Wildlife Friendly Bedding Plants

Does the term ‘bedding plants’ conjure up for you images of an orderly, formal garden with rows of bright red Salvia, blue Lobelia and white Alyssum in sterile ranks, marching up and down the borders?  As someone who is occasionally asked to judge garden competitions, this is a look I find very hard to warm to, although I try to tell myself that any plant in a garden is better than bare soil.  However, bedding can be used in more subtle ways than this, and of course can add tremendously to the visual effect in the garden in the summer months.  If chosen carefully and planted sympathetically in blocks of colour rather than in the old-fashioned style of rows of plants, bedding can even be wildlife friendly and bring butterflies and bumblebees to your borders and moths to your hanging baskets.

These undoubtedly useful plants can create a wonderful impact if planted en masse in borders and containers.  But problems of availability of wildlife-friendly bedding arise if you would prefer not to grow your own from seed.  The average garden centre or plant nursery has very few plants with wildlife value, although the situation is slowly changing and there are a few standard plants that will provide nectar and pollen as long as the correct varieties and colours are chosen. 

If you are not growing your own from seed, you could try pale Petunias for some moth species and Verbena for bees and butterflies if they are planted in bold blocks to give large areas of colour.  Choose single colours rather than mixed boxes – these will attract the notice of passing insects in just the same way as hardy perennials do.  Paler shades seem to be of more interest to butterflies than darker ones although there are always exceptions, and of course avoid double flowers.  Of the Petunias, pale blue or white are best.  These colours are also the most heavily scented which is an added bonus.  Hanging baskets with blue trailing Petunias may occasionally encourage the wonderful hummingbird hawkmoth, which darts and hovers while taking nectar with its long curled tongue.  In addition to Petunia, two other readily available plants are worth trying.  Arabis in its white flowered forms will provide both nectar and pollen for bees and Alyssum Royal Carpet has nectar for butterflies.

If brighter colours are to your taste, there are several of the French marigolds that bees, butterflies, moths and hoverflies will visit, so they are well worth growing if you like them.  The varieties Legion of Honour, Spanish Brocade and the ‘Marietta’ types have both nectar and pollen that attracts all sorts of insects, including the day-flying silver Y moth, so called because of the silvery-white Y shaped mark on its wings.  These plants are particularly good for hoverflies, always worth having around in the garden to devour your aphids.  Tagetes amongst the vegetables can have a very positive effect on natural pest control.

Where honey bees and bumblebees are concerned, there are a few bedding plants that are particularly useful.  Snapdragons or Antirrhinum have pollen, and the single-flowered varieties in particular attract bumblebees.  Busy Lizzie or Impatiens has both nectar and pollen for bees, and some species of moths are able to get their long tongues down to the nectar also. 

The plants above are varieties that are usually planted in blocks or rows, or are used in containers, hanging baskets or window boxes.  Garden centres now often have a wide range of plants in single pots rather than the traditional boxes, for summer planting.  These can cover a wide range of colours and types and some are especially good for wildlife and well worth trying.  Most of these are tender perennials, grown as summer bedding. 

Perhaps the most useful is the butterfly weed, Asclepias.  This plant is grown widely in ‘butterfly farms’ where exotic tropical butterfly species are shown to the public.  It is also useful for our own native butterfly species and can be grown in containers or planted into spaces in flagging summer borders for an interesting splash of colour.  The same is true of Heliotrope or cherry pie, a plant with a rich scent that attracts bees as well as butterflies.  This tender perennial is often used in summer bedding schemes to great effect as its dark purple flowers bloom until the first frosts.  Also look out for the annual Lavatera, especially the varieties Silver Cup with pink flowers and Mont Blanc which is white.  These plants are quite tall and can fill gaps in borders where early bloomers or bulbs have finished.

Dahlias tend to be plants that cause a degree of fanaticism amongst their devotees and I have to confess to liking their blowsy blooms.  The majority though are pretty useless as nectar and pollen providers, but several of the so-called bedding dahlias (many of which are relatively easy to grow from seed) do have an open flower structure that reveals the pollen.  This makes them magnets for hoverflies and bumblebees, so if they are to your taste, they can be included in borders or planted in containers.  I generally grow the variety Redskin which has mostly single flowers on shiny bronzy-green foliage.  These look good mixed with purple flowered plants such as the heliotrope or purple Verbena (especially the excellent Verbena bonariensis) for an exotic yet wildlife friendly patch.  If you prefer your Dahlias in paler colours the variety Coltness Hybrids come in a range of shades including pale pink.  These are attractive to many species of bee, hoverfly and pollen beetle.

One excellent group of plants has yet to be mentioned.  If your garden centre can offer nothing much in the way of the wildlife friendly bedding already mentioned, they will doubtless have Nicotiana.  The tobacco plant in all its varied colours is heavily scented at night, luring moths from miles around.  If you are really lucky, the massive convolvulus hawk moth may visit you in late summer especially if the weather has been particularly warm.

If all else fails and you find you have left things too late to get your own seeds started in the greenhouse, you can always resort to the tried and tested hardy annuals which can be sown directly into bare patches.  Plants such as Calendula, Cosmos, Phacelia, cornflower and Nasturtium can make a huge impact on the summer colour in your garden as well as the providing nectar and pollen for visiting insects.  Calendula and Phacelia are brilliant for bees, and Nasturtiums attract bumblebees as well as provide the ubiquitous ‘cabbage white’ butterflies somewhere to lay their eggs rather than using your Brassicas.  Lastly cornflowers, both wild and cultivated, will attract bees and butterflies and also provide seed for a charm of goldfinches – even more colour and interest in your summer borders or containers.


© Text and photographs Jenny Steel 2017