10 Plants for Pollinators in Ireland and UK (and how to plant them)

When we first viewed our new home, I was surprised that the back garden was just grass. There was no fencing on one side of the garden, either, and next door’s back garden (and the one after them) were also just grass. It seems like people on our street just don’t really bother about landscaping.

Mowing the lawn seems to be a pastime here. Most of our neighbours have either a petrol mower or a ride-on petrol mower! I know our garden is large (compared to most of the ones in our price range… still not large enough to accidentally plant the wrong type of willow tree, see below) but seriously, I couldn’t imagine using petrol to mow! Most people do their front lawns weekly and their back ones every two weeks.

When I think about it, I wonder how many “new build” estate houses (ours isn’t that new but it was built in the 21st century) just have a big green blob of grass out back which people mow because heaven forbid any grass actually grow to its full height out there.

I’m looking at our grass-covered garden as a blank canvas. We’ve already completed some big projects this year, such as drainage, but mostly there’s so much that needs doing, we’re basically just getting it ready for next year.

One thing we’re both in agreement on is turning the final metre of garden into a wildflower haven to attract pollinators. One of the best things about high-pollen plants is they are usually very beautiful to look at, too.

Obviously, if you have allergies you need to plan your pollinator garden more carefully but there may still be ways to do it. For example, if you’re allergic to night pollen, plant flowers which produce more pollen during the day and avoid things like night-scented jasmine; if you’re allergic to tree pollen, give your garden height with shrubs instead of trees.

Pollinators are the insects such as bumblebees that pollinate all plants. Pollen-heavy plants attract them, but once they’re here, they will also pollinate your vegetables, fruit trees and other plants as well. And their numbers are decreasing. For more ideas about how to attract pollinators, check out this article.

With that in mind, here are ten plants that attract pollinators and how to plant them:

Buddleia (aka buddleja)

This lovely shrub grows to about 1.5 metres cubed (actually it won’t be cube-shaped, but you know what I mean) and attracts butterflies and bees. I’ve talked about it before in this article.

In many parts of the world, it’s a weed, and you might recognize it if you commute to London on the train as it really likes TfL’s railway embankments. I’ve also seen it thriving in the wild in Belfast, Donegal and Aberdeen so it can definitely cope with everything Britain/Ireland have to offer in terms of temperature/weather!

Buddleja Davidii seems to be the most common buddleia available at the moment, and it comes in several colours/sizes, but there are actually lots of other varieties of buddleia available to buy/plant. As it’s a shrub, it’s usual to buy a ready-grown shrub from a garden centre then plant it in a nice spot and watch it grow, rather than cultivating from seed. I got mine from Letterkenny Homebase and it was about 30cm when I bought it but in the past month it’s already grown to about 45cm.

How to grow buddleia:

Plant out: May-Sep

Flowers: July-Sep

Buddleia allegedly needs full sun and well-drained soil, but in my experience, it’s a very forgiving plant and can tolerate some shade and imperfect soil. If you don’t have good drainage, add horticultural grit or sharp sand to your soil and mix it in. The amount of grit/sand you need depends on the original state of your soil. Buddleia can thrive in partial shade, too, so don’t give up if you don’t have a full-sun spot for it!

Verbena

Growing up to 2m high, verbena can add height and structure to your garden, creating a layered effect when planted along with plants of other sizes. Verbena has purple flowers at the top of long, thin stalks. Visually, it can work well with lavender, sea holly and rosemary.

How to grow verbena:

Sow/Plant out: Apr-May

Flowers: Jun-Sep

Verbena needs well-drained soil that is watered regularly. It prefers full sun but, due to those long thin stalks, it needs to be sheltered from high winds–a difficult twin requirement to pull off unless you have a south-facing garden with a short-ish fence at the bottom. The best way to plant it is by the fence that gets the most sun in your garden, then plant something shorter in front, such as lavender, to protect the verbena’s stalks without obliterating your view of the flowers.

