THE MODERN MINT BLOG
A 6 acre plant nursery in Oxfordshire run by Rosi Rollings, propagating and selling plants that are valuable for bees. As if that wasn’t enough, they are also researching which plants are the most bee friendly. This research is fascinating and we hope encourages you to change the ethos with which you plant your garden.
Rosi, can you tell us a little more about what you’re doing?
You could say I am indulging two of my passions: plant propagation and bees. I have spent much of my working life doing interesting but unfulfilling jobs in Financial Services and spending any spare time – between bringing up two kids – in the greenhouse sowing seeds and dreaming of running a nursery. Then my husband suggested we keep bees and because we live in a very small village finding a site to keep them on was quite easy, so we did that. The more I learnt about bees and how much they are under threat, the more I wanted to do something practical to help.
And then, the desire for a nursery got to the stage where I took time off work to do some serious research and make some decisions; 2 days into my leave of absence I had my lightbulb moment to focus on plants for bees. I didn’t even know which plants where good for bees or how I was going to grow them but the idea took hold and I spent the next 12 months working out the details.
That was 4 years ago and we now own 6 acres of south Oxfordshire and a big polytunnel which allows us to not only produce the plants but also to grow them so we can study how the bees react to specific plants… and my husbands pedigree Southdown sheep keep the spare grass areas in check.
So you had this lightbulb moment, but you didn’t know which plants were good for bees – so where did you start?
I started researching ‘plants for bees’ by finding all the lists that are published… and then finding that most of them are very general and even if a plant is on the list you cannot tell how beneficial they are; they do not tell you if it attracts one bee a day or one per minute.
So, I realised I was going to have to do it through trying the plants and observing. I started with trying out about 20 varieties and planted them in clumps of 3’s or 5’s (I had read somewhere that bees like that and luckily it turned out to be true) then I simply watched the plants regularly and noted who came to visit. I also went to lots of big gardens like Wisley and Hidcote and observed the bees in their gardens too. After 12 months I had my initial stock list of 40 plants. My list was generally a subset of the RHS list but with a few differences at the species level; often I am more specific.
There is a lot written – particularly by the wildlife trusts – about native plants being best. This never made any sense to me as many of the bees are not really native. My first observations of bees foraging in my garden indicated that bees were as happy on non-native plants as native. Recently the RHS published its initial findings from a 4 year study and this is also their conclusion. Bristol seem to think that some bumblebees do show a preference for native wildflowers but this may be due to millenniums of familiarity rather than the plants being superior for them in food terms.
I did find one very useful quantified resource – the Melissa Garden – which indicates the volume of honey you can get from an acre of various different plants. I now find they have published their ‘top 5’ plants and I am delighted to say that – for honeybees – I agree with 4 of them.
Of the top 5 plants – borage, phacelia, echium, lemon balm and solidago – which don’t you agree with? Our instinct tells us the solidago…
It is the solidago that I question in the top 5… I have never seen honeybees on golden rod and have tried 3 species. However it has great appeal to hoverflies, flies and small beetles all of which are valuable in their own way. I have similar misgivings about lemon balm but it does get some smaller bees.
The borage, phacelia and echium are all fab and I would probably put in my top 10 – which I will not finalise until I have more empirical evidence. Interestingly those 3 are all from the same plant family and all have the trick of renewing their nectar throughout the day where most plants are dry by lunch-time on a hot day.
Can you tell us more about the nursery?
I planned the whole nursery as part of a 5 year business plan and things are going well. From the start I wanted to aim for some scale and design it to be efficient so that my time could be spent on more valuable activities than moving plants and watering. I have seen too many nurseries where they have grown ‘organically’ (excuse pun) and then spend their time going from one tunnel to another and everything becomes hard work.
We have a single wide-span polytunnel which has capacity to support us for at least another years growth and then we will need a second one, a very large water tank for collecting the rain from the roof (his makes us completely self-sufficient for water as we also recycle it) and all the plants are in flood benches where they are kept clean, disease-free and watered automatically from below.
All of this required a lot of late nights on the internet and talking to experts on the phone so that I could understand what we needed. It was quite a challenge but so far it has worked well. I love my floodbenches because its just so nice to be working at a comfortable height where you can really see the plants.
We try and be as environmentally friendly as possible throughout the site – rainwater harvesting, peat-free compost, seaweed fertiliser, recycled materials in the construction – but we cannot claim to be fully organic as I would apply a small spray of anti-fungal if I suddenly found black-spot on a particular plant. Luckily this is rare.
The public are becoming more aware of the need to help pollinators – have you noticed this perception grow?
I do see a growing interest in planting for wildlife rather than just aesthetics but I also see a lot of garden centres and nurseries jumping on the ‘band wagon’ and simply re-labeling the same old products… often quite inappropriately. If people are selective about what they buy, over time growers will stop producing sterile, over-bred, weak plants – the equivalent of a dog breed that almost guarantees a poorly animal.
What can we do for bees?
Bees are looking for pollen as their protein and nectar as their carbohydrates. Just like us, a variety of these is important for healthy bees therefore monocultures such as vast fields of oil-seed rape are a worry, but at least they provide bee-food on a large scale.
What else can be done?
If everyone with a garden took a good look at their existing planting and assessed how much value it delivers; then swap out plants that only provide colour but no other value. It’s not difficult to find plants that provide both but we need to look at our gardens with different eyes and make the space work harder to provide value for both us and the insects.
Oh, and stop buying six-pack annuals as most of them are just useless; a complete waste of money and space (I can feel the rant rising but I feel strongly about that…)
What would you like us to take away from this interview?
To continue to raise awareness about what plants to grow to help the bees and encourage a different approach to gardening.
How can we tell we have a bee-friendly garden?
The simple buzz-test works – walk gently round the garden on a warm sunny day and see how many areas of flower are buzzing and, more importantly, which are not.
Thank you Rosi, fascinating research and a pleasure to speak with you!
‘Bee-valuable plants’ are available online from Rosi (the link is above! Do become a customer!) or, to start from seed, try the Bee Mixture seedballs on the Modern Mint shop.
As organic gardeners we thought you may be interested to know where you can buy organically grown, bee-friendly bulbs here in the UK. The list is short, sadly, but we hope that in the future EVERYONE is stocking them each Autumn. Modern Mint – Help The Honeybee Organic Catalogue have a good range – Autumn Bulbs Crocus stock a few – Organic Bulbs For further reading on why you should plant organic bulbs, see this piece in the Telegraph by Modern Mint favourite John Walker, The Earth Friendly Gardener.
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Sally Nex is a writer at The Garden magazine, the Guardian, Grow Your Own magazine as well as teaching at the online My Gardening School. We met her via Twitter and through emails a few years ago – and she is lovely. Her writing too is always interesting, worth a read. Sally gardens in Somerset, on an acre of land, where she says she battles the brambles and also looks after chickens and a flock of Dorset Down rare breed sheep. And now she has a new book coming out, based on Growing Your Own for Self Sufficiency. Published by …