Jo Arnell explains what you need to create the ultimate insect-attractor – a nectar border

Insects may look insignificant, but they are pollinating our plants, playing vital roles in ecosystems and generally going about their minute business, quietly underpinning much of what happens on the planet – and keeping us all alive. We really need them, and their numbers are dwindling dramatically. There is much that we can do in our gardens to help sustain them. Making an organic garden filled with nectar rich flowers (and food for insect larvae) is very rewarding – and not just for the insects. Gardening is an immersive experience and to be surrounded by buzzing bees, fluttering butterflies and wondering what some of the others are getting up to, can be as uplifting as it is to be among the flowers alone.
Early summer is peak breeding time for much of our wildlife – this is the high point of the year. The sun is high in the sky and it stays light for the longest time, plant growth is vigorous and strong and food sources are plentiful – in theory. If we are to keep a healthy population of insects and the wildlife that depend on them, we need to provide a source of nectar for as many of them as we can – and for as long as possible.

Butterflies and bees are the first insects that come to mind when we think about pollinators, but there are others that are just as useful, and some that even helpfully combine pollinating with pest control. Beetles, moths, flies and wasps are all busy collecting nectar alongside the more popular flower visitors. Wasps will gorge on nectar, but feed grubs and caterpillars to their young, hoverflies have carnivorous larvae that eat aphids and ladybirds will be multitasking too – pollinating and pest controlling as they go.
An insect’s lifecycle can be a complicated matter and many need access to a range of food sources. The caterpillars of several species of butterfly, including Red Admirals and Peacocks, feed on stinging nettles, and many others nibble at wildflowers and meadow grasses, so it is important to have a few rough patches at the edges of the garden borders – which is a relief to those of us that can’t help but have them. Being untidy can be a useful thing sometimes.
One of the very best things to install for attracting all sorts of wildlife is a pond. It doesn’t have to be a large, deep expanse of water either – a scenic washing up bowl, or water feature that just has a small pump to enable a trickle of water over stones will provide a drinking and bathing source. The important thing is to make sure the creatures can climb in and out without risk of drowning, so a small beach, or areas of pebbles and a container with shallow, sloping sides is ideal.
As well as providing food and water for all these beneficial insects, we need to supply them with shelter too. Butterflies need somewhere to hide when it’s raining and they all need places to overwinter and hunker down during cold snaps. Hedges are great places for taking refuge in and even fences covered in climbers will be providing a useful shelter service. Ivy is one of the very best all round plants – bringing nectar, winter berries, and cover in the form of a thin hedge – known as a fedge – like a cross between a fence and a hedge. A small pile of logs, or just leaving the top growth on your perennials over the winter will give places for insects to snuggle down in, away from harsh weather and predators.Nectar rich plants
Nectar is the payment the plant makes to the insect for its pollination service and flowers are the signal from the plant to advertise the nectar source. Insects have evolved alongside native plants and wildflowers, matching their lifecycles and coexisting in an intricate dance through the ages. The fact that we like flowers too might help in the process – except for the fact that the native plants are often so rampant that we call them weeds… Luckily many of our pretty wildflowers and cottage garden plants – especially the self seeding biennials like foxgloves, honesty and forget-me-nots – are packed with nectar too and are easy to grow.
The worst type of plant for an insect is one that has been bred for double flowers – a frilly froufrou that has forfeited its nectaries in favour of yet more petals makes it hard for an insect to access what little food there is, or actually impossible, because the plant has become sterile and has no need for pollination. Some of these flowers are very beautiful, but perhaps, like an unscented rose, a flower that contains no nectar, is not really much of a flower.
There are certain plants that pollinators really like – simple, open daisy flowers provide great landing pads and the central section is made up of lots of tiny flowers, each with its own nectary, which makes it worthwhile visiting. Bees like tubular flowers, such as foxgloves, antirrhinums and penstemon, and will even climb inside them – invited in by spotted landing strips, or – in the case of the snapdragon, hinged doors at the base of the flower, along the lip of the bloom. Bees are especially attracted to blue and mauve flowers and can see colours in the ultra-violet range that we can’t perceive.
Moths and other night flying creatures – some beetles, even occasionally bats (but to catch the insects) – are drawn in by the scent, rather than the colour of the flowers. The plant will pump out more fragrance as dusk falls, so these make a lovely backdrop to an evening seating area. The clue is in the name for plants like Evening Primrose and Night Scented Stock. Shade loving plants are often scented too and many early flowering shrubs will have fragrant blossom to attract in early emerging insects – these are usually out and about before the bees and butterflies wake up.

Designing a nectar border
When you are planning out where to position a nectar border, think about which insects will visit. Butterflies and bees will like open, sunny places and are attracted by the colour of flowers – butterflies to bright colours. A shadier space will be attracting other insects – but they are just as important and often overlooked.
The bed needs a range of plants at different heights – tall, middle of the border, and low growing ground cover for underplanting and for the front. The heights don’t have to be regimented – a few tall spires of lupins or foxgloves can be placed in among medium sized plants – and something like Verbena bonariensis, beloved by pollinators (or shade loving Thalictrum) can waft through the length of the border and make a see-through haze.
Plant in swathes if you can, so that the insects can land and feed for a while without having to waste energy flitting around. Natural looking groups that blend into one another will look good and if you are able to time it so that as one clump of flowers fades, the next starts to open, you will be providing a constant stream of nectar through the season. Plants are expensive to buy in multiples, but luckily herbaceous perennials can be divided and clump up quickly – and most are easy to take cuttings from, so it might not be as costly as it sounds.
Think about seasonality too. Weird weather and unseasonably warm winters bring many insects out of dormancy early, so it’s a good thing to provide some early nectar for those that are active at the beginning – and end of the year. Hellebores, early bulbs and woodlanders like winter aconites, snowdrops – even violas in window boxes and containers – could be a life saver to a creature that stumbles out on a warm day in February.
Late flowering plants like Salvias, Asters and Eupatorium carry on flowering for a long time into the autumn – and often beyond if it stays mild. Many of the insects will be needing a boost of late nectar to help them at the end of the season, building up their strength for a period of winter dormancy, or just as a last hurrah among the flowers – a final party filled with sweet nectar before the weather closes in on them.

Join Jo at her Garden Design course at her home in Woodchurch, Kent. For more information, and to book, visit or call 07923 969634.

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