Sunflowers

Best flowering plants for gardens

Single petal varieties, particularly annuals, are more likely to be useful to insects looking for pollen and nectar than multi-petal hybrids. The seeds of ornamental grasses, such as millet, are often attractive to birds.

Alyssum - Alyssum spp

Height and spread: Variable, but generally 15cm (6ins) x 50cm (20ins). Some varieties spread to 50cm (20ins).

Conditions: A hardy plant, which grows best on fertile, well-drained soils in full sun.

Features: There are more than 100 different varieties of this plant, which is a member of the cabbage family. These occur as annuals, perennials and sub-shrubs. They have a spreading growth often forming a rounded hummock shape with erect flower stems. The flowers can be seen in early summer and can be yellow or white.

Propagation and maintenance: Seeds can be sown in containers during spring or autumn and germinated in a cold frame. Soft shoot cuttings may be grown if taken in early summer. Maintain their shape by trimming lightly after the plants have flowered. Retain dead stems over winter to provide seed and refuge for insects.

Benefits: A drought-resistant plant, attractive to bees, moths, butterflies and hoverflies. They are also attractive to aphids, which are eaten by birds and other insects.

Candytuft - Iberis spp

Height and spread: Variable, but generally 15cm (6ins) x 30cm (12ins). Some varieties grow and spread to 30cm (12ins) x 60cm (24ins).

Conditions: Hardy plants, which grow in neutral to alkali, poor to moderately fertile soils, with good drainage and in full sun. 

Features: Members of the cabbage family, represented by more than 40 different varieties. They occur as perennials, annuals and evergreen sub-shrubs. They are a spreading, hummock forming plant with white, purple, red or pink, sometimes fragrant flowers.

Propagation and maintenance: The seeds of annual varieties may be sown directly. Those of perennials or sub-shrubs need to be sown in containers in autumn and kept in a cold frame. Softwood cuttings can be taken in late spring and early summer. Plants may require light trimming after flowering to maintain their shape. Retain dead stems over winter to provide seed and a refuge for insects.

Benefits: Candytuft is attractive to bees, butterflies and moths. It is also attractive to slugs, snails and caterpillars, all of which are eaten by a number of birds.

Daisies, dandelions and thistles

Formerly called the Compositae, this family of daisies, dandelions and thistles is large. Plants in this family have many small flowers that are gathered into a flowerhead which then looks like a single flower. It contains many plants that are exceptionally good for wildlife, either attracting insects for nectar or birds and small mammals for seeds. A few are listed below.

  • Corn marigoldGlebionis segetum – honey bees and butterflies for pollen and nectar.
  • French marigoldTagetes patula – butterflies and hoverflies for nectar.
  • GoldenrodSolidago virgaurea – bees, butterflies and moths for nectar; siskins, linnets and finches for seeds. Most other goldenrods are invasive.
  • Greater knapweedCentaurea scabiosa – bees, bumblebees and butterflies for nectar; siskins, linnets and finches for seeds.
  • Common marigoldCalendula officinalis – honey bees for pollen; bumblebees, hoverflies and butterflies for nectar.
  • Michaelmas daisy, Aster novi-belgii – very popular with bees and butterflies for nectar; linnets and finches for seeds.
  • Sunflower, Helianthus annuus – honey bees, bumblebees and hoverflies for nectar; doves, finches for seeds.
  • TickseedCoreopsis verticillata – bumblebees for nectar; linnets, greenfinches, redpolls and goldfinches for fruits.
  • Yarrow, Achillea millefolium – bees, bumblebees and many other insects for nectar; birds for insects and seeds. 
Harvest mouse Micromys minutus, adult in amongst daisies, Hertfordshire

Flowering tobacco - Nicotiana spp

Height and spread: 60 to 150cm (2 to 5ft) x 30cm to 40cm (12ins to 16ins). One evergreen, sub-shrub variety may grow and spread by 2.5 – 3m (8-10ft).

Conditions: Moderately hardy and grow well in moist, fertile soils in full sun to partial shade.

Features: There are around 70 varieties, ranging from annuals and biennials to perennials and sub-shrubs. Form erect growing plants with varying coloured, occasionally scented flowers. Flowers are yellow, pink, red or pale green and occur through a long period over summer.

Propagation and maintenance: Directly sow seeds in mid-spring. Most varieties require staking when mature. Perennial and biennial varieties of N. alata and N. sylvestris may be over- wintered. Cover base with a dry mulch to protect over winter. Cut back to old wood in early spring and retain dead stems over winter to provide seed and refuge for insects.

