“Growing up in Birmingham, the weather and seasons came and went but since moving to (very) rural Devon with distant views to the west, I’m far more aware of the coming seasons. We can now watch the clouds that have built up over a thousand miles of the Atlantic Ocean rolling across the countryside towards us.” David Robinson. Managing Director of Suttons Consumer Products & National Bee Supplies.
Trying to garden organically makes you question which plants will encourage beneficial insects into your garden. ‘Beneficial’ is of course very subjective and I’m sure it’s not an adjective the aphid on my brassicas would use to describe the voracious ladybird larva crawling towards it. If, however, we can attract more lacewings, ladybirds and hoverflies, we can reduce the infestations of pesky pests like aphids and blackfly, and attract more bees that will improve the pollination of our crops. Two years ago, Suttons went into partnership with Garden Organic, the UK charity dedicated to researching and promoting organic gardening, farming and food. The charity saw the opportunity to help a large supplier of plants and seeds become more sustainable, faster. At Suttons, we had already stopped using neonicotinoid pesticides back in 2017 (I’ll let others argue the merits or otherwise of that decision) and since then we have switched to growing completely according to organic principles. We also worked with Garden Organic to relaunch The Organic Catalogue selling organic seeds, plants and other gardening products.
Carnivores turned vegan and back again
When Vronnie and I moved to our new home in North Devon, we inherited a polytunnel that had fallen out of use several years previously. After clearing it of four-foot-high oak and cherry trees amongst the other ‘weeds’ that had taken over, we were ready to grow our own crops. We added half a dozen raised beds outside and aimed to grow according to ‘no-dig’ organic principles (and not just because we don’t like digging). It’s been estimated that one lacewing or hoverfly larva can eat between 20 and 50 aphid larvae or eggs a day, so it’s well worth trying to attract the adults into your garden. Whereas the larvae
are carnivorous, the adults turn vegan, eating pollen and nectar. It’s, therefore, worth knowing what flowers will attract the adults because, once they’re in the neighbourhood, there is a good chance that they will lay their eggs on your crops and that their hungry larvae will help keep your crops free of pests. The good news is that it’s not too late to sow seeds of plants that will attract lacewings and hoverflies. A good one to start with is the poached egg plant (Limnanthes douglasii). It’s a cheerful little annual that readily self-seeds, saving you the trouble in subsequent years. It has long been used by home vegetable growers as a companion plant in their veggie plots. You’ll be glad to know honey bees love it as well.
Not too late for companion planting
Although it’s a bit late in the year to sow quite few of the most popular companion plants, it’s generally still possible to buy them as plug plants or potted plants. Even if you don’t grow vegetables, they will still add a splash of summer colour and you’ll be doing your bit for local insect diversity. While waiting for your
companion plants to grow, you can always shortcut the process by buying ladybird larvae and other pest predators and parasites by post!
Selecting for Chatsworth
In June last year, the British Beekeepers’ Association had a marquee at the Royal Horticultural Society show in the wonderful setting of Chatsworth House in Derbyshire. They kindly invited us to set up a stand and it offered us a perfect opportunity to meet with gardeners and potential beekeepers. Prior to the show, I visited the Suttons nursery in Devon to pick up plants to brighten up our stand. I wandered round and simply looked for the plants that were most frequented by bees. At that time of year there are well over 100 different plants in flower side by side, so it’s quite easy to judge which plants, when given a wide choice, different bees favour. I picked out the 18 most ‘bee-popular’ species to take to the show. Prior to heading north to Derbyshire, we had them in our garden for a couple of days. The plant that surprised me the most was the astrantia, which I’d not previously considered as being particularly attractive to bees. It turned out to be the one plant that our honeybees came back to time after time. I already loved astrantias in the flower borders in our previous garden, but having seen that our bees love them too, we’ve now planted some in our new garden. With luck, they’ll selfseed and spread as they have done before.
… you can easily give nature a helping hand without detriment to colour or style
Another surprise was the globeflower Trollius chinensis. An outrageously bright, orange-yellow flower on long stems that tends to prefer moist conditions. When I collected the sample plants from the nursery, I struggled to get them into the car without bringing in one or more bumblebees at the same time so reluctant were they to break off from their meal.
The value of phacelia
A plant that we didn’t have at the Suttons nursery but is invaluable in the garden in so many ways is phacelia. From June onwards you may start to see gaps in your veggie beds and if you don’t have anything planned to replant, then you really should consider sowing phacelia seeds. They can be sown all the way up to September as they germinate and grow fast; and will flower in just 6–8 weeks. It’s one of the top nectar-producing crops for honey bees but is also loved by the (aphiddestroying) hoverflies and a number of bumblebee species too. It has beautiful scented purple/blue flowers on longlasting strong stems, making it a perfect cut flower.
Surprisingly, none of these admirable attributes are the main reason that phacelia has traditionally been grown by gardeners. It’s previously been largely grown as a green manure. Its dense fern-like foliage smothers weeds in your veggie patch and its extensive root structure helps to break up the soil. Traditionally, gardeners use it as part of a crop rotation, turning it in before it flowers to help enrich the soil. I can’t bring myself to do this however and tend to let them flower first – although it is best not to let it seed too readily if you don’t want to be weeding out the new seedlings next spring.
David is managing director of Suttons Consumer Products & National Bee Supplies. His garden on the edge of Dartmoor is designed with pollinators in mind including his only honey bee colonies.