The Citizen Gardener: Planting for pollinators – sow the seeds of change

A wool carder bee

A wool carder bee. Photograph: Deborah Freeman / Flickr

Change is in the air. The languorous limbs of Spring are unfurling. A softness has replaced winter’s metal grey. Green shoots are fumbling their way to the surface. The hum of insect life is growing stronger.

It is with these insects in mind that I sow my first crop of flower seeds of the season – Cosmos, Evening Primrose and Fennel went in this week.

I have had some tomato and sweetpea seedlings languishing on my windowsills for a few weeks now, sown when I couldn’t bear to wait any longer.

They are now looking a little leggy due to my impatience. But at long last the Spring equinox has finally been and gone, and that means that seed sowing can begin in earnest.

This year, I’m committed to sowing and growing only pollinator-friendly varieties, in the hopes of turning my little square of outdoor space into an all-you-can-eat pollen paradise for the mini-beasts of London.

Britain’s declining pollinator population has become an increasing worry. These little creatures have lost 97 per cent of their habitat in the past 60 years.

That has a knock-on effect on all kinds of animals that rely on the insects as a source of food, but it’s also bad news for the few plants that are left, which will struggle to reproduce without them.

Then there’s us humans. We will suffer because we rely on pollinators to successfully grow our food. Indeed, it’s estimated that a third of all of the food we eat is reliant on pollinators.

How lucky we are then, that helping pollinators is both simple and beautiful. Sowing seeds is an intrinsically hopeful act.

In times like these when the world can feel like a frenzied mess and the casualties of climate breakdown are at the mercy of big corporations, it’s easy to feel powerless.

But the act of sowing seeds to help pollinators is something that we can do. It is a way to make a political statement, a precious habitat, a beautiful space – all from a handful of small nothings.

Less whimsically, it’s cheaper – flowers are far cheaper to grow from seed than buy as plugs, but if you’re not someone who likes nursing plants from infancy to maturity, then just buy some plug plants and pop them in the ground.

A good place to start is by selecting native varieties. Not every plant in your garden has to be “native,” but native plants will establish better and also bring in more pollinators.

Native insects evolved alongside native plants, so they are well adapted to work together. What’s more, they are better adapted to the British environment.

It’s much easier to work with a plant that is in a spot that it has spent thousands of years adapting to. So, if you have a dry area, consider native plants that are more naturally drought-tolerant such as sedum and speedwell.

If you have a wet area, consider moisture-tolerant plants that don’t mind having wet feet, such as iris, canna, and ferns.

In order to have a good source of food for the pollinators all year round, there has to be as much in flower for as much time as possible, so choose long-flowering varieties.

A keen eye and a handy pair of secateurs during the summer months is helpful in order to keep on top of dead-heading any spent blooms to encourage them to come again and again.

Expanding your growing space is another way of ensuring more blooms – how about reducing the size of an all-grass lawn? Perhaps you could stop mowing one section and convert it to a native wildflower border or meadow?

Some of our local parks have started to do this too, so if you haven’t got a stretch of lawn at home, a quick email to the council encouraging them to do this will mean that thousands more pollinators will enjoy our shared spaces too.

Chemical fertilisers and pesticides are obviously a big no-no when trying to provide a safe-haven for pollinators. They tend to kill many more creatures than the one or two insect species for which they were employed.

As annoying as some garden visitors can be, try to think of your garden pest foes as a good meal for one of your garden friends and recognise their value.

One of my favourite of the pollinators is the wool carder bee, one of the UK’s largest solitary bees, and arguably the cutest.

They get their name from their practice of collecting hairs from plant leaves and stems, in order to build the cells within their nests which look like fluffy little tunnels.

They love downy, hairy plants to use as their ‘wool’ nest insulation, so plants like lambs’ ears (Stachys) and mullein (Verbascum) are their favourites.

Some other lovely options for both beauty and plenty of pollen are:

Rudbeckia or black-eyed Susan

Bask in a pool of bright yellow in your garden with black-eyed Susan. The beautiful blooms on these flowers bring plenty of pollinators and they are also drought-resistant, making them easy to care for.

There are several varieties so you’ll have plenty of choices when looking for the perfect ones to fit into your space.

Buddleja or Butterfly Bush

As the common name hints, butterflies of all kinds visit this plant. Buddleja has a sweet scent that attracts pollinators near and far.

We are lucky in London that it grows like a weed and will thrive in the harshest of conditions. Some newer varieties, such as ‘Amethyst’ don’t reseed and stay compact.

Echinacea or Coneflower

This prairie native attracts bees and other insects aplenty and all while looking fabulous. The shuttlecock-shaped flowers tend to be purplish pink, but newer varieties have expanded the palette to yellow, orange, burgundy, and cream.

Make sure not to choose double types as these aren’t as useful to pollinators.

Achillea or Yarrow

Yarrow is an easy-to-grow favourite that will add a wildflower look to your pollinator garden. Use it as a groundcover or along borders to bring pollinating bees to your space.

It’s important to deadhead spent flowers for the plant rebloom, but if you don’t want to deadhead yarrow, you can leave the dried blooms on the plant for winter interest that will provide habitat for over-wintering beasties.

What’s going on in Hackney’s gardens this month?

The pollinator enthusiasts at St Mary’s Secret Garden are running a three-day practical beekeeping course in their beautiful garden. There are still a few spots left so get in touch to find out more!

Friday 21 April marks the beginning of #GoodToGrow2023, a long weekend of activities, events and open days at community gardens across the whole of the UK and Hackney has plenty to offer.

Capital Growth has put together a handy map with details on participating gardens so head to their website to find out more.

Hackney Herbal is starting a free herb-growing course for BPOC living in Hackney with the first session taking place on the 29 April. Visit their website for more information.

Steph Goward is an ecological gardener and food grower. She is the postcode gardener for E5, a horticultural therapist at St Mary’s Secret Garden, and works with a number of gardening groups across Hackney. You can follow her at steph_orla_.