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How to Grow Wildflowers for Pollinators

Meadow Bed

Wildflowers are becoming a regular feature in Irish gardens, and for good reason, they are an easy, attractive, inexpensive way for gardeners to support threatened pollinators like bees and butterflies. Creating one is not rocket science but if you follow the tips below you’ll have the best chance of delivering a beautiful bounty of nectar rich flowers.

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Why Should we Grow Wildflowers?

In Ireland, we have 98 different types of bee: the honeybee, 20 different bumblebees and 77 different solitary bees but unfortunately one third of our wild bee species are threatened with extinction from the island and our common bumblebee species have experienced a 14.2% decline in abundance in the last five years, with some experts predicting the disappearance of bumblebees in just 30 years.

Butterflies have been around for at least 50 million years and probably evolved some 150 million years ago, but like bees butterfly numbers have slumped in recent years. In Ireland we have 32 resident and 3 common migrant butterfly species and BiodiveryIreland.ie have a great downloadable poster to help you identify them, plus a very information article on just how threatened insects are globally.

We often underplay the importance of urban setting for pollinators. In fact urban spaces can, in some instances, be better for bees and other pollinators than the countryside. Gardens and parks are home to a greater variety of flowering plants than in the wild, and for a longer season, too. What’s more, we’re less likely to use pesticides in them, enabling bees and other pollinators to feed more safely than they can on farmland. Indeed, a study published last summer in the journal Proceedings Of The Royal Society B found that bumblebee colonies in urban areas were actually stronger than those in the wild. (Source: The Guardian Newspaper)

Create a wildflower bed for pollinators

If you want to grow wildflowers you can’t just throw seeds out on the lawn and hope for the best. Grass is too vigorous and will outcompete the wildflowers. You need to prepare the area first, and there are a few ways to do that.

Option 1 – Create a purpose made flower bed

The first option is to clear a patch of ground completely. If you have the time it’s best to do this in Autumn and then weed out any un-wanted plants that germinate during the winter and early spring. The plants you’ll be need to keep a close eye out for are invasive and some perennial native plants; including chickweed, ground elder, couch grass, dandelions, burdock, hogweed

Then mid spring follow these simple instructions:

  1. Fork over the soil lightly to break it up, moving from one side to the other so you avoid standing on the loosened soil.
  2. Rake the surface to make it even, being careful not to create raised edges.
  3. Tread the surface down by foot, to remove pockets of air.
  4. Rake again to ensure a nice even final surface
  5. Water the soil lightly, if the soil appears dry to you.
  6. Sow seeds in two steps, first from top to bottom and then from side to side.
  7. Rake over gently to cover seeds
  8. Law twigs over the soil, to protect the seeds from birds and cats.
  9. Avoiding feeding the bed, as wildflowers grow best on poor soil.

(Source: Aoife Munn)

Or if you’d prefer to watch a video here’s one on how to sow a mini wildflower meadow from Gardeners World.

Option 2 – Add wildflowers to a patch of ground

If you’d like a simpler way to get a wildflower patch, I’ve seen Monty Don on Gardeners World try another method.

  1. cut the grass really short
  2. scratched the surface heavily with a rake or fork to disturb the soil
  3. water the soil if necessary
  4. scattered some seed on the exposed earth
Option 3 – Encourage wildflowers in your lawn

An even simpler way to help pollinators is to mow less often to encourage wildflowers. The dandelions, clover, birds trefoil, daisies and buttercups, aka lawn flowers, are a great source of nectar and pollen for pollinators. Plus they look much prettier than plain green!

How often you mow will depend on your family’s needs and the type of grass you have. One study found that people who mow their lawns once every two weeks have more pollinating bees than people who mow their lawns every week. We found that once every 3 weeks worked best for us. Any longer and the grass overtook the daisies and clover resulting in less flowers!

Option 4 – Convert your lawn to a wildflower meadow

You’d be forgiven for thinking that you need to plant seeds to get wildflowers. In reality wildflowers will emerge in most lawns if we just stopped mowing. And happily un-mowed lawns attract just as many insects as wildflower meadows.

We’ve let a section of our back lawn go un-cut all summer since 2019. It’s been interesting to see how it’s changed over the past 3 years. In the first year we had lots of clover, daisies and dandelions, but in year 2 the grass took over and our un-cut lawn resulted in less flowers than our periodically mowed lawn. In an effort to knock back the grass I planted some yellow rattle seed last autumn so hopefully this year we’ll get some more flowers.

Some people are worried that neighbours will judge you harshly if you don’t mow your lawn. If that’s you then make a feature by keeping it to a central section or just along the edges.

It’s important to cut back your wildflower patch at least once a year, preferably in autumn to allow wild mushrooms flourish, as these are also endangered.

Maintaining a wildflower meadow

You might assume that once planted there’s nothing else to do in a wildflower patch, but you’d be wrong. Periodically you will need to weed out any plants you don’t want, including grass. Also if you don’t have any perennial plants in your original seed mix then you might like to add them in. They’re slower to get going but tend to be a better source of pollen for pollinators.

Wildflower beds or meadows need to be cut at least once a year. Once established the advice is to do it in September, although I prefer spring to allow insects to over winter in the vegetation. We cut ours back when the temp is consistently over 10 degrees Celsius, when insects need less protection. If the grass growth is very strong and the vegetation is falling over under its own weight, you may also need to cut during the summer, in July, but hopefully after a few years the soil fertility is low enough to dispense with the July cut.

Where to buy wildflower seeds in Ireland

You will find wildflowers on sale in lots of places in Ireland but most of them aren’t native to Ireland. It’s not essential for the flowers in an urban garden to be Irish, but if you live in the country you might want to buy native Irish wildflower seeds. Otherwise, the flowers in your garden might be interfering with the genetic line of wildflowers in fields nearby. Here are some sources of native Irish wildflower seeds;

I’ve also come across wildflower seeded paper rolls and wildflower turf but when I asked if the seeds used were native to Ireland I was met with silence.

I was told by a horticulturist that seed bombs are a complete waste of time because it’s impossible for the plant to establish itself in the soil if it’s embedded in a tightly packed ball of soil. Have any of you found otherwise?

If you’ve a large wildflowers meadow and grass is becoming an issue then plant yellow rattle seeds to deal with problematic clumps of grass. Yellow rattle feeds on grass roots, thereby weakening it, and giving more space to wildflowers. Yellow rattle seeds don’t store well so buy it fresh in autumn, and plant it right next to a clump of grass for it to feed off when it germinates. I’ve seen fresh yellow rattle seed on sale in Howbert & May garden centres, Seedaholic, Fruithill farm and the Garden Shop. I suggest you shop around as I found the prices to vary wildly.

Identifying Pollinators in your Garden

After doing all that work to attract pollinators into your garden it’s time to get acquainted with your new visitors.

Here’s a very easy to read bee identification guide from Friends of the Earth in the UK, one on Irish bumblebees and a photo library of Irish butterflies

 

Hope you found this article useful. If you did, check out my other article on Wildlife Friendly Gardening, and my other gardening articles.

Till next time

Elaine

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