Improving a Nectar Border

With spring under way, March is a great month to think about the insects that visit your garden and take action to improve your supplies of nectar and pollen for them for the months ahead.  Gardens are very dynamic habitats, and we all know that at this time of year gaps can appear in borders that were overcrowded in the previous season.  Plants outgrow their spaces and sometimes have to be removed and replaced with something new.  Others simply disappear for no apparent reason, or conditions may change, making the habitat inhospitable for certain species and varieties.  In my previous garden the cottage border beside the ever encroaching shade of a large copper beech tree required that I reviewed that area every year, replacing sun lovers with more shade tolerant plants.  Borders in my current garden have been designed well ahead for changes of this kind but early spring is still a time when a little re-planning might be necessary.

A nectar border is a good way to cater for pollinating insects; having lots of insect attracting plants in one area is more than just a good use of space.  Bees and butterflies detect their food sources by scent and sight, so if all those enticing plants are close together, they are more likely to be noticed by a passing butterfly or bumblebee.  For long term colour make the most of those spaces by using plants that really earn their keep.  If you can find plants with attractive foliage as well as flowers you will be pleasing your local wildlife as well as extending the season of colour in the garden.  There are many easy to grow, insect-attracting herbaceous perennials that can be tucked into a space.  Like any gardener I have my favourites, chosen to suit my soil conditions, but nectar and pollen provision is always my first priority.

The Sedums, or ice plants, are an excellent choice for full sun, with grey-green fleshy leaves and late summer blooms.  If you want to try Sedum spectabile, so beloved of butterflies like the small tortoiseshell, make sure you select the true species or at least a pale flowered variety.  I grow the pink species, now rarely stocked by nurseries, but my favourite is the white cultivar Frosty Morn, a plant that attracts even shy butterflies like the speckled wood.  As with so many cultivars of otherwise good insect attracting plants, those bred for brighter flower colour seem to have less pollen and nectar than the true species or paler colours.  Lovely as it may be as a garden variety, the widely available Sedum Autumn Joy has little to attract late summer butterflies. 

Another good choice would be the hardy geraniums.  If you already grow a variety of these, you no doubt find seedlings around that need to be moved to spaces elsewhere.  One of the joys of these plants is their ability to hybridize, so you never know quite what you are going to get!  The majority of these geraniums have large amounts of pollen for bumblebees, especially the smaller species, and later provide seeds for finches too.  They tolerate shade, so in my garden are worth their weight in gold.

If perennials are your objective you could try Verbena bonariensis, valerian, phlox, Michaelmas daisy, Echinacea and Erigeron if you want to temp butterflies.   To encourage more bumblebees try lupins, catmint, Echinops, Echium and the Lamiums or dead nettles.  Many of these will attract honeybees and hoverflies as well.

Annuals can provide a quick fix for unexpected spaces, perhaps where a plant has died over the winter.  Many can be sown directly into bare ground this month or next and self sown seedlings can be transplanted with a little care and careful watering when it is needed.  Poppies of all sorts are excellent for sowing into spaces – they do not transplant well - but a little seed goes a long way.  Poppies have copious amounts of pollen so are good bee attractants and most colours and varieties are worth growing.  I particularly like the Shirley poppies – varieties of our own vivid red wild corn poppy.  These come in a delightful range of colours, from bright to subtle.  The opium poppy, Papaver somniferum, is also a good choice, with attractive seed heads after flowering has finished.  Other good annuals to try in borders are California poppy for hoverflies, some of the everlasting flowers including Statice for butterflies, and one of my favourite annuals, Matthiola or night scented stock. This is worth growing for its fabulous scent alone, but it also is a good plant to attract moths.  If your space is really sunny, don’t forget the good old fashioned sunflower for bees and butterflies plus the seed heads can be dried and then hug up later for finches and tits.  This easy plant has many virtues and is a great way of getting children interested in the wildlife in your garden.

Whereas some annuals are difficult to transplant, biennials usually cope with the disturbance, and by moving self sown plants early in their second year, it is possible to have colourful flowers within a few weeks.  I often move the rosettes of foxgloves, mulleins and evening primrose into spaces, and with a little care they usually cope and flower well.

One excellent group of nectar and pollen plants are our own native wildflowers.  These need not be relegated to the ‘wild bit’ in the garden – many are excellent border plants.  Wild marjoram is a fabulous insect attractant, especially for the smaller butterfly species, and its golden leaved variety has pretty foliage for much of the year. Greater knapweed, viper's bugloss, scabious and betony are all good butterfly plants and sticky catchfly, the cranesbills, Jacob's ladder, spiked speedwell, musk mallow and mullein will all bring bees to the border.  Most of these prefer a sunny situation, but there are others including meadowsweet, wood avens and St. John's wort that will tolerate light shade.  And don’t forget the annual wildflowers, such as cornflower or corn marigold.  All in all, there is wildflower for every situation in the garden.

Although there are advantages to having your nectar plants all together, it is by no means essential.  Good insect attracting plants can be popped into any spaces in spring, as long as the conditions are right.  Containers close to the house can be a great place to try new plants for a colourful display.  Even climbers can be grown in this situation.  If you plant an old-fashioned broad leaved everlasting pea in a terracotta pot and allow it to scramble up a willow support, bumblebees and brimstone butterflies will flock to your patio.  Add a few sweet peas for scent for a perfect wildlife friendly container.

Adding some nectar and pollen providing plants to your garden this spring could make all the difference to the insects you have around.  These in turn will provide food for birds and small mammals, making sure your garden is alive with wildlife this summer.


© Text and photographs Jenny Steel 2017