Eight bee-friendly plants for your garden

Did you know there are between 25,000 and 30,000 species of bees? May 20th has been designated as World Bee Day to celebrate the importance of bees and other pollinators and to bring attention to the threats they face from loss of habitat, pesticides, and a changing climate.

Bees and other pollinators are a critically important part of a thriving ecosystem. They are responsible for 75% of crop pollination, and many native plants require native bees for seed production.

For gardeners, attracting bees and other pollinators is the key to a successful harvest, and the sign of a healthy garden. The best way to do that is to provide them the things they need to live: shelter and food.

The good news is that it’s easy to include plants in your garden that will bring all the bees to your yard. Below are eight of our favorites, but almost any flowering plant will attract bees. Just make sure they’re pesticide-free.

Amaranth
Amaranth plants have strikingly beautiful flowers that attract bees and butterflies when they’re in flower, and birds when the seeds mature. Amaranth has a long history of use by peoples throughout the Americas. It was the primary food for the Aztecs, and varieties like Mercado and Hopi Red Dye were known through out Mexico and the American Southwest. Globe varieties like Mardi Gras Parade will add a pop of color, and make lovely dried flowers for year-round enjoyment.

Borage
Borage is a wonderful addition to any garden with is lovely star-shaped flowers. Also known as starflower and bee bush, it has been used by gardeners to attract bees to their vegetable gardens throughout history. Like the other plants on this list, it’s edible as well as beautiful. The flowers have a unique cucumber flavor, and the leaves can be added to salads when young or sautéed and eaten like other greens when mature.

Calendula
Calendula, also known as Pot Marigold, has been used for centuries in soothing lotions and salves. The edible petals make colorful salad garnishes, and attract all manner of pollinators (especially butterflies) to the garden. Varieties like Resina and Flashback have a large daisy-like center filled with pollen to feed hungry bees. The petals are edible and can be used fresh in salads or dried and used as a replacement for saffron.

Fennel
Fennel is a highly aromatic and flavorful herb with a taste similar to licorice, and was considered one of the nine sacred curative herbs of medieval times. Leaf Fennel is grown for its seeds, flowers and leaves, and produces several large, lacy flower umbrels that attracts bees, butterflies, and other pollinators, and makes a stunning addition to any garden with its tall feathery greenery that is also home to many beneficial insects.

Hyssop
Anise Hyssop is another herb with both medicinal and decorative uses. The leaves make a wonderful herb tea with a naturally sweet, wonderful anise taste. Bees love its attractive purple flowers which grow in profusion all season long. In fact, beekeepers often grow hyssop for the honey their bees produce from it. Hyssop is drought-tolerant and will grow well in most soils, making it an excellent plant for dry climates.

Lavender
All summer long lavender bushes are practically abuzz with bees visiting the fragrant flowers. These attractive plants are a gorgeous addition to any garden, and have the added benefit of providing flowers that can be used in relaxing teas and potpourri mixes. The leaves are also useful. Similar in flavor to rosemary, lavender is often used in savory dishes. Spanish varieties are popular in warmer climates, while French varieties work well in cooler areas.

Marigold
Marigolds are a surprisingly beneficial plant for gardeners. This landscaping favorite earned its place in the garden with its ability to repel some pests, but its also an excellent flower for attracting bees and other beneficial insects. And the cheery orange and yellow flowers are often dried and used as a substitute for saffron. Single-blossom varieties like Signet Starfire and Naughty Marietta are easier for bees to gather pollen from than those with double-blooms.

Nasturtium
Nasturtiums are the quintessential cottage garden flower, but they also deserve a space in your vegetable garden. The flowers and leaves are both edible, and give a dash of peppery flavor to salads as well as a splash of color. They’re incredibly easy to grow and make a good companion crop. The plants are known to repel squash bugs,  and the blooms will bring bees and other beneficial insects, as well as hummingbirds, from all over to sip their nectar.


Smart Gardener is the easiest way to plan, grow and harvest your own food. Our online vegetable garden planner is perfect for anyone who wants homegrown, healthy and tasty food to be part of their lifestyle.

Strawberries

Strawberries are easy-to-grow plants that deserve a space in every garden.

Nothing compares to the taste of homegrown strawberries — the sweetness is like the taste of summer. Just as garden-fresh tomatoes beat the flavor of supermarket tomatoes, the strawberries you grow in your garden will be sweeter, juicier, and more tender than anything the stores sell. That’s because the berries you find in the supermarket are specially bred for their ability to survive being shipped long distances — not for flavor.

The good news is that growing strawberries is quite easy. We’ve got some important tips below on getting started and how to care for and protect your plants to ensure a hearty harvest of these delicious jewels.

Selecting Which Varieties to Grow

There are four types of strawberries you can grow, each with their own characteristics that make them better suited to different gardens. When selecting which strawberries to include in your garden, keep in mind your climate and whether you’d like to have a lot of fruit ripen at once for canning or preserving, or have a steady stream of ripe fruit for enjoying all summer.

