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.

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

The trick to a successful first garden: start out small

You might not think so from the countless words that have been written about it, but vegetable gardening is a pretty simple process. Plants are genetically programmed to grow (even our pampered crop plants) and all you have to do is give them the right things at the right times. You take seed, put it in the soil and it grows. The basic requirements are soil, sunlight, seed, water and motivation. Continue reading “The trick to a successful first garden: start out small”

Sugar Snap Peas

Have you considered growing peas? Looking for something to feed your sweet tooth, straight from the garden? Look no further than the Sugar Snap pea. There’s a reason they’re called “garden candy.”

The Sugar Snap is actually a relative newcomer to the garden (first introduced in 1979), but it is now established as one of the great treats of spring. When my Sugar Snaps start to ripen they become the center of the garden and remain so until all the pods are gone.

The Sugar Snap differs from traditional garden peas (like Green Arrow) in that the whole pod is edible, and differs from the edible podded snow peas (like Mammoth Melting) in that the pod is fat, sweet and delicious.

As the whole pod is edible they produce a significantly bigger harvest and don’t need shelling. The original Sugar Snap variety was so successful it eventually spawned a whole range of snap peas: bush varieties, disease resistant types and some without strings. There are now even yellow, purple and pink tinted types.

The Sugar Snap was hailed as a revolutionary new kind of pea when it appeared, but it wasn’t actually as new as it seemed at the time. It turns out that the Amish have been growing snap peas for a long time and they are so similar that a casual observer probably wouldn’t be able to tell the difference.

Should I grow peas?
Peas (along with beans) have a special place in the vegetable garden because they are host to nitrogen fixing bacteria and so can add fertility to the soil as they grow. This won’t happen unless the right type of bacteria is present in the soil though, so if you haven’t grown peas within the last five years you should inoculate the seed with a suitable strain of inoculant.

The real flavor of Snap peas comes through best when they are eaten raw and this is how almost all of ours get eaten. My children will eat them straight from the vine all day long and few pods actually make it as far as the kitchen (their friends have been known to strip a planting of all pods of any significant size). They are also good when very lightly steamed, but don’t cook them for more than a couple of minutes, or they may turn to mush.

Tips on growing great peas
Air Temperature: Peas thrive in cool weather and don’t like heat, with 60-75˚ F being optimal. They are fully hardy and the first planting can be sown directly into the garden in early spring, a month before the last frost date.

Soil Temperature: The soil doesn’t even have to be very warm, as they will germinate (if rather slowly) at temperatures as low as 40˚ F.

Succession Planting: It is a good idea to make several succession plantings about 3 weeks apart, to ensure an abundant supply of pods until the weather gets too warm.

Weeding: The established plants don’t require much care. Weeds can be a problem for the young seedlings, but they soon outgrow and overshadow any weeds.

Watering: They do need regular moisture, but in early spring there is usually plenty in the soil and you rarely need to water.

Getting set up
The original Sugar Snap is a pole variety and must have a tall support structure for good growth (hog wire fence works well). If it isn’t tall enough they will eventually run out of climbing room and flop over (when my dad first grew them in England they went right over the top of his 6 foot high wall and started supplying his neighbor with pods).

It is a good idea to set up your supports before you plant, as it’s easy to damage the fragile seedlings. If you don’t want to deal with such a tall plant there are now bush varieties, such as Sugar Ann.

It is easier to provide support for the plants when they are growing in rows, so they are commonly planted in double offset rows with 3” between the plants and 6” between the rows. If you need more than one double row, then leave 24” between the pairs of rows.

You can also wrap hog wire fence into a cylinder and plant in a circle around it (this looks quite ornamental when fully covered, though not for long).

Established plants grow vigorously and quickly produce a wall of foliage 6 to 8 feet high, which makes an attractive (though temporary) screen.

Pests to watch out for
The biggest obstacle to growing Snap Peas is getting them established. It’s not that they are hard to germinate (this is easy) but rather that birds like to eat the succulent green parts and often pull the emerging seedlings out of the ground. The best way to prevent this is to cover the whole bed with netting.

Mice can sometimes be a problem too, as they sometimes dig and eat the seed before it has even germinated. If they are a problem you might have to start your plants indoors, though they dislike transplanting, so must be grown in individual cell packs (and not kept indoors for too long).

Ready to harvest!
The pods mature quickly after pollination and you need to check and harvest the plants regularly (every day or so). Harvest the pods when they are fat and round and sweet to taste. Don’t harvest too early or they won’t be as good as they can be.

It is important to pick all of the pods as they size up, if you leave some on the vine the seed will mature and production may decline (if this happens save the seed for planting next year). In cool weather, a well managed planting may yield for 6 weeks or more, though if the weather turns hot it may be as short as 2 weeks.


