It’s a sultry September afternoon and I’m pottering round the garden, deadheading the dahlias as I go. I can hear the echinacea gently buzzing as a drowsy bumblebee picks its way across the tawny central cone. On the dwarf blue lavender hedge that edges the border, a green-veined white butterfly is also making the most of the late nectar supply.
The flowerbeds have been attracting large numbers of bumblebees, hoverflies, solitary bees, beetles and butterflies all summer long – especially the borage, globe thistles, calendula and red valerian. It is always a privilege to share the garden with wild creatures, especially when they play such a fundamental role in supporting ecosystems and pollinating our crops.
We’ve tried to choose as many plants as possible for the garden with pollinators in mind – avoiding double flowers, incorporating small areas of wildflowers in the lawn, including a range of flower shapes for different pollinators, adding a mix of plants that bloom from early spring until late autumn and encouraging ivy to colonise the bottom of the garden near the shed to extend the nectar season over winter.
We’re often told that even the tiniest patio or window box can grow plants to benefit pollinators – and this is absolutely true. No space is too small. Each individual plot, however modest, is part of the one million acres of garden habitat in the UK, each acre of which (depending on our planting choices) can make a significant difference in the fight against the catastrophic biodiversity declines that have seen a 68% fall in wildlife populations since 1970, according to the WWF Living Planet Report 2020.
But that’s not the end of the story. The recent focus on the damaging effects of neonicotinoids and other pesticides on pollinating insects is highlighting the unfortunate irony of buying ‘plants for pollinators’ that may have been treated with synthetic chemicals. Even if we make informed planting choices, with the best of intentions we could be unwittingly offering a poisoned chalice to pollinators, adding flowers to our containers, beds and borders that could be laced with residues of synthetic chemicals that risk harming the very insects we’re trying to support.
The Saving Pollinators Assurance Scheme
With this issue in mind, the National Botanic Garden of Wales recently launched their innovative Saving Pollinators Assurance Scheme. When I spoke to Dr Natasha de Vere, Head of Conservation and Research at the Garden, she highlighted several problems that consumers currently face when attempting to buy pollinator-friendly plants from nurseries or garden centres. The first issue is that many ‘plants for pollinators’ lists aren’t based on scientific data, unlike the list behind the Saving Pollinators Assurance Scheme which is backed by many years of scientific research on the best plants for pollinators. Plants with the Saving Pollinators logo have been scientifically proven to support pollinators (based on a strong evidence base of data from the Botanic Garden’s DNA-barcoding research).
Natasha and I also discussed the depressing fact that most of the plants we buy (even if they are suitable for pollinating insects) are still grown in peat – the extraction of which destroys ecosystems and the environment, releasing vast amounts of climate change gases into the atmosphere. The Saving Pollinators logo can only be used on plants grown in peat-free compost – meaning consumers don’t need to choose between supporting pollinators and protecting the environment.
Finally, Natasha emphasised the lack of information available to consumers concerning the insecticides that have been used on the plants they are considering buying. I have certainly struggled in the past to find nurseries that can give me any assurances that their plants have been grown without the use of pesticides. To enable consumers to make informed purchases, all plants sold under the Saving Pollinators logo are guaranteed to have been grown without the use of synthetic insecticides.
I witnessed the widespread desire to make environmentally-responsible gardening choices last September when I compiled the UK’s Peat-Free Nurseries list. I was truly overwhelmed by the positive response to the list, which has already sent many thousands of readers to independent peat-free nurseries across the UK (many of whom are also pesticide-free) and I’m equally excited about the Saving Pollinators Assurance Scheme which I believe will enable gardeners to support pollinating insects more effectively. It is being trialled initially with growers and nurseries across Wales (some of whom deliver nationally) and Natasha is hoping that the scheme, or something similar, can be rolled out across the UK in the near future.