In the short month of February there is little activity in the bee garden, but there is a lot to observe. Which early bulbs have emerged – the snowdrops and crocuses planted in the shade beside the ivy or those planted in the lawn? Which plants are already springing up new shoots – the crocosmia or daffodils? These seasonal observations tell me which type of flowers grow well in the soil and which conditions of light, shade and shelter suit them best. Year after year, I can invest more time in the flowers that thrive in the bee garden and in the bees who visit them.
Planting a bee garden – or a pollinator or wildlife garden – is very exciting and there are many ‘plants for bees’ lists that publish at this time of year to give you plenty of ideas. However, planting any garden that successfully blooms and attracts a wide variety of insects and other wildlife is not as easy as it sounds. There are important observations that need to be made.
1. What is the soil like?
When you pick up a handful of soil and squeeze it, is the texture clumpy and sticky (perhaps like clay) or looser and gravelly (perhaps like sand)? When it rains, does the soil drain slowly or quickly? When it is dry, does the soil harden and crack or retain its moisture?
You don’t need to become an expert in soil types, or rush out to get a pH kit to test the acidity or alkalinity of your soil (although you can if you want to), but a few simple observations like these will give you a better idea of what types of plants will grow best in your garden. You’ll know, for example, when you read the plant label or seed packet whether your soil can provide suitable conditions or not. February is often a good month to make these observations as the weather can change from mild and wet to cold and dry from one week to the next.
If you suspect that you have heavy, clay soil that drains poorly, then this doesn’t mean that you can’t grow a bee-pleaser like lavender which prefers lighter, well-draining soil. It just means that you may have to dig over the bed with plenty of multi-purpose garden compost or some horticultural sand, and/or add this to the hole in which it is planted [*See edit below]. Alternatively, plant the lavender in a raised bed (such as building a new bed at ground level and filling it with more suitable soil), a container or a large pot.
Remember to observe the soil in different parts of your garden, because there may be some variation.
*Lindylou adds a useful comment below on taking care not to remove the fertility of clay soil by adding amendments. This includes adding coconut coir or cardboard to heavy clay soil rather than sand, which may produce cement. She says both coconut coir or cardboard “allow airpockets to develop by enticing garden earthworms which love to eat both products”. In addition, she also uses lava grit “to take up the water that will not sink during winter time”.
Like all things, learning how to garden is as much about trial and error. My lavender grew poorly the first year when I planted it in the clay soil of our garden. It also didn’t have enough sun. So I moved it to the back of the garden and mixed the soil with garden compost (and a very small amount of builders’, not horticultural, sand!) and it seems to have perked up! I will try cardboard next time as I have plenty of that at home.
2. How much sun and shade do you have?
The middle part of our garden is long and narrow with an ivy hedge to the right and bushes of cotoneaster, jasmine and choisya to the left. I’ve resigned myself to the fact that few flowers will grow in the shady, walled bed beside the ivy where even foxgloves and bluebells struggle. This part of the garden has become a haven for frogs and thirsty birds and insects with a selection of frog ponds and shallow baths. I’ve also half buried broken flower pots and crockery in the soil to make shelters for weary creatures to rest. The decking at the front of the garden has a flowerbed that sticks out further, and in spring and summer it gets enough sunlight in the morning to sustain the myrtle tree with flowers and berries. The back of the garden is very exposed – a suntrap for sun-loving plants like toadflax, Mediterranean herbs, and, of course, sunflowers.
Observing how sun and shade fall across your garden from season to season and at different times of the day can help to plan where to plant. For instance, there’s no point in planting a row of sedum along a sunny fence in early spring only to later find out in autumn, when sedum flowers, that it gets very little sunshine.
It’s also a good idea to notice which parts of the garden get shelter from wind and rain – useful if you’re planning on planting tall plants like sunflowers or buddleias, which may benefit from some shelter, as well as plenty of sun, on a very windy day.
3. Who visits your garden?
It’s not all about the bees. Our garden enjoys a variety of insect visitors including hoverflies, butterflies, lacewings, solitary wasps, ants and spiders (ok, arachnids too). There are many different bees who visit from honeybees and bumbles to leafcutters and masons. We’ve even had the occasional dragonfly, although they don’t seem to lay their larvae in the pond and are probably prowling for bees to eat. Observing which insects are already in your area can help you to choose the flowers that attract them.
For example, our toadflax caters for the carder bees from early summer to late autumn. The honeybees and bumbles are satisfied by the smoke tree in spring, salvia and lemonbalm in summer, and snowberry and sedum in autumn. The sweat bees are kept happy by leaving the yellow thistles to flower in spring. However, I rarely see leafcutters or masons foraging in the garden, although they use our nesting tubes. Perhaps I need to plant up more areas for these solitary bees and leave more dandelions for the masons.
4. What is flowering in your area?
A walk around your local area to see which plants are growing in your neighbours’ gardens can be a good indicator of what will grow well in your garden. Year after year in winter, yellow primroses pop up in front gardens along our street and winter-flowering hebes produce rich purple-red blooms. There are so many that I suspect the birds and squirrels have been very busy gardening, although many humans are good gardeners too.
5. How much time do you have to spend in your garden?
This is the most important observation of all. Before you begin planting a bee garden, consider how much time you actually have for weeding, pruning, mowing, watering, and transplanting throughout the year. If you don’t have much time, then read up on hardy plants and shrubs that are easy to care for. Do you want to grow annuals (that you may have to re-seed or re-plant each year, although some do successfully re-seed themselves) or invest in perennials (that are more likely to return and flower each year).
You might also want to consider the type of flower beds that will require the least attention – mulched beds (where a layer of gravel, bark, leaves or compost is laid above the soil) allow the stems of established plants to continue to grow but slows down the growth of weeds. Otherwise, container gardening may be more manageable if you’re just starting out or have a small garden, although containers and pots needs more watering than plants that are in the ground.
Once you’ve got to know your garden, choose some bee-friendly flowers to plant from these lists. Don’t forget the birds either – they’ll appreciate plants that berry and seed for autumn and winter.
Plants for bees and other pollinators
The RHS Perfect for pollinators provides a very comprehensive lists of plants.
The International Bee Research Association (IBRA) also has a good book Plants for Bees by W D J Kirk & F N Howes.
Use the Bumblebee Conservation Trust online tool to find out how bee-kind is your garden.
Buglife also provide a good guide to gardening with bugs in mind.
[EDIT] philipstrange also suggests this list of bee-friendly plants on Dave Goulson’s web site: http://www.sussex.ac.uk/lifesci/goulsonlab/resources/flowers and singles out pulmonaria “as a must for bee enthusiasts as it attracts the very early Hairy-footed flower bee”.
Consider where to buy or source your plant. Perhaps a friendly neighbour will let you take a few cuttings from their garden to get you started, or you may already have bee-friendly plants in your garden that just need propagating and spreading. Otherwise, order online from nurseries like Bee Happy Plants who don’t use pesticides and herbicides.
The RHS guide to soil types is helpful for getting to know your garden and the plants that will grow best.