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April 2011

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Lavender, borage and Erysimum ‘Bowles Mauve’

Lavender doesn't like our garden very much. A native of the Mediterranean regions, it doesn't take kindly to being frozen stiff like it was in these past two winters or to being battered senseless by heavy rainfall and north-west winds. Nor is it keen on acid soil. It lasts for about two years at the most and then needs to be replaced. Why, you may ask, do I keep on replacing it? I do so because it's so attractive to insects like honeybees, bumblebees, butterflies and hoverflies. 

Changes in land management, the destruction of traditional flowery habitats to make way for agriculture and the widespread use of chemical fertilisers and pesticides have all resulted in a serious decline in beneficial insect populations. Added to these are new problems, such as the varroa mite, which can destroy whole hives of honeybees. Bees and other insects pollinate about eighty per cent of all plant species in Europe and much of the food on our plates is reliant on insect pollination so encouraging them is vitally important.

So what has this to do with gardening? If every garden grew even a few extra plants to entice pollinating insects that would help to slow their decline. Think of the well-known advertising slogan: Every little helps! It has been suggested that we grow at least a few plants of three outstanding insect plants that will bring a lot of insect activity into our gardens. These are borage, lavender and Erysimum ‘Bowles Mauve'. They're all attractive and easy to grow especially in the sunniest part of the garden. Borage, Borago officinalis, has slightly bristly leaves and pretty, vivid blue flowers. It has uses other than attracting bees, which love it, because the flowers can be frozen in ice cubes and added to summer drinks or added to salads for variety in colour. Borage is a hardy annual that comes easily from seed. This can be sown directly where it is to grow during April and once you've done that you'll never need to do it again because it obligingly sows itself year after year. It particularly likes gravel.

Lavender is very nectar-rich and a lovely fragrant plant to have in the garden, however wet and windswept. Erysimum ‘Bowles Mauve' is a perennial wallflower that keeps on flowering for much of the year because it is unable to set seed. In the days when we had mild winters it could be in flower for ten months of the year.

Ideally there should be a succession of nectar-rich plants flowering from late winter until autumn. Mild winter days will bring out bees to forage on plants like mahonias and Lonicera purpusii. This month they'll be drawn to primroses, polyanthus and wallflowers. There's even much buzzing going on around rhododendrons. In summer favourite plants are lupins, scabious, echinops, eryngiums, calendula, salvias, alliums, Verbena bonariensis and buddleias. In autumn rudbeckias, asters and aconitums are good. The Eucryphia x intermedia ‘Rostrevor' which flowers well into October, attracts huge numbers of bees and always reminds me of Yeats' poem The Lake Isle of Innisfree in which he writes about the ‘bee-loud glade'.

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