RHS Plants for bugs project

We have come to realise over the last couple of decades what rich habitats our gardens are for wildlife. Yet gardens are very different to the British countryside, on average containing 70% non-native plants, but having much greater plant diversity. Because there was no consensus of opinion on whether planting UK natives in our gardens was better for wildlife than non-native plants, which originate elsewhere in the world, the Royal Horticultural Society began a rigorous scientific study in 2010 to find out, Plants for Bugs’.


36 3m x 3m plots were created at RHS Wisley and another site in Surrey and each plot was planted with a mix of 14 plant species native to one of 3 geographical zones: the UK (native), the northern hemisphere excluding UK (near-native) and the southern hemisphere (exotic). Each bed contained bulbs, perennials, shrubs, a climber, grasses and ferns. Sampling of invertebrates were recorded over four consecutive years. Tens of thousands of insects were recorded including eight species of bumble bees, more than 50 species of spider and 40 of ground beetle. In 2011, for example, more than 2,600 species of pollinating insects were recorded.

So what conclusions did they draw from all the data? A paper was recently published on pollinating insects recorded and the main finding relevant to gardeners and anyone who designs public or private green spaces was that there was no difference between the number of pollinating insects that visit native and non-native plants. Non-native plants can be just as valuable to pollinating insects as natives. It was found that the diversity of species is far more important than whether they are native or not. images.jpeg

Here are the 3 key things the RHS say we as gardeners and garden designers can do to help increase levels of pollinators in our gardens.

Plant a mix of flowering plants from different countries and regions of the world. Place the emphasis on plants from the northern hemisphere including UK natives such as Veronica spicata ‘Royal Candles’-cultivar of Spiked Speedwell, or Lonicera periclymenum ‘Graham Thomas’-cultivar of Common Honeysuckle, with near- natives like Scabiosa caucasica- the Caucasian Scabious and Eupatorium maculatum ‘Atropupureum’ – Jo Pye weed. Then include ‘exotics’ from the southern hemisphere for late nectar such as Lobelia tupa, Fucshia and Osteospermum. Take a look at this list  for more ideas.

Plant for a long season. It is not only us that enjoy a long season of flower in our gardens. Pollinators need to find nectar right through the year, so including early flowering plants such as Hellebores, Crocus, Winter flowering Clematis, Snowdrop and Mahonia is important. Later flowering plants such as Asters, Dahlias, Anemone x hybrida and Aconitum carmichaelii and grasses such as are also useful to provide late nectar sources. Here is a list giving a guide to seasonal flowering plants for pollinators.

Pack as many species of plant in as you can manage. Not surprisingly, the more species you fit in the more bees, hoverflies and other pollinating insects will be supported by your garden. And don’t despair if you only have a window box, pick the right plants and you will still be helping the pollinators in even the smallest space.  Layer plants starting with bulbs and perennials and working up to shrubs and trees. Try squeezing slender plants like Verbena bonariensis, Foxgloves or Linaria purpurea between other plants. Don’t forget climbers which will only take up vertical space if trained well. A sunny spot will be the greatest draw for insects but even in shade Sarcococca, Hydrangea and Bergenia, for example, will flower well. Trees can also be good providers of pollen and nectar. Willow, Birch, Maple and Lime are ideal for this in larger spaces.

And finally, take a note of which plants attract the most insects in your area and add more of those which are buzzing with insects! Oh and don’t forget your allotment, orchard or veggie patch. Let a few veg plants flower and plant an edging of annuals such as cornflower, larkspur or marigolds for cutting. I am going to plant a strip of wild flowers to edge my new veggie garden and draw in insects to pollinate my crops. If you have space for a few fruit trees then let the grass grow longer beneath them and add wild flower plugs and spring bulbs. The extra insect life attracted will help to pollinate my apples, pears and plums hopefully.





Wildflower meadows

7158929185_ea2b23a84c_bWe have lost 97% of our lowland wildflower meadows since the end of the second world war. This in turn has lead to loss of habitat for pollinators and insects resulting in many of our previously well-loved birds and small mammals falling in numbers dramatically. Many of us would like to help rectify the loss in our own gardens and with this in mind I spent an interesting day at Wisley Gardens in Surrey yesterday on a course organised by the Royal Horticultural Society. Aimed at Garden Designers, Head-Gardeners and local authority horticulturalists, it was called ‘Learning to Design the Wild: wildflowers and naturalistic planting in horticulture’.thumb_2451856635

I didn’t really grasp the the relevance of the word ‘learning’ in the title until well into the day, when I began to realise that even those working at the top of the horticultural world are still learning the best methods of establishing and maintaining wild-flowers in a garden setting. What I learnt was that there are various methods being experimented with and what is key is to choose the one that best suits your soil, situation, budget and maintenance abilities. It is worth saying that wild-flower meadows are definitely NOT a low maintenance option, as some have suggested, but there are ways of short-cutting the complications of establishment and of creating impact on a budget.

