Plant a Wildlife Friendly Herb Garden

Back in the dim and distant past the herb garden was considered to be a necessity among those who actually had a garden.  These days an area of fragrant edible ‘herbs’ can sometimes be unfairly relegated to a corner of an ornamental border, or a few herbs may be grown alongside vegetables on the edge of an allotment.  But these plants are wonderful in their own right and are hugely attractive to wildlife; they deserve pride of place in any plot.  A dedicated herb border can make a real statement as it positively buzzes with life for many months of the year. In the past, herbs were grown mainly for their medicinal properties, the flavouring of food being secondary to their amazing ability to heal, soothe and repair our bodies.  Nowadays the word ‘herb’ covers a very broad spectrum of plants but it originally meant a 'useful' plant whether that be for healing or eating.  Botanically ‘herb’ relates to the word ‘herbaceous’ and covers any plants without woody parts, but now we tend to accept that the word refers to an aromatically scented plant used for flavouring or healing. In a wider context these plants have many additional properties – some herbs are insecticidal and others can be used as natural dyes. Most of us who grow herbs do so for flavouring our food and drink and who doesn’t prefer their pasta with tomatoes infused with basil or a delicious Thai curry, fragrant with coriander.  In my garden herbs are of the utmost importance but not just for their flavouring properties.  I use them to make fresh herb teas, gargles for sore throats and balms for sore skin, but more importantly, many are excellent wildlife attractants.  It makes sense to give these useful plants pride of place in the garden.  Useful annuals can be added for an extra splash of colour and more pulling power for wildlife.  The result is a complete garden in itself, full of multipurpose plants that add life and colour.

The most commonly grown herbs can be put into three categories.  There are those with woody stems (so in the technical sense they are not strictly herbs, as they are not herbaceous), perennial plants that die back to the ground every winter and annuals/biennials. 

Shrubby herbs are valuable because they add form to the herb garden in winter and some can also add a little height.  Rosemary in particular is great from this point of view, being an elegant shape at all times of year.  It does, however, have a habit of suddenly dying in the winter, as it suffers in wet weather if the roots are waterlogged.  It is worth ensuring that you have a few cuttings of all the shrubby herbs in the event of them expiring unexpectedly.  Increasing the drainage around these Mediterranean  plants will certainly prolong their lives but it is inevitable that they will occasionally succumb to a British winter.  Sage too, with its purple and variegated leaved forms, adds structure and colour to a herb bed and like all the members of the Labiate or mint family, is loved by bumblebees.  Hyssop with blue, pink and white flower forms is a magnet to bumblebees. The best of this group are the thymes; there are too many forms of this useful shrubby herb to describe here in detail but for culinary purposes my favourite is Thymus vulgaris, as it is possible to take handfuls of leaves for flavouring pasta sauces, chutneys, herb jellies and many other dishes, without spoiling the plant.  Some of the creeping thymes are more delicately flavoured, lemon being the commonest variety, but these don’t have the robust nature of the upright types nor a excess of leaves.  Thyme is one of the best herbs for attracting honey bees, which are in dire need of a little help, plus small tortoiseshell butterflies also love thyme.  You could also include the lavenders in this group, wonderful for so many types of insect, with the added advantage of attracting goldfinches to the seeds in the winter.  Don’t forget to leave the flower heads if you want to encourage these gorgeous birds.  Clipping off the dead stalks can easily be done in early spring.

