The key and the lock – attracting certain flies to your garden

Flies or dipteria covers quite a gamut of flying insects. Here I’m not talking about blue bottles but insects like hoverflies, drone flies and bee flies. These eat nectar and/or pollen of certain flowers and help us with pollination.

But that’s not the only reason why they’re a welcome addition to the garden. Although adult hoverflies are mainly flower specialists, consuming nectar or pollen, hoverfly larvae are mostly carnivorous. The larvae of some hoverfly species eat aphids. Hurrah! While the larvae of some other species, such the drone fly, live in stagnant pools of water where they consume bacteria. Points for them too. Also some files are an essential part of the food chain that support insectivorous birds such as warblers and robins.

Typical diptera mouthparts are made up of a short fleshy tube they use to suck up liquid or semi-liquid food. Some also ingest pollen. Because the tube is quite short, diptera tend to visit small, flat flowers which present their nectar openly.

Many flowers of the carrot or umbellifer family (Apiaceae), are like this. A few great ones for the garden – that are also really easy to grow – are:

  • Orlaya grandiflora – finely cut foliage and produces umbels of tiny pure-white flowers surrounded by showier white petals. 
  • Ammi visnaga – forms flat, dense heads of green-white flowers set against ferny, green foliage.
  • Bupleurum griffithii 'Decor' – lime-green with tiny flowers surrounded by a ruff of zigzagged bracts. 
Hoverfly on  Euphorbia  by D. J. Martins

Hoverfly on Euphorbia by D. J. Martins

Other flowers that are attractive to the short ‘tongues’ of the dipteria include some members of the Euphorbiaceae family, and members of the Asteraceae that have very small florets in the central disc of each flower. A few good ones are:

  • Euphorbia conigera – a compact summer-flowering perennial with lime flower-heads that brighten shady corners. Wear gloves when handling though – the sap may irritate your skin.
  • Aster amellus – showy, rich purple-blue flowerheads that have golden yellow centres. Great for end of summer and autumn interest.

Finally, and worth a mention is the bee fly. They are common in gardens during the early months of the year so really need early flowering plants to feed from such as Aubrietia and Primula.

Come back to my blog to find out how to encourage other insects to your garden. This is in the run up to BBC Gardeners’ World Live in June where I’ll be exhibiting my border: “Useful and beautiful.”

The key and the lock - attracting wasps to your garden

I imagine you’re thinking why and earth would I want to do that. Wasps have a bit of a bad rep. You probably think of them as bothering you while you’re tucking into your picnic on a late summer afternoon. Ok, they do do that, but there’s lots to be said in support of the wasp - it really does make a valuable addition to the biodiversity of your garden.

The biggest difference between bees and wasps is how they feed their young. Wasps actually provide animal food for their larvae in the form of other insects they've hunted down. Now I don’t know about you, but that sounds like it could be useful. 

Those insects – we should respect them all of course – but those that really make your life difficult as a gardener. Aphids are top of the list for me and almost put me off growing roses or sweet peas. Another is grey fly which goes crazy for my lupins! Wasps also play an important role in helping pollination as they visit flowers too. Adult wasps of most species drink nectar.

Like bees, most species of wasps in this country are solitary and live in specialised habitats. These might be gaps in dead stems, dead wood or the ground. I’m building a wasp house for my border at BBC Gardeners’ World in June. Hopefully it will be a talking point!

Wasps have short tongues and a few plant species have evolved to attract them. Some top plants on their menu are:

  • Ribes uva-crispa or the gooseberry – one of the first soft fruits to ripen in UK gardens, its fruits are great for humans and wasps love its flowers for nectar. (Pictured above left)
  • Nectaroscordum – these beautiful bulbs in the allium family are very attractive as a nectar source for social wasps, which are possibly their main pollinator. (Pictured above right)
  • Hedera helix – more commonly known as ivy, flowers in late summer and autumn and produces exposed nectar that is particularly attractive to social wasps and their short tongues. 

Keep coming back to my blog to find out about how to help other insects in your garden. This is all in the run up to my BBC Gardeners’ World Live where I’ll be exhibiting my border: “Useful and beautiful.”

Image credits: Richard Becker/FLPA/Minden Pictures and

The key and the lock – attracting butterflies and moths

You’ll know many insects use pollen, nectar, or both to feed themselves or their young. But did you know that not all insects can get food from all flowering plants? The mouth parts of insects vary in shape and size and this determines the types of plants they can use to get their food. Think of it as matching the right key to the right lock.

That’s why when planting wildlife or pollinator gardens, we need to use a combination of plants with different sizes and shapes of flowers. We want to be able to attract not only honeybees – which aren’t too fussy about where they get their food – but other insects such as butterflies, moths, wasps, flies and beetles. These insects are far more particular.

Helping out butterflies and moths

Let’s start with butterflies and moths. While their young feed on leaves for their energy – anything from the cabbage family is a real hit – the adults feed on nectar. Butterflies and moths have evolved to have a very thin feeding tube – or proboscis – that they use to suck nectar out of flowers. These fit nicely into flowers made up of small tubular flowers, often grouped together.

Favourites on the menu for butterflies and moths are:

  • Verbena bonariensis – tall, with wiry stems and purple flowers, it gives great structure to a border and can be used as a see-through screen. There’s also a shorter version, ideal for smaller gardens called V. bonariensis ‘Lollipop’. (Pictured above first left.)
  • Matthiola incana alba – this needs constant deadheading but is worth the effort as these beautifully scented white flowers attract early butterflies from late spring onwards before a lot of the flowers they love really get going. (Pictured above second left.)
  • Buddleja davidii – its common name is butterfly bush, which says it all really. It’s available in different varieties so you can pick a few to keep the butterflies and moths coming through summer and autumn. It can be a bit of a thug if not managed, so cut back after flowering and you’ll get new flowers on new growth each year. (Pictured above second from right.)
  • Hylotelephium spectabile – botanists have changed its name recently and you might know it as Sedum. This is a great variety that flowers in pink well into autumn and also looks lovely dusted with frost in winter.  (Pictured above far right.)
  • Nicotiana alata – also known as the tobacco plant, attracts larger visiting moths such as the Convolvulus Hawk Moth. Its lime/white colour shines out at night and it produces scent in the evening, too. It’s also very elegant, fairly easy to grow from seed yourself and prefers some shade.

Come back to my blog to find out how to encourage other insects to your garden. This is in the run up to BBC Gardeners’ World Live in June where I’ll be exhibiting my border: “Useful and beautiful.”

Image credits: BBC Gardeners' World and

Visit my border at Gardeners' World Live 2018!

I'm very excited! My border “Useful and beautiful: a pollinator’s paradise” has been selected to feature at Gardeners' World Live 2018!

The border answers the theme of "Every space counts" and takes up a tiny 2.75m x 2.75m raised bed. There’s evidence that pollinators are less abundant than in the past. Yet no matter how much space we have outside, we can all do our bit to increase their numbers. This bed is carefully planted with shrubs, annuals and perennials from the RHS Perfect for Pollinators Plant List.  No matter their type or the season they arrive, every winged visitor will find something to nourish them. Creations made from recycled materials give them space to drink and rest and climbing flowers reach the sky. We humans just simply enjoy the beauty. My plan is to find a permanent home for the border after the show finishes.

Gardeners' World Live is 14-17 June 2018 at the NEC in Birmingham. Open to the general public, this BBC endorsed event hosts advice workshops, showcases new product announcements, show gardens and borders and has a stunning plant marquee. 

I'll be posting more about the work behind the scenes to make my design a reality, but for now, why not get yourself an early bird ticket for the show and have a look at the best borders at the show from the last few years?