Once you understand that Wildflower meadows are dynamic communities, changing throughout the year and from one year to the next then you start to see that planting wild-flowers can be a long-term management challenge. A lot of fun, but a challenge all the same! We talked about everything from a tiny wild-flower lawn in an urban situation to the huge Big Sky Meadows project at RHS Hyde Hall. Here, an initial 7 acres was seeded in January with many more acres to be put down to wildflower meadows over time.

Title: The Wildflower Meadow at RHS Garden Hyde Hall Description: Poppies, Cornflowers, Corncockles and Milkweed in the Wildflower Meadow at RHS Garden Hyde Hall Date: 15th June 2008

I’m sorting through all the useful information we were given to pick out what will be most useful to me as a garden designer.

Meadow on a budget

  • Utilise your existing lawn, or a part of it. Stop mowing regularly, let the grass grow and see what appears. Weed out coarse unwanted weeds by hand. In the late summer/autumn of the first year mow and scarify the grass. Supplement wild-flowers that appear naturally with plug plants of ones that you would like to see plus some small spring bulbs to naturalise if budget allows. Sprinkle parasitic Yellow-rattle seed to suppress vigorous lawn grasses at the same time.442f5304935e5e23501f62a3cd577cd2
  • In a low fertility soil, and where you are prepared to put in some work establishing the meadow, then broadcasting seed on  prepared soil is a good budget option. in the spring, mow the area to mark it out. Spray off with glyphosate-based herbicide or lift turf. Level the soil and scatter the seed mix. Rake in and roll soil or trample in with boots. Water. An annual mix can be left to go to seed then cleared at the end of the following winter. Hopefully seeds will germinate and you will get a show the following year. After 2 years you will probably need to start again with fresh seed to prevent the mix becoming dominated by one or two species. A perennial mix takes a little more horticultural input but will come back each year.

    Pictorial Meadows 'Patchwork Quilt' mix
    Pictorial Meadows ‘Patchwork Quilt’ mix

Shortcuts to meadow establishmentDSC_0076 DSC_0077

  • Wildflower turf is a product developed to shortcut the hard work of establishing a meadow from seed. It is a wildflower meadow in a roll! Delivered and laid like ordinary lawn turf, the wild-flowers are already established on a growing medium. There will not be the same competition from weeds though you will still need to manage the meadow by weeding out undesirables that appear and cutting at least a couple of times a year. Useful for difficult areas such as sloping pond sides or sloping gardens where seed might be washed away by rain. Suitable on heavier, more fertile soils. Not the cheapest method but is one of the easiest ways to ensure successful establishment if managed correctly. Turf can be bought suitable for specific situations such as underneath trees or on a green roof.

Maintenance tips

  • Time your mowing regime to prolong flowering. A cut in the summer before seeding will often encourage another flush of flowers later in the year.
  • Mowing, weeding by hand or spot weeding with glyphosate are techniques which can be used to deal with over-competitive species of grass and flowers and unwanted invadors such as dock and thistle.
  • Mow regularly around the edges of the meadow to show the long grass is deliberate. In larger areas mow paths through the meadow, and maybe even a circle for a small table and chairs, so you can really benefit from the environment.

3e4d84b40757e50b963f4164aa8c5144If you design a meadow close to vegetable crops or in an orchard then you will find that the insects attracted in will also pollinate your crops and provide a natural method of keeping pests down! So consider a place in your garden for wild-flowers this year and have a go! It will be lots of fun and you will be helping our pollinators thrive again.

Useful links

Royal Horticultural Society   http://www.rhs.org.uk

Pictorial Meadows mixes of native with non-native seed   http://www.pictorialmeadows.co.uk

Wildflower turf   http://www.wildflowerturf.co.uk

Native wildflower seed   http://www.johnchamberswildflowers.co.uk

Get Bristol Buzzing project   http://www.getbristolbuzzing.org

Wild gardens and meadows to visit for inspiration   Wild garden weekends byTania Pascoe

Unveiling the beautiful Hellebore

Hellebores are stunning plants. I have pointed this out before, I know, but want to remind you that it really is worth braving the cold to trim back the old Hellebore leaves to reveal the unfolding flowers. Here is the ‘before’ example in a client’s garden this week:


Then 5 minutes later after some careful snipping:


See what is revealed! Not only are hellebores beautiful in cream’s, yellows, pinks, purples and blacks but they also provide nectar for early foraging insects. So everyone is happy. Some varieties do tend to droop their heads so we miss the beautiful markings within the flower, but planting them in a raised bed or container means we can see their beauty more easily.