The vast majority of herbs are perennials and these can be used to fill out the spaces between the more shrubby types.  There is a wide selection of suitable plants and again many of them are great for wildlife.  Try to include varieties that will serve several purposes – culinary, medicinal and wildlife attractants.  Chives, marjoram, lemon balm and all the mints will attract both bees and butterflies.  The mints, however do need to be contained in some way or they will spread rapidly.  The accepted wisdom of planting mint in a bucket with no bottom to prevent the roots spreading does not work in my experience!  Mint will root from runners on the soil surface so it is much better to grow your mint in a separate container to avoid any problems.  Don’t be tempted though to avoid it completely.  It has so many uses apart from the obvious mint sauce and can be used for a cup of fresh mint tea in the morning, in a tangy yogurt and mint dip or add a sprig to your glass of Pimms on a summer evening!  Plus it is a wonderful butterfly attractant especially for the small tortoiseshell.  Another useful perennial is the aptly named bee balm or bergamot.  This is not the bergamot that flavours Earl Grey tea but a useful plant in its own right, with powerful antiseptic qualities. Available in a range of colours from subtle pinks to bright scarlet, it adds drama to a herb border for several months of the year. Sweet cicely also falls into this category – a wonderfully scented herb all parts of which are edible.  The  seeds in particular have a sweet, aniseed taste and can be used to flavour tart fruits.  The white umbels of flowers attract many small flying insects including hoverflies.

The annual and biennial herbs are probably my favourites.  They can add a great deal to your herb patch – filling in spaces as well as increasing your stock of useful plants.  Borage is especially useful, certainly as far as honey bees are concerned.  Many insects adore this plant and it is now grown as a crop in our countryside - a field of borage humming with bees is an amazing sight.  To my mind the most useful annual of all is coriander - my garden never has enough.  This powerfully scented herb brings hoverflies in their thousands to feed on its pollen, as do the flowers of parsley.

Preparing a Herb Bed  Herbs love warm sunny places (many are originally Mediterranean plants) so choose your spot for your herb bed well - south facing and out of the wind if possible.  Most herbs prefer a well drained soil so you may want to add course grit to heavy clay to improve the drainage.  Organic compost will also benefit your new plants.  Plant woody herbs and perennials in the next couple of months and sow annuals as seeds in March or April to fill in the spaces.  Biennial herbs such as parsley can be sown in spring for a summer supply, but seeds sown in June or July will give you a good crop of winter leaves.  For even more colour sow seeds of bright nasturtiums (the flowers are edible and look amazing in salads) English marigolds (also edible flowers), or evening primrose for more height.  Globe artichokes can also enhance a herb border and they attract huge numbers of bumblebees.  Make your herb border even more wildlife friendly by including a small log pile amongst the flowers, or a home made insect habitat, using dried hollow stalks of sweet cicely held in a bundle with garden twine and tied to a bamboo cane at a height of about 60cms.  You might even like to include a peanut feeder (avoid mixed seeds which could fall to the ground and germinate!) to bring more birds to your border.

Herbs are amazing plants full of health giving properties and many are wildlife magnets.  If you have only the smallest of gardens, grow them in pots in your sunniest spot on a patio or by the back door.  They will flavour your food, soothe your senses and feed your wildlife – all at the same time. 

Ten Great Herbs for Wildlife

  1. Marjoram attracts bees, bumblebees and a variety or butterflies including small tortoiseshells, whites, gatekeepers, common blues and small coppers.

  2. Lavender is fantastic for many species of butterfly, silver Y moths, honeybees and bumblebees, plus goldfinches love the seeds.

  3. Borage is one of the best bee attractants you can grow, providing both nectar and pollen.

  4. Rosemary also provides both nectar and pollen for bees and some butterflies will feed on the nectar.

  5. Thyme of all types is brilliant for bees and small tortoiseshell butterflies.

  6. Coriander produces masses of tiny white flowers which makes it one of the best hoverfly attractants.

  7. Chives provide nectar and pollen for bees and some butterfly species.

  8. Mint attracts honeybees and bumblebees as well as the gorgeous iridescent green mint beetle and finches will eat the seeds.

  9. Parsley is biennial and has to be left a second year to flower but then attracts many smaller insects including masses of hoverflies.

  10. Winter savory is not always terribly hardy but worth growing for its small flowers which bees love and its seeds which bring goldfinches to the garden.

© Text and photographs Jenny Steel 2017