Salvia

The main variety is salvia officinalis, commonly known as the herb sage. But there are tons of other salvias available in all sorts of beautiful colors and sizes. With over 900 subspecies to choose from, some salvias can be quite fussy while others are very hardy. Some other salvias aren’t as attractive to pollinators as they don’t produce enough pollen, so do your homework before placing an order with a nursery.

How to grow salvias:

Sow/Plant out: Apr-Jun

Flowers: Jun-Nov

Salvias need to be in full sun. They also require well-drained soil. If you have heavy soil (such as clay soil) you need to add sand or horticultural grit to your garden and potentially put in a drainage system such as a French drain (named after a Mr. French, not the country). The fussiest salvias are not frost resistant, so plant those ones in containers that can be put in a greenhouse or a potting shed over winter and during cold snaps.

Lavender

With its characteristic fragrance, it’s easy to identify lavender. There are varieties in purple, bluey-purple, pink and pure white, making it easy to match lavender to the rest of your garden’s planting scheme. Most varieties don’t grow too tall, making it an ideal choice for borders. And the visual effect of lavender works extremely well when you plant a section of about 2 metres or more.

Lavender has a reputation for being tricky to grow from seed, but I’ve found it wasn’t, certainly compared to some other plants, such as echinacea. The main two varieties of lavender are English (lavandula angustifolia) which has smaller heads and overall is a more compact plant, and French lavender (lavandula stoechas), which is taller and has these odd long petals that make it look like it grew a ponytail! The French version is more fragrant but the English one is not lacking in scent, either! I’ve grown English lavender from seed this year (see picture above).

How to grow lavender:

Sow/Plant out: Sow indoors March-June; plant out June-Aug.

Flowers: It doesn’t flower in the first year. After that, it should flower Jun-Sep.

Lavenders prefer full sun but they also enjoy growing in partial shade. Their main requirements are excellent drainage alongside a constantly moist soil. In pots or planters, lavender can easily dry out if not watered frequently enough. As far as soil type, they prefer sandy soil, so if you have heavy clay, consider creating a raised bed and adding a hefty amount of sharp sand to the soil to accommodate lavender. They don’t really need extra plant feed or fertiliser. Lavender will die in waterlogged heavy clay.

Campanula Rotundifolia

One of the most beautiful sights along the Donegal coastline is the wild, natural campanula rotundifolia (Scottish bluebell, AKA the harebell) which grows in clumps alongside the sandy paths on the way to the beach.

There are a few other varieties of campanula which you can grow (and 500 worldwide varieties in total). The Scottish bluebell variety is edible and can be used to decorate cupcakes (although the picked flowers will shrivel if left more than a day, of course). I’m not sure about some of the others, but there are other varieties such as campanula rapunculus which are also edible. You can buy the campanula rotundifolia (Scottish bluebell) variety in packets of seeds, but check the full Latin name of the seeds you’re buying before eating, in case you have one of the other types of campanula.

I’ve noticed Homebase and Tesco in particular are bad at not giving the full genus/species name for plants they’re selling (I have a plant from Tesco that’s just called “aloe” with nothing on the label stating whether it’s aloe vera or aloe barbadensis or something else enirely). This article from Gardener’s World outlines 10 of the most interesting campanulas to grow in the UK/Ireland.

I bought my campanulas. The RRP was €6.45 but I got mine for 50¢ as they were “looking a bit dead”. As you can see from the photo they have perked up a lot over the past two months and are now flowering!

How to grow campanula rotundifolia:

Sow/Plant out: March-June

Flowers: June to first frost, so usually October in most parts of UK/Ireland

Campanula rotundifolia (Scottish bluebells/English harebells) grow best in well-drained soil, they don’t thrive in waterlogged conditions, but they also don’t enjoy 100% sand soils, because they like a bit of fertility to their soil. They are a coastal plant in Donegal and native to some of the rest of the Irish west coast, too, which tells you they like it wet and well-drained! They don’t require any pruning/maintenance, although you might need to thin them out every so often if you planted a lot of seed close together.

