Growing Wildlife Friendly Container Plants

In these water conscious days, the practice of having lots of pots and containers around our gardens is something we need to consider carefully for a variety of reasons, however much they may enhance our outdoor spaces.  Bedding plants have come under fire in recent times for being very wasteful of a variety of resources, plus the trial of the evening watering routine is something many of us look forward to with a certain amount of dread.  When time is not an issue, filling the watering cans from our water butts and taking a leisurely stroll around the garden, watering a little, dead heading and just admiring flowers in pots and other containers, can be a pleasant way of spending our evenings.  All too often though, we may forget this task until late in the day, when it is no longer a pleasure but simply one more thing to add to our list of regular jobs.  Plus there are the times we might go away for a few days, or longer, which then means soliciting a favour from a neighbour – always with a certain amount of guilt.

Each year at this time I look at my selection of empty terracotta pots, wooden containers made by my husband, old glazed pots inherited from my parents’ garden and wonder if it is really worth not only all the effort, but all the resources too.  My conclusion after a brief pause is always ‘yes’.  The hard surfaces around our gardens, whether they are patios, terraces, decking or paths, benefit from the softening effect of an added injection of flowers and foliage, and there is no better way to do this than to use containers.  Creating extra planting spaces also means we are making the most of the area available to us and more vegetation in our gardens means more opportunity to attract and sustain wildlife. We all have a duty to be environmentally conscious and organic gardeners have led in this field for many years.  However, there is always room for progress and for most of us there are still plenty of ways in which we can improve our record.  

Grow Wildlife Friendly Plants  Growing your own plants for your containers - from seeds, bulbs or cuttings rather than buying from the garden centre - means that the plants have not travelled hundred of miles to reach you.  The majority of plants found in garden centres will have been grown in Holland or elsewhere on the Continent and shipped in.  They will be planted in compost that is composed largely of peat plus artificial fertiliser.  The flimsy plastic modules or pots that they are grown in generally have a very short life and cannot be frequently re-used, plus of course they end up in landfill and may take many years to break down.  Just as important is that the majority of these bedding plants, as well as being so wasteful of resources, are often devoid of nectar and pollen and of little use to our already struggling bees and butterflies.  It used to be possible to find a few wildlife friendly plants but increasingly these are disappearing to be replaced by sterile varieties.  Growing our own gives us an opportunity to rectify all of these problems, as long as we choose our plants in an informed way.

First choice could be a selection of wildflowers.  There are many that are suitable for container growing, especially smaller species including wild pinks, wild pansies, bird’s foot trefoil which will tumble over the edge of a pot, some seaside plants such as thrift and sea pea and those that are rather too rampant in the open garden, including the beautiful yellow toadflax.  Keeping this in a container makes sure it doesn’t take over the garden!  Many will flower over a long period and if grown in conjunction with a few tried and testing bedding annuals that are easy to grown from seed, you could have a long lasting, wildlife attracting display.  I like to grow dark red antirrhinums with small scabious which results in a combination of maroon and mauve flowers that buzz with bees.  Another good combination is the golden leaved variety of our wild marjoram with almost anything that takes your fancy, as the leaves of the marjoram are such a wonderful colour and set off almost any flower admirably.  This spring I will try it with bright red nasturtiums, again to attract bumblebees and honeybees.

You could also try  – dainty blue harebell with white and blue trailing Lobelia, quaking grass with blue Petunias (which attract hawk moths at night) or maybe common toadflax with yellow Tagetes and tumbling Bidens ferulifolia for contrasting flower shapes and a bold, bright splash of yellow.

Perennials Perennials that remain in their pots all year round can be a labour saving option as well as insect friendly, as I find they only need a little tidying before putting away in a sheltered corner in the autumn and an injection of compost top dressed in the spring.  Try Verbena bonariensis with Gaura lindheimeri in a large container for an airy combination of white and purple that will have the butterflies flocking to your pots.  Sedum spectabile is also suitable for a pretty pot and a few blue or white petunias around the edges ensures colour from mid summer until October.  Both butterflies and moths with appreciate this combination. You could also try - smaller varieties of hardy geraniums, erigeron, or catmint with lobelia or nasturtiums to trail over the edges. 

Bulbs, corms and tubers Summer flowering bulbs and corms can create a real focal point.  I grow both regal lilies and dahlias in large pots for summer colour, both bringing a range of hoverfly species to their pollen.  Open flowered dahlias are obviously the ones you should look out for and these are easy to grow from seed.  My preference is for the Redskin varieties or the lovely red Bishop of Llandaff (available as a tuber) but you could try any of the smaller open flowered dahlias where the stamens are visible.  After their first summer the dahlia tubers can be saved for the following year. You could also try – summer flowering alliums, which come in a variety of colours, Ornithogalum, and other lilies.

Easy annuals Easy wildlife friendly annuals are brilliant value whether you sow directly into borders or into pots.  Some such as the small varieties of Nicotiana and dwarf foxgloves which will flower in their first summer, benefit from sowing in small seed trays first and transplanting into bigger containers, but by and large I sow them directly into any pots I have hanging around.  They have the advantage of needing very little watering too.  I use California poppy, dwarf, coloured cornflowers, night scented stock and English marigolds in pots outside the back door with nasturtiums or pretty red lettuce around the edges for emergencies!

You could also try – larkspur, Shirley poppies, pansies, annual scabious and nigella.  Go for shorter varieties where they are available.

Herbs  We all know that herbs make good container plants so couple that with their wildlife attracting abilities and you have a great combination.  Marjoram, thyme, chives, winter savoury and lavender of course are all good options.   Again you can jazz them up with a few more traditional home grown bedding plants around the edges if you wish. You don’t need to stick to the categories above.  Mix them up and create something different and usual.

Compost  Compost for your pots and other containers shouldn’t be a problem.  I make my own with soil from my garden mole hills and add home made compost.  There will always be a few weed seeds but nothing problematic I find.   Most of the pots are watered through the summer with a diluted ‘worm juice’ from my worm composter.  This has a tap on the bottom level which means I can put my watering can underneath for a small amount of the liquor and then fill up with water from the water butts - very convenient – but any containers with wildflowers are generally omitted from this routine.  They do well enough without the extra nutrients.  For the non-natives though the liquid feed ensures the plants get all the nutrients they need without having to resort to expensive and resource hungry composts.  If you are buying compost make sure it is organic and peat free.  You can of course include water-retaining granules to make the most of the water you give them.  I also give most of my pots, except those that need to be freely draining, a saucer to catch water that would otherwise be lost.

We all need colour in our gardens – it is what summer gardening is all about.  But there are many ways of adding more colourful blooms than simply dashing down to the garden centre.  Whether you re-use plastic pots or have a selection of terracotta, glazed or wooden containers, we can all be more conscious of the finite resources we are using up and help our local wildlife at the same time.


© Text and photographs Jenny Steel 2017