Alpine Strawberries
Alpine strawberry plants are well behaved in the garden and are remarkably easy to grow. These attractive perennial plants are cultivated strains of wild or woodland strawberries and reportedly were transplanted into European gardens as early as the 12th century. Plants like the Mignonette variety yield a modest summer-long harvests of delicate three-quarter-inch fruit.

Day Neutral Strawberries
The day neutral varieties like Eversweet have a longer production season than the June bearers as they produce several flushes of fruit over the course of the summer. They often don’t produce many runners because their energy is concentrated on fruit production. A planting is usually grown for 3 years or so and is then replaced. These plants aren’t affected by day length.

Everbearing Strawberries
Everbearing strawberries like Seascape produce two to three good harvests of fruit during their growing season, generally from June to August. They do not produce many runners.

June Bearing Strawberries
These were the original garden strawberries and produce a single large crop over a period of several weeks in early summer. You may be able to extend the harvest season to a couple of months by planting several varieties, like Allstar, Chandler, and Honeoye, that ripen at different times. Be aware that they don’t produce a crop until their second season of growth.

Tips for Growing Wonderfully Delicious Strawberries

Soil Preparation
Strawberries prefer a slightly acidic (ideal PH: 5.8-6.5), well-drained, sandy loam with lots of organic matter, but they can grow in most soil types as long as they get a solid 8 hours of full sun daily.

Strawberries are perennial plants so you have to fertilize them heavily before planting; you won’t be able to incorporate anything else into the soil for a while as they’re getting established, so it’s important to prepare your soil before planting. Spread a 3-inch layer of compost or aged manure on the ground and fork it to a depth of 10 inches. Be careful to remove any weeds you come across in the process to prevent any competition for space and nutrients. You want to give them lots of room for root growth.

Plant Care
The good news about growing strawberries is that once the bed is established they can be fairly low maintenance with the main tasks being thinning out excess plants and harvesting. Strawberries are perennial plant in most climates. The first year is spent building roots and greenery, with few fruit. In the late autumn, the plants go into a rest period until early spring when they begin growing again.

Keep in mind that most berries will be produced on plants that grew the previous year, so you want to keep them multiplying and growing vigorously. To do that, be sure to clip off the first set of flowers to encourage your plants to put on more greenery before directing their attention toward making fruit.

Plant Protection
It’s important to spread a layer of mulch around each plant to help the soil retain moisture, reduce weed growth, and protect the developing fruit from damage or disease transferred from the soil when water splashes up. Many gardeners like to use straw mulch, which adds organic material to the soil as it breaks down. The drawback to straw is that it can be an attractive habitat for slugs and snails.

Plastic sheet mulching is common in commercial strawberry growing, and will help control weeds, but needs to be installed carefully to prevent puddles that cause disease, and as the plants grow they will need irrigation as the plastic will block water from soak in naturally.

Strawberry mats are another option. These reusable fabric mats are available in some garden centers and have copper woven in to deter slugs and snails. Because they’re porous water can seep through but reduce splash back onto the developing fruits. You simply cut them to size, and slip them between the plant and the soil.

Many gardeners also use crop covers to protect their berries from birds and other wildlife. Row covers can also be used to protect plants during cool nights, and then again during the heat of summer to protect the fruit from becoming sunburnt.

Pollination
The flowers are pollinated by insects, mostly bees. Most modern strawberry varieties are self-fertile, so you only need to plant one variety, although you may well want several to extend the harvest season, each maturing at different times to have a succession of fruit all summer long.

Seed Saving
Many plants will give good harvests for two to three years. Seed saving isn’t recommended because most strawberries are hybrids and unreliable due to crossbreeding. Fortunately, strawberry plants spread by way of sending out runners, each with a new plant on the end that is identical to the parent plant. Throughout the growing season, it’s best to trim back all but only a few runners to allow the plant to focus on fruit production, keeping only a few daughter plants to eventually replace their aging mothers.

Alternative Growing Options

Growing as an Annual
If winter doesn’t provide enough cold weather for your strawberry plants to rest then they won’t really be able to thrive. In these situations your best option is to grow them as an annual, planting in fall and harvesting the following summer (after the harvest the plants are removed). This can work out pretty well (many big commercial growers operate like this) but obviously it requires more work than perennial growing.

Container Gardens
Strawberries are excellent container plants. Many garden centers sell specialized strawberry containers — an open top ceramic or clay pot with several smaller openings around the sides. They also work well in hanging pots, window boxes, grow bags and vertical gardening containers.


Smart Gardener makes it easy to start a garden. We can help you decide which varieties of strawberry will work best in your garden and give you the advice you need to get started, and then send you weekly to-dos to keep you on track!

Peas for St. Patrick’s Day

Image: Peasl Photo source: Jessica Ruscello, UnsplashIn Ireland, St. Patrick’s Day is the traditional day to plant peas in a spring garden. In the United States the timing can vary somewhat from zone to zone, but March 17th still works well as a guide for starting peas for most areas. And what a perfect way to bring your garden a bit of the “luck of the Irish” by planting something green!

Why you should grow peas.

Did you know peas have been cultivated by humans for anywhere from 8,000 to 12,000 years? Peas are an easy, rewarding crop for spring, and are a great way to fix nitrogen in the soil for your summer plants. As an early spring crop they can be out of the ground by June, leaving time for a warm weather crop to succeed them.