Smart Gardener makes it easy to grow peas, and more! We help you every step of the way from selecting seeds and preparing your garden, to sending you weekly reminders of garden tasks to keep your plants healthy and happy!

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.

How do I prepare my garden for planting?

Image: close up of blue spade in garden bed. Photo source: Markus Spiske, UnsplashIf you’re like me, when the first warm days of spring arrive, you can’t wait to get out into the garden and start planting. It means winter is finally over and the gardening season has begun. You’ve been looking at seed catalogs for months and have plenty of ideas you’re just waiting to try. However, before you plant anything you need to get the soil ready.

Don’t be intimidated
This can be quite a bit of physical work, but luckily it is pretty straightforward and doesn’t take a lot of explanation. It helps to do it methodically though, so I’ll go through the steps here. And, while it may feel overwhelming to considering tackling a large garden space, keep in mind you don’t need to do the bed preparation for your entire garden at one time. You can easily do each bed as you need the space for planting, and leave the rest for another time. Start small to keep it manageable.

When to start
Just because it is a beautiful day doesn’t mean you can just go out into the garden and get to work on the beds. I know it’s tempting, especially after a long, wet winter, but digging very wet soil can damage its structure and cause long-term harm (not to mention being harder to dig).

To determine whether your soil has the right moisture content, you can do a rough check by lightly squeezing a handful of soil into a ball and dropping it from approximately waist height. If it doesn’t break up when it hits the ground it is probably too wet to dig (you have to take into account that a sandy soil breaks up more easily than a clay one).

Image of a woman working in a garden with a shovel, surrounded by plants.Another indicator of excessive wetness is when you walk on the soil and leave shiny footprints where water was squeezed from the soil. If your garden tends to stay wet every spring, it helps to use raised beds, as they drain and warm up faster than flat areas.

One very wet spring I was so desperate to get outside and get planting I covered some of my raised beds with plastic sheet to prevent them absorbing any more rain. This actually worked quite well, though such extremes aren’t usually necessary.

Clearing the space
If the soil is dry enough to work, you can start bed preparation by removing all of the surface vegetation. If there are only a few weeds or dead crops, it only takes a few minutes to loosen them with a fork and pull them out. If you have been growing a cover crop over the winter, removing it is a much bigger job. The quickest and easiest way to do this is to skim off the above ground parts with a sharp flat spade and compost them (cut right down at soil level, to sever the top growth but leave the roots in the soil). You could also dig the cover crop into the soil, but it will need a couple of weeks to break down before you can plant into it. This means you will have to prepare beds a couple of weeks before you intend to plant.

Image of a person holding their two hands out filled with dark, rich soil.Amending the Soil
Now that you have your garden bed cleared, it’s the perfect time to add any soil amendments you need. Typically, I add a couple of inches of compost and some standard fertilizer mix. If you know your soil’s pH balance if off, this is also a good time to add some ground limestone for acidic soil, or some pine sawdust for alkaline soils.

These are simply scattered on to the soil surface and then incorporated into the soil. If the soil is already in good shape, you can simply dig them into the top few inches of soil with a fork. If it isn’t so good then single digging works better. If the soil is very poor or compacted you may have to resort to double digging (usually you only need to do this once though).

Once you have your amendments thoroughly incorporated, all that remains is to break up any large soil clods with a fork and then shape the bed with a rake. It is then ready for sowing or planting and your garden season has officially begun.

Don’t feed the birds

There are few things more frustrating than preparing, planting and pampering a bed of peas or beans and then discovering that the newly germinated seedlings have all been wiped out by birds.

In most places birds are only a significant problem in spring when they seem to relish the abundant succulent green seedlings, but in my garden quail can be a problem anytime. In winter they go for the Brassicas, in summer they like any succulent greens, and in fall they eat newly sown, or emerging, cover crops. I’ve learned the hard way if I leave a seedbed unprotected I am pretty much wasting my time, as I will be lucky to harvest anything from it.

Tips on how to protect your plants:

Easy: The easiest method to keep birds away is to use scare tactics such as flashing tape, hanging old CDs, scarecrows, and predator balloons. The problem with these is that birds will eventually get used to them and start to ignore them, though they may work long enough for your planting to grow out of its most vulnerable stage.

Functional: The usual solution to serious bird predation is plastic netting. This is awkward to handle and put up (it’s an extra step after planting that you don’t need), and somewhat hazardous to wildlife (I have released several tangled snakes) but in these circumstances it is a necessary evil. I usually support the netting on hoops made from lengths of discarded ½” polyethylene irrigation pipe, weighted down at the edges with wood or soil. It’s not particularly elegant, but its quick and it works.

Extreme: In the most extreme cases you might decide to cage the whole garden (especially if you are also plagued by rabbits, deer, squirrels, or raccoons). The simplest and cheapest way to do this is to put an 8 foot tall chicken wire fence around the garden and make a roof out of plastic bird netting.