These cold winter days don’t allow for much gardening time. Like many of you, I’ve been considering the possibilities that spring planting offers lately, particularly as seed catalogs pile up and lure me into their pages with colorful spreads of summer’s bounty.
Last week, it was warm enough for bees to fly. I went out back without the restrictions of a heavy coat, feeling as light and carefree as my honey bees navigating and searching for any available food sources. I let the chickens out, watched my honey bees flying for a while and considered garden options for the spring. I even brought a nice cup of hot tea outside, sweetened with my girls’ honey, of course.
I set the cup down on the patio table and wandered over to my vegetable garden where my chickens were busily turning the soil for me. I wondered what to grow in that lovely, dark soil. I like to try at least one new vegetable each year. As I tallied up the available raised beds and reconciled them with my mental list of proposed plants, I realized that I’m out of room, again. I need a bigger space (or perhaps, a more tailored list). Disillusioned, I returned to my patio for a sip of tea while I considered my options.
Before sinking spade or shovel into any of the ground around my home, carefully nourished garden soil or otherwise, I always consider how a plant will support pollinators and wildlife in my landscape now that I’m a beekeeper. Vegetable gardening is a bit different than my landscape offerings where I opt mostly for native plants that are longer lived. However, there still exists an opportunity to add plants that provide nutrition to honey bees in the vegetable garden.
I was thinking about such things as I reached for my tea cup, but I was derailed by the very insects over which I mused. Five industrious honey bees were investigating my tea! Two were swimming in the honey infused tea and needed to be fished out, one was navigating the rim of the cup, and two more were preparing to land. With so much attention to their own sweet honey, I resorted to quickly finishing up the nectar they provided me, else I’d have bees everywhere! The very fact that I was drinking tea with their honey delighted me and fueled the fire to carefully consider my vegetable garden offerings.
My vegetable garden is conveniently located next to my beehives, allowing for a quick jaunt from the hive on a less than optimal foraging day. It’s fenced in to deter deer and keep out bunnies. Along the sides next to the fencing, I grow brambles which attract a lot of bee attention. In fact, blackberries are listed as an important nectar source in Maryland for honey bee forage per NASA (https://honeybeenet.gsfc.nasa.gov/Honeybees/ForageRegion.php?StReg=MD_11). I grow blackberries, raspberries and blueberries and it is not just a delicious endeavor but an entertaining one given the volume of bee activity these blooms garner. But a word of caution: all brambles require diligent care else they do exactly as their name suggests and take over. They are easy to grow, but they require annual pruning so if you don’t want to take time to do this, skip them.
In addition to vegetable garden staples like tomatoes, cucumbers, strawberries, squashes and lettuces, I enjoy growing herbs, not just for their culinary interest but because I find herbs to be useful to my honey bees. In fact, I reserve several raised beds for just such purposes, planting more each season. Some, like lavender, oregano, sage, thyme, and tarragon, return yearly ; others need new starts, like temperature sensitive basil. As gardeners, we tend to clip our herbs back to keep them productive, but if we grow some specifically for our pollinators, then it’s important to allow them, or at least some of them, to go to bloom and nourish our bees.
I grow a variety of basil but I’ve found the blooms of thai basil to be particularly interesting to honey bees. I also grow a lot of thyme, not just in my vegetable garden but as a ground cover in various other places in my landscape where I allow it to bloom freely. Those pale purple clusters of tiny flowers will practically sway with so much honey bee activity, particularly late summer.
Borage is a fan favorite in my vegetable garden also. I like to snack on the pretty blue blooms, the taste reminiscent of cucumbers, and toss them into salads. Bees love it too, bumbles frequently sleeping upside down on the blooms, holding their foraging spots for the next day. It readily reseeds but is easily pulled up.
Garlic chives are similarly undisciplined and readily reseed but are a bit more work to pull up should you not like their advances. Not only do I like the appearance of the bunches of tall stems holding clusters of little white, star-shaped flowers, but they come into their blooms in late summer when bees are searching for food.
Of all my herbs, I suspect my girls’ favorite to be hyssop. I started with a two by ten-foot patch of anise hyssop a few years ago which I’ve allowed to spread to various other parts of my landscape. These aromatic plants grow about three feet tall and literally team with pollinator life that covers the plants, often several pollinators per bloom working harmoniously side by side. Each slender purple spike contains a myriad of tiny blossoms that the bees work one at a time, cordially moving out of the way when necessary to share the bounty with their pollinating kin.
Calendula, nasturtium, lemon balm and mountain mint are other herbs well-liked by bees in my yard but bear in mind that just because bees are said to like a particular plant, they may not show up, depending on what other options are available to them. That’s okay because we welcome all pollinators to the table anyhow! And before you get too carried away like me and exhaust your allotted space, take care to research the growing habits of what you’d like to add, else you plant something that reseeds too much for your taste.
As we anticipate warmer days, warm enough to grow our food and reap the benefits of raising honey bees, consider what you’d like to add to your vegetable garden. Carefully chosen plants in a vegetable garden can offer good nutrition to our honey bees when the primary nectar flow ends. While you’re at it, savor some of your honey in a steaming cup of tea, pull out those seed catalogs and dream of honey bees bringing in nectar again this year, just as nature intended.
“The hum of bees is the voice of the garden.” -Elizabeth Lawrence