Non-Native Shrubs for Wildlife

This may look like an out of control mess (more about what’s actually gone on here in a moment) but this wild hedge of hibiscus syriacus actually serves a wonderful purpose. As you might actually be able to tell from this photo, the land approaching this garden–which is not mine–in a slope. You can see the hibiscus flowers lying on it.

My neighbor mows it with a riding mower. For years I struggled with this garden and with painfully hand pulling the grass that his riding mower threw into the garden (actually it was the grass seeds, which then germinated–but I digress). Now that I have the Great Wall of Hibiscus, it fairly impenetrable.

Ironically, it wasn’t supposed to be this way. (And in another digression, isn’t this what gardening is all about? Happy accidents–and some not so happy ones?) That huge white hibiscus you see is one that was sent to me as a test shrub. It is called Lil’ Kim and was supposed to be 3-4 feet tall.

So, as I always say, plants can’t read–but in this case, Lil’ Kim apparently reverted to her parentage, whatever that was.

Here’s the true Lil’ Kim. You can probably tell that her foliage is more delicate and her flowers are smaller than anything in that gargantuan hedge.

By comparison, here is her “reverted” sister, parentage unknown. Same color scheme, same type of flower, just much larger.

So why do I let this behemoth stay? Simple–the wildlife love it. Bees and hummingbirds adore it. The fact that it has created a hedge from the grass clippings is an unintentional bonus.

And you might have noticed some purple hibiscus in my photo too. Both these plants, when they self-sow, occasionally throw off purple seedlings. I let them stay on the idea that purple is a desired wild life color.

Here’s a close-up of the the “purple” one. I guess it’s more lavender. Anyway, I like it. Coming up in the kolkwitzia, it makes it look as if it’s blooming a second time–almost.

Disorder

Since my Friday post was about the possible insect apocalypse, I thought I might post about this disruption that happened to some of my bumblebees on July 4th.

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I had been out in the yard doing something and I noticed my edging disturbed. Since it was the middle of the day, that alone was peculiar enough. So I took a closer look.

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This doesn’t look like much (the pink is rose petals from a shrub rose nearby). But of course I didn’t want to get too close to a bunch of very disturbed bumblebees that had been–what?

Normally the only animal that will go near a stinging insects nest is a skunk. I have had skunks dig whole underground hornets colonies out for me. Gotta love a creature that will do that!

So that’s what I am presuming did this. But boy, the remaining bees were mad as hornets. So I watched–and photoed–from a distance.

Nothing worse than getting on the wrong side of angry bees!

Bee Aware

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You may remember this clump of bulbs from a week or so ago. I love my “minor” bulbs as they are called (to distinguish them from the tulips, daffodils and hyacinths–which I also love but which aren’t nearly so reliable for me).

These lovely ones are called “Glory of the Snow”. Their botanical name is chionodoxa. They also come in pink and white but I love the blues in the garden.

On a very busy evening, I was rushing out of the house to a choir concert but I happened to notice that there were bees all over this clump of flowers. So the next day when I had more time, I sat down on the walkway to try to figure out what was happening.

I was delighted to see the same bees building nests in the ground right there all around this clump of bulbs.

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If you look just past the green cord in the photo, you can see the excavation where the bee has dug its tunnel. There were at least 6 or 8 of these tunnels all around the clump of bulbs.

I guess that I won’t be planting here this year.

Planting for Bees

There’s a lot of information out there about planting for butterflies and hummingbirds but there’s less available about planting for bees. I’m not sure why that is–perhaps because until recently we were only thinking about honeybees, which are a managed species, and not perhaps about our hundreds, if not thousands of native bee species.

Thankfully we’re coming around now. In the last few years there have been a couple of good books on the subject both on planting for bees (which you can see here –and no, I am not and Amazon affiliate; I get nothing for this reference!)
and gardening for bees.

One of the best resources for bees is the Xerxes Society. You’ll notice the first book I recommended is published by them. They’re quite reputable and a great source for all thing “bee” related. The publish great Pollinator Conservation Resources for North America––I’ve linked to my own regional guide for the northeast.

The list of plants is not something that one might readily find in every garden center. These are native plants (in fact, the boneset (#8)comes up naturally in my yard and the Spoiler keeps referring to it as “that white weed.”) However, some, like milkweed, tradescantia and mountain mint are certainly readily available now and can easily be obtained many places. Lists for different regions will of course have different plants.

Another handy guide is to Bumblebees. I thought (and still do think) that bumblebees are about all the same. As much as I don’t have a fear of bees, I am not hanging around to examine their stripes! But it was really instructive learn that there are so many native to my region.

Of course it goes without saying that planting for bees requires you to forego pesticides as much as possible. If you must use pesticides, Xerxes has guides for how to do so to maximize safety to bees and other invertebrates.

Finally some tips that I find handy: first, try to have something in bloom from the very earliest days of spring to the last days of fall. I don’t worry about whether these plants are native plants or not, although of course it’s nicer if they are. One of the first plants that blooms in my yard is a shrub called japanese andromeda (pieris andromeda). It has clusters of fragrant white lily of the valley like flowers and when they open in late March, the bumblebees are there.

One of the last things blooming in my garden is a stand of goldenrod planted by the birds (or the “yellow weed” as the Spoiler has dubbed it.) Again, it blooms up through early November, maybe and as long as it has flowers, it has bees of every size, from bumblebees and honeybees down to the little bees that I love but have no idea of their names.

In between I try to have something blooming, even if it’s just hydrangeas. And the bees come, even to hydrangeas–again, they’re non-native, but they make ME happy (and if the gardener’s happy, everybody’s happy!).

And of course, between the birds and the beneficial insects I rarely need to use an insecticide. If I do, I try to do it as late as possible in the evening–once the bees have left. And even then, I just use insecticidal soap–not that that wouldn’t harm a bee, which is why I wait until almost nightfall.

My last tip is to try to have some very shallow dishes of water for bees to sip from. Just be sure to change them daily so you don’t breed mosquitoes!

Finally, and people differ about this, but many of our native bees are ground nesting bees. Personally I have never been stung by these bees. I may have been lucky. I have even accidentally dug up their nests in early spring and escaped unharmed. After that, I was careful to mark the nesting spots and give them a wide berth while gardening later in the season.

If you aren’t feeling as confident about this, just be aware that native bees are ground nesters–and this includes bumblebees. So be observant while working in the garden (no pun intended).

Then, enjoy your bees!

Sterile versus “Fruitful” Flowers

We all think about planting for bees and other pollinators most of the time, I think. It’s constantly in the news that our pollinators are in trouble, so if we have the choice of planting a shrub, perennial or even an annual that will provide some nectar, why wouldn’t we?

At first glance, these two flowers seem fairly similar, don’t they? Yes, one is a single form and one is a double. One has green leaves and one has variegated leaves. Those are the obvious differences.

What’s not so obvious–and what took me a few years to figure out–is that the flower on the right–the double variegated form (Sugar Tip Rose of Sharon or hibiscus syriacus ‘America Irene Scott’) was sterile–in other words, it made no pollen for the bees.

This is a double edged sword because for those of you who know the characteristics of a typical rose of sharon, you know that unless you deadhead them after bloom, you will have fields of seedlings to contend with. And they root deeply too.

But the bees–and even hummingbirds–do love them. That pollen laden cone (made up of anther, stamens and filaments), in the center of the flower is generally covered in bees. This particular variety even has a red eye to draw in the hummingbirds. (This variety is Lil Kim, or
hibiscus syriacus ‘Antong Two.’)

So what to do? Does that mean you shouldn’t plant Sugar Tip? Well, obviously, I wouldn’t be taking my advice if I said “no!” I planted it in a spot where I clearly didn’t want a lot of self-sowing seedlings from another sort of hibiscus and that’s worked out quite nicely.

It does sort of break my heart when I see the bees visiting, though, looking for nectar that I know they won’t find.

Herbs for Pollinators?

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I have posted about herbs for bees before, when I was talking about self-cleaning annuals. But I think this group of plants gets over-looked as a pollinator source and it shouldn’t.

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Not only are the blossoms some of the prettiest around (these are chives, from earlier in the season, and yes, they are edible, although you don’t want to put a whole chive blossom on your salad. Better to break it into pieces,) but their colors are the right colors usually for bees and butterflies–purples and blues and whites.

The photo at the top is oregano.

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This is cilantro, going to seed and forming coriander seeds.

And sage (mine got too winter-killed to bloom this year) blooms in a lovely blue.

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Finally, this is anise hyssop (agastache) which is an herb in the mint family. Most folks just grow it as an ornamental perennial but it can be used for tea if it has been grown organically.

So in addition to growing herbs for use, why not grow some for the pollinators too?

The Plant that Keeps on Giving

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I bought this plant (the one in the base of the citrus) as a 6″ annual for an outdoor hummingbird container I was planting in 2015. It was called “Jewels of Opar” (don’t you love common names sometime? They’re so romantic!) The botanical name is talinum ‘limon’ presumably for the chartreuse foliage.

As I was scouting around for the botanical on this, lo and behold, I also discovered it was edible! Gracious! This really is the plant that keeps on giving! When I entitled the post that, I merely meant that since 2015, it has self-sowed into various containers of mine and continues to bloom all over the place. You see it here in 3 containers in 3 different stages: blooming, near bloom, and seedling.

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It was blooming outside in my garden beds as well. When I find these flower stalks going to seed, I shake the seeds over my beds and borders and the next season I find plants coming up in the gardens. How delightful. Plants without work. I am all for that!

The article I link to above makes mention of how wonderful these itty bitty tiny flowers are for pollinators. So many of us grow huge hulking flowers to draw in bees and butterflies but we forget about our smaller bees. There are bees that are the size of a grain of white rice and we need to be mindful of those pollinators too!

Of course, if you are going to attempt to eat what you are growing, make sure that you are growing it organically. No pesticides of any kind, especially on the plants but even in your soils. Be mindful of that.

Otherwise, just enjoy these lovely plants and flowers.