Erica (heather)

If you’ve ever been to the Scottish Highlands, you can’t miss the way the landscape changes from grassy, human-cultivated fields to a magical wilderness where heather takes the place of grass and suddenly the ground is a riot of colour.

Heather can work well in an ericaceous garden (surprisingly, since all heathers are ericas), alongside hydrangeas, rhododendrons and azaleas, although none of these others are especially attractive to pollinators. An ericaceous plant that does appeal better to pollinators is the blueberry bush.

How to grow heather:

Plant out: Depends on type (see below).

Flowers: Depends on type. Some flower at Christmas, due to being accustomed to the colder temperatures of very high latitudes/altitudes, while others are summer-flowering in the UK/Ireland.

Heather thrives in peaty, nutrient-packed soil with a high organic matter content, with high moisture and acidity. It won’t enjoy most clay soils, because clay is generally alkaline (not all clays are like that… test yours with universal indicator paper cheaply available from any soapmaking supplier, or a pH meter if you have cash to splash), so you would have to put heather in a specially-adjusted area of your garden, or grow it in a planter. Planters are difficult for heathers because you have to fertilise regularly to maintain the level of fertility they require, which can be effort for the busy gardener.

Snowdrop

Another plant with a billion different species, the snowdrop (genus galanthus) is a winter-flowering plant. The most common one is galanthus elwesii, and this is the one you might have seen quietly blossoming on the forest floor during a crisp winter walk.

Snowdrops are perennials, and more will grow each year. Thinning is required once a year in March or April (dig them out and plant the extra ones somewhere else) to ensure they’re not competing with each other for nutrients, water and space.

How to grow snowdrops:

Plant out: October/November

Flowers: December-March (depending how far north you are)

Snowdrops like shaded areas such as beneath trees in wooded areas, and they dislike full sun. Most pollinators are hibernating in the winter months, but those who aren’t will surely appreciate your efforts to provide them with some delicious pollen! They require fertile soil rich in organic matter (ideally humus from dead and decayed plants, so compost is a much better choice than manure for snowdrops… think of them as vegetarians). Snowdrops tolerate wet soil, but like most other plants, they don’t like being drowned during heavy rain, so a soil with at least passable drainage is best if you want year after year of snowdrops (remember that when they’re not flowering, the bulbs lie dormant in the ground for the rest of the year). Mostly, if you get the growing conditions right, they’ll take care of themselves (aside from requiring thinning as mentioned above).

Borage

A bright blue plant with distinctive, star-shaped flowers, borage is an edible plant whose flowers can be used as a garnish for dishes, although the leaves can also cause dermatitis if you’ve got sensitive skin, so be careful. Because it’s edible (and non-toxic), borage is a great choice to plant in a child-friendly garden or near your vegetable patch to attract pollinators.

Borage is an annual, so it lives and dies in one lifecycle, but it’s also self-seeding, so when it dies, its flower heads drop seeds that will grow again next year.

How to grow borage:

Sow/Plant out: Sow March-May, plant out May-June

Flowers: June-November (may stop flowering earlier depending on when the first frosts are)

Borage prefers full sun or very partial shade, but it will still survive in a bit more shade and less sun. It also needs well-drained soil. Borage doesn’t grow well in containers as it has a taproot (like carrots and dandelions) that needs at least 30cm of well-drained soil to enable it to grow to its full size, but it’s doable with a very deep container.

Willow trees

The willow tree is one most people have heard of. But did you know there are a lot of different varieties, and there’s almost certainly one which will suit your garden! The fluffy catkins attract pollinators.

Depending on what sort of garden you have, you might want to grow a salix chrysochoma, aka the weeping willow (loves waterlogged soil, but has a huge root network so needs to be about 20m from your house at its full height), or you might prefer a salix alba, the upright white willow, so-called because of its pale trunk, branches and twigs. It prefers a slightly less wet garden but still drinks a lot of water and grows very tall.

