Feast for butterflies and bumblebees in herb garden

A herb patch gives a show of summer colour – and is a magnet for butterflies and bees, writes FIONNUALA FALLON

A herb patch gives a show of summer colour – and is a magnet for butterflies and bees, writes FIONNUALA FALLON

ALTHOUGH they could have had their pick of any one of the hundreds of flowers growing in its vast double herbaceous border, the various butterflies busily hunting for nectar in the OPW’s walled Victorian kitchen garden last week had just one genus of plants on their minds.

Thus the solitary, magnificent Peacock, the handful of Small Tortoiseshells and the Red Admirals showed scant interest in the garden’s showy, ruffled dahlias or its giant violet-coloured artichoke flowers.

The same went for the powdery blue blooms of the nearby catmint, the scarlet hollyhocks and the agastache. Even the candy pink flowers of a flourishing patch of cosmos did nothing to distract them as one by one they fluttered purposefully towards the newly- created herb patch.


Here, in a very sunny, scent-filled corner of the garden, they joined a garrulously happy army of bumblebees, honey bees, hoverflies and wasps who were already busily feeding on the tiny, scented, nectar-rich blossoms of the oregano and marjoram plants. For it seems that nondescript as they might appear to a human eye, many of Irelands loveliest butterflies find the flowers of these aromatic culinary herbs simply mouth-wateringly irresistible.

“Ever since the pink oregano flowers began to open last week, they’ve been absolutely covered with lots of different pollinating insects – there’s been so many of them that we can hear the noise of their buzzing from quite a few feet away. We’re also growing a white-flowering form of marjoram that they like almost as much,” says OPW gardener Brian Quinn, adding that it’s been a particularly good summer for hoverflies.

“We’ve also noticed lots and lots of honey bees, some of which we reckon are coming from the new hives in Aras an Uachtarain.”

Raised from seed in the nearby heated glasshouse, the thriving oregano and marjoram plants have been growing in the walled kitchen garden for several years, although not in their present location. “This is the first year that we’ve given all the herbs their own particular patch – before then, they were scattered all over the place,” explains Brian, pointing to the nearby neat lines of chives, rocket, tarragon, sage, rosemary, fennel and thyme.

“So we lifted and transplanted them all this spring. Growing together in one patch, they now give a great show of late summer colour. And now they’re even more of a magnet for bees, butterflies and hoverflies, which helps hugely with pollination in the garden.”

When it came to choosing the best location for the walled Victorian garden’s new herb patch, Brian and his fellow OPW gardener Meeda Downey made sure that the herbs were given a sunny, protected and free-draining spot as most (not all) are heat-loving Mediterranean plants that can sometimes struggle in this country’s cool damp climate.

“We’ve lost plants like thyme and oregano in the past, when we planted them into flat ground, Now we make sure to plant them into ridges (raised drills about 15cm high) which helps a lot with drainage. We also cut the thyme, oregano and marjoram back soon after they’ve finished flowering, which helps to keep them bushy and healthy.

But the last couple of winters have been very hard on some herbs – for example, we lost all of our rosemary plants,” explains Meeda, adding that the gardeners intend to fleece the plants in cold weather from now on.

But if the thick carpet of baby thyme seedlings that has recently appeared just next to the parent plants are anything to go by, the walled garden’s herbs already seem to like their new location very much.

“We’re going to lift and pot on as many of these as we can,” says Brian. “The plan is to grow a big spread of thyme and oregano in the next-door slip garden, which is also where our new bees hives are going to be kept (these are due to arrive shortly). Thyme is a brilliant source of early summer nectar while the oregano is a great source of late summer nectar, so together they’ll help to keep the honey bees happy and well-fed.”

And while both the bees and the herbs will surely thrive in the very sunny, protected slip garden (this section of the walled garden is presently off-bounds to visitors), any visiting butterflies will also appreciate it as a nectar-rich hunting ground. According to Dr Liam Lysaght, head of the National Biodiversity Data Centre in Waterford (biodiversity.ie), it’s been a difficult year for these lovely insects.

“Numbers this summer are definitely very low although the most recent sighting figures suggests this is beginning to improve,” he says. “But climate change means that their breeding and feeding patterns are increasingly out of synch. For example, this year’s early warm spring meant that many butterflies emerged much earlier than normal while the subsequent cool summer and harsh weather affected breeding numbers – butterflies are reluctant to fly when the temperature goes below 16ºC.”

