The National Biodiversity Data Centre in Waterford have been working hard to build a framework of guidelines for local communities, gardens, farmers, local councils, business and transport networks that will help us all make best practice decisions, benefiting pollinators in Ireland and helping to restore declining numbers. As a result, they have begun publishing Action Plans aimed at the different sectors.
While there are many things we can do to encourage and protect pollinators in our gardens, some action points will be easier to adopt than others and some community gardens will follow the guidelines faster than others. There’s no doubt that ingrained mind sets will be challenged and there will be resistance to some of the suggestions. We might find it easy to add the recommended plants to community gardens or build bug hotels for pollinators but when it comes to chemical use:
“We don’t have the time or the manpower to weed without spraying”, “we like tidy gardens without weeds”, “what else can we do to get rid of the greenfly or spider mite if we don’t spray?” or “I’ve always sprayed my tomatoes to prevent fungus and fertilised my lawn, why would I stop now?”
We have a massive challenge ahead of us. Pollinators are declining at an alarming rate and whilst many people are aware that the bees are in trouble, asking gardeners to give up their pesticides in favour of organic methods is another matter. Often it’s a simple case of people not knowing how to make the changes or what the alternatives are, in which case we’ve suggestions below on how to address that.
In the meantime, if you’d like to help pollinators survive and see their numbers grow once more, here’s a non-exhaustive list of 5 things you can begin to do now in your community garden or allotment that will help. All of the recommendations from the National Biodiversity Data Centre are as a result of solid research. We hope that between us we can help to save the bees!
No 1. Become a ‘community garden of excellence’
We don’t mean become a ‘perfect’ garden, more a place that people can go to for advice on how to garden for pollinators. The National Biodiversity Data Centre have published LOTS of tips and advice in their best practice guide. Become familiar with it and help promote it to gardeners everywhere. Offer workshops (see below), print out materials, put up signage, become a GOLDEN garden. Basically do anything you can think of that will help to educate yourselves and others about pollinators.
To achieve GOLD garden status community gardens will have to meet certain criteria which include the following criteria:
Have at least five different types of pollinator friendly plants for EACH SEASON. Planting suggestions can be found on the RHS website or in the table below.
Pollinators need flowers that produce lots of nectar and pollen to survive for energy and protein and just like we experience ‘hunger gaps’ in our vegetable gardens, pollinators suffer the same in the wild. Planting flowers for them out of season will help but actively choosing pollinator friendly plants over those that aren’t will make a difference too.
Bulbs are a great way of introducing pollinator friendly spring flowers. In the autumn plant Snowdrops, Crocus, Allium, Grape Hyacinth and the Bishop series of single flowered Dahlia.
Choose single instead of double variety plants which don’t contain any nectar or pollen.
Perennial plants are generally better sources of pollen and nectar than annuals. Traditional bedding plants like Geraniums, Begonias, Busy Lizzy and Petunias have virtually no pollen and nectar. Try planting other annuals such as Poached Egg Plant, Cosmos, Alyssum, Floss Flower and Night Scented Stocks instead. Trailing Verbena, Bellflowers, Wallflowers and Aubrietia will grow in window boxes year after year as will herbs such as Chives, Lavender, Rosemary, Sage, Marjoram and Thyme.
Still not sure? Keep an eye out in ornamental flower gardens and garden centres for the plants that the bees are visiting and choose those.
Allow some of your Brassica plants to flower and plant green manures after you harvest crops. These are fantastic not only for the garden soil but are a great source of food for pollinators. Buckwheat and Phacelia are particular favourites.
Create nesting habitats for solitary bees – for both cavity nesting AND mining bees.
Solitary mining bees need areas of bare ground to be able to burrow into the soil and create nests. Scrape away some grass in flat, sunny spots to create these areas. Scrape back vegetation that grows on south or east facing slopes for mining bees that prefer to nest in those conditions.
A small number of Irish solitary bees like to nest in cavities. If you’re growing raspberries, leave some of the old canes unpruned for them, buy or make a solitary bee hotel or drill south or east facing holes 10mm deep, 4-8mm in diameter at least 1.5-2m high for them.
Bumblebees often nest in the long grass at the base of flowering hedgerows. If you’ve space, consider planting Hazel, Willow, Blackthorn and Hawthorn. Once they’re growing, cut on a three-year rotation (outside of the bird breeding season), avoid cutting all the hedges in the same year so that some are always flowering and let the grass grow long at the base of the hedges – don’t spray with herbicides. If the area needs to be cut, do so between September and March to avoid disturbing nests.
Protect existing sources of food and shelter for pollinators
When there are lots of people working in a community garden, particularly if it’s a small garden, it can be tempting to tidy it up to perfection but we are being encouraged to think differently. Leave patches of weedy plants and if you’ve space, plant wildflower areas, flowering hedgerows and add small dry stone walls that will provide shelter for pollinators. Brambles, clover, thistles, ivy, nettles and dandelions are important food sources for all types of pollinators.
Biodiversity Ireland recommend that we completely eliminate the use of ALL pesticides in our gardens
Pesticides include insecticides, fungicides and herbicides. ALL of these can be harmful to pollinators, either directly or by damaging the plants and habitats they depend on.
Use alternative barriers for pests such as netting or physically remove them. Choose pest resistant varieties of seeds and plant in the correct season for the plants to avoid attracting pests.
Don’t use treated plants or seeds (read the small print). Some will have been treated with systemic insecticides call neonicotinoids that research suggests is harmful to pollinators.
Don’t use herbicides on laws or on verges as these often contain plants or areas that are important for pollinators to feed and nest in.
Plant to encourage pollinators that feed on garden pests. Hoverflies feed on aphids so plant flowers that will attract hoverflies close to others that attract aphids.
No. 2 Pass on the information
Share this article with your fellow community gardeners or allotment holders. Mention the pollinator plan at committee meetings or during the tea break and have a conversation about it. Create and publish guidelines for your community garden that encourage an ethos of chemical free gardening around the entire space and not just in the growing beds. Start questioning the use of chemicals outside of your community garden at playgrounds, sports pitches, in your own gardens and balconies as well as garden verges.
No. 3 Arrange Workshops
If you’re not sure how to garden organically, ask a horticulturist to visit and deliver a workshop about it. Your local Education Training Board will have a list of tutors and may be able to fund someone, or ask everyone to contribute a small fee towards the cost of a tutor. Contact CG Ireland if you’re not sure where to find someone in your area and we’ll do our best to help you.
No. 4 Learn to identify pollinators in your garden and help to monitor them
Once you’re growing plants in your gardens that attract pollinators, learn to identify them. The Pollinator Plan website has lots of resources that will help with identification and you can get even more involved by becoming part of the All-Ireland Bumblebee Monitoring Scheme, a citizen science initiative managed by the National Biodiversity Data Centre.
No. 5 Sign Up for Our Newsletter
We recently published our core values that include “encouraging all member community gardens to follow organic principles and protect biodiversity, promoting good environmental practice and awareness”. Over the coming months we hope to help you do that by offering advice, links to best practices, workshop opportunities and more. Sign up for our newsletter and keep up to date with our activities.
Let us know how you’re getting on, if you have any difficulties or successes and we’ll share them where we can on social media.
With thanks to Dee Sewell of Greenside Up for writing this article. Dee is a qualified organic horticulture tutor based in Carlow/Kilkenny and Chair of CG Ireland.