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Garden wisdom from deer country!

Gardening in the Sierra Foothills with Carolyn Singer

The seasoned gardener

published in The Union in Grass Valley CA

Feeding the bees so they will feed us
Our food supply depends on healthy pollinators

by Carolyn Singer
June 18, 2011

rock gardenKeeping our local native and honeybees healthy is a commitment each one of us can make in our choices of flowers and gardening practices. Recently I weeded in my rock garden during cold wet weather. While the rosemary and the early thymes were in full bloom, offering plentiful food, not a bee was in sight because of the cold and rain. I was saddened, knowing that despite my best gardening efforts, the neighboring beekeeper was having to feed his bees to keep them alive.

My grandson marvels at my connection with these precious pollinators. On a late-summer evening when we are harvesting raspberries before the bees have quit for the day, I can feel the motion of their wings as they move from one raspberry blossom to another while I reach for the ripe berries. We belong together in this garden.

As a child, I had an unfortunate encounter with yellow jackets (which we also refer to as meat bees), and it was only years of gardening in the country that reduced the subsequent fears, and the association with all bees. Now I am comfortable being near the valuable pollinators, the honeybees, the native bees, and the bumble bees.

I often select flowers for the value they will have in feeding the bees for as long a season as possible. There are two groups of plants that are especially valuable in supplying nectar or pollen, the family of Labiatae and of Asteraceae. Both families include hundreds of plants that provide food for pollinators.

thymeMany perennials in the first group are deer-resistant. Oregano, germander, rosemary and thyme have a long sequence of bloom, beginning in March and continuing into fall. Rosemary is always the first to flower, and often blooms during the winter too. All of these perennials are low irrigation, receiving a deep soaking once every two to three weeks during the dry summer months once they are mature. Some are low groundcovers, others taller mounding plants, and all are mainstays of my rock garden outside the vegetable garden. Most of the oregano cultivars in this garden are edible, though some are only decorative. The bees like them all.

dwarf germanderThis rock garden in full sun hums with bee activity on a warm day, interrupted only by their pause for water in the dish I keep filled. Last year during a heat wave I discovered that a large zinnia blossom floating on the surface for my pleasure was providing a cool island for the honeybees. They could float along with the flower, wet, but not at risk for total submersion. It was difficult for me to leave a nearby bench to pull weeds in the vegetable garden.

Shadier areas near my entry are perfect for golden-leafed and variegated oregano, both edible. They will spread, but not aggressively. Another perennial, Lamium, is a wonderful evergreen groundcover for full shade and partial shade, beginning bloom in April and continuing all summer. These lovely deer-resistant perennials are offered in local nurseries with a nice variety of leaf and flower colors.

Aster 'Monte Casino'In late summer and fall, asters (Aster ericoides 'Monte Casino' photo, right) join in to provide food for the bees. The Maryland golden aster is untouched by the deer, but most of the other asters are a deer favorite, so they must go within the fenced areas.

Providing flowers that feed the pollinators is an essential commitment for sustainable gardening. But gardeners must also make wise choices about the fertilizers and insect control they use. Some chemicals are so lethal to honeybees that to touch a treated flower then return to the nest may jeopardize the entire hive. The publicity surrounding the decline of honeybees has hopefully reached a wide audience. Our food system depends on these precious pollinators, and on us to make the right choices.
Maryland golden aster

©2011 by Carolyn Singer. All rights reserved.

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