If you have a smaller garden, the more compact salix caprea (which grows to only 2m high at its tallest) or salix purpurea pendula (which reaches 2.5m high), both of which will require regular pruning to keep them from looking like a giant birds nest.

How to grow willow trees:

Plant out: All year round. Don’t plant in the middle of a hot sunny day, wait until evening or risk scorching the roots. Likewise, don’t plant out during a frosty spell, the roots might freeze in the cold soil.

Buy a sapling from a garden centre. Check the full Latin name of the tree you are buying to make sure you are getting the right type of willow tree for your garden. If you have a small garden, take care not to buy something from a supermarket that’s just labelled “willow tree” because it’s likely to be one of the tall ones (they’re cute when they’re babies but be sure you have the room for when they reach 20 metres tall).

Willows will mostly take care of themselves but you do need to ensure they have enough water, either by watering them yourself or (better) only planting them if you have a soil that’s damp most of the year around. Prune them in October (it’s illegal to prune trees during bird nesting season which lasts March-September).

Poppy

Another plant with many different varieties to choose from, the poppy is a beautiful wildflower native to the UK and Europe. The most recognizable poppy for anyone who grew up in Great Britain is the red Flanders poppy, which the cardboard November 11th Remembrance Day poppy sold widely in Britain is modeled after. Poppies are easy to grow and some seed companies even do children’s grow-your-own varieties.

Aside from the Flanders poppy, there are also poppies in different colours and sizes to choose from, such as the Himalayan blue (which has the hilarious Latin name meconopsis), the great scarlet poppy, or the bridal white poppy, which in recent decades has become an increasingly-popular symbol of peace in the UK. There’s also the orange Californian poppy and the yellow Mongolian poppy. Really, look at the range on a seed site like Thompson and Morgan and you’ll be amazed at just how many different poppies you can buy!

Be aware that not all poppy seeds are edible, and some can be toxic. Poppies are where the old-fashioned drug opium came from and some countries ban them completely because of this (you cannot get poppy seed rolls in China, for example), so be sure not to try flying with a packet of poppy seeds!

How to grow poppies:

Sow/Plant out: March-June

Flowers: May-July

Some poppies are a little longer-lived than others, but like most summer-flowering plants, they’re best sowed between March-June (although if you live in the Highlands of Scotland or Ireland you might get away with planting them into July). They thrive in almost any soil type (except waterlogged) and prefer full sun or partial shade depending on the variety.

Allium

A tall, gangly plant with a long, thick stalk (like a daffodil’s) and a globe-shaped flowerhead, allium is actually a flowering variety of onion. In fact, if you’ve ever tried growing your own onions, you may have had a couple that flowered instead of becoming onions. If you plant a supermarket onion that has sprouted, it will flower, too (I tried this once).

Alliums are gaining popularity amongst gardeners because they are a structural, geometric-looking plant which is great for pollinators. They’re also fairly easy to grow and can tolerate most soil types.

How to grow allium:

Plant out: Sow directly into the ground in Oct-Nov.

Flowers: May-June

Alliums will grow best in a well-drained soil rich in organic matter, but they’ll tolerate almost every soil type. They are planted in autumn to “overwinter” which means the bulbs will lie dormant in the ground until springtime when they will finally start to grow (much like autumn-planting onions, shallots and garlic, which they’re related to).

Alliums are annuals and I haven’t yet managed to get them to self-seed. The usual advice is to dig them back into the garden (mulching) once the leaves have died.


Read next:

5 ways to attract pollinators to your garden

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Author: Torie Adams

I am a thirtysomething travel writer, lifestyle blogger, photographer, and USA Today bestselling author in Ireland, aka Mama Adventure. As a writer, I have written articles that are published in Offbeat Bride and on Buzzfeed, and as a photographer, I have taken photographs that are published in local and national news outlets in the UK. I have a blog at www.mamaadventure.com Twitter: @mamaadventurez