Astonishingly, the rain only had to stop for a few minutes for bees to reappear and start foraging. But now, this late in the season, we are seeing occasional honeybees and solitary bees in the garden, but no bumbles.
There are plenty of plants to feed the few bees that visit. The nepeta which was cut back after its first flush continues to produce new flowers. A hellebore which decided to bloom in July is still going strong and has lovely fat seed pods. The annuals are finished, the dahlias gone to a sorry mess. The star performer right now has to be Mahonia x media ‘Winter Sun’, with Hebe ‘Wiri Prince’ a close second. There are signs of things to come with buds beginning to swell on the spring flowering shrubs and the winter-flowering cherry, Prunus x subhirtella ‘Autumnalis’. This is a very pretty small tree which flowers from November through to February or March. It never has a huge show of blossom, rather a series of delicate pink or white flowers appearing a few at a time on naked stems in defiance of the weather.
This is the time the bulb suppliers cut their prices and there are many bargains to be had. Think of the bees: even if your outside space is concrete and astroturf, you can still plant pots of early flowering bulbs, especially crocus. Buying half-price bulbs is a good alternative to Christmas shopping, and the bumbles will not care which colour is left. After last year’s disaster when voles ate almost all the crocus bulbs we planted, literally hundreds, we are taking precautions. The bulbs have been planted in pots and placed in a rodent-proof frame to grow (see image below). Once they are growing strongly they seem to lose their attraction as food, and can be safely transplanted into the garden. We will do the same with pea, bean and sweet pea seeds in the spring.
It is also the time to be planning for next year in the garden, noting successes and areas for improvement, marking gaps and spots for new plants. Our aim for next year is to have a better succession of annual flowers. We will be sowing a second batch of annuals in late April so that as the first plants are waning, we have fresh vigorous plants to take their place. The sweet peas did very well this year, but as they began to look scruffy there was nothing to follow. Having observed Cobaea scandens buzzing with bumbles and honeybees this summer, it suggests itself as a natural follower for the sweet peas.
A final word on annuals; though it is rather late, there are still a few seedpods lingering which can be collected in a dry spell. Give them time to dry thoroughly before storing. Throughout the summer we have been gathering cosmos, centranthus, cornflower, marigold, wild carrot and other seeds from the garden and sprinkling them on the bank between the bumblebee garden and the sales terrace. This is a bank of made up sand and hardcore retained behind old railway sleepers. It was originally planted with buddleja as it was deemed little else would grow there. There are already a few centranthus and marigold seedlings appearing in this totally inhospitable site. If only one in a hundred grows it will be worth it.