Surreal Snowdrops

Spotting the first snowdrop opening its nodding head amidst the wintery weather of late January or early February is always a landmark in the turning year for me. I know we are on the first stage of an inevitable journey towards the riches of spring and summer. So each year I try to visit a different garden which specialises in Snowdrops, to celebrate their brief glory. This year it was the Chelsea Physic Garden in London. There were lots of beautiful varieties of Snowdrops threading through the borders, under shrubs and trees, in the shady conditions they love.IMG_0336But someone on the staff had also come up with a rather more unique way of displaying the tiny flowers, so we could look right up into the pretty bells. Hanging like christmas baubles from one of the trees by the entrance to the garden were snowdrop spheres, covered in moss and twisting gently in the breeze.


Great fun for children…and adults too actually!


My grandson was intrigued! We were also impressed by the novel (I use that word intentionally!) ‘bug hotels’ that were hanging from another tree.IMG_0341

The roof was made from an old gardening book covered in plastic, with lots of canes slotted below to give ladybirds, solitary bees and other beneficial mini-beasts a place to see out the winter.As an ex-librarian this appealed to both the literary and the horticultural aspects of my nature! I am going to search for a battered copy of Francis Hodgson Burnett’s ‘Secret Garden’ and make one myself next winter. Chelsea Physic is a real ‘secret garden’ of London, tucked away behind  old brick walls in Chelsea, full of interesting treasures whatever the time of year.

Bright winter Gardens

Not many people go out of their way to create a Winter border when they are designing their gardens. We tend to forget in the midst of summer’s profusion that the winter months can still be interesting in the garden, even if only viewed from the house. Here are some ideas to brighten your borders in winter.

BARK & STEMS- include some trees or shrubs with interesting bark in the garden.

4-91A8B3C9-1274817-480 4-B2B44238-1824825-480 4-97A56DE3-1174327-480These are all varieties of Birch growing in a beautiful place in Devon on the northern edge of Datmoor called Stone Lane Gardens. This gardens holds the National collection of Birches developed over 40 years, and sells unusual varieties that you would not find elsewhere by mail order. A magical place, and venue for workshops and garden sculpture exhibitions each summer.

Try including shrubs with bright winter stems too such as red or yellow Cornus or the ghostly, silvery Rubus cockburnianus.DSC_0007

DSC_0017Try planting these in a spot that will catch the low winter sun which really helps them glow more brightly.

FOLIAGE – Evergreen foliage gives structure to the winter garden and if it is brightly coloured it will give a zing to your winter borders. Variegated Holly, and golden Conifers are traditional evergreens worth considering, but if you have a sheltered spot then Phormiums with variegated leaves can make impressive focal points.


BERRIES – give great flashes of colour and provide food for birds.

imagesThis is Cotoneaster fridgidus ‘Cornubia’ in early winter. Including a rose which has lovely hips after the flowers fade means you get two season’s pleasure for the price of one.

rosehiptrailmix-featuredimageFLOWERS – Flowers blooming in the depths of winter is not an impossibility! This Prunus subhirtella ‘Autumnalis Rosea’ will flower on and off through the winter in milder spells.

Prunus-subhirtella-Autumnalis-RoseaHelllebores start to flower in late winter and provide early nectar for bees. Helleborus orientalis ‘Pink Lady’ is stunning.

helleborus pink lady

SCENT – Don’t forget to add some scented beauties to your winter border, or underestimate the power of scent to carry on a still day in winter. I have a Daphne odora ‘Aureomarginata’ by my front door, under the verandah, which begins to flower in mid January. The scent is deliciously sweet and heavy and cut stems will perfume the house for days.


Sarcoccoca (Winter Box) has tiny, unremarkable flowers but the scent is amazingly strong especially when planted en masse. Viburnum farreri has clusters of pretty flowers which start to open in autumn and carries on through the winter.


So next time you are revamping your garden don’t let spring and summer’s riches dazzle you into forgetting to squeeze in some colour, form and scent for winter in a special corner!