There are some insects we absolutely must have in our gardens and here’s the best way to attract them. By Janie Varkulevicius.
Now is the time to spare a thought for those tiny, tireless workers in the garden: the beneficial insects — the ladybirds, hoverflies, spiders, butterflies and many more. Of course, we cannot forget the bees that pollinate our crops.
Einstein reputedly once said: “If the bee disappears from the surface of the earth, man would have no more than four years to live. No more bees, no more pollination ... no more men!”
So it makes sense to encourage these diminutive creatures; to provide them with food and shelter so they can carry out their vital work. In late autumn they disappear but in early winter and spring they emerge again. This time can be challenging for them but not if you plant their favourite foods to supply them until mid-spring.
Naturally, an organic garden that doesn’t use sprays (even organic sprays can be harmful) is their most desired place of residence. So plant some flowers and let the balance of nature do the work for you.
NB. All these flowers are perfect for children to sow and grow.
Calendula (pot marigold)
Calendula officinalis is named after the Greek word calendae, which means “throughout the months”. In fact, it flowers in every month of the calendar in all but the harshest of climates. In vibrant yellows and oranges it brightens up the dullest of winter days. Always choose the single-petalled cultivars as these supply more of the tiny flowers in the centre of the flower that so many insects love.
The petals light up a winter salad and can be added to rice dishes — in fact, it’s also known as poor man’s saffron. Hoverflies and bees adore calendula, and as the plant ages, it acts as a decoy plant for aphids, drawing them away from your precious vegetables.
Sow in autumn to spring in a position with at least half a day of sun. Plant them twice as deep as the size of the seed — in this case about 2cm deep.
Tropaeolum majus and T. minus, or nasturtiums, are delicious. The peppery leaves enliven a salad; the seeds can be pickled and used as capers and the flowers range from the deepest of reds (Empress of India) to the palest cream (Milkmaid), so there is a colour to suit your garden décor. They are also a great source of nectar.
The mustard oils in this plant trick the undesirables into thinking it’s a member of the brassica family, so they leave the caulies and cabbages alone. Not only that, they form a weed-smothering mat. Try climbing them up your fruit trees or brambleberries for their decoy value or just because they are beautiful! Note that the cultivars of T. majus can climb and spread,
while the T. minus cultivars form 30cm neat buns of flower and foliage.
Sow in autumn to spring in sun or light shade. Plant them twice as deep as the size of the seed — in this case about 2cm deep.
Bees find Borago officinalis, or borage, irresistible. They just can’t get enough of it and neither will you when you taste the delicate cucumber-flavoured flowers. Flowering almost all year round, borage offers the only zero carbon footprint for a cucumber flavour in winter, and the vibrant blue flowers look spectacular in a sandwich. Your fruit trees will thank you in spring with a plethora of pollinated fruit.
Sow in autumn to spring in a position with at least half a day of sun. Plant them about 5mm deep.
Members of the Papaver family are also bee favourites. Select from P. rhoeas and P. commutatum, which include the Flanders, Shirley and Ladybird poppies
in shades from rich red to soft pinks and lilacs, growing just 50cm tall.
Avoid P. laciniatum, or very fluffy poppies, as the pollen and nectar are hidden among the petals — a bit hard for the bees to find!
Sow in autumn to spring in a position with at least half a day of sun. Sow them about 3mm deep.
With all these pretty plants in your patch, not only will your winter and early spring garden have plenty of colour, you will be laying out a feast for our garden friends — and some interesting flavours for you and your family.