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Top five herbs for the wildlife garden

Insect-attracting edible plants

Unless you have a large garden, where space is not an issue, then plants need to earn their place. Fortunately there are many plants that are both useful to us and to wildlife. Many of these are tasty and aromatic herb. Here are five that are a must for any wildlife garden.

Chives’ rounded umbel flowers © Annies Planet/Pixabay

Chives – Allium schoenoprasum

One of the milder onions, the whole plant is edible but the leaves are best and these can be regularly harvested from late spring until late summer. This native perennial occurs sparsely in the wild and is possibly more populous in gardens!

Do let it flower because its pink umbels are considered among the top 10 sources of nectar, making it a favourite of bees and other pollinators. Chives likes to form spreading clumps in full sun although it is much better behaved than its woodland cousin, the rampaging wild garlic.

Coriander – Coriandrum sativum

Although from much warmer climes coriander is surprisingly hardy; I have some growing outside now at the end of November. The first of my coriander seeds get sown in March, followed by sowings every couple of months until September. Be aware that it runs to seed swiftly as the weather warms, it is an annual after all.

Its many white flowers are held on umbels that are attractive to pollinating flies and parasitic wasps, the latter are good predators for veg growers to have around (they love eating aphids etc). Coriander can be treated as a ‘cut and come again’ herb but make sure some is left to produce seed that can be gathered and sown the next growing season.

Emerging fennel flowers © Fran Halsall

Fennel – Foeniculum vulgare

Belonging to the same family as coriander, the Apiaceae, fennel shares the flat landing pad-like umbels only on a much larger scale and in a vivid shade of yellow.

Hoverflies in particular zone in on these flowers. The herb form is grown for is aniseedy leaves, which can be eaten fresh or steeped in boiling water to make a tea; Florence fennel is the cultivated variety grown for its bulb.

Originating from Mediterranean shores, perennial fennel grows vigorously in our climate and it is advisable to collect the seeds otherwise it will produce multiple offspring. Either save these for resowing or use them in cooking – fennel seeds are a digestive aid.

Mint – Mentha spp.

Many of the mints we commonly grow are ones that have been introduced to the UK from Europe. However there are a few Mentha that are endemic to this country: both water and corn mints are widespread. All mints are good choices for insects – the mint moth being a notable visitor.

Whorled mint flowers © Jan Haerer/Pixabay

Although they come in different arrangements: globular and whorled along the stem and panicle flower spikes, the common factor is the high density of flowers per head, making mint an invaluable addition to the wildlife garden.

It flowers better in some sun yet will grow next to the northern wall of a house with no difficulty. It is wise to containerise mints, as the rhizomatous root system is notoriously vigorous.

Oregano – Origanum vulgare

Although inextricably associated with Italian cuisine, this is is actually a native species and is one of the best plants for a various pollinators, including bees and butterflies. It is in the same family as mint, the Lamiaceae, and may also enjoy the attentions of the mint moth.

Oregano and marjoram are both common names for different plants in the Origanum genus, all of which are pungent herbs that can be used both fresh and dried. Harvest it through the year, always remembering to cut back to a leaf pair so that it resprouts from this point.

Let some flower and then when the blooms fade cut back to the ground, saving the stems for drying, and it will produce lush new foliage from the base the following spring.