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!

Top 9 tips for beginner gardeners

Every year we are inspired by all the new gardeners we meet setting out on the journey of growing their own food. Their excitement is so pure it’s inspirational to even hardened old-timers. In fact, one of the best things about gardening is how eager older gardeners (folks with several years’ worth of dirt under their nails — figuratively and maybe literally, we don’t judge) are to share stories of their own successes and failures, and to give valuable advice based on their experiences.

We’ve gathered some of our favorite tips for beginning gardeners. Some were passed down to us when we began, and some of them we had to learn the hard way. Hopefully you can learn from them and get started out right!

1. Sweat the small stuff
Don’t plant more than you can manage. Begin small, find out what’s best to grow given your location and time of year. Learn the types of plants you enjoy growing.

2. Soil is everything
Prepare the soil you plant in. Learn what makes it “good soil” and begin tending it in early spring. Come the summer, your veggies will show their thanks.

3. Location, location, light
Sunlight and warmth are pivotal to a garden. Notice where your yard get the most sunlight. Some plants require more than others. Figuring out where to place your garden is the most important first step to success!

4. Rich, but not too rich
That’s fertilizer, not money. Understand how much fertilizer is the right amount for what you plant. Some require more, some less. The same for manure, it can affect the time of harvest.

Image of a watering can watering plants in a garden. Photo source: Markus Spiske, Unsplash5. Water is the driver of nature
Leonardo DaVinci had it right: water is the driver of nature. If over watered, a plant’s root system can rot. Once rotted? Let’s not go there. Too little water and the plants begin to wilt. If you see this, add water — a much happier ending!

6. Don’t judge
The general rule is to plant seeds twice a deep as they are big. The larger the seed the deeper it should be planted. And on the flip side, who knew “shallow” could be good? Smaller seeds mean shallower planting. But beginner gardeners often go too deep or too shallow. Good news! Most seed packets give the ideal planting depth, so be sure to refer to the packet for a smart, healthy plant.

7. Give me some space, please
Seeds may look small but planting too many, too close means a grab for soil nutrients, sunlight and water. The larger the plant, the more space it needs to thrive. Again, the spacing info listed on seed packet is a good guide to make sure plants have room to grow.

8. Not too mulch
Mulch is good but like almost everything else, moderation is key. Applying a light mulch after planting is good. But too much mulch? Not good. Add it lightly as a plant grows and it will help keep soil moist. It also discourages weeds. Speaking of…

9. Weeds can be stingy
Weeds grow way faster than your veggies will. The best treatment is to pull them as soon as you see them. The longer they’re neglected the more roots they grow, and then they’ll take over your garden. Oh no! Yank them quick and let your veggies win and you’ll enjoy the taste of victory!

Don’t worry!
Smart Gardener can help you keep track of each of these tips as you get started. With planting guides and weekly reminders, we help you every step of the way