How to create a biologically diverse and pollinator-friendly garden

Kicka här för hela inlägget på svenska: En klimatsmart trädgård: biologisk mångfald, fest för bina och mindre städning

A while ago, we wrote on Instagram about how we want to live our lives, and how we tackle a world that, at times, feels rather grim. The answer to that (quite vast) question is this one: we want to be part of the solution, not the problem.

The most fundamental lesson of all these past few years of changing our life trajectories is that trying to be part of the solution has only made us happier, more grounded and more easily satisfied people. It has not made us feel poor. Or under-stimulated. Or as if we’re sacrificing a lot. Or as if we’re giving up ourselves in hopes of “changing the world”. No, none of that. It has just made everything better.

It’s important to remember that all actions matter – from the smallest to the biggest – and that there’s no end to the greatness we can achieve if we all (or even just some) come together. Right now, you might wonder if you clicked the wrong link. Shouldn’t this be about attracting bees and butterflies to your garden? Yes, it should! And we’re slowly getting there. This little rant is meant to set the tone for today’s post, which is a perfect example of one of those seemingly small actions many of us can take, which together can actually make a large-scale positive change.

That our planet is struggling comes as no surprise. One thing we keep hearing in media is the importance of biological diversity and how that’s a key player in stable eco-systems and a prosperous future for us all. Yet, that diversity is on a steady decline, which in turn threatens nature and the world as we know it. In other words: it’s time to do something. And what could be a better place to start than your own backyard?

Biological diversity means trees, flowers, grasses, ladybugs, butterflies, birds, frogs, moss, snakes and all sorts of other species working together in harmony – not rows and rows of the same crop as far as the eye can see.

There are endless things we can do to help promote biological diversity and protect precious eco-systems, and that really embodies our desire to be part of the solution: all we got to do is read up on the subject a bit, roll up our sleeves and get to work. So. There are two fundamental parts to the issues relating to biological diversity today: the pure shrinking of natural habitats all over the world, and the widespread usage of harmful chemicals, both in agriculture as well as industrial activities. The former refers to the plain and simple fact that humans – through for example deforestation and urban expansion – are forcing plant and animal species away from their homes. As we build larger and larger houses, smack up new shopping centers and clear land for farming, thousands and thousands of trees, flowers, birds etc. are robbed of their habitats. Untouched forests and nature reserves are disappearing at an alarming rate, and it goes without saying this will affect biological diversity as we know it. Because where are they supposed to go? With regards to the latter, we spray crops with pesticides in order to promote growth and eliminate pests, but what happens to the pollinators working that field? The fragile flowers lining the rows? The birds looking for worms in the soil? They all get an unwelcome toxic shower, many times strong enough to knock them dead right then and there. (Going all in on organic food is a quick and easy way of promoting biological diversity, by the way). Biological diversity means trees, flowers, grasses, ladybugs, butterflies, birds, frogs, moss, snakes and all sorts of other species working together in harmony – not rows and rows of the same crop as far as the eye can see. 

Those are the problems. And now, we want to be the solution, together with you taking the time to read this. Where do we begin? First: if you don’t have access to some sort of land (let’s say you live in an apartment), there are still plenty of things to do. You can encourage your landlord to not mow any lawns around the building at least for the first half of the summer, and perhaps inquire if you can pop some selected flower seeds into any existing garden beds. If you sense a progressive attitude, maybe even suggest putting up bee hotels. You can also join an environmental organization, in addition to shopping organic products, as part of your “green living” baseline. If you have a balcony or smaller type of outdoor space: make sure to plant flowers rich in pollen and/or nectar in pots, put up a bee hotel and set up a water station for insects (more about all of these measures later on). In other words, we can all do something! Following, you’ll find the full action plan for everyone who has a garden or plot of land at their hands:

All gardens can be turned into tiny nature reserves!

