longer. This gives naturally occurring flowers a chance to establish and flower. Early in the season there are pops of yellow from dandelions, then as the season progresses, sprays of daisies. Other lawn flowers include clover, tiny violets, and selfheal. Of course, what you see in your lawn may be very different – but rest assured it will be a good thing for your hard-working pollinators.
I mow my lawn in sections, with each area getting mown on average about once every three weeks, so there’s always something in flower for the pollinators. Some areas are only cut once or twice a year, providing thick thatch for nesting and overwintering bugs.
Second, I allow some wilder ‘weeds’ to grow in quieter corners of the garden. You’ll find brambles and buttercups aplenty here, but the best example in my garden is nettles, which is the caterpillar foodplant for a number of butterflies. The butterflies will lay their eggs on it, so when they hatch the caterpillars have all they need to sustain them.
Another example of a fantastic pollinator-friendly wildflower is milkweed, which is the foodplant of monarch butterfly caterpillars. They’ll eat much of the foliage but in return you’ll get a wonderful kaleidoscope of butterflies – and yes, ‘kaleidoscope’ really is the collective noun for butterflies! How lovely is that?
How to Make a Bee Hotel
Did you know that solitary bees are significantly better pollinators than the humble honeybee? How much better is up for debate, but at least four times better is often quoted. We can help them by making a bee hotel.
Use hollow stems of varying diameters from one-tenth to four-tenths of an inch (2-10mm) wide to attract a range of bees. Bamboo canes work well. Cut them into sections about 6in (15cm) in length. Stuff your stems into a frame of untreated wood, screwed together so as not to leave a gap at the top for water to drip through. Try to include an overhang of an inch or two, to keep the entrances dry.
Hang your bee hotel up at least three feet (one meter) off the ground, so it’s out of the way of predators. Choose somewhere that gets morning sun so these cold-blooded creatures can warm up promptly and get out to start their shift as your on-site garden pollinators as early as possible. Try to ensure afternoon shade to prevent overheating. Ideally, your bees will want some bare, damp soil close by, because many bees use mud to seal their eggs up in individual chambers within their nest tube.
Bumblebees are also fantastic pollinators. They typically nest in the ground, and it really is a joy when you come across them buzzing in and out of their nest. Great homes for bumblebees include compost heaps, areas of longer grass, and undisturbed piles of leaves.
Love All Your Pollinators!
Along with well-known pollinators like bees, hoverflies, and butterflies, there are other pollinators which may not be so obvious. Ants, tiny pollen beetles, and even wasps will transfer pollen from flower to flower.
Wasps are fantastically beneficial in the garden, being very effective predators of garden pests. Only around 1% of wasp species actually sting, though of course that’s not much comfort to someone who's just been stung! I was once stung while weeding – first in the arm and then in the nether regions, which sent me screaming back into the house with my pants off! On the plus side, research has shown that wasp stings may have anti-cancer properties, so perhaps it wasn’t all bad… Either way, while I’ve always been wary of wasps, it’s worth living alongside them for the pollinating and pest-control benefits they bring.
Pollinators come in all shapes and sizes, and with all the distressing news about their decline it’s great to know we can do something about it in our own gardens. What flowers do you recommend for pollinators where you’re growing? Let us know in the comments below!