Benefits: Attractive to a number of important insects, such as bees, butterflies and moths.

Knapweeds - Centaurea spp

Height and spread: Variable. Some varieties may grow to 1.2m (4ft) tall, but generally 20 to 80cm (8 to 32ins) x 20 to 60cm (8 to 24ins).

Conditions: Hardy plants, preferring well-drained soil in full sun. A few varieties require moist well-drained soils in sun or partial shade.

Features: There are in excess of 450 varieties of Centaurea. They are grown either as perennials, biennials and annuals. The flower heads are distinctly spherical or hemispherical with tubular or lobed florets. Flowers can be mauve, pink, yellows and blues.

Propagation and maintenance: Annuals can be seeded directly in spring, while those of perennials may be sown under cover in a cold frame. Some varieties may be sown in autumn or propagated from root cuttings. They may be grown in borders and some varieties grow well in grass. Retain dead stems over winter to provide seed sources and refuge for insects.

Benefits: Particularly attractive to bees, butterflies, moths and hoverflies.

Millet - Panicum

Height and spread: Generally 30cm to 1.2m (12ins to 4ft) x up to 60cm (4ft). Pearl millet grows much taller: 1.5 to 3m (5 to 10ft).

Conditions: A hardy group, which prefer moderately fertile, well-drained soils in full sun. They grow well in mixed or herbaceous borders.

Features: There are more than 470 varieties of perennial, deciduous or evergreen millet. A very decorative plant; leaves vary in colour from light to dark green, purple or grey-green. Flowers grow in large showy panicles, rich in seeds.

Propagation and maintenance: Seeds can be sown directly in the spring. Spring and early summer is the best time to divide any perennial varieties.

Benefits: Millets are reasonably drought-tolerant, particularly foxtail millet (Setaria italica) which is also attractive to house sparrows as a source of seed food.

Nettles

The stinging nettle is one of the UK’s most important native plants for wildlife. It supports more than 40 species of insect including some of our most colourful butterflies. It is a perennial with a square stem and pointed, toothed leaves covered in stinging hairs. 

The long, whitish catkins of male and female flowers are born on separate plants from June until September. It can grow up to two metres high and flourishes on most soils, although it does particularly well on rich soil. Nettles spread rapidly via seeds or creeping underground roots.

A nettle patch harbours plenty of insects and invertebrates and is a magnet for birds and other insect-eaters. In late summer the huge quantity of seeds produced are food for many seed-eating birds.

Make the most of your garden

  • Cultivate a nettle patch.
  • Don't relegate it to a distant, shady corner. Ensure some nettles grow in full sun to attract the most insects.
  • Cut some nettles in the summer to encourage a late flush of leaves.       
  • If you are stung, a natural remedy is normally close by. Dock leaves contain chemicals that neutralise the sting and cool the skin.
Nettles, RSPB Flatford wildlife garden, Suffolk

Rose - Rosa spp

There is a bewildering number of different roses, but if you want to enjoy them for their wildlife benefit, as well as glorious summer flowers, choose old-fashioned varieties which are fragrant and disease-resistant.

Several rose species are native to the UK, with the dog rose (Rosa canina) and field rose (Rose arvensis) particularly good.

Ornamental shrub roses, such as hybrid tea roses, are also useful addition to wildlife gardens. They can attract many species of insects.  

Take care with your choice of rose, as some species are invasive so aren't suitable for a wildlife-friendly garden. 

Animals that benefit: The fruits are popular with birds. A wide range of insects will be attracted to the flowers including bees and butterflies.

Sunflower - Helianthus spp

Height and spread: Most varieties grow in excess of 1.5m (5ft) but range from 40cm to 5m (16ins to15ft) x 1m to 1.2m (3 to 4ft).

Conditions: Requires full and prolonged sun in order to flourish. Humus-rich, moist but well drained neutral to alkaline soil is favoured. Some varieties favour moist soils.

Features: The sunflower family has in excess of 80 different annual and perennial varieties. Most are comparatively tall growing with large yellow flower heads.

Propagation and maintenance: Perennial varieties can be sown in spring in a cold frame. Annuals may be sown in cold frames in late winter or sown directly in spring. Perennials can be divided in spring or autumn. Retain dead stems over winter to provide seed sources and refuge for insects.

Benefits: Some annual varieties (for example H.annuus) attract birds to feed on the seeds. Also attractive to bees, butterflies and hoverflies.

Close up of Sunflower, Northern Ireland