And in order to do so, we have to support the wild, not work against it. A good tip is to glance at what nature would do itself, if left alone. Would someone “clean up” in the fall, and remove all green waste out of sight? Not necessarily. There would be piles of leaves, branches and tree trunks lying around, providing infinite food and shelter for all the smaller inhabitants of nature. Supporting the wild doesn’t mean we have to let go completely and allow for our garden to turn into a chaotic scene we wouldn’t enjoy, but simply about working in harmony with it. Care for your soil by adding in the organic material you source around your property, such as leaves, grass cuttings and twigs, instead of transporting them to a recycling center or throwing them on your brush pile. The rich soil will not only create life in the shape of worms, insects, fungi and bacteria but also promote healthy plants and retain water much better. You’ll also have to rely on purchased manure a lot less, which means less plastic waste and less money spent. Plant many different species – variation is key in a healthy eco system! Let trees and shrubs live in harmony with flowers and edible plants. Together, they all play an important part as they supply different creatures with different forms of shelter and food.

A truly green garden

There are green gardens, and then there are green gardens. If you want yours to do as much as good as it possibly can, make sure you:

  • Capture rain water
  • Opt out on machines powered by fossil fuels (manual is best, followed by electric)
  • Carefully consider any purchases – consumption costs natural resources
  • Use the plant supports/stakes (branches, twigs etc.) that nature provides instead of buying
  • Reuse plastic cups season after season
  • Share tools with neighbors
  • Stay away from pesticides and chemical fertilizers
  • Compost
  • Don’t use a robot mower (true to its name, it not only mows down grass, but also important flowers, bird babies and hedgehogs) 
  • Let your lawn be – at least some of it, and at least for parts of the season (a manicured lawn is nothing but a desert for most animal species)

Pollen, nectar and pollinators

Pollen is the powdery substance that flowers use for fertilization. It is also an important protein source for bees. Nectar, on the other hand, is the sweet liquid flowers use to attract said pollinators. Nectar is rich in carbohydrates, and is produced by glands inside the plant. In order for nectar production to remain high, plants need water. Therefore, it’s important to not let yours dry up during periods of little rain. Bees are infinitely important for pollination, and as much as 30% of the global food production is indeed dependent on the work of pollinators. Without them, we would face large-scale problems. There are other pollinators as well, such as butterflies, but bees are by far our most important ones. They are also the ones struggling a lot – but we can help by:

  • Allowing the flowering season to be long, preferably all the way from March until October, by selecting plants and keeping trees that flower at various times of the year (see Flowers below)
  • Stopping the obsessive cleaning up of our gardens, which only leads to no natural bee homes left (they would otherwise love old pieces of wood, tree trunks and piles of twigs and branches).
  • Putting up bee hotels or providing other forms of lodging – either by purchasing ready-made products or by using what’s on hand. Drilling holes of various depths into an old piece of wood is excellent – it really doesn’t have to be harder than that! Go for depths from 3 to 13 mm in order to cater towards a wide variety of bees (just make sure you never drill all the way through). Place these around your property.
  • Setting up a watering station, by filling up a shallow tray or bowl with water. Don’t forget to also put gravel, marbles/pebbles, moss or twigs in there, so the bees don’t risk drowning but instead have some structures to hold on to as they drink. Place this close to flowers or where you suspect they live, so they don’t have to travel far.
  • Promoting certain host plants, in order to protect certain butterflies. Many butterflies have one unique plant their larvae feed off of, before they develop into a complete butterfly. If these plants disappear, naturally the butterflies will too. The stinging nettle is an important host plant, as it caters towards several varieties, such as red amiral, small tortoiseshell, peacock butterfly and painted lady. Violet is the host plant for longwings. Alder buckthorn and buckthorn are hosts for common brimstone, and orpine, white stonecrop and common houseleek are hosts for apollo. For moths, poplar, willow, wild privet, lilac, European ash, alder, elm, birch, galium and pale smartweed are hosts. If you have any of these growing on your property, leave them be!

