Pollinator gardens are becoming quite popular yet many home gardeners don’t have the time nor inclination to create a bee-friendly environment. Growing edible wild plants is a maintenance-free option to create not only a perfect pollinator garden, but food for your family as well.
Let’s Talk Bees
According to some beekeepers in my area, the bee population is alive and well. However, bee populations are in decline in other geographic regions throughout Canada and the U.S. Growing plants that all bees are attracted to is important. Before getting into the plants, here are some interesting facts from the Ontario Beekeepers’ Association.
- Bees have two stomachs. One stomach for eating and the other special stomach is for storing nectar collected from flowers or water so that they can carry it back to their hive.
- Bees have five eyes; two compound eyes and three tiny ocelli eyes.
- Nectar is a sweet watery substance that the bees gather. After they process the nectar in their stomach they regurgitate it into the honeycomb cells. Then they fan with their wings to remove excess moisture. The final result is honey.
- Honey has natural preservatives and bacteria can’t grow in it.
- A honey bee can fly 24 km (15 miles) in one hour. Its wings beat 200 times per second or 12,000 beats per minute.
- A beehive in summer can have as many as 50,000 to 80,000 bees. A bee must collect nectar from about 2 million flowers to make 1 pound of honey. It requires 556 worker bees to gather a pound of honey.
Some people consider red clover (Trifolium pratense) a weed, yet it is a valuable source of food and it is highly praised for its multitude of beneficial uses for good health. Bees like any clover but they are attracted more to solitary flowers, and flowers that are purple, blue or pink.
Red clover is relatively easy to grow. Soil drainage should be fair to good and it prefers slightly acid pH levels with 6.0 to 6.5 producing the greatest yields. Moderate levels of phosphorous and potassium are required in the soil. Be sure to grow red clover in areas that will receive sunlight, though red clover will grow in partial shade as well. (Sow seed ¼ inch deep.) They will need watering during dry periods as they are not drought resistant.
Flowers can be eaten fresh or dried for tea. Leaves are also edible and used in herbal remedies, and are best used when fresh and young. The best thing about red clovers as that they can be harvested up to three times in a typical growing season.
White Clover (Trifolium repens) is highly attractive to several bee species, including bumble bees and honey bees. They are drought tolerant and nitrogen-fixing, which means they can bring nutrients to your soil and reduce the need for fertilizing.
What many think of as a pesky weed is actually a flowering herb with significant health benefits. Dandelion (Taraxacum officinale) greens contain vitamin C, potassium, calcium, iron, magnesium, phosphorus, thiamine, riboflavin, beta carotene and much more. They probably are more nutritious than anything you can find in the produce section of your grocery store.
You can grow a bed of dandelions in your backyard (be sure to remove the flower before going to seed). When you are starting a dandelion garden, the first seeds can be sown outside approximately four to six weeks before the last frost. Once they have sprouted, which takes seven to 10 days, you’ll want to thin them so they are 6 to 8 inches apart, allowing for full growth of the greens and plenty of room for the tap root. Keep in mind thought that dandelions are incredibly resilient to poor conditions, the quality of nutrition you receive from the greens will depend on the quality of the soil the herb grows in.
Dandelions thrive in full sun, but will grow in partial shade. Use soil that drains well and compost the soil in the fall to encourage a strong spring crop. You can harvest the leaves and flowers throughout the summer months. The roots are best harvested during frost-free fall months. Before harvesting the leaves, cover the plants with a dark opaque cloth so the leaves blanch, reducing the bitterness of the greens.
Self Heal (or Heal All)
Self Heal (Prunella vulgaris) is a sought-after herb for a variety of health benefits and it is edible. It has a very attractive flower and under the right conditions is an excellent ground cover plant. It will spread by sending out runners which root and send up new growth. The flowers are generally purple but on the rare occasions it can be blue, pink or even white.
This common plant adds an attractive dash of colour to any garden and is beneficial to both bees and butterflies. It is a very common species and grows over a large part of the world. Self heal is a hardy perennial that generally will grow up to 30 cm (1′) tall. If your soil is not fertile then you need to amend the soil with rich, organic matter.
For those wanting to start seeds indoors, this usually needs to be done about 10 weeks prior to spring planting. Seed should be lightly covered with soil and can be thinned as needed once seedlings emerge.
Creeping thyme (Thymus serpyllum) is not a wild plant, but it can escape gardens. The flower has a spicy herbal aroma like its culinary cousin and the leaves are edible.
The leaves are edible and it retains its flavour well in slow cooking. If the leaves are to be dried, the plants should be harvested in early and late summer just before the flowers open and the leaves should be dried quickly.
Creeping Thyme is best suited to sunny sites that are well drained. It can be planted among stepping stones to create a “living” patio. This plant forms a low carpet-like growth which is great for rocky gardens or even mixed into your grass. Each plant spreads to about 30 cm (1′) across and it somehow survives being walked on. It produces masses of deep pink or lavender flowers (on and off) from June to August attracting many pollinators.
All these plants are so easy to grow and once they take root, you’ll have a pollinator garden that will bring a wealth of insect activity to your area and put some valuable food on your table. You can use existing garden beds or build some garden boxes. Keep in mind thought that in order to keep seeds to a bare minimum, be sure to gather flower heads as they are producing the seeds. One single dandelion flower can produce 172 seeds, but the plant blooms repeatedly through summer, and one plant can produce as many as 5,000 seeds in a single year.
Bee the buzz in your neighborhood and plant low to no maintenance edible wild plants in your garden.