Plan to plant for pollinators

This may seem like a time of year when we can do little for pollinators. However, that’s not entirely true. Planning for next year can begin, and by introducing certain shrubs or trees into your outdoor space you could be taking out an ‘insurance policy’ for our hard pressed pollinators.

Early Spring and autumn are tricky months for pollinators as they emerge from, or prepare to enter, hibernation. You can help them hugely if you aim to have pollinator-friendly plants flowering in your garden around March and October. 

Trees and shrubs can be great nectar and pollen sources. We can often overlook the fact that not only are early and late flowering varieties plentiful, but that potentially they are veritable supermarkets for foraging insects thanks to their abundance of food concentrated in one location

Now is a good time to plant bare-root deciduous hedging plants, trees and shrubs. You don’t necessarily need a large garden to do so either.  There are a range of container sized trees and shrubs, and for those who have a little more space large semi-mature specimens are plentiful in choice.

In the gardening calendar there is a sense that we are entering that period that runs to late-winter and early spring, when we are in a ‘golden spot’ for planting shrubs. 

Even visually this time of year is good for planting shrubs and planning your garden, because with the greenery having died back, you can view your garden ‘canvas’ clearly and see exactly where there is a gap for new plants.

You may be nervous about planting at this time of year, but if you protect your newly planted hedges and shrubs from wind and cold they should take. Numerous websites offers good advice on how best to protect your new plants. 

The real joy is in picking varieties which will help pollinators.

To some extent we are spoiled for choice when looking to introduce spring flowering shrubs into the garden or container.  Any of these would be a welcome pollinator-friendly addition – Berberis, Blackthorn, Broom, Crab apple, Forsythia, Hawthorn, Hazel, Mahonia, Wild cherry, Winter honeysuckle, Rowan, and Willow.

Some are better than others but they are all good.  

You might feel you have to navigate through a bewildering array of varieties of, say,  willow for example, but many of them are really great for medium or small gardens. The Bumblebee Conservation Trust website is a wonderful source of ideas; it mentions the Kilmarnock willow, which tends to have a very compact shape. Birch, hazel and willow trees all sport fuzzy catkins and therefore an abundance of pollen and nectar when many other plants are still to flower. They are truly a potential feast for bumble bees and solitary bees

Many of our fruit trees and hedgerow shrubs flower early and prove a welcome resource for emerging queen bumble bees (remembering that not all of our bumblebee species emerge at the same time).  And what’s not to like about the short lived but bright pink and white flowers that adorn our fruit trees in early spring.

Hedges are fantastic for a range of wildlife and unlike fences don’t generally deteriorate over time or need costly painting and repainting.  For bees their tangled roots offer potential nesting sites but the succession of flowers from blackthorn to hawthorn epitomises the way in which their blossom provides not just a good food source for a range of bees, but a splendidly concentrated food source. 

And if your neighbours subsequently wonder if you have planted blackthorn or hawthorn you can regale them with the little hedge-lovers mantra that the flowers reveal all — “Blackthorn blossoms before its leaves start to show, unlike hawthorn, which blossoms after its leaves show.”

Of course, we want to avoid a hunger or burst scenario and thus ideally you would look to have a transition into summer shrubs and again the choice is wide. A list of pollinator favourites would include Buddleia, Bramble, Cotoneaster, Honeysuckle, Laburnum, Rock-rose, Raspberry, Blackcurrant and Flowering currant, Viburnum.

I particularly like honeysuckle as it often flowers late in the summer and its sweet-scented flowers offer food to moths, our occasionally overlooked night-shift pollinators, as well as long tongued bumble bees.

If you follow our twitter account you will have seen images of bees on the wing in October. Foraging at that time is difficult but there are autumnal flowering shrubs that can be a real boost for pollinators.  Ivy, Mahonia and Hebe all offer something.

With Ivy, an evergreen climber, the bonus coms in the flowers which look like bunches of green-yellow baubles. These offer a scarce late nectar source for queen bumblebees preparing for hibernation or honey bees out foraging on sunny days. At this time of year most other flowers have gone to seed.

Mahonia is another standout, with its yellow nectar rich flowers a rare pollinator food source around as we head into winter.  With Hebe the simple rule is to ensure you plant a flowering variety, not all of them do.

It may be that you prefer bulbs to shrubs, well there is good news here too and bulbs such as crocus and snowdrop are a very valuable source of nectar and pollen for bees

So at this time of year be bold in the garden and think wildlife. For the here and now dismiss the temptation to be over-tidy. The leaves from your trees and shrubs are a valuable habitat for many small invertebrates, which in turn provide a food source for a host of birds. And if you plant new trees and shrubs you will offer food for insects and birds at key stages in their lifecycles.

The planting suggestions above are by no means exhaustive; a quick search on the internet will provide lots more ideas and tips and look for ideas that fit with your location.  But wherever you look remember that in making little changes in your garden selections you can make a huge difference to our pollinating insects.