Trees

First, always carefully consider before you take any trees down. Sure, sometimes it’s necessary for the health of the woods, and sometimes you just can’t resist because it’ll allow for more light and direct sun on your property (we’ve been there), but in general: we need to be more restrictive with removing trees left and right. Trees serve endless functions. Besides the obvious of cleaning the air we breathe and sequestering carbon, they also provide shade and shelter, as well as act as homes to millions of birds and insects. Some even produce fruits and nuts, which will serve as important fall and winter food for various animals (including humans, to a certain extent). Furthermore, a big advantage of trees compared to many other plants is that they produce enormous amounts of pollen and nectar when they bloom (in particular hazel, maple, sallow, chestnut and linden). In other words, planting flowers the bees like is great – but keeping some precious trees instead of taking them down might prove a far more fruitful action (no pun intended). In fact, taking a tree down will affect nature around it more than we might think. In cases with really old trees, we’re basically looking at an entire eco-system in itself – an old oak, for example, can be the host of up to 1500 different species of insects.

Sallow plays a particularly important part for bees, as it’s one of the earliest plants to bloom in the spring, thus being a crucial food source at the very start of the buzzing season. Unfortunately, sallow lacks significant financial value and is often cleared. This bring detrimental effects, as the starved queen bees have very few other food sources when they first wake up after the winter. If you have sallow on your property, please keep it.

If you have to take down a tree, make sure to at least leave a good piece of stump left. If the stump can’t remain in the same location, can you perhaps roll it elsewhere and place it where it won’t be in the way? Stumps are excellent homes for various insects – and perhaps even birds if tall enough – and you can preferably drill holes into it, turning into yet another bee hotel (see Pollen, nectar and pollinators above for details). Just picture that: a single stump, allowed to become home for perhaps hundreds of animal species.

Flowers

Alongside letting trees remain where they are, planting (pollinator friendly) flowers might be one of the easiest and most accessible actions you can take to give nature a helping hand. And here, your rewards will come a thousandfold – because what could possibly be prettier than a garden full of flowers? A few minutes worth of seed sowing is all it’ll take, before you’ll have your own Monet painting right outside your window – and all the while, you’re saving the world!

Flowers come in a few different forms. Annuals are the ones that only stick around for one season (thus needing sowing every year) and biennials appear for two years, while perennials will return season after season. As reliable as perennials are bulb-type plants, such as tulips, daffodils and dahlias. And not to forget: all the wild flowers! Take good care of these (perennials), and plan for your garden in a way where the wild flowers you might be lucky enough to have will be allowed to thrive. At the end of the day, the more variation you can create, the better it is – and the more insects, the more bird food. As someone once said – when it comes to biological diversity, more is more.

Below, you’ll find a list of particularly beneficial flowers to try to incorporate in your garden. We’ve organized these based on season as well as type (annual/biennial/perennial/bulb), in order for it to be easy to navigate and find what works for you. Remember: by extending the season and offering up flowers for many months, you’ll be of infinite help. For example, the queen bees wake up starved in March, and will start searching for food immediately. Early bulb-type plants and sallow are among the first to bloom, and are thus crucial for our pollinators. Combining plants from all three main categories below would therefore be a wise decision. And hey, don’t go crazy trying to get rid of dandelions! They’re of significant importance to pollinators, as they contain high amounts of both pollen and nectar. Humans, huh. Sweating over sometimes so precious, and buying special tools to remove it all.

Spring

  • Annuals: –
  • Biennials: –
  • Perennials: Aubrieta, Pasque flower, Unspotted lungworth, Liverwort, Cowslip, Hellebore, Wild pansy/Viola tricolor, Wood anemone
  • Bulbs: Hyacinth, Balkan anemone, Daffodil, Common grape hyacinth, Snowdrop, Scilla, Crocus vernus, Yellow star-of-Bethlehem, Winter aconite, Bird-in-a-bush

Summer

  • Annuals: Cornflower, Paterson’s curse, Buckwheat, Purpletop vervain, Corncockle, Mallow (annual, biennial and perennial varieties), Calendula, Cosmos, Sunflower, California poppy, Poppy (also perennial varieties), Borage
  • Biennials: Common evening-primrose, Yellow sweet clover, Norwegian angelica, Viper’s bugloss, Lady’s glove
  • Perennials: Common columbine, Coneflower, Blue globe-thistle, Blueweed, Bluebell, Purple loosestrife, Hyssop, Great mullein, Phlox, Lavender, Snapdragon, Geranium, Great masterwort, Hollyhock (annual, biennial and perennial varieties as well), Woodland sage, Wild Sweet William, Scarlet beebalm, Thyme, Dame’s Rocket
  • Bulbs: Allium

Fall

  • Annuals:
  • Biennials:
  • Perennials: Coneflower, Spotted joe-pye weed, Japanese anemone, New York aster, Orpine, Dense blazing star, Bugbane, Canada goldenrod, Common sneezeweed
  • Bulbs: Dahlia, Bieberstein’s crocus

(The above list, if not divided into categories depending on plant hardiness, has been based on the one in the book “Naturligtvis! Biologisk mångfald i din trädgård” by Justine Lagache).

Birds…

We’re many people enjoying watching birds – be it the massive bald eagle or the small great tit – not to mention listening to the mesmerizing, almost deafening birdsong come spring time. Birds are lovely, to put it simply, and do wonders by keeping bugs in check in our gardens. Can you imagine a world without them? They need our help, though, as shrinking natural habits, decreasing biological diversity and climate change are posing threats to them as well. With climate change comes more unreliable weather, where light and temperature no longer line up as predictably as they used to, which can mean quite detrimental effects. Because what happens when migrating birds – controlled by light – arrive back to Sweden in the spring and the insects hatched already, due to warmer than usual temperatures? This could cause lower survival rates for certain bird babies, for example. Another climate change-related phenomenon that affects birds is drier and warmer summers, which will mean worms crawl deeper and deeper down into the ground, far beyond the hungry bird beaks, in their search for moisture. This significantly decreases the food available to our feathery friends. Periods of draught also bring about a situation where insect numbers decline due to dried up flowers, as this means no access to pollen and nectar. This, in turn, means less food for birds and decreased ability to reproduce. In other words, it’s all connected, without exceptions.

What can we do to help? Well, practically everything that we’ve talked about this far will be useful. Capturing rain water will enable watering during drier times with a clean conscience, which will keep the pollen and nectar producing plants you have planted alive. This will boost the insect population, which in turn will secure the food supply for the birds. The interconnection becomes all the more clear.

During wintertime, about 100 species of birds stay in Sweden. Since we’ve made the life of birds much more difficult for them – by for example taking down fruit and nut producing trees – we can compensate by support feeding them. This, however, is only recommended to do during the winter. And while a common sight is people feeding birds with soft white bread, please refrain – this only provides them with short-term satiety. Instead, turn to:

  • Sunflower seeds
  • Peanuts
  • Millet
  • Hemp seeds
  • Rape seeds
  • Oats and wheat seeds
  • Rolled oats (mixing these with canola oil and serving that to the birds will be an instant success, and provide them with necessary fat)
  • Coconut fat
  • Apples
  • Raisins
  • Mealworms
  • Lard and blubber

You can also make your own “energy bars”, press a piece of twine into each piece and then hang these in trees around your property. Mix for example rolled oats, nuts, seeds and raisins with canola oil and/or butter, let harden and then hang. Making these in a muffin tin or in silicone muffin cups makes the process easier.

If feeding doesn’t feel like your thing, there are other measures to take. For example, you can keep a variety of trees and bushes – preferably some that carry cones, nuts, seeds and fruits of different kinds – around the property, and clean a little less in the fall. There might also be plants that have shot up seed stalks during the summer – leave these be until the spring instead of chopping them off and tossing them, as the seeds will prove a great food source for birds in the fall. Lilac, common columbine, lavender, globe-thistle, and sunflowers all have precious seeds that we should leave alone and not clean up. And last but not least – perhaps you want to treat your bird friends to a bath? Birds love to bathe, and do so year round. Place your bird bath close to shrubs of some kind, so they have easy access to shelter in case of danger, and make sure it’s not deeper than 5 cm, in order to prevent small birds and babies from drowning. You can use anything from random bowls and big pot saucers to specially designed bird baths, and all you have to make sure is that you clean it and replace the water often, so as to prevent disease. During crowded, warm times, replacing the water once a day is necessary. And always make sure to wash your hands afterwards, as birds can have some contagious bacteria on them.

… and all the other little ones

  • Hoverflies: while not as efficient pollinators as bees, hoverflies do indeed help out as best as they can, and should be appreciated. As with all pollinators, hoverflies benefit from having access to a range of different plant species.
  • Ladybugs: these eat aphids – up to 25,000 of them in a lifetime! They hibernate over the winter, and prefer to do so under a cover of leaves, in bark and in holes in the ground. As with most animals waking up from their winter rest, ladybugs are hungry in the early spring. Nothing better to keep around than a big sallow tree.
  • Dragonflies: as larvae, dragonflies can eat thousands of mosquito larvae in one day (thank you very much). They like water, so having a little pond or other type of water source in your garden is likely to help in attracting dragonflies – but really any garden that suits butterflies will get their fair share of dragonflies too, as these predators prey on them as well.
  • Spiders: another beneficial garden inhabitant, as they eat aphids, mosquitos and larvae. By not over-cleaning your property, they’ll find plenty of space for their webs, and you can happily co-exist. Spiders are extra sensitive to pesticides. 

And a final word on soil

Soil – nature’s own recycling station – is where life begins and ends. Allowing soil to be the alive structure it should be, full of worms, centipedes, bacteria, fungi, beetles etc., is key to a healthy garden and, in turn, a healthy planet. Weed fabrics that close out all the miracle workers, pesticides that kill most living things in their way and tilling that turns worms into minced meat are all human ideas and inventions that effectively and without much mercy are causing soil quality to decline on a global scale.

Care for your dirt. Mix in organic material such as grass clippings and leaves in order to feed the hungry worms, instead of cleaning up meticulously and keeping the surface of the soil unnaturally bare and tidy-looking. Set up a compost, allow for leaves to stay right where they are instead of fanatically raking everything into a big pile and then setting fire to it all in the fall. Dig and loosen your soil with great care, and don’t turn it – this disrupts soil-life entirely, as what’s deep down is meant to be there, and vice versa. Anything else is a false claim, which will only boost fertility in a short-term perspective. And above ground, you might see earwigs around your plants. Even though they can give you chills, don’t chase them away or – even worse – kill them. Earwigs are hugely beneficial to your garden, as they prey on aphids, plant lice and acari. They love to hide in the dark, so provide them with homes – small pots turned upside down, dry fire wood and rolled up corrugated fiberboard are all excellent accommodation options.

Now, go and be green!

We hope that you’ve been equipped with many tips and recommendations as to how to make your garden as biologically diverse and pollinator-friendly as possible, and that you feel inspired to go turn your plot of land into a haven for all sorts of species. The more you learn about nature, its ways and all its intricate systems, the more you realize that humans have gotten a thing or two wrong along the way. If more and more of us realize the power that lies in each little plot of land and do what we can to contribute in a positive way, can you imagine how much good we can accomplish? More diversity, less cleaning. More gorgeous flowers, less pesticides. More insects, birds, bees and butterflies, fewer robot mowers. When you think about it, it all comes down to one common denominator: more nature. Let’s allow nature to be nature, and it’ll all figure itself out.

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2 thoughts on “How to create a biologically diverse and pollinator-friendly garden

  1. We also have great luck with nasturtium mixed throughout the garden. The flowers and leaves are edible. The seed has also been quite easy to save. I love these lists of flower ideas, and am always looking for more flowers to add variety. I am a huge advocate of flowers dispersed in the garden. We live in a colder, northern climate too, and may also try viola(which is also edible) this year. Thanks!

    1. Nasturtium is indeed a great one! That’s one I often forget – perhaps that’s because the local deer population snack on them before we get the chance too? 🙂 Makes me so happy to hear of others promoting flowers dispersed throughout the garden. I can’t wait for this flowering season to begin!

      /Sophia

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