Shipton Bulbs

As it’s the quiet season for us I’m taking the opportunity of getting out and about and chatting to some of our current suppliers. I popped up to Wales on Tuesday to see two of my favourites – Shipton Bulbs (John Shipton and daughter Aelfwyn), and Gower Wildflowers. Gower Wildflowers are in the Gower (duh!) and John is in – er – I’m not sure I could tell you. My SatNav certainly couldn’t. Somewhere in deepest Carmarthenshire. Even when I found his smallholding I wasn’t sure it was the right place. Y Felin, his HQ, is less of a normal nursery and more of a sylvan idyll, whose ferny slopes yield hundreds of thousands of British bluebells. But then John Shipton isn’t your normal nurseryman either. He sits at an exotic intersection, where pre-Beyonce Glastonbury (he was at the first festival) meets Selborne Chase meets Kathmandu. He leads trips to the Himalayas, following his explorer father Eric’s footsteps, and we chatted about a recent visit to the mountains of Albania. The first post on his new blog, A Guide to Five Star Ditches, tells the story of a recent expedition to cross the Southern Patagonian ice cap. In between trips he tends his bulbs.

It explains some of the exotica in the nursery, which happily rub shoulders with a fascinating variety of species from closer to home. There are all sorts of goodies for the British plant enthusiast, including the mouth-wateringly obscure Bath Asparagus (Ornithogalum pyrenaicum), a relation of the better known Star of Bethlehem, and our very own curly form of chive (Allium schoenoprasum var anglicum). John has historic varieties of daffs (as well as our wild daffodils) and seven different forms of Wood Anemone. He has squills and crocuses, trilliums and primulas, ferns and violets… his list is a plantsman’s delight and a testament to his knowledge and enthusiasm. His bulbs and plants come in basic but carefully prepared packaging and they’re beautiful quality, and of course their provenance is as good as it gets. Promoting this kind of grower is very much part of what Habitat Aid should do, and I hope we’ll be able to do a lot more with Shipton Bulbs in future.

5 Top Plants for Bees

I was kindly asked by Interflora to write a guest blog on plants for bees (below), as part of their campaign promoting bee awareness. I’ve described my top 5 bee plants along the lines of a kind of botanical Desert Island Discs. I’m not sure which one I would take with me if all the others were washed away… What would your top 5 be?


As the countryside becomes more and more of a green desert, gardeners have an increasingly important role to play to help bees. What can you do? One of the most critical things for all pollinators is access to food sources for as long as possible throughout the year. This is true for honey bees, which need varying amounts of nectar and pollen depending on what’s going on in the hive. I’ve picked my top 5 honey bee plants for all year round forage in the garden, which will help other pollinators too. Diversity is a key requirement for bee health too, so I’m not suggesting you stop with these 5!

The Bumblebee Conservation Trust reckon that Viper’s Bugloss (Echium vulgare) is perhaps the ultimate bumblebee plant – and it’s not bad for honey bees either. Native plants aren’t grown enough in gardens, and this is a classic example of one which looks really good in a border, especially when grown in groups. By definition, our native flora is good for our native fauna. Like the wild Foxglove, Viper’s Bugloss is a biennial with loads of nectar, but it flowers endlessly, from June to September, and does well in the sun in dry, well drained, even sandy soils. In the wild it’s distributed throughout England, and it deserves a place in everyone’s garden as well.

One of the reasons Bugloss is such a good plant is that it flowers during a midsummer gap when there is surprisingly little forage about and honey bee colonies are at their biggest and hungriest. Look around in June/July and you’ll be surprised how little colour you see in gardens or countryside. Professor Francis Ratnieks, one of our leading honey bee scientists, is very keen on helping colonies through this period. Ask Francis for the best plant for gardeners to grow for honey bees and he will tell you without hesitation that it’s lavender. Why? Lavenders are certainly rich in nectar, but the most important thing about them is that they flower through the gap. Early research suggests that the larger lavender cultivars are the best for bees, and you can find varieties from fragrant white to luscious dark purple. Look for the hardier and less picky Lavandula angustifolia or Lavandin x intermedia cultivars for individual plants or to make a lovely hedge.

As honey bees’ colonies decline from mid-summer, the bees work even harder to bring in food to store for the winter months. Among native plants Ivy is the best late nectar plant, but you can do really well for bees and butterflies with Sedum spectabile, which flowers from September. Sedums are forgiving, easy plants to grow and look lovely in groups at the front of a border. Their flowers are easily accessible for honey bees, with their relatively short tongues, and you’ll also find them popular with young queen bumblebees, fattening themselves up to over-winter.

Oregon GrapeThings can get really tough for bees in the winter months, and not because of the cold; it’s warmer winters which can be problematic for them. Why? On warm winter days honey bees will fly, and without available forage they use up their honey stores too quickly and starve. Active bumblebee queens will also die, as they use up their fat reserves. Gardeners can do their bit to help by providing winter nectar to help see them through. There are several very attractive and fragrant varieties of Mahonia which flower in the dead of winter – as opposed to early spring – which do the trick very nicely, and will site comfortably in a shadier spot. They have healthy looking, glossy foliage when not in flower, and their berries are good for the birds. Mahonia x media ‘Charity’ is one of my favourites.

Once spring is springing the honey bee colony starts building up again. At the beginning of its cycle it needs pollen to feed its new brood, which can initially be in short supply. A great source for it at this time of year is crocuses; you can see the bees flying back to the hive with their distinctive orange pollen from February. Crocuses are pretty, easy plants to grow, and will naturalize easily in your lawn. Go for varieties of Early Crocus, Crocus tommasinianus, which are easy to find and cheap. The bulbs should be planted in autumn.

Bulbs for Bees!

Spring forage
Crocus and Honeybee
One of the things we bang on about is the need for early and late forage for honeybees. They particularly need protein from pollen at this time of year for themselves and for their new brood, and there’s not much yet in flower. We’ve planted plenty of crocus bulbs to help them out – an ace source of pollen in the early Spring. You can see the bees covered in bright orange pollen when they get back to the hive. To my great joy they were out in force today (joined by the odd hoverfly!), and I managed to snap one in the late morning sun. Planting bulbs is easy and provides immediate reward; they naturalise well too. What’s not to like!