If you want to help the bees, bee savvy says Jean Vernon
January brings a glut of seed and plant catalogues through the door, all vying for attention with their attractive bright and tempting pick and mix of plants.
For the greenhouse gardener it’s a welcome distraction from the current wet, murky winter and a chance to dream about spring and summer.
To keep the ‘wish list’ getting out of control you need to have some boundaries. Time and space are logical constraints. You need plenty of time on a regular basis to keep up with the needs of your developing plants. You also need space to pot them up and grow them on before planting outside. Growing from seed especially in a greenhouse demands dedicated care and attention, so if you can’t check on your seedlings regularly then you might be better buying plug plants in a few months time.
The buzz word for gardeners at the moment and please pardon the pun, is planting for bees. That’s great, be bee friendly, but beware too. The bee bandwagon and bee information highway needs a bit of translating. There are lots of banners, labels and information for gardeners, to show which plants are good for bees. Great, bees really need our help and growing the right plants, those rich in pollen and nectar helps offer them a vital food source. But it’s not that simple: This labelling ONLY indicates which plants in their pure and raw state offer a good source of pollen and nectar for our bees. In my humble opinion these labels can be misleading. Unless you enquire how these plants have been grown and get assurances that they have not been treated with anything that could potentially harm bees and other pollinating insects, by buying and planting them you may inadvertently be poisoning the very creatures that you want to help and support.
Bee Savvy, Grow Organic
So to be bee friendly you need to bee savvy too. The simplest and most cost effective way to do this is to grow all your plants from seed. Where possible choose organic seed, much easier for vegetables than for flowers, but shop around, there’s plenty of choice if you look.
If you have a greenhouse then you have a head start. Many seeds can be sown safely in the protection of a greenhouse. You can be in total control of what you treat your plants with (preferably nothing other than a quality plant food) and what you grow them in (choose organic compost when you can). If you do have pest problems with your plants, don’t reach for the spray can before you assess the problem. Birds and other natural predators looking for a meal quickly devour many insect pests. If you must spray, do it as a last resort and choose a safe, bee friendly method.
Plants for pollinators
Consider which plants are good for pollinators. It’s not just that they are rich in pollen and nectar; the insects need to be able to access it too. That means you need open flowers, usually single flowers where the centres are exposed and available as landing pads for these precious creatures. Or plants with tubular flowers, like lavender or nasturtiums that the insect’s long tongues can reach into to sup nectar.
You can check lists of plants for bees online, but there are few that really stand out above the rest and can be grown on the edges of your veg patch, around the flower garden, or even in pots and containers.
My top five bee plants from seed are as follows: Cosmos, agastache, borage, sunflowers and phacelia. These are all easy to grow from seed and great garden plants, so grow more than you need and give them to friends and neighbours to extend the food source for your local bees, butterflies and pollinator.
Local fruit and vegetable flowers will be pollinated by the wide variety of beneficial insects attracted to these food plants and you will have a colourful beautiful garden full of the sound of summer too.