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Home & garden.

14 Mar 2022

Best patio plants for attracting pollinators

Choose the best patio flowers to fill your garden with bees and butterflies
Which?Editorial team

If you have window box or balcony, a courtyard garden or a patio, planting pots full of bright flowers can attract a host of pollinators. 

Patio pot plants can be great for outdoor decoration, but planting certain varieties to attract bees, butterflies and other insects can add so much interest and support wildlife.

We've rounded up the best native and non-native flowering patio plants for looking good all summer long and attracting a host of pollinators. 


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Our top five picks

These plants gave a great display and were buzzing with pollinators

coreopsis

Coreopsis

In similar golden shades to bidens, coreopsis has a more delicate look, a bit like a yellow cosmos. It can be annual or perennial so can be used in the border as well as in pots, so long as the soil isn't too waterlogged. The bright flowers look great filling a pot on their own, but could be used in combination with other plants, too. We found they attracted a lot of hoverflies, which really enjoyed the ‘landing platform’ provided by the petals and broad pollen-filled eye, staying on the plant for a longtime as they fed.

Nicotiana

Nicotiana

Nicotiana comes in a huge range of colours and heights so bear this in mind when choosing a variety for your patio. Nicotiana is sweetly fragranced and their scent is best at night when they attract the most insects – namely moths. Unfortunately, we didn’t see any day-flying moths feeding on our plants during this trial, but we still saw plenty of butterflies, bees and small beetles enjoying the nectar.

Scabious

Scabious

The compound heads of scabious flowers come in a lovely range of pinks, purples and dark reds, and are a magnet for bees and butterflies. The flowers are held on long stems, so could easily be included in a mixed pot or planted by themselves. We grew a traditional lilac-flowered variety in our trial and were impressed by how long our plants flowered for, giving continuous blooms from May, well into November.

Monarda

Monarda

Also known as bee balm, monarda comes in a variety of colours from dark red through to purples and pinks to pure white. In our trial, the tall stems made a lovely splash of colour and the slightly fluffy or ragged blooms attracted plenty of bumblebees to feed. It’s probably best in a pot by itself where the interesting structure of the blooms can be seen. Keep it well watered to avoid powdery mildew.

bidens

Bidens

Bidens comes in many forms, but the majority are simple, single flowers in yellow or orange that can be used as fillers in patio pots or on their own. We found the single flowered varieties were best at attracting bees –especially small solitary bees and honeybees– and hoverflies. The more elaborate, double flowered types were much less successful at enticing insects.

Not recommended

Bedding plants that we use as summer patio pot-fillers may have long-lasting flowers, but the production of pollen or nectar accessible to bees and butterflies has often been lost. Sadly, in our trial, several traditional favourites weren’t very good at attracting pollinators, but don’t despair as there are lots of very attractive alternatives. Look for flowers that are singles, rather than doubles, and grow plants with different shaped flowers as this allows a wide range of insects to feed. Choose native or wildflowers whenever you can. Place the pots in full sun where you can as this will encourage pollinators to visit.

These plants didn’t appear to attract much insect life

Pelargonium

Pelargoniums

A traditional choice for summer pots, pelargoniums have bright flowers that look like they might be great for attracting bees and butterflies. However we didn’t see much evidence of this during our trial. Although they gave a lovely display that lasted well, we only saw a few ants on the leaves, which might have acted as pollinators. We would recommend growing similarly colourful phlox or monarda as an alternative.

fuchsia

Fuchsia

Fuchsias are very pretty and we got a lovely pot full of blooms, which lasted well into November, although we didn’t see any pollinators visiting. It’s difficult to suggest an alternative to fuchsias, but some Salviax jamensis varieties offer a lovely range of pinks, purples and bicolour flowers that will be positively buzzing with bees all summer. The flowers will last well into the autumn, too.

Verbena

Verbena tenera is a beautiful summer staple for patio pots and is often sweetly scented. It looks a bit like lantana, which attracts butterflies, however in our trial it didn’t seem to attract any insects at all. There aren’t many flowers that make a good substitute, so we’d suggest you grow it with another flower to provide nectar for the bees and butterflies.

How we tested

In spring the researchers from Which? Gardening magazine selected a range of flowers to grow on the patio; some traditional choices, such as fuchsias and pelargoniums, and other less conventional choices, such as cerinthe and monarda. We planted them into pots and put them out on to a patio in May. We set up anon auto-irrigation system to keep them well watered. We monitored them throughout summer, looking at how much of a display they gave, which insects they attracted and for any problems they suffered.

What pollinators to look out for

Solitary bees and honey bees

There are more types of solitary bees in the UK than the more recognisable bumble bees and only one type of honey bee. They both love to feed on nectar in flowers and collect pollen on their hairy legs. 

Bumble bees

Furry bumble bees are a favourite of gardeners. Look out for the large queen bees emerging on sunny days as early as March and still flying into November. Small garden bumblebees may set up home in compost heaps so watch out for them emerging from their underground nests.

Butterflies

A huge range of butterflies will visit our gardens during the summer but only a few species enjoy garden flowers. Many are specialist feeders that feed on one type of flower or prefer shrubs. Look out for painted lady butterflies and red admirals as they are frequent garden visitors and can be seen in large numbers in some years. 

Hoverflies

Often confused with wasps and bees that they mimic, gentle hoverflies have no sting, The quickest way to tell them apart is to look at the wings -hoverflies have only two rather than the four of bees or wasps, and the large round  eyes make up most of the head in contrast with the smaller, almond-shaped, bead-like eyes on bees and wasps.


Beetles

Little black pollen beetles are the most common type of beetle pollinator – though there are many types of ‘pollen beetle’ in the UK. But also look out for the spectacular shiny green rose chafer beetle that feasts on pollen, especially open-centred blooms such as roses. 

Moths

Look out for day-flying moths such as the hummingbird hawk moth that loves to feed on nectar rich plants such as phlox and red valerian. Night flying moths will love to feed on nicotiana and night-scented stocks but they will be tricky to spot without a moth trap.