Yet another reason, if one were needed, as to why we should all keep our fingers very firmly crossed for an Indian summer.

“For a recent (2010) scientific assessment of Ireland’s fluctuating butterfly population , check out the publications section of the website of the National Parks and Wildlife Service (npws.ie), and in particular its Red Lists section. Liam Lysaght also recommends the Facebook page of the Irish Butterfly Monitoring Scheme, and the recently published book Discovering Irish Butterflies and their Habitats by Jesmond Harding.

This year’s GIY Gathering takes place in Waterford City on September 10th-11th and will include over 40 workshops, talks, demos, panel discussions, debates, expert QAs, and forages over two days. Speakers include Joy Larkcom (one of the world’s leading veg experts), and writers Bob Flowerdew (BBC Gardeners World presenter and author), Darina Allen (of Ballymaloe Cookery School and author), Ella McSweeney ( Ear to the Ground presenter), Suzanne Campbell, (author of Basket Case – Whats Happening to Ireland’s Food), John McKenna (Bridgestone Guide and Irish Times writer), Duncan Stewart (presenter of Eco Eye and About the House), Klaus Laitenberger (author of Vegetables for an Irish Climate) and Michael Kelly (author of Tales from the Home Farm). A €25 ticket – available from giyireland.com – gives you access to all events over the two days -.

The OPW’s Victorian walled kitchen garden is in the grounds of the Phoenix Park Visitor Centre, beside the Phoenix Park Café and Ashtown Castle. The gardens are open daily from 10am to 4.00pm

Fionnuala Fallon is a garden designer and writer

What to sow, plant and do now

Sow outdoors in pots or modules, for later planting in the tunnel or greenhouse when summer crops are cleared, for late autumn/early winter crops:, Cabbages Greyhound leafy non-hearting spring types, carrots (Nantes types, in long modules or pots), kales such as Cavalo Nero, dwarf green curled and Ragged Jack (Red Russian), lettuces (non-hearting leafy types, winter Gem winter butterheads), endives, Swiss chards leaf beets, beetroot Bulls Blood for salad leaves, peas (for pea shoots), Claytonia, American landcress, leaf chicories (raddicchio), rocket, summer turnips, coriander, chervil, plain leaved and curly parsley and sorrels. Covering while outdoors with a fine mesh covered frame or cloche will give young seedlings protection from pests (like cabbage root fly and cabbage white butterflies), and also scorching sun, strong winds or heavy rain.

Outdoors, sow in modules, in a seedbed for transplanting, or in situ where they are to crop, possibly to cover with cloches or frames in autumn: beetroot, brocoletto Cima di Rapa, early Nantes type carrots for late autumn cropping, cabbages (red ball head), Greyhound and leafy non-hearting spring types), peas (for pea shoots), radicchios, endives, Japanese overwintering onions, salad onions, Claytonia (winter purslane), lambs lettuce, American landcress, winter lettuces, kales, radishes, rocket, summer spinach, summer turnips, Oriental greens such as Choy Sum, Pak choi, mibuna, mizuna, mustards Red Green Frills, Chinese kale (Kailaan), Komatsuna, quick maturing salad mixes, parsley, buckler-leaved and French sorrel. Sow fast growing green manures like buckwheat, red clover, mustard (a brassica so watch rotations) and Phacelia, to improve soil, lock-up carbon and feed worms (digging them in later after the first frosts, then covering to protect soil, preventing nutrient loss and possible pollution), on any empty patches of ground cleared of crops that wont be used over winter.

N.B. Sow in the evenings if possible as germination can sometimes be affected or even prevented by too high a temperature - this applies particularly to lettuce, and also greenhouse-sown carrots.

Do: Continue hand-weeding, hoeing, watering young module/container plants. Plant out well-established, module-raised plants, spray maincrop potatoes against blight, keep glasshouse/polytunnel well-ventilated, continue to feed tomatoes, pumpkins, cucumbers, check that protective netting (Bionet) against carrot fly, cabbage root fly, cabbage white butterfly is firmly in place (inspect for eggs caterpillars also), check supports for tall plants (beans, peas, tomatoes (continue to nip out side shoots), protect vulnerable crops against slug/snail damage, continue harvesting/ storing produce.