As I continue to landscape small areas around the house and barn, I’ve increasingly included places for vegetables, and vegetables, of course, require pollinators. Last year we opened up a grassy hillside to tomato production and I realized how few flowers I had in the area to attract bees. Up by the patio, we are flush with penstemon, viburnum, asters, iris, and an enormous Kolkwitzia amabilis (beauty bush) lush with pink flowers in May. We enjoy visits from all manner of pollinators, from several kinds of bumblebees to mason bees, wool carder bees, wasps, and an assortment of flies, some of which mimic the bees. However, the vegetable garden has always been traditionally that – vegetables.
Sequestering vegetables from the more floral elements of the landscape denies them the benefits of the various pollinators available to us. Furthermore, living on a mostly wooded island, we seldom see honeybees and are dependent upon native bees and flies for pollination.
Intent on bringing the show down to the tomatoes and the vegetable garden behind the barn, I’ve begun to plant strips of flowers and herbs. I started with weedy oregano, which grows anywhere, spreads voraciously, and produces clumps of tiny white flowers irresistable to bees and flies. Calendula is another easily-grown plant enjoyed by pollinators, as is the ubiquitous California poppy, which I’ve noticed is favored by yellow-faced bumblebees. I also favor tall purple mallow, daylily, and fox glove for ease of growth. Certainly there are many other less weedy species to consider, but my soil conditions often dictate what I can grow without too much amendment. Catmint, asters, and zinnias are other less rangy choices. I also love my exotic-looking Erigeron yuccifolia (sea holly) which produces little balls of white flowers on tall stalks, and seems to attract the smaller bees and flies.
The Xerces Society website provides lots of information on planting for pollinators, and has a site for submitting photos of bees for identification and mapping. Having once thought that bumblebee referred to a single species, I am now pleasantly surprised at the sheer number of species and have taken to noting which plants attract what species.
I’ve even applied my rudimentary carpentry skills to the construction of a mason bee nest from 2x4s. It looks a bit like Trump Tower for bees.
Plant a few fuzzy plants such as Lamb’s ears and campion to bring in the wool carder bees, whose dutiful collection of plant hairs to form little cotton balls for nesting are far more entertaining than most reality tv shows.