Many pollinating insects are under pressure; our changing climate, the loss of natural habitats, smaller gardens with more paving, badly-timed mowing of flower-rich roadside verges and the widespread use of chemical pesticides and herbicides are all factors at play.
However, all is not lost, and gardeners can play a big part giving a helping hand to the wild creatures who share our world. The RHS Plants for Pollinators campaign encourages gardeners to plant more of the plants that pollinators appreciate and even those of us with little more than a patio, a balcony or a window box can help.
This choice of Award of Garden Merit winning varieties ideal for the pots and small spaces will not only brighten life and lift our spirits but also provide food for bees, butterflies, hoverflies and other pollinators.
New cosmos are out of this world
In the recent trial of cosmos at RHS Garden Wisley, all three of the varieties in the British-bred Apollo Series were awarded AGMs; they set a new standard amongst shorter cosmos - and the bees and butterflies loved them. Ideal in patio containers, where growing tall cosmos would be unrealistic, the 8-10cm (3-4in) flowers in white, pink and carmine (with new colours on the way) open from June to autumn.
Water and feed fortnightly to keep the flowers coming and the ferny foliage in good condition. Deadhead promptly to encourage bud development. 45-60cm (18in to 2ft). Annual, so sow seed or buy plants each year.
Beautiful flowers and foliage combined
I enjoy the dark-leaved Dahlia Happy Single Series on my patio - three Happy Single varieties have been awarded AGMs: among them, Happy Single Flame certainly stands out. The fiery, slightly orange-tinted red petals fade to yellow at their base and all is set against sultry, dark, almost chocolate bronze foliage. And the plants always remain manageable in height.
On the patio, even if (as I do) you can't resist snipping flowers for a posy, that richly coloured foliage is always appealing. Feed and water well. 75cm (30in). Tender, so bring plants inside over winter. See more info on growing dahlias.
Flowering every day
There really is only one problem with Erysimum 'Bowles's Mauve'. It flowers with such heart and gusto that often, after three or four years, it simply cannot keep it up and it dies. But I’ve had plants in large containers that, until the day they had to go for compost, never stopped flowering for a day.
The slender foliage is an unusual misty lilac green, and the long spikes of purple flowers just keep coming and rarely set seed. In the open garden, wind often loosens the roots: plants benefit from shelter on the patio. Winter-flying pollinators love it, as do butterflies. Grows up to 75cm (30in) tall, RHS hardiness rating H4.
A patio sunflower?
You may wonder about including sunflowers as patio plants; they are, after all, tall. Most of the AGM sunflowers, except the charming little ‘Waooh!’ (shown here in bud), are indeed tall but you can reduce their height and increase the number of flowers by pinching out the shoot tips.
The variety ‘Valentine’ has the great advantage of its colour; not the vivid yellow that can be overpowering on a patio but with creamy white petals, richer towards the base, and chocolate eye. One of the naturally medium height varieties, if pinched out it can be kept to 90cm (3ft) and bees and hoverflies appreciate it.
Not just in white
We always think of the flowers of alyssum, Lobularia maritima, as white and it’s valuable in that colour, creeping low and making fragrant annual ground cover or trailing from pots. But the Easter Bonnet Series comes in seven other colours including yellow, violet and rich red. And although the individual flowers are tiny and provide but a small nectar supply individually, they open in huge numbers and appeal to a variety of pollinators.
Their low, creeping habit is ideal spreading across sunny paving or spilling over the sides of containers. Hardy annuals, they grow to 15cm (6in) high.
A shady patio is the ideal site for a pieris - in particular because it thrives in large containers which, in areas with unsuitable garden soil, can be filled with the ericaceous compost it needs.
Pieris japonica 'Valley Valentine' is an all-year-rounder. Its glossy evergreen foliage emerges coppery-red and is a feature in its own right. Then, in March and April, the generously-filled, swaying-clusters of deep-red flowers open, each tiny bell sparked with white at the base. Just be sure to give it acid compost and not allow it to dry out, especially in spring. 1.2m (4ft). RHS hardiness rating H5.
Colourful, robust and dwarf
Neat, long flowering and with vivid golden petals surrounding a bold chocolate-purple disk, Rudbeckia hirta 'Toto' is impressive. It also appeals to hoverflies and bees, as well as anyone stretched out on the sun lounger, and demonstrates the apparently contrasting qualities of being dwarf but also vigorous.
The 10cm (4in) flowers look up boldly from branched plants over a long season in summer and autumn; deadhead carefully to avoid leaving unsightly stalks. 25cm (10in). Grow as a half-hardy annual.
What I mean by 'secret' is that it’s easy to miss the white winter flowers of Sarcococca 'Dragon Gate' as they’re usually hidden among the evergreen foliage. But the scent is unmissable, and if you grow it you’ll be looking around for the source of the fragrance.
The small white flowers, their scent attracting precocious bees and other pollinators, open at the leaf joints but are usually hidden by the neat glossy leaves. I find that mature plants sometimes exhaust the soil and the foliage tends to yellow – an occasional dose of liquid feed usually does the trick. 60cm (2ft). RHS hardiness rating H5.
Late pastel daisies
Michaelmas daisies, in the broad sense to include all the species and hybrids now found under Symphyotrichum, are superb food plants for many pollinators, although double-flowered forms are certainly far less valuable than single-flowered types.
'Coombe Fishacre' is valued for autumn patio colour and insect attractiveness because of its generous flower production over many weeks late on in the season. And each small lilac flower has an eye that opens yellow and matures to raspberry pink, adding to their appeal. Shorter than many varieties, and naturally bushy, the flowers are enjoyed by butterflies, bees and all manner of pollinators. 90cm (3ft). RHS hardiness rating H7.
Long season appeal
Verbena rigida is a tuberous perennial that’s not usually hardy in the garden, but shunted into a sheltered place for the winter after a summer in a sunny container, it has a good chance. Or enjoy it as an annual. And as patio plants go V. rigida (formerly called V. venosa) has one of the longest of all flowering seasons, from June almost to November if deadheaded promptly.
Especially popular with butterflies, the boldly branching stems are topped with clusters of purple flowers and I find that its open habit allows other plants to intermingle. 40cm (16in). RHS hardiness rating H3.
The RHS campaign, Greening Grey Britain aims to transform unplanted areas of cities, towns and villages into verdant greenery to help us relax and feel a little more in tune with nature and to encourage wildlife.