Growing a Bee-Friendly Organic Garden

Read these gardening hacks to make your backyard the spot for bees to hang out and pollinate.

article image
by AdobeStock/Zilkovec

1. Grow a Bee Flower

Hardy Perennial Geraniums are flush with flowers and pollinators all through the early spring season. They rebloom consistently and love shade and woodland sites, which makes them perfect for supporting bees of all types. Hardy perennial geranium is not the tender Pelargonium geranium we remember from our grandmothers’ gardens. There are many types of hardy geraniums: some are low-growing and make perfect groundcovers for tight spaces; larger varieties can easily stretch to 4 feet tall and wide. While most geraniums prefer sun to part sun, a number of them will easily perform in the shade. Choose the planting site based upon the variety of geranium you have chosen and its sun exposure preferences.

Although geraniums do not like standing in water, they do like a consistent medium moisture and a humus-rich soil with lots of natural items mixed in: Rotted manure, compost, and worm castings make perfect soil amendments. This does not make them a likely candidate for hot or arid areas in the garden. Plant them directly into rich soil or containers in spring after the last frost, or plant them from seed in the fall or in the spring if the geranium seed has been cold treated.

Hardy geraniums make a surprising sound when seeds explode from seed pods in latent flower heads. Plants throw seeds quite a distance after the flowering has ended in early summer.

The geranium can be divided by digging up the rhizomes and cutting them between arising stems. A new cluster of basal leaves and flowering stems will crop up from the thick, branched horizontal rhizomes. Water them regularly upon initial transplanting. Once they are established, geraniums will survive dry conditions as long as the soil is rich.

Prune back flower stems after the first bloom to help tidy the plant and encourage it to bloom again. Prune more if the plant grows out of bounds at any time. Hardy geranium are susceptible to relatively few pests or diseases; however, if watered heavily from the top of the plant in shadier conditions, they can develop powdery mildew and fungal problems. If that happens to your geraniums, cut off infected leaves, but do not compost; be sure to throw the infected leaves away.

2. Lead a Bee to Water and Help it Drink

With bee populations down and so much concern about colony collapse, it is important for every gardener to do his or her part to help the bees. Planting native and flowering plants is a start. Many insects get water from their food, but bees need to drink an ample quantity of pure water. And water can be hard for bees to access: many sources such as ponds, lakes, and rivers do not have a landing area for bees, and they can drown in deeper water.

Building a bee station to help the bees have regular access to water is as simple as using a birdbath and a bee preserver. Bee preservers are wonderful glass balls with bumps on them that float on top of a water source and allow bees to crawl to the water without drowning. Fill the bath with water and add about 10 to 12 drops of lemongrass oil, an essential oil that will attract bees and that you can find in many health food stores. A bee’s sense of smell is powerful, and the lemongrass oil is similar to a pheromone that honeybees use to attract a swarm to a new home. If you would prefer not to attract honeybees to your garden and just want to provide an open source of water for pollinators of all kinds, be sure to regularly freshen water in birdbaths or other water garden areas where a bee preserver might float. Fresh water is essential for bees.

If standing water and the possibility of increasing mosquito production is a concern for your community, try floating wine corks or chopped up sticks on the top of a bucket or birdbath filled with water. Another idea is to fill a birdbath with river stone, then cover the river stone with just enough water that little pockets of liquid can be accessed by the bees. Clean the water regularly and watch both pollinating bees and wasps come in for a sip. They will visit at all times during the day, but make a concentrated effort at drinking toward late afternoon and early evening.

3. When Herbs Bolt, Let Them Go (pollinators love the flowers)

Mother Nature has designed herbs to reproduce. This means that the act of flowering and producing seeds is each plant’s ultimate goal. All herbs eventually bolt: The plant changes from being mostly leaf-based to a plant that has mostly flowers and stems. Bolting typically raises the stem and flower above the herbal base. You will recognize a bolted plant because it will be happily flowering. When this happens, the herb itself loses flavor, making it basically inedible, as it is putting all its energy into creating seed.

In order to enjoy the fresh flavor of your herbs a bit longer, you should plant them tightly and keep them well-watered. Cooling the roots with an insulating layer of mulch helps stave off the heat. Still, once the weather turns hot and dry, your herbs will bolt rapidly, going from delicious to inedible sometimes in a matter of hours. So keeping the plant cooler will assist in preserving flavor by delaying the bolting. When you can no longer keep your herbs from bolting, let them bolt hard. That is, let them fully develop their flowers so bees and other pollinators can enjoy the flower nectar. In order to continue enjoying flavorful herbs, install another row or grouping of herbs. Succession planting can keep you in delicious scents and flavors all season long, while also enabling the pollinators to stay happy and healthy.

The herbs pollinators prefer include basil, bee balm, betony, borage, catmint, chives, fennel, hyssop, lavender, lemon balm, marjoram, mint, oregano, sage, and rosemary. Start your first crop of herbs in winter from seed, plant the young plants in the early spring, then succession-plant seeds next to the first crop once it is in ground. As the first crop starts to bolt, the second crop will start with its first fresh leafy flavors. Invasive crops such as mint and oregano can be contained by planting them in containers.

4. Make a Home for Mason Bees (they are fantastic pollinators for your garden)

Native bees in the United States have had significant population losses, but are holding out as a bit heartier than honey bees. They have an independent, non-social nature, and they do not make commercial honey. But you should get to know mason bees. They are a gentle, nest-building native bees that do not sting and are amazing pollinators. There are around 140 species of mason bee that live in North America. Typically, mason bees are active for 8 to 10 weeks in the spring, then go dormant and hibernate for 10 months until their next pollinating adventure.

If your garden does not have enough pollen and nectar for mason bees, they will move on. Planting a diverse, blooming, 300-foot circle of spring-flowering plants around a mason bee house will help the bees survive and stay in your garden. Native plants are the best for native bees, according to The Xerces Society. Mason bees will emerge about the time the redbud trees bloom in your region, with populations at all-time highs during apple-blossom season. One bee can pollinate more than 1,500 blossoms per day, which makes these bees vital in orchards.

Plant your gardens with no chemical fertilizers or pesticides to encourage the health of all bees, and grow early flowering plants and shrubs such as forsythia, crocus, primrose, snowdrops, Lenten rose, and pulmonaria to feed them. To extend their season by a few weeks and encourage the bees to hang on a little longer, plant sweet-scented roses, forget-me-nots, cranesbill geranium, borage, comfrey, sweetpea, penstemon, salvia, and allium. Also provide mud for your bees so they can use it to build their homes– purchase it online, or simply fill a tub or trench with muddy soil for the bees.

Mason bee houses are easy to find. They consist of a collection of long empty tubes or reeds surrounded by some sort of housing. The bees live in the tubes. You can make your own nesting boxes by drilling 20 or 30 holes in a non-treated block of wood. Use a very sharp drill bit so there are no splinters, and drill 5/16-inch holes, 6 inches deep in the block. Mount your nesting house at least 3 feet above the ground, tight to a fence, tree, or building protected from rain, and with full warm sun in the morning. Remove the wooden block houses every two years and retire them in order to protect the bees from possible disease problems.

Reprinted with permission from 101 Organic Gardening Hacks, by Shawna Coronado and published by Cool Springs Press.