I know it’s only Autumn (or Fall) in the Northern Hemisphere and our main wildlife focus at this time of the year is feeding wild birds, or watching them feasting on succulent berries. However gardeners are always looking forward to another season, so I thought I would talk a little about early sources of nectar and pollen for bees and insects that are around before the garden really gets going in late spring and summer. Now is a good time to consider this because you have time to do something about it and plants can get established to perform next spring. There is no doubt about it; you will attract more pollinators to your garden if you plan for a continuous supply of nectar. Get them in early and they should keep coming right through the season. This is particularly important if you want them to be around to pollinate your apples, aubergines and runner beans later in the season.
Early nectar sources are particularly important to bumble bees and other solitary early flying bees. These are often out and about as soon as the sun raises the temperature slightly. They do not have the stores of honey and pollen to fall back on that other bees have. Some of the early flowering bulbs such as crocus, muscari, galanthus and fritillaria are favourite destinations. If it’s too late to buy bulbs where you are you should be able to buy pots of bulbs in late winter and early spring for immediate planting. These are a great way of presenting ready meals to those early flying insects.
Pulmonarias, the lungworts produce clusters of blue, pink or white flowers anytime from late winter. These are good plants to tuck in under trees and shrubs in semi-shade and are ideal under deciduous hedges. As these are often home to bumble bees then planting pulmonarias in these situations puts food o their doorsteps. Pulmonarias will fit into gardens of any size and they are useful for a long season of interest because of their attractive foliage. I have quite a few in large pots on the shady side of the house at the foot of camellias and fatsias.
For me the real herald of spring is the common primrose, Primula vulgaris. Its delicately scented pale yellow flowers shine out whether it is tucked into a border, naturalised in rough grass, or grown in pots. There are of course countless varieties in an array of colours. The cream selections of the wild primrose are particularly good. Look out for Primula ‘Heritage’ with clotted cream flowers produced in great profusion over several weeks. It is lovely planted with blue Anemone blanda; another really good single flower filled with pollen-laden stamens.
For a sunny spot at the front of a bed or border, or for the scree or rock garden, few early flowering plants surpass the Pasque flower, Pulsatilla vulgaris. I originally knew this plant as Anemone pulsatilla; its deep mauve anemone flowers are gently nodding and filled with golden stamens. The stems and young leaves are covered with silver down. As the flowers fade the fluffy silver seed heads develop and their stalks extend to carry them high above the foliage. Bumble bees love to muzzle their way into the bell-shaped flowers in search of nectar, emerging bristly and golden with pollen.
A great variety of hellebore varieties now feature in our spring gardens from the earliest Helleborus niger to some Helleborus x hybridus which can still be in flower in early summer. Helleborus nigercors makes a large plant with stiff architectural leaves and large heads of open flowers that will be appreciated by pollinators as their nectar becomes available and the pollen ripens. It is a really useful subject for semi-shade in a small garden and has the presence of a small shrub. I would plant it alongside sarcococca, the Christmas box, and a cream and green variegated euonymus for a simple but effective planting combination.
Berberis and mahonias have mall bell-shaped flowers in clusters or long racemes. Nearly all are good sources of nectar and will attract bees and pollinators. Some mahonias flower in autumn but Mahonia japonica flowers in late winter and early spring. Its flowers are wonderfully lily-of-the-valley scented. After a few years mahonias can become rather sparse and leggy in habit. They are easily rejuvenated by hard pruning, cutting back to just above any whorl of leaves. Mahonia japonica is a good choice for a shady garden and seems to succeed under trees.
Of course any early blossom is popular with the bees, but not all gardens have room for a prunus or malus tree. The lovely dwarf cherry, Prunus incisa ‘Kojo no Mai’ is a good compromise that will fit into any garden. This charming shrub with its zig-zag twigs and tiny green leaves produces a mass of single blossoms in early spring. It is lovely in a pot or in the open ground and can be selectively pruned to control size and shape in summer if necessary. It has the added bonus of splendid autumn leaf colour.
All heathers are good bee friendly subjects; you only have to look at a jar of honey! The winter flowering heathers, Erica carnea and Erica x darleyensis are particularly useful sources of early nectar from mid-winter through to mid spring. In small gardens they fit into narrow borders or can be grown in pots. In larger spaces they make excellent low maintenance ground cover. Keep them bushy and in good condition by clipping over with shears as the flowers fade. They are good for cutting too; brought indoors you will find that some varieties are delightfully scented.
Although it is not what I would call an early source of nectar and pollen I will mention Rosa rugosa. This easy to grow shrub is disease free, unlike most other roses. You can often buy it and plant it as inexpensive bare root transplants in autumn and early spring. It flowers for a long period; choose a single-flowered variety (bare root plants nearly always are single) and it will be the perfect pollinators plant for any difficult to cultivate corner of your garden. The tomato-like hips produced in winter are enjoyed by finches.
To learn more about planting a wildlife friendly garden join me on my online horticulture course, ‘Gardening for Wildlife’. The next one starts on 7th December