Gardening for the Bees
by Jeanne Grunert
- posted 06/17/16
Beekeepers nationwide are experiencing significant losses, and here in Virginia, honeybee populations continue to decline. I was speaking with a friend who is a beekeeper and he was literally in tears as he described losing all but one of his nine hives this spring. Those bees were like his children, and the loss of them was painful not just to my friend but to the local orchards and gardens supported by the pollinating activities of the bees. The loss of bees of any kind, including non-native honeybees, is a tragedy. So what can we, the average backyard gardeners, do to help?
There are two things you can do to help the local bees, including honeybees and native bees like the blue orchard mason bee. First, use fewer insecticides, or none at all. Insecticides kill indiscriminately, so they'll kill the beetles eating your squash plants but they'll also kill any bees that buzz on by.
This includes watching where you buy your plants, too. Many plants from national chain stores are sprayed with insecticides without your knowledge. When they bloom, the flowers may contain residual pesticides, which can in turn weaken or kill bees. Local nursery and garden centers usually grow their own plants or purchase them locally. They are more likely to know where their plants came from, and you can ask about insecticide use.
The second thing that you can do to help your local bee population is to plant native flowers. Native flowers are flowers that evolved alongside local insects, including bees. They provide the pollen that local bees need. They are also better acclimated to the local climate and growing conditions, and tend to experience fewer problems because of this.
Some great native perennials you can grow in Virginia to provide food and habitats for pollinating insects including bees are:
Butterfly milkweed (Asclepias tuberosa)
Purple coneflower (Echinacea purpurea)
Wild bergamot (Monarda)
Lanceleaf coreopsis (Coreopsis)
Another tip: leave some weeds in your garden. Now, I know what you're thinking. Weeds? Aren't you supposed to pull or kil those? Yes, you can pull weeds, but I've found that leaving some of the prettier flowering weeds not only provide my garden with additional color, but supports the bees, too. It creates a meadow-effect that bees love.
Here are some of the flowers that bees love, and that are easy to grow in Virginia gardens:
Mondarda (Bee Balm)
Butterfly Weed (Asclepias tuberosa)
For more on helping the local bee populations, visit the Xerces Society.
Herbs as Ornamental Plants
by Jeanne Grunert
- posted 06/10/16
I have to admit: I'm an herbie, an herbaphile, an herb lover. An herbarian. Someone who loves herbs. My garden is sprinkled liberally with their magical touch. Rosemary and calendula line the garden paths, and thyme and oregano creep among the stones surroudning my little garden pond. Mint has taken over the flower bed near the garage, which is just fine for me - I love nothing better than an afternoon cup of freshly brewed mint tea. And sage? I've got sage tucked among the butterfly plants and in an area of the garden that has such dry, sandy soil that few things except sage and my beloved lavender grow.
Why do I grow so many herbs? There's something about having a useful yet beautiful plant in the garden that appeals to me. Many herbs not only provide tasty or fragrant leaves and flowers, they also support local pollinating insects. Bees seem drunk on lavender nectar. The native Virginia butterfly, the Eastern Swallowtail Caterpillar, loves to clamor aboard dill and parsley, leaving behind her precious cargo of eggs to hatch and feed on the leaves. The more I learn about the herbs in my garden, the more I appreciate their beauty and versatility.
We often think of herbs as "special" plants that deserve a place of honor in the garden, perhaps their own neat little circle complete with a sundial in the center. While that's quite charming, it's almost impossible for most gardeners to have their own special herb garden. That's anothe reason why I advocate planting herbs liberally among your flowers and vegetables. Not only do they add useful plants to the garden, but many pair quite nicely with other plants, acting as companions to boost bloom, repel insects, or attract pollinators to increase your garden yield.
If you grow too many herbs - is there even such a thing as too many herbs? - you can air dry them or use a fruit and vegetable dehydrator to quickly preserve the bounty. Many herbs, such as lavender and rosemary, can be cut with long stems, bundled, and hung upside down inside the house to dry. It's a time-honored method of drying herbs for future use.
Cooking with herbs, crafting with herbs, or simply enjoying them in the garden, herbs planted among the flowers are reminiscent of the Middle Ages, when monastery gardens were the healing centers of towns and herbs were considered part of one's pantry. Try planting some herbs among your flowers today.
Succulents for the Garden
by Jeanne Grunert
- posted 05/27/16
Succulents never appealed to me. Sure, my parents grew the ubiquitous "hens and chicks" (Sempervivum tectorum) in a little rock garden next to the garage. I remember being fascinated by the 'baby' chick plants growing around the central plant. We've tried growing various sedums in our central Virginia garden, but few seemed to like the rich, acidic soil.
Well, duh. Now that I've looked into growing succulents, I understand exactly why the poor plants hated the rich, acidic soil. Succulents come to us from dry, sandy soils for the most part. There are some native Virginia stonecrops or sedums that are considered succulents who love the forest floor, a woodland plant that thrives in the rich understory. That's the kind of stonecrop I really need for my garden.
No, those that like it hot and dry are great plants for a wide range of conditions, but not for rich, fertile soil. Many sedums, succulents and other plants that evolved from desert conditions are great little water conservation plants. They don't require much care and they actually prefer hot, sandy soil.
Succulents also do well in containers, and I've even seen them grown in arid terrariums. They make good house plants, great rock garden plants, and low-growing border plants that can tolerate the heat of being planted next to a garage, roadway or wall.
Most succulents are disease resistant. The biggest thing you have to worry about with them is over watering. They don't even like too much rain water. Growing them in pots and containers in Virginia may solve that problem by allow excess water to drain away. You can also pull the containers in under an overhand during rainy days to prevent your succulent plants from drowning.
With so much going for them, it's no wonder that succulents have grown in popularity. If you're looking for a plant that's hard to kill, try growing succulents.