The Memorial Garden at The Lodge, Bedfordshire, England.

Flowering plants

Herbaceous, biennial and annual plants and bulbs look great and provide nectar, seeds and cover for wildlife. They are also excellent at filling gaps between trees and shrubs.

More than just a splash of colour

Flowers look beautiful and bring welcome bursts of colour to our gardens, but they’re also a fantastic source of nectar, seeds and cover for the wildlife which lives there.

With careful planning and a mix of herbaceous, biennial and annual flowering plants, you can have something in flower for most months of the year. So introducing a busy mixed border to our gardens can bring year-round colour as well as a world of wonderful wildlife. 

When selecting flowering plants, try to choose single petalled varieties. Many modern hybrids with multiple layers of petals or blooms look very pretty, but often have much less nectar and pollen and are less beneficial to potential feeding insects.

Arable flowers, such as corn cockle, corn marigold, poppy and cornflower, provide an attractive splash of colour throughout the summer and are very easy to grow. They are pleasing to the eye and attract many beneficial insects which come to nectar and feed on the pollen. Their seeds provide a source of food for birds too and can also be improved by adding a small amount of spring wheat or barley. On top of this, you’ll be giving a home to a type of flower that is very much in decline in the UK.

You can grow arable flowers in plant trays. So even the smallest of spaces can benefit from a spattering of colour and give a home to nature. A shallow, tray filled with soil can be seeded with a suitable mix of flowers and will look very attractive on a balcony, terrace or other restricted space.

How flower borders can make important habitats

Although flower borders are not natural habitats, they can be extremely valuable for wildlife. They provide food and cover for many animals and act as a refuge for some wild flowers that are becoming rare in the countryside. Choose carefully and you can have something in flower right through the year.

It is best to grow native species in your flower border, as these attract the most wildlife. However many non-native species are rich in nectar so are a magnet for insects, which in turn draw in more insects, birds and other animals.

Make the most of your garden

  • Many native wildflowers that are getting rare in the countryside are finding a refuge in gardens. If you'd like to grow them, make sure you get plants from specialist nurseries. Never take plants from the wild.
  • Include plants that flower late or early in the season to encourage bees and butterflies throughout spring, summer and autumn.      
  • Regularly dead-heading your plants will keep the flowers coming - and the wildlife.

Planting

You can plant the rootstocks of perennials from autumn through winter. This is also the best time to divide and transplant established perennials.

  • Plant at 0.25-0.5m spacings and try to incorporate plenty of organic compost into the soil around the plants and mulch around the base after planting.
  • Plant spring-flowering bulbs, such as crocus, tulips and daffodils, in the autumn.
  • Potted herbaceous plants can be planted throughout the year. Those planted in spring and early summer will require watering.
  • Establish annual and biennial plants in late spring. This can be done either by sowing directly onto the bed or establishing plants in trays in a cold frame or greenhouse before planting out. Spacing for these may be from as little as 5 or 15 cm (2 to 6 ins), to 0.25m (9 ins).
  • Annuals and biennials require regular watering during and after establishment, particularly when the weather is dry.
  • Arable flowers require disturbed soil. You can grow these in a specific flowerbed or mixed among vegetables, or other flowers. You can also add a cereal, such as spring barley to grow among the flowers and give added interest and food for birds.
  • Arable flowers germinate in autumn or spring, or sometimes both, depending on the species. Night flowering catchfly is a spring germinating plant, but poppies are autumn and winter germinators. White campion will germinate in both spring and autumn. You may want to seed in both autumn and spring to maximise the number of species that grow.
  • A shallow rectangular tray, between 150mm and 225mm (6ins to 9ins), with suitable drainage in the bottom and covered in light soil can be used to grow arable flowers and cereals. Try placing several trays together to increase the area.
Trowel in soil

Maintenance

  • Reducing competition around plants helps them establish. This can be done by mulching and/or weeding. The amount of weeding can be reduced by mulching to suppress unwanted plants and retain soil moisture.
  • Weeding should be carried out sparingly and soil disturbance should be minimal to reduce moisture loss. Constant cultivation perpetuates the opportunity for seeds to grow.
  • Many wild annual plants are of great benefit to birds for their seeds and some of the insects they attract. Weeding infrequently and lightly will ensure some food for birds.
  • As flowering plants begin to slowly die back in late summer, you may find wild annual plants become established in the gaps left. These may be left over winter to provide a source of seed for birds.
  • Let stems and old flower heads of flowering plants die back naturally over winter to provide food and shelter for wildlife. Seeds will feed birds for at least part of the winter and many insects over-winter in old stems. Cut or break off dead stems in late winter to early spring. If the cover of stems is very thick, you may need to rake some off to allow easier access for birds.
  • Divide perennials every few years to keep them healthy and after the flowering and growing season has finished.
Couple gardening

Tools for the job

  • Small border Spade – for planting
  • Border fork - for planting and weeding
  • Hand fork and trowel - for planting
  • Hoe – for weeding
  • Secateurs – for trimming old stems in late winter 
Trowel and fork in soil

Recommended flowering plants

Sunflowers

Single petal varieties, particularly annuals, are more likely to be useful to insects looking for pollen and nectar than multi-petal hybrids.