The power of flowers

So you love gardening. What’s more you love pollinators too. Well, that’s pretty much ‘a match made in heaven’, because gardeners have the capacity to be the pollinator’s best friend.

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With more and more of us living in urban areas, and gardening booming, the time is right to make a real impact in our cities, towns and villages as we fight to halt and reverse the worrying decline in Scotland’s pollinators.

Who are you ?

Before we go any further let’s be clear on what a pollinator is.  In Scotland our main pollinators are insects. This includes bumblebees, hoverflies, honeybees, solitary bees, moths, butterflies and some beetles. What do they do ? They transfer pollen from flower to flower as they go about their feeding. This fertilises plants and allows them to reproduce and produce those oh so vital seeds and fruit.  So let’s hear it for these marvellous ‘mini beasts’, salute the pollinators !

Comma on buddleja.

Comma on buddleja.

Even in the busiest city the thoughtful gardener has an opportunity to offer both food and shelter for our vital pollinating insects. And this applies whether you have a garden, allotment, window box or balcony.  Rest assured making your space pollinator-friendly is good news.

It’s good news for more than just pollinators. Not only is much of the very food we enjoy dependent on pollinators, but the seeds and fruit that many of our favourite garden birds need also relies heavily on the actions of pollinators.

Having convinced you (as if you needed it!) that pollinators are ace, then how do we plan our gardens, our balconies, even our little window boxes, to help them?

Flower power

The good news is it isn’t tricky, and it needn’t be expensive.

Flowers hold the key. Our pollinators need your flowers. They rely on your flowers and shrubs for nectar and pollen – it’s their only food source.


Spring flowering heather is a real boost for early pollinators

Our pollinators really need your help. Today we appreciate that bumblebees, hoverflies and honeybees face a range of pressures, from changing land use, pesticides and disease through to climate change and habitat fragmentation. A mosaic of gardens can provide the habitat they crave – their equivalent of a restaurant hot spot.

If enough of us go down this route then single gardens will soon link to become green corridors for pollinators.

Practical planting

Planting a variety of flowers which are rich in pollen and nectar is a good starting point. Why a variety of flowers ?  Just as we have favourite foods, so insects too have their favourites.  Bear in mind that some pollinators have specialised feeding habits. For example, the length of a particular species of bumblebee’s tongue can determine which flowers it will prefer.

Our short-tongued bumblebees will favour the likes of lavender, knapweed and heather for example. Whereas species with a longer tongue are more likely to be found on foxglove, delphinium and sage.

And it is not just what you plant that counts, it is WHEN you anticipate it flowering that counts too.  There is a seasonal consideration when enticing and providing for pollinators in your garden. If you can have flowers throughout the seasons this will help the varied lifecycles of our pollinators.

Bumblebees again illustrate this point well.

Queen bumblebees emerge from hibernation as spring takes off and will be dependent on early flowering plants such as crocus and primrose as well as pussy willow. As spring marches on dandelion, lungwort, willow and flowering currant all play a part in helping pollinators.

When spring gives way to summer the focus shifts from queen bees to the worker bees. Their job is to ferry food back to the nest or hive to sustain the growing colony. You could look to lift your summer contribution by growing lavenders, ox-eye daisy and meadow cranesbill as well as the likes of lupin, cosmos, and borage. Don’t forget classic herbs like thyme, chivers, rosemary and sage (Many herbs are widely used in the kitchen, but try to leave some to flower, this will help out pollinators). Even as autumn’s grip increases hebes and ivy are very helpful for our insects.

Winning ways

If you want to go beyond stocking the ‘good’ flowers that pollinators crave, then the ‘way’ in which you manage your garden can also help. If you can hold off mowing your lawn beyond the arrival of early dandelions you will be helping emerging queen bumblebees by leaving a valuable food source.


Leaving an area of your garden with undisturbed shelter or nesting spots for pollinators will be very welcome.

If you have the space, move towards a wildflower meadow approach, even on a small scale. If you do so you will provide not only food but shelter. Typical plants for a meadow might include red clover, bird’s foot trefoil and knapweeds.

Enjoy your garden, remember environmental conservation can often be closer to home than you think. And don’t dismiss ‘flower power’ just yet.

Your at-a-glance plant guide …

Pollinator-friendly garden plants

The following suggestions are not exhaustive, there are many other flowers we could have added to this list.

Spring Summer Autumn
Ornamental plants and herbs Bluebell, Bugle, Comfrey, Crocus, Hellebores, Lungwort, Spring-flowering heather Allium, Aquilegia, Borage, Catmint, Columbine, Cosmos, Delphinium, Foxglove, Globe thistle, Lavender, Lupin, Nasturtium, Oregano, Poppy, Scabious, Snapdragon, Sweet pea, Thyme, Verbena, Viper’s bugloss Aster, Button snakewort, Cornflower, Sedum,
Flowering trees and shrubs Berberis, Broom, Crab apple, Forsythia, Hawthorn, Mahonia, Wild cherry, Rowan, Willow Buddleia, Bramble, Cotoneaster, Honeysuckle, Laburnum, Rock rose, Viburnum Hebe, Ivy
Wildlflowers in long grass areas Dandelion, Dead-nettle, Vetches Bird’s foot trefoil, Clovers, Geranium, Knapweed, Ox-eye daisy, Speedwell, Thistle, Vetch, Yarrow Autumn hawkbit, Clovers, Vetch


The Bumblebee Conservation Trust website has a very good page on gardening to help bees

Why not take their garden test to see how bee-friendly your garden is @

There is an excellent resource on the Buglife website that details how to be a wildlife-friendly gardener @

Try the Royal Horticultural Society’s guide to Encouraging Wildlife to your Garden

Read the Pollinator Strategy for Scotland on the Scottish Natural Heritage website @