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In Horticulture's May/June 2020 issue, the staff at the Coastal Maine Botanical Garden shared planting ideas for a garden that will feed bees from the very start of spring. These easy-to-grow, deer-resistant plants happen to provide other benefits, too, like summer shade, ingredients for cooking or making tea and, of course, visual appeal in the landscape.
Salix discolor. Native to North America, this Salix is most often found as a multi-stemmed shrub growing to 15 feet high and 12 feet wide, though it has been known to reach 30 feet. The light gray, silky male catkins are showier than the female catkins. They emerge in late winter to early spring, a perfect timing for hungry foraging bees. The leaves are medium green and elliptic to lance shaped. This is a plant that thrives in wet soil. It makes a good hedge and it’s easy (and cheap) to grow from bare root. USDA Zones 4–8.
Scilla siberica, synonym Othocallis siberica. Originally from southern Russia, this bulb naturalizes beautifully. Deep blue, nodding, bell-shaped flowers with blue anthers bloom in early spring to feed bees when little else is available. Strappy, medium green leaves follow. Full sun to part shade. Zones 2–8.
Tilia americana. Native to central and eastern North America, this deciduous tree can be used as a shade tree or flowering tree. A fast grower, it can reach 50 to 80 feet high and up to 50 feet across. The fragrant yellow flowers appear in late spring and just may attract every bee from a mile in any direction. Small nutlets provide extra food for smaller animals. The dark green leaves are large, with serrated margins. This tree provides the resources for making tea and syrup, as well as honey. Full sun to part shade. Zones 2–8.
Spring to autumn:
ALLIUM, LEEK, ONION, GARLIC
Allium spp. and cvs. From wild chives, garlic, leek, shallot, scallion, and onion to all the wildly sculptural ornamental onion cultivars, there is likely an allium for every garden and every bee. Flowering umbels in shades from white to pink and purple. (Note: Bees are naturally drawn to purples, blues and yellows. They cannot see red.) Many alliums are edible, as well as being rodent- and deer-tolerant. Grow best in full sun, but some species can make it in part sun or part shade. Hardiness varies by species, but typically Zones 3–8.
Pycnanthemum muticum. Native to the eastern United States, this herbaceous perennial hums with bees when it blooms from July through September, with light pink clusters of two-lipped, tubular flowers held up by silvery bracts at the base. The fragrant leaves are dark green with toothed margins and they can be used to make a mint-flavored tea. Will reach 1 to 3 feet in height and width. Full sun to part shade. Zone 4–8.
Related recommended reading:
The Pollinator Victory Garden by Kim Eierman
100 Plants to Feed the Bees by The Xerces Society
The Bee-friendly Garden by Kate Frey and Gretchen LeBuhn