Create a Pollinator Friendly Garden


We live in strange times and all must make sacrifices of some kind or another but here in Ireland the covid outbreak has had an unexpected consequence: an upsurge of interest in gardening.

I found this out the hard way recently when going online to stock up on Irish wildflower seeds; every single site was sold out.  Should have done my panic buying earlier!

Perhaps we should see this as a good thing; a small silver lining of hope and positivity as people plan and plant for the future.  And if we are indeed to plant for the future, now is an excellent time to plant pollinator friendly flowers.

There are two different ways of going about this.  Mention ‘pollinator friendly’ to most people and they will automatically assume wild seed mixes and undisturbed areas of the garden.  More and more people are going this way, which is great news, but possibly not to everybody’s taste.  Some might prefer more traditional cultivated plants and that’s okay, we’re all different after all.

Let’s deal with both in turn, starting with the wildflower approach.

The first thing to realise is that when dealing with wildflowers we’re immediately confronted with a gardener’s paradox.  Most of us have spent years trying to improve soil fertility, whether to grow abundant vegetables or vibrant blooms.  We’ve added peat, collected seaweed, mulched in compost and manure, some have used chemical fertilizers; anything to inject more nutrients and get things really going.

But guess what?  Wildflowers prefer poor soil!

That’s a broad generalisation of course, and different species will have different optimum preferences, but it’s a good rule of thumb none the less.  It’s also something of a lie.  It’s not so much that they can’t grow on rich soil so much as they are out-competed by stronger plants, especially grasses; they quite simply get swamped.

If sowing wildflower seeds, the best thing to do is dig out as many of the perennial weeds and grass roots as reasonably possible, make sure there is as much bare earth as you can, scatter your seeds and stand well back.  Repeat next spring.

Establishing a permanent wildflower meadow actually requires more work and takes years to achieve, up to ten believe it or not.  Another paradox.

Christine and Mike Mullan Jensen wish to see a vibrant show of wildflowers this summer and are in an excellent position to do so.  They moved into a newly built house a couple of years ago and their front garden was pretty much a barren wasteland of builder’s rubble which grew a few weeds and not much else.

Mullan Jenson

Long story short: the weeds are now gone, the area landscaped, and the bare earth about to be seeded.  Watch this space!

On to the traditional cultivated style of garden:

Just because flowers have been selectively bred to enhance their beauty and showiness does not always mean that they are of no use to pollinators.  They often are, but not always.  The trick is to pick the right ones.

This is not always easy to do.  Look at a daffodil, it looks like it should be full of nectar and pollen but in fact it’s pretty useless.  By contrast, a grape hyacinth appears insignificant but is in fact far better.  Has anyone noticed that Fingal have now started mixing them in with their roadside plantings of daffodils by the way?

There are guidelines.  Anything double petalled can be written off.  This includes such as roses and dahlias, both excellent in their open-faced single form and no use at all as doubles.  The stamens have been selectively bred out to be replaced by petals, bees find them impossible to negotiate.

Some cultivars of sunflower should be avoided.  Ludicrous as it sounds, these have been bred to have little or no pollen.  Reason?  As cut flowers they don’t drop inconvenient yellow powder on the living-room table.

Honestly!  The things we humans come up with.

‘Proper’ sunflowers are excellent by the way.

Lovers of hanging baskets might be dismayed to hear that petunias are useless.

Plants such as pansies and double begonias offer little benefit to bees due to their shape and little-to-no production of pollen or nectar,

Here’s a copy and paste list of some of the better ones:

  • Asters
  • Clover
  • Dahlias
  • Foxglove
  • Geraniums
  • Marigolds
  • Poppies
  • Roses
  • Snowdrops
  • Sunflowers
  • Bluebells
  • Honeysuckle

Crocus – all types provide rich sources of pollen
Cheiranthus and Erysimum – wallflowers for pollen and nectar
Galanthus – snowdrops are valuable because they flower so early
Muscari – grape hyacinth are good for pollen

Annual and Perennial Flowers

Aubretia – long flowering season
Centauria (cornflower)
All native geraniums [NB NOT pelargonium]
Helianthus (Sunflower)
Kniphofia (red-hot pokers)
Lilium -excellent for pollen
Lavatera (mallow)
Limanthes douglasii (poached egg plant)
Nepeta (cat nip)
Papaver (poppies)  excellent for pollen
Phacelia tanacetifolia
Romneya coulteri (californian poppy)
Solidago (Golden Rod)

Herbs are good for bees

Boragio and related herbs like comfrey
Lavandula (lavender)
Mentha (mint)
Origanum (marjoram, oregano)
Rosemarinus (rosemary)
Thymus (thyme)

Late Summer – Autumn Plants for Bees

Asters, especially multiple heads like Michaelmas daisies
Calluna (ling heather)
Erica (bell heather)
Hydrangea (choose lace-cap varieties)
Hypericum (rose of sharon)
Lamium (dead nettles)
Nemophila (shoo-fly plant)
Sedum (ice plant)

One final word:

It’s worth remembering that bees and other pollinators desperately need pollen and nectar both in early Spring and late Summer/Autumn.  In Spring because they’ve just come out of hibernation and urgently need food; in late Summer to build up reserves to survive the Winter.  Planting both early and late flowering varieties gets the pollen and nectar to them when they need it most.


And another final word:

We have a limited supply of wildflower seed to give away.  First come, first served.

Also, we have set up a WhatsApp group for anyone interested in the above.  Intended for those who wish to exchange ideas, information, experience etc.

If you wish to be added to the group email

5 Comments on “Create a Pollinator Friendly Garden

  1. Pingback: Get food gardening, large or small! | Sustainable Skerries

  2. That’s a terrific e-mail…..thanks very much. We learn a little – or a lot – every day!

    • Thanks Ann. Hope this means you’re going to go bee friendly in your garden. 🙂 🙂

  3. Pingback: Covid Thoughts – Sabine McKenna Online

  4. Pingback: This Is Our Food, Our Environment, Our Health: Report on An Evening with Darina Allen and Karen Power | Sustainable Skerries

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