Pollination is an essential part of the web of life, and nowhere is it a more essential than when growing our food. Honeybees and bumblebees (and to a lesser extent, native bees) are key to a successful vegetable harvest. And it’s especially important in urban and suburban areas—where honeybee hives may be few and far between—that we make an effort to feed them by planting flowers.
The Importance of Spring to Fall Flowers
By planting a succession of flowers to bloom from early spring to fall in our yards and near the vegetable garden, we help to build the honeybee population and keep them around for the whole growing season. This is of particular importance from mid-summer into fall when the majority of the pollinator-dependent veggies are in flower. We can get this done with a nice mix of annuals, perennials and culinary herbs.
Vegetables that Need Bees for Pollination
Watermelons, cantaloupes, cucumbers, pumpkins, eggplant, hot peppers and gourds all must have bees to pollinate them. Tomatoes, while self-pollinating, will have better fruit and seed set (important to gardeners who collect their own heirloom tomato seeds) when their flowers are vibrated by visiting bees.
Nepeta 'Select Blue' (Select Blue Catmint) is a fantastic xeric perennial with dramatic lavender-blue flowers and handsome gray-green foliage. A recurrent bloomer, the first flush of flowers comes in late spring, and again later in summer. A long-lived, easily grown perennial, this is an excellent plant for beginners.
1" tall x 18" wide. Pink Chintz Thyme (Thymus Pink Chintz) is a tight, low growing creeping thyme with thick stems of woolly green foliage that blooms in mid-spring with a profusion of salmon-pink flowers.
Phenomenal French Hybrid Lavender (Lavandula intermedia 'Phenomenal' PP24193) is a French hybrid lavender notable for its outstanding cold hardiness and tolerance to heat and high humidity. The plants grow into a beautiful mounded shape, with purple flowers on tall stems in mid-summer.
Perovskia atriplicifolia Blue Spires (Blue Spires Russian Sage) is the best large growing Russian Sage selection blooming with dark blue flower spikes appearing in mid-summer. Thought to be a hybrid of two species, this plant has amazing vigor and blooms for many months.
Salvia sylvestris ‘May Night’ (May Night Sage) blooms prolifically with deep purple-blue flowers. It is an outstanding perennial with excellent cold hardiness, vigor, and tolerance of heavy clay soils. Blooming in late spring with a profusion of flower spikes, it reblooms later in the summer when deadheaded.
Thumbelina Leigh is a robust dwarf growing English variety with plump, deep lavender-blue flower spikes, and a strong, sweet fragrance. Maturing to a height of about 15 inches, it is one of the most compact cultivars in cultivation.
Magnus is a distinctive, vigorous and large growing cone flower cultivar. The bright reddish-pink petals of its huge flowers are held flat as they radiate out from the cone, instead of curving backwards as is typical of most coneflowers.
Pink Creeping Thyme is an outstanding selection with glossy, dark green leaves covered with light pink flowers pushing form rose-pink buds in early summer. This variety is impressively xeric, with tough woody stems. Drought resistant/drought tolerant plant (xeric).
As a landscaper, I make perennials the focus of my plantings. Perennials come back from their roots year after year and often re-seed themselves, thus minimizing the amount of replanting that needs to be done each year. Some of my favorite bee-attracting ornamental perennials include:
Growing your own herbs alongside and in with your vegetables is a “no brainer.” Culinary herbs have fantastic bee attracting flowers and provide anti-oxidant rich seasonings to cook with your vegetable harvest. And many of these herbs will also help to attract beneficial predatory insects that help reduce the populations and damage caused by injurious insect pests like spider mites and aphids.
The easiest way to use annuals that are especially valuable at attracting bees, is to plant one of our seed mixes that have been specially formulated to do the job, such as honey bee mix with a mix of annual and perennial seeds. Just seed the mix into one of your raised beds or dig up an adjacent patch of soil next to your vegetables and sow in the spring.
The key is to plant flowers, lots of flowers that bloom over a long time in the growing season to complete the web of life in your yard and garden. That first juicy tomato of the season will tell you it is worth the effort.