Growing the Wild Vetches

Most observant gardeners have probably noticed that certain ‘types’ of plant appear to be particularly good at encouraging wildlife to our gardens whereas others are bereft of any insect activity.  Plants with open, starry flowers for instance are often covered with hoverflies, and daisy shaped blooms frequently have bees swarming around them.  There are inevitably exceptions to these generalisations but one group of plants that always provides value in the wildlife-attracting arena is the pea family.  These are often knows as legumes and the peas, vetches, clovers and trefoils together make up a huge group of our native wildflowers and includes shrubs such as gorse and broom which adorn our heaths and cliff tops, scrambling vetches and peas from country hedgerows and the tiny yellow trefoils that can be found in many a garden lawn.

Together the plants in this huge group provide nectar and pollen for many types of insect, plus some are the food plants for the larvae of certain moths and butterflies.  In all, the peas, clovers and vetches are some of the most important plants we can grow if we are interested in conserving and helping our native wildlife.  Many insects depend upon them and those insects are a vital part of the food chain.  On a wider scale these leguminous plants have a vital role in soil fertility, as they fix nitrogen in the soil by means of the bacteria contained in their root nodules, so they truly are important plants. 

In a wildlife garden we value them mostly for their flowers and insect attracting properties.  Amongst the many native species in this group some are less valuable as garden plants, but there are still plenty that are worthy of a place in a border or container, or can be used to provide colour at the base of a hedge.  In meadows and flowery lawns too these wildflowers will be happy, many being able to complete with even the most rampant grasses to add a dash of colour with nectar and pollen in profusion.

If you are confused by the variety of plants within this huge family, the good news is that some of the most familiar and indeed the prettiest are the easiest to grow.  My favourite, for all round ease of cultivation, colour and wildlife attracting ability is the birdsfoot trefoil.  Known by a huge variety of country names (Tom Thumb and Eggs and Bacon being perhaps the most common) this plant is worth its weight in gold.  With its neat foliage and bright yellow flowers with a touch of red, all it requires is a dry sunny spot and it will flower from early to late summer with abandon.  It is ideal for a flowery lawn, a container in a sunny spot or it can be encouraged to grow in gaps in paving or amongst gravel.  The real joy of this plant is its ability to bring the common blue butterfly to gardens where it has never appeared before. This little jewel of an insect lays its eggs on the leaves of the birdsfoot trefoil as well as preferring to take nectar from its flowers so it’s a one stop shop for the common blue!  Other plants are visited for nectar, but this one is generally the preferred choice for egg laying in my garden.  Bees and other small butterfly species such as the brown argus and the skippers also love this flower and the burnet moths lay their eggs on the leaves.  In all, fantastic wildlife value in one small plant.

If bright yellow flowers are not to your taste, you may prefer the rich purple of the tufted vetch, a versatile climber for a hedge bottom or a stunning wildflower to scramble through the lower reaches of a wigwam or the bottom of a more substantial climber.  This plant is a magnet for bumblebees and the loss of the vetch species in the wild, together with that of the clovers, has undoubtedly affected the natural food supply for honeybees, solitary bees and bumblebees.  The purple vetch flowers are arranged neatly along one side of the flower stalk and it will climb up to two meters where it is happy or cling to tall grasses in a meadow, a habitat where it is often found in the wild.  Flowering into the late summer, it is a brilliant addition to a wildlife friendly hedge or an area of long grass beneath trees.  It is tolerant of shade but will flourish in a sunny corner too.

Shades of white, cream and pink are also represented in this useful group of plants.  In particular, red and white clover will cater for the nectar and pollen needs of the bees in your garden, and some butterflies too will feed at these blooms.  Red clover is also the larval food plant of the wonderfully named Mother Shipton moth, whose wings display the profile of an ancient witch!  The lawn is perhaps the best environment for these plants, but some species are attractive enough for the herbaceous border or a container, especially the pretty and rare yellow clover, red zigzag clover and the soft annual hare’s-foot clover with its pink, downy flower heads.  Other clover and trefoil species may be less showy, but will cater for insects none the less.

There are many other vetches worth the effort of growing as well as the few outlined above – in fact one could be spoiled for choice by this group.  Try the stunning pink sainfoin with its tiny lupin-like spikes, golden horseshoe vetch, a perfect plant for a scree garden, kidney vetch for both bees and butterflies or yellow meadow vetchling which will scramble around in long grass.  For the connoisseur, sea pea requires a well drained soil, but will reward you with stunning magenta flowers on creeping foliage, and the wild narrow-leaved everlasting pea with unusual dusky pink flowers, will climb to 2 meters or more.  Lastly I always try to grow the pretty grass vetchling, an annual pea with tiny bright pink flowers and, as it’s name suggests, grass-like leaves.  It adds brilliant spots of colour in grassy places in early summer.

If some of these plants appeal to you, you could try sowing seed now in pots or small trays.  Several specialist wildflower seed suppliers have them and like so many members of this family, both native and non-native, they germinate more effectively if exposed to cold, or after being subjected to a bit of rough treatment. To encourage germination rub the seeds between two pieces of sandpaper (known as scarification) before sowing.  Cover with a fine layer of grit and place outside now.  Germination can be slow and don’t expect to see everything at once – appearance of the seedlings is likely to be staggered over the next few months.

With flowers in all shades, species for sun and shade, climbers, scramblers and plants that hug the ground, there are peas, vetches, clovers and trefoils in all colours for just about every garden situation.  Add to their versatility their enormous importance to our native insects, and this group is indispensable in the wildlife garden.  Sow some now and enjoy their bright flowers humming with insects this summer.


© Text and photographs Jenny Steel 2017