The pollinator friendly patch in winter

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It’s easy to think about gardening for pollinating insects during the summer months when the air is full of buzzing and the whirring of wings.  During the winter months there will certainly be less insect activity, but there are still things you can do to make your patch attractive to pollinators and other wildlife.

In the garden here, the Verbena bonariensis and Knautia macedonica still have flowers and throughout October have been visited by common carder bees, honey bees, and tortoiseshell butterflies, still in search of nectar.  Common carder queens will overwinter beneath ground, in compost bins, or under piles of leaves, so it’s best to leave some areas of ground undisturbed for these and other ground nesting bees, and to resist clearing the garden completely of leaves.

Here, there are leaves everywhere; falling from the liquidambar and blowing into the garden from the ash copse beyond. We keep them off the lawn and out of the pond, but elsewhere, caught under the hornbeam hedge or gracing the woodland borders at the back of the garden, they can be left to offer shelter.  Those collected from the lawn can be turned into leaf-mould which, spread on the borders, will benefit plants and wildlife alike.

The Sedums “Autumn Joy”, Japanese anemones “Honorine Jobert”, and Echinacea “White Swan” still have some flowers too, providing other late sources of nectar.  Along the fence the winter jasmine is coming into bloom, ready to take over during the winter months.  Winter flowering plants in gardens have helped give rise to the phenomenon of winter active buff-tailed bumblebees; with new queens emerging in winter rather than the spring and establishing nests from as early as December. 

Among the flowering plants, tussocks of grass help provide shelter for wildlife, and those that have produced seed heads attract garden birds.  We’ve planted the fountain grass Pennisetum alopecuroides “Hameln”, cushions of Festuca gautieri and the bluish Festuca glauca, broad-leaved Luzula sylvestris, fine-leaved Miscanthus sinensis “gracimillus”, and golden tufts of Hackonechloa macra “aureola”.  But leaving intact the old stems and any seed heads produced by your perennials will also help to provide homes for small insects through the colder months. I’ve found ladybirds hibernating snugly in the empty chambers of cowslip seed heads.

Elsewhere in the borders gaps are beginning to appear as plants like the hostas die back, leaving room for spring bulbs to emerge and greet the first solitary bees, honey bees and bumblebee queens of next year. 

And as things quieten down in the garden it becomes a good time for taking stock and making plans. I’ve started a Pinterest board “For the bees” to keep track of pollinator-friendly plants to introduce into the garden in future years. It’s a great way to collect ideas and inspiration.

Thanks for reading,

Helen D writes about simple pleasures and seasonal observations at The House at Nab End. She is a volunteer BeeWalker for the Bumblebee Conservation Trust, and her gardening is inspired by her love of the natural world.