As Bristol hosts a Festival to celebrate these vital creatures, Alan Down looks at the flowers, trees and even vegetables that will keep them fed throughout the year

and other pollinating insects have been on the decline for several years now and we need to do all we can to help them recover. Disease, some pesticides, loss of suitable habitat, urban sprawl and more intensive food production are all implicated, but we as gardeners can really make a difference and bring about a genuine recovery.

With more than 250 species of bees in the UK it is surprising that so much focus has been on the hive or honeybee. There are apparently 24 species of bumblebee and another 225 solitary bee species included in this total of 250, too. These lesser known and wild bees are extremely important to producing many of our crops, and bumblebees especially so. You’ll notice that the bumblebee will be out working earlier and later than the hive bee, and on days when the temperature is too low to tempt the honeybee out of its hive. There’s little doubt that for weight of sheer numbers, the hive bee has the advantage and can “work” a crop to it more effectively and, of course, there’s that delicious end result of honey to savour, too.

So what can be done to help bees now planting time is here again? Here are a few of my tips:

Plant varieties with single flowers because double-flowered varieties are far less attractive to insects.

Plant a wide range of plants to provide nectar-rich flowers for every month of the year. Don’t forget that, in particular, bumblebees forage on mild days in mid-winter and a mahonia shrub, Christmas rose plant or a group of snowdrop bulbs can provide the nectar that they need.

Limit the use of pesticides and, if you do use them, apply them carefully as directed on the pack and at the beginning or end of the day when bees are less likely to be foraging. Avoid spraying plants when they are in flower.

Early flowerers are especially important. So plant primroses, crocus, snowdrops, honesty, wallflowers, aubrieta, arabis, etc.

Late flowering plants help build up insects’ reserves to survive hibernation and to overwinter. Have plenty of sedums, Michaelmas daisies, echinacea, helenium, sea holly and rudbeckia in your plot. Surprisingly, flowering ivy is a favourite with lots of insects.

Flowering herbs are especially valuable. Marjoram, mint and chives are popular with bees and very easy to grow. These and alpine plants can even be grown on balconies or flat windowsills.

Climbers and scramblers can be used to provide vertical nectar stations. Plant honeysuckle, nasturtiums, cotoneaster and pyracantha.

Ground cover plants are low maintenance and provide nectar, too. Easy ones to grow include helianthemum (rock rose), alyssum, heathers, cotoneaster and hardy geranium.

Shade-tolerant plants can attract insects, too. Our native red campion, bluebells and anemone like these conditions and are very pretty, too. Hellebores are good in shade.

Wildflower lawns can be real magnets for insects. Weeds to some, but dandelions, clover, yarrow, birds-foot trefoil, daisies and others will be a-buzz with insects when in flower.

Bulbs and corms are low-maintenance nectar sources. Think crocus, snowdrops, hyacinth, bluebells and even single-bloomed dahlias for late summer colour.

Some vegetables will attract bees. Runner beans, French beans, courgette, marrows, squash and pumpkins all need bees to produce a crop. Some old unharvested vegetables are very attractive to insects, with flowering onions, parsnips and carrots being hot favourites.

Some trees are good for bees. Cotoneaster, eucryphia, some limes (beware – some are narcotic to bees), crab apples and rowan are all good.

At Cleeve Nursery we have compiled a couple of plant lists that will help in selection of bee-friendly varieties to plant in your plot. The first is the 100 Best Nectar Plants and the second is Plants for Bees. Both can be found on our website at www.cleevenursery.co.uk.

Today and tomorrow we will be at Bristol University Botanic Gardens Bee and Pollination Festival. It’s just off the Clifton Downs in Stoke Park Road, Bristol, BS9 1JG. Pop along between 10am and 5pm to this fascinating event and enjoy the spectacle of the garden there, too. We will have some of the plants I recommend there.

For more details of the Bristol Botanic Garden event see www.bristol.ac.uk/botanic-garden/events/2015/bee-and-pollination-festival-2015.html



Alan’s gardening tips for the weekend

September is the beginning of the traditional autumn planting season and is, in fact, the best time to plant hardy plants. The soil is moist and warm and plants soon get established, so get out your spades and get planting.

Check roses regularly for black spot and rust fungal diseases. Remove and burn infected leaves and continue regular sprays of fungicide.

Make sure that any lavender plants not pruned earlier are done now. Cut off faded flowers with about 2-3 cm of leaf shoot but don’t cut back into old woody growth.

Make the first sowing of Vaila-Winter Gem or Rosetta lettuce now. This greenhouse variety can be grown to produce tasty salads through the winter if sown regularly and given a little heat.

Plant spring cabbages in well-prepared soil. Space them 30cm (1ft) apart. Apply a fertiliser that has low nitrogen content, the nitrogen can be added in the new year.

Harvest marrows, squashes and pumpkins before first frosts. Store in a frost-free shed or garage. Cut them leaving an inch or two of stem attached.

Harvest sweetcorn when the tassels are just going brown and the top kernels produce milky sap when a thumbnail is pushed into them.

Any trained forms of tree fruits should have the summer pruning completed now.

Remove yellowing leaves from the bases of cabbages, cauliflowers, sprouts etc. Sprouts and purple sprouting may need staking now.

Sow fallow areas of your vegetable patch with quick growing “green manure” crop. This will improve the soil structure and reduce nutrients being washed out of your soil by the winter rains. Choose from winter tares, grazing rye and field beans. Dig it all into the soil before they come into flower (see our “tips on green manuring” online).



Ask Alan


I’ve found this berry, pictured below, growing in my border and wondered what it was.

From M Chapman


It looks like Japanese wineberry. This can become invasive but does produce edible fruit over a long time. I’d keep an eye on it and enjoy it but have it out if it starts to take over.


When I should plant strawberries?

From R Bye


You can plant strawberry runners almost any month of the year and cold stored runners are held for that purpose for commercial growers. The traditional time for planting was late summer and autumn but with pot-grown plants being widely available to amateur gardeners and habits shifting to spring planting of most things, most will be spring planted.

If you can get the runners, I would plant now so that they are well established before winter and stand a good chance of giving you a good crop next spring, which spring-planted ones won’t.

Alan’s plant of the week

Cyclamen hederifolium

This is one of the really hardy and tough cyclamen that, once established, comes back year after year. It even spreads by sowing itself around to form a colony. Only a few centimetres high, the flowers are produced now from the corms that slowly get bigger as time goes on. Tiny plants that I put in my garden over 20 years ago now have corms lying part-submerged, that are the size of a side plate but I have seen older ones as big as dinner plates.

The most common colour is a soft shade of pink but it is possible to buy snowy white ones, too. After flowering, the plump seed pod is curiously recoiled like a spring back towards the centre of the corm. Also after flowering, the heart-shaped leaves appear. This is a corm that is easily grown and succeeds especially well under the shade of trees, particularly those trees with roots close to the surface. In the interest of protecting wild plants, try to buy only British pot-grown plants. You will in any case find these much easier to establish than the dry bulbs that can be on sale.


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