I was asked to write another article for my local bee association, about how I keep forage available all year for the pollinators that visit my garden. I thought you all might be interested in this subject as well, though for many of you in colder climates, much will not be applicable. Here is the article in entirety; I believe it will appear in the July MDBA newsletter. It is geared toward other beekeepers. Enjoy!
It’s a June morning in the garden, and it seems every flower is occupied by a pollinator of some sort. As I stroll through the flower beds, I see a female carpenter bee on the early morning blooms of the nicotiana. On the bright blossoms of galliardia, a western bumble bee collects pollen. The honeybees from my hive seem to be focused on the Peruvian pepper tree, which is covered with long white flowers. Meanwhile the fennel is covered with anise swallowtail butterfly larvae, and the gulf fritillaries are beginning to visit the cosmos. And look, a hoverfly in the yarrow patch! I sigh in relief. I’ve done my job. I’ve provided food for many insects.
I can’t take all the credit; in summer, the living is easy for pollinators. But what about August, when everything is looking a little peaked? What about October, when ‘peaked’ is but a dream, and ‘crispy’ is the order of the day? We California beekeepers prepare for this by leaving enough honey in the hive for the bees to get through not only winter, but fall as well. Some feed their bees syrup to get through this hard time.
When I became a beekeeper, I vowed to do things differently. I wanted to provide forage 365 days a year. I knew this would be a daunting goal, but after several years, I feel I have come very close to accomplishing it. Here are a few things I have learned in this process.
1) Natives are our winter friends…
Here in California, winter is not our dormant season. Sure, it’s drippy (or so we fervently hope), but native plants have evolved to coexist beautifully with that. Wet and chilly are no problem for plants that live in the wild here – in fact, it wakes them up and gets them started early. Manzanitas start blooming as early as late December, and ceanothus begin blooming in January; both look attractive even in summer when it’s hot and dry. The trick with these is to plant them in very loose, sandy or gravelly soil (not rich or amended), right before the rains come. Don’t water them (maybe a couple of times the first summer, if it’s really bloody hot), and don’t prune them (place them somewhere they can get big!), and then leave them alone. They’ll do their thing, year after year, with little to no input from us.
As for native annuals, the earliest to bloom is buttercup. They are often the first flower I see on my winter hikes, and a harbinger of spring. These seeds are also best planted in late fall, to take advantage of the winter rains. This is true also of the other early spring annuals, like poppies and lupines.
2) …But in summer, exotics take over.
I love native plants, but they have evolved to show off in winter and spring (there are exceptions, like Matilija poppy in summer, or California fuchsia in autumn, both great pollinator plants for a drier garden). In summer, I truly think the best plants for the pollinators are from other places. For drought-tolerant perennials that do well in our Mediterranean climate, you really can’t beat sages and salvias; they will bloom repeatedly all summer long and well into the late fall (often the most difficult time in the garden). Some are great for dappled shade, others for full sun, so there is a salvia for pretty much any corner of your garden.
As far as annuals are concerned, anything goes, as long as you have them in an area that will get regular water (planting in groups according to water needs is the best way to go; we certainly don’t want to waste this precious resource). Natives are great, but why be a purist? As long as we manage our water carefully, we should enjoy the flowers we like best. I tend to like a mix of high-summer annuals like cosmos and zinnia, and late summer-to-late fall annuals, like tithonia and rudbeckia. (Tithonia wins, hands-down, for hosting the biggest variety of pollinators – everything likes it, from hummingbirds to bees to butterflies.)
3) Grow perennials from starts, and annuals from seed….
After years of false starts and high hopes, this guideline has become a real mantra for me. Perennials take years to truly get established, and it’s simply easier to start them as seedlings rather than from seed. I buy new perennials every year, whether to replace those that have gone woody and decadent, or new ones to tuck into a blank spot. This requires some planning and budgeting; I do not have an unlimited account for plants (more’s the pity)! The way I make up for that is by planting all my annuals from seed. Seed is relatively cheap, and there’s always the hope that your plants will re-seed on their own.
Here’s how I plant annuals: I have several areas in my garden that are not mulched, these are the designated ‘pollinator gardens.’ I leave them un-mulched for two reasons; one, to provide habitat for ground-nesting pollinators, and two, because I can add seed year-round. I take a bucket or tub, fill it with soil (either compost from our own bins, or leftover potting soil, whatever I have available), and mix in the seeds. Then I broadcast them into the pollinator gardens, around the perennials (I always have some water-loving perennials in these areas as ‘base plants,’ things like cuphea). I honestly often forget which seeds I’ve broadcasted where, and I’m always pleasantly surprised by what comes up. I start sowing seed as early as mid-March and try to do it monthly through the summer.
