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Where have all the bees and butterflies gone?

Gardening with Patricia Jordan

 You may have read in the international press that a recent scientific review revealed that many species of insects are declining fast. I am aware of this in my own garden here. In the past two decades butterfly numbers have seriously declined and only when particular ‘bee favourites’ are in flower, do we see vast numbers of them pollinating our flowers. I do not know where the local hives are, but the signal goes out when citrus trees are in flower and again later on when our bushes of Leucophyllum frutescens (Texas Ranger) are full of soft pink flowers – it is too dangerous to go anyway near them! Other favourites are buddleja, which I have grown on occasion and polygala bushes. I used to see citrus coloured butterflies in early spring darting around my garden and when the huge blue echiums were in flower, they used to be covered in bees and Red Admiral butterflies and it has been a very long time since I saw any Swallowtails.

The bees are attracted to the bright colours of the flowers during the day time, especially flat-faced flowers, which are easy to get at. Having said that though, they will nose-dive into snapdragon flowers and others like them. Moths, meanwhile, tend to prefer white flowers and night-scented plants are particularly attractive to them. These flowers actually evolved their night-time perfume to attract moths to pollinate their flowers. Jasminum officinale, honeysuckle, tobacco plants, and Nicotiana sylvestris are all particular favourites, with the latter’s white tubular flowers seeming to attract the most insects, luckily resulting in copious amounts of seeds. In some countries, hummingbirds are the pollinators, but I haven’t seen them here. They especially like Campsis radicans with their huge orange-red flowers.

Fewer pollinators mean fewer crops, whether it be fruits, vegetables or cereals, which could cause some serious famine problems around the world if the problem is not addressed. Fewer insects could also mean fewer birds and this is such a worrying problem that many in high places are concerned about, and we should be too.

It would appear that while the ‘friends of the garden’ are declining, the bugs are increasing. Well, I go along with that as we still have vast invasions of ants in the garden from spring onwards until the onset of colder weather, and they appear in the kitchen too, even though we are up a floor. Some years cockroaches are a pest, but checking the drains often during the summer usually deals with any breeders.

Local authorities here have started to spray roadside verges to save labour costs involved in cutting them back. Inevitably this spray spreads into gardens and orchards alongside the roads. Farmers, intent on copious harvests, also spray their crops and this is not good either. Here in Cyprus lots of former agricultural land is being used for housing and we are losing our native flowers as well as garden-worthy ones. So how can we help alleviate this problem? We need to attract more good insects to our gardens and we can do that by growing plants that insects like! Many herbs such as sages, lavenders, rosemary, fennel and verbenas attract early pollinators, but it is important to keep growing flowers that bloom as the season progresses, by choosing flowers like cosmos, asters, sunflowers and zinnias. Go on give it a try it, do your bit! The garden centres are full of seed packets of glorious plants that will attract bees and butterflies to your own patch. Let’s see the bees and butterflies homing in on your garden or veranda.

 

What to do in the garden this month

With slightly longer days this month, hopefully, the temperatures will return to the seasonal norm and we can expect spring to fill our gardens with colour and perfume again especially after all that lovely winter rain.

Some bulbs, like the early flowering narcissus, will have gone over by now leaving rather a mess of leaves. However, resist the temptation to cut or pull them off, as they are helping the bulb to produce the new flowers for next season. Try to grow something near or around the bulbs which will hide the foliage until you can remove it when it turns brown. If daffodil bulbs have not flowered this year then they may have come to the end of their flowering life, in which case discard them. However, if they are new to the garden it may be that they were harvested too soon in the bulb fields, or that they have enlarged underground and are now congested. So dig them up and bed them in somewhere and replant them in the autumn.

Winter jasmine, Jasminum mesnyi, has been delighting us for some weeks now with its arching sprays of bright yellow flowers. This is a jasmine that is pruned after flowering, unlike Jasminum officinale which should be pruned now. The reason for this is that the latter forms flowers on new growth, so even if your bush is full of leaves now, you should bite the bullet and chop it all off! I know that sounds drastic but that current growth will die in the summer heat and you will have no flowers. Both these plants are better grown over an umbrella-type frame where their very long stems can trail over the edges.

You should be able to sow some annual seeds now as hopefully, the ground will have dried out somewhat. It’s no use sowing seed when the conditions are cold and wet as the seeds will just rot off. I love any plants with blue flowers such as delphiniums but know that they are not for our hot gardens, so I try to grow the annual Larkspur. Cerinthe major Purpurascens is another annual favourite (see Plant of the Month) and I love the way the blue flower heads hang provocatively downwards in a most beguiling way. Once you grow these little plants they will seed themselves and start to appear above the soil in the autumn, as is the normal way with the early spring flowerers.

Polyanthus plants should be in garden centres now. They look so pretty growing in baskets or tubs, bringing with them a freshness that we look forward to in spring. Unfortunately, they are very short-lived here, so enjoy them while you can. Ranunculus, anemones and freesias all add their bright colours to the spring scene but you have to plant them in the autumn to have them in flower now.

Potted plants could do with being revitalised this month. Some plants become pot-bound over time and while the result may be masses of flowers, the plant could flower itself to death! If the roots are protruding through the holes at the bottom of the pot then you should re-pot them. Use a mixture of potting compost and garden soil or clean builders’ sand and add in some slow-release fertiliser along with some water retaining crystals. Bought potting composts only have enough nutrients to feed the plants for about four or five weeks so the extras are needed to keep the plants going for longer. You can also start to plant up hanging baskets and there are many plants which look good in those. Remember that in high summer they will need to be watered at least twice a day, so hang them where you can easily do this job.

If you grow grass then scarify your lawns now with a thin tined rake and remove all the debris from the root areas. Fork over any bare patches and re-seed if necessary with Kikuyu or Four Seasons grass seed or a mixture of both. Water, sit back and watch it grow and then you will have to mow it!

 

Plant of the Month – Cerinthe major Purpurescens

Cerinthe, a member of the Borage family, is wonderful hardy annual for all gardens as it enjoys full sun and can tolerate temperatures down to minus 5C. Hardy annual just means that it can be sown directly into the ground without any cosseting. In fact, seeds dropped from the lovely flowers can start to germinate in late autumn given decent weather. Its common name is Honeywort and it was originally found growing at this end of the Mediterranean, so it is ideally suitable for our gardens.

It is considered to be one of the best annual plants with its mottled-white silvery leaves, spiralling up the stem and setting off the blue tubular flowers, held inside sea-blue bracts. Alas, they have no scent but are much loved by bees that dive in and out of the attractive flowers. This popular plant likes to grow in full sun or partial shade at the front of a flowerbed and for impact in large groups, rather than single plants. It prefers to grow in well-drained soil and unaffected by bugs it is such a joy to behold in the early summer months.

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