Selecting a variety.

Image of peas in a basket

Dried Shelling Peas are typically used for soups or stews, and fresh shelled immature peas are good lightly steamed or boiled. Their pod is too fibrous to be edible, and the peas themselves must be removed from the shells, hence their name. Bush Shelling peas grow in a compact bush form, while the more common Vine Shelling peas, which grow on vines that require staking or trellising but which are generally more productive than bush varieties.

Snap Peas are a more recently developed edible-podded pea, this one originated in America. The pod is thicker and more succulent than that of the Snow Pea, and less fibrous than standard Shelling Peas. These are now one of the most popular types of pea, because there is no work in shelling and very little waste.

Snow Peas have thin crisp pods that are nearly translucent and bright green, with tiny seeds. The whole pod is edible and quite sweet when picked at the right time. The name may come from the whitish tint reflected from the pods, or because of their tendency to grow at the end of winter, just before the last spring freeze. As their name suggests, they can be covered with snow during these times, but still keep growing.

When to plant.

In moderate climates, you can sow directly into your garden bed, while in colder climates you may need to start them indoors. Fortunately, peas do well in containers, so you may not even need to transplant them!

In warmer climates, you may have already started your peas back in January or February, but you can still continue to sow new seeds for a second harvest before the warm days of summer.

Getting started.

The best soil for peas is a loose well-drained loam. Peas don’t need a lot of nitrogen, as they can obtain their own. In fact, if nitrogen is too easily available they won’t bother to fix any. Peas do need phosphorus (colloidal phosphate) and potassium (wood ashes), as well as calcium and magnesium (use dolomitic limestone).

If the soil is compacted double digging is beneficial. If it is poorly drained, use raised beds, especially for early plantings, as they don’t like wet soil. In very poor soils it may pay to plant your peas in trenches, filled with a mixture of soil and compost.

If you’re growing a vining variety, you will need to supply a trellis or poles for the plants to grow along.

Five herbs perfect for indoor growing

Spring has yet to arrive in many parts of the country, and we’re pretty sure a lot of you gardeners are getting a bit of cabin fever. One cure for the late-winter gardening blues is to start an indoor herb garden.

We’ve come up with a list of some of our favorite herbs to grow indoors, and some tips for getting started. Note: it’s pretty easy, so it’s perfect for beginner gardeners too!

1. Chives
Chives are in the allium family, making them a close cousin to onions and garlic. But unlike their stronger cousins chives have a delicate flavor perfect for adding a light garnish for eggs or potatoes.

These attractive and compact plants are super low maintenance. They can be grown from seed, but it’s easier to use starts. To harvest, just trim a few of the thin, round leaves. 

2. Mint
Mint is a wonderful addition to tea and other refreshing beverages. It’s also a delicious garnish for many deserts. But did you know you can also include it in salads?

Mint is easy to grow, and with care can thrive in an indoor herb garden. If you want to move it outdoors, be sure to keep it in a pot as mint is extremely invasive and will take over your garden.

3. Oregano
This aromatic perennial is essential to Italian and Greek cooking. Fresh oregano can be used immediately in the kitchen, chopped into sauces or added to meat dishes.

Oregano is a hearty herb that is quite easy to grow. Like other herbs, it likes well-drained soil. Compared to other herbs, though, it can tolerate some dryness.

4. Rosemary
Evergreen rosemary grows into a deliciously scented shrub whose needle-like, gray green leaves are a classic aromatic seasoning for Mediterranean dishes, as well as chicken, lamb, and bread.

In a pot, it will remain small and easy to cut and come again while retaining its lovely shape.

5. Thyme
Intensely aromatic, thyme is indispensable in a kitchen herb garden as it adds a delicate peppery-lemon flavor when added to soups, casseroles, pizzas, and breads.

Thyme is an easy herb to grow, and requires little care. It needs full sun and well-drained soil. It doesn’t like having “wet feet” and will develop root rot if the soil stays moist for too long.

Getting started: 

Selecting a location:
The best way to grow herbs is to place them on a sunny windowsill or wherever gets the most daylight. A minimum of four hours of sunlight per day is ideal.

Planting Tips:
Starting from seed may be a bit of a challenge, so it’s usually best to buy plant starts or get a cutting from an established plant.

When choosing a plant, make sure you get one small enough for your pot. Remember, they’ll grow! Four inch pots are perfect for windowsills.

Put each herb in its own pot. Garden soil can often contain unwanted pests, so it’s better to use fresh, quality potting soil.

Growing Tips:
Leaves may drop in the first few weeks. The herbs are adjusting to a new environment and with care they will begin to thrive.

Keep the soil moist, but not soggy. It should feel slightly damp when you poke your finger into it about 1 cm.

Be patient. Some herbs, like rosemary, can have difficulty adjusting indoors.

Dealing with pests:
If your indoor herbs attract aphids or spider mites, don’t fret. An easy treatment is to cover the soil surface and dip the plant upside down in a container of insecticidal soap and water. If persistent, you can do this once a week until the pests are gone.