4) … But without fail, buy from a reputable source!
I’m sorry to say, big box stores just won’t cut it if we want our plants to provide good nutrition for pollinators. I’m also not terribly fond of hardware store, drugstore, or grocery store flower displays. I’m not even a fan of most nurseries in our area. The plants they are selling may look tempting, but most are grown only to look good. They’re grown far away, and they need to survive for a long time until they get to their final destination, and they need to look good when they get there. They accomplish this by using specific hormones that inhibit growth (studies show that buyers prefer plants of a certain size) or bloom earlier. They are often grown using systemic pesticides so the leaves don’t get eaten. If you read the recent article in our MDBA June newsletter from the UK (see here), you’ll see that scientists found numerous pesticides in plants sold by large grocery chains. I don’t know about you, but I want to feel good about what I’m giving the creatures who visit my garden. I want my yard to be a haven for them. I don’t want to lure them in with beauty and the promise of wholesome nutrition, only to feed them junk food.
So where to buy your plants and seed? For natives and drought-tolerant perennials, I very much like to support the local organizations powered by passionate volunteers – Native Here Nursery in Berkeley, Markham Gardens in Concord, the Ruth Bancroft Garden in Walnut Creek, the UC and Tilden Botanical Gardens, - there are so many more (go here to find a great list on the California Native Plant Society website: http://www.calscape.org/plant_nursery.php). Retail gardens include the Watershed Nursery in Richmond, Annie’s Annuals in Richmond (Annie’s propagates all the plants they sell, in the nursery), and Bay Natives Nursery in San Francisco. Annie’s also sells many drought-tolerant perennials from other countries, such as South Africa and Australia, that do well here, as well as lots of plants from other Mediterranean climates. Two other great resources are the Bringing Back the Natives Tour website, and the UC Urban Bee Lab website.
For native seed, I like to support Larner Seeds in Bolinas; Judith Larner grows the plants in her trial garden and saves the seeds from those. I tend to buy a pound or so of her mixes every year and scatter them in my gardens in the fall, before the rains come.
For exotic seed, there are lots of places to buy, and since it’s from seed, you don’t have to be quite as careful about its origins, although organic is always a good choice. Renee’s Garden in Felton has a lot of nice flowers, and she’s fairly local and has many organic choices; American Meadows has a non-GMO pledge and provides seed in bulk.
5) Don’t forget ornamental and fruit trees, herbs, and vegetables!
Fruit trees are a no-brainer, offering good forage for the pollinators in spring, but ornamental trees can be great, too. Western Redbud is a wonderful small tree that the native bees adore. We have several trees that I would not have chosen for our garden, due to their weedy natures, but they provide fabulous blooms for the bees – the aforementioned Peruvian pepper (some call it a California pepper) and an enormous catalpa. My neighbors have Chinese tallow trees that bloom in late June and my bees go crazy for them. It’s fun to walk around your neighborhood and determine what kind of tree forage your bees are getting.
Perennial herbs are another great way to feed the bees. Plant swaths of thyme, chives, culinary sage, rosemary, and lavender, and watch the bees flock to them. You can use them in your cooking year-round, while providing forage and beauty. Cilantro, basil, and dill, all annuals, can be sown every few weeks spring-thru-fall to provide a consistent forage (for bees and households). And what pollinator garden is complete without borage? It might just be the perfect plant. It re-seeds freely, it starts blooming in February, and blooms until the first frost. When the plants get brown and old, I add them to the compost where they enrich next year’s soil. Reliably, a new plant comes up in exactly the same place.
My summer garden wouldn’t be complete (as far as the honeybees are concerned) without a crop of cucumbers and squash – they adore the blossoms!
And finally –
7) Plant flowers that have a variety of shapes.
Different pollinators prefer different types of flowers. Butterflies are attracted to umbels, such as fennel and Bishop’s lace. Hummingbirds like trumpet-shaped flowers, and will feed from any flower in your garden if you provide just a little red to draw them in. Native bees like to poke holes at the base of those same trumpet-shaped flowers, to ‘steal’ the nectar, and often honeybees can be found using these same holes. The classic daisy shape is always a hit with honeybees. Moths like the white flowers, which bloom at night. I always find a variety of colors and shapes is best; diversity is the key word. We are told that honeybees prefer a large area of the same flower, but I find that if I scatter the same flower throughout my garden in different spots, it’s just as appealing to them. I have ‘repeating themes’ throughout, which unifies it in a sense, but mostly it’s just a wild jumble of blossoms, which seems to satisfy everyone, nature and humans alike.