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In the Night Garden: How to Help the Moth, a Vital and Underrated Pollinator

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In the Night Garden: How to Help the Moth, a Vital and Underrated Pollinator

August 3, 2023

Think of garden pollinators, and myriad bees instantly spring to mind. But recent studies have found that night pollinators are actually more efficient than day flying insects. This year researchers from the University of Sussex reported that moths are vital insects for our gardens, pollinating at a faster rate than bees and playing a critical role in pollinating wild plants, too. The latest research follows similar work over the past few years into insects that have largely been neglected from recent studies on pollination.

Like the bees, these insects are in a rapid decline, which not only threatens us, but also food supplies for other species including bats and birds. But we can all make small changes in outdoor spaces to help these moths thrive. Last month at the RHS Tatton Park Flower Show in Cheshire, England, designer Sharon Hockenhull created the Nocturnal Pollinator Experience, highlighting key plants and simple ideas to support these crucial insects. We caught up with the designer to find out more about her night garden—and how we can all do our part to help moths.

Photography courtesy of the Royal Horticultural Society unless otherwise noted.

1. Scent their way.

Above: A hawk-moth visiting a verbena plant.

Moths are drawn to plants that pump out their fragrance at night and these popular garden plants are easy to add to any space. They include hedges and climbers such as star jasmine (an excellent evergreen hedge with stunning white flowers and incredible scent), evening primrose, nicotiana, and night-scented stocks. Many of these plants tend to be pale or white, which helps the insects navigate toward them in the darkness; experts also suggest planting lots of these night-scented cultivars closely together so that the moths do not need to waste energy flying long distances.

Above: Hockenhull’s design included an area of meadow with native species including achillea.

2. Provide a diverse menu of plants.

But think beyond typical garden plants, too. “Having a garden with a whole range of plant types is the key,” says Hockenhull, whose favorite plant to add is native honeysuckle. “Willowherb is a food source of the incredible elephant hawk-moth (which we captured onsite during a moth catch one night) and nettles, brambles, thistles and a whole range of wildflowers are key plants for a range of moths to exist. In the gardening world, we need to encourage the idea of being more tolerant of these weeds.”

Above: In color-rich borders, Hockenhull illustrates how to create ornamental habitats by incorporating cages of logs, sticks, moss and leaf litter.
Above: In one planting zone of the garden white perennials and grasses are punctuated with columns of star jasmine.
Above: A rusted bowl tucked into the planting provides water for passing wildlife.

3. Give them shelter.

Choosing plants for all stages of the moth’s life cycle is also important. Foxgloves, mint, verbascums, and hedges all provide valuable habitat or food sources for the insects in all stages of their lives. “Shelter is another key ingredient to sustain moths in your garden,” adds the designer. Hedges, grasses, or ferns offer them a safe place to hide from predators. “Most people love to sweep away and discard leaves during the autumn; however, many moth eggs, pupae, and larvae hibernate in our fallen leaves. Raking them and using them as a mulch under trees, hedges, and shrubs is an easy way to help them and will create the best soil improver for your garden at the same time. Equally, creating ornamental habitats is a good way of re-using any garden cuttings, old stems and flower heads, twigs, moss etc to create safe places that they can rest undisturbed.”

Above: Each area of the garden illustrates how to help pollinators in different spaces. Here, the design suggests a typical small town garden with a small lawn, shed with water butt, mixed borders, and a nectar-rich mini meadow.

Leaving areas of wild scrubby ground, some nettles, and an overgrown corner and making a dead hedge with prunings and leaf matter is incredibly beneficial to these insects. It’s an easy adjustment for many of us to make, allowing one area to be a bit messier or piling up seasonal clippings and leaving them in situ. Brambles, often cleared away, were found to be particularly useful to moths, and a valuable summer nectar source.

Above: In the courtyard garden raised beds were used to create vibrant, flower-filled borders.

4. Dim the lights.

Above: Lighting in the garden is kept low and as natural as possible.

Increasingly we are lighting our gardens so that we can appreciate it after the sun sets, helped by evermore sophisticated solar and low-voltage lighting systems. But think carefully about how you do that. Artificial lighting disrupts the habits of many night flying insects and can also affect their mating. So keep any light low and warm—and if you are not in the garden, then turn outdoor lights off. “Less is more when you are planning a lighting scheme for your garden,” agrees Hockenhull. “Simple lanterns with candle light is one of my favorite ways to light a garden as it creates a much more relaxing atmosphere.”

Above: An elephant hawk-moth visiting the show garden. Photograph by Sharon Hockenhull.

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Frequently asked questions

What is a nocturnal pollinator?

A nocturnal pollinator is a type of insect or animal that is active during the night and plays a vital role in pollination by carrying pollen from one plant to another.

Why are nocturnal pollinators important in a garden?

Nocturnal pollinators, such as moths, are vital for the reproduction and survival of many plant species. They help transfer pollen between flowers, promoting fertilization and the production of seeds and fruits.

How can I attract nocturnal pollinators to my garden?

To attract nocturnal pollinators, you can incorporate plants with night-blooming flowers, such as moonflowers, evening primroses, or night-blooming jasmine. Adding sources of light, like solar-powered lanterns, can also help attract them.

Are there any specific plants that nocturnal pollinators prefer?

Yes, some plants are specifically adapted to attract nocturnal pollinators. These include fragrant flowers with light or white petals, plants that produce nectar at night, and species that are most active during twilight or moonlit nights.

How can I create a night garden to benefit nocturnal pollinators?

Creating a night garden involves selecting plants with evening or night fragrance, incorporating plants with pale or white flowers, providing sources of water, and minimizing artificial lighting that might confuse or deter the nocturnal pollinators.

What are the benefits of attracting nocturnal pollinators to my garden?

Besides aiding in plant reproduction, attracting nocturnal pollinators can enhance the biodiversity of your garden and provide food sources for other creatures like bats or birds. This creates a more balanced and healthy ecosystem.

Are there any specific gardening practices that can help nocturnal pollinators?

Maintaining a pesticide-free garden, planting a variety of native and night-blooming plants, providing shelter like dense shrubs or bat houses, and minimizing the use of artificial light at night are all practices that can benefit nocturnal pollinators.

What are some common examples of nocturnal pollinators?

Some common examples of nocturnal pollinators include moths, bats, beetles, and certain species of bees. These creatures have co-evolved with particular plants to form essential pollination partnerships.

Can I create a night garden in a small urban space?

Yes, even in a small urban space, you can create a night garden by incorporating potted night-blooming plants, installing vertical gardens, and using hanging baskets or trellises to maximize vertical growing space.

How can I sustain a night garden throughout the year?

To sustain a night garden year-round, consider selecting a diverse range of plants with different bloom times and ensuring there are options for seasonal night-blooming flowers. This provides a continuous food source for nocturnal pollinators.

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