Remember those pollinator gardens we discussed back in January? Remember the plant lists for bees and the arguments about natives versus invasives? Well then, how is it going?
On this end, I’ve got good news and bad—tales that are amazing, funny, and disappointing. Here’s my report so far.
Siberian squill: I planted hundreds of Siberian squill bulbs in the fall of 2013 in the hopes of seeing blue pollen on my bees. Dozens of people told me it was invasive, that it would take over my entire property, that I would be sorry. But in spring of 2014 I was delighted with the flowers, the blue pollen pellets, the many native bees that came calling, and the dozens of photos I managed to get.
But this spring? Nothing. No plants (well, maybe five or six), no flowers, no blue. I was severely disappointed. So much for invasive. The lesson learned is that what is a sure-fire invasive nightmare in one ecosystem is a complete dud in the next. I wanted to be invaded but I was abandoned. Oh well.
Straw bale garden. I planted six straw bales this spring, four with potatoes and two with pollinator plants. Shortly after I planted, one reader told me he had tried it, found the straw field had been treated with herbicide, and all his plants died. I kept my fingers crossed, remembering that if it worked, I wouldn’t have to weed, deal with slugs, or water incessantly.
Apparently, I got lucky because my plants lived. But the slugs hadn’t read the bit about not liking straw, and every morning there are dozens of them at the salad bar munching away. Well, at least as many as can fit between all the wheat that sprouted from the top and sides of the bales.
All the articles I read said to use straw, not hay, so you don’t get seeds. I used wheat straw and got (not surprisingly) wheat—hairy masses of healthy, strong, stubborn wheat. I’ve spent more time pulling wheat seedlings than I ever would have spent pulling real weeds. Not only that, but between the wheat and the slugs, grew mushrooms—dozens of shapes and sizes and colors popped up through the top and out through the sides.
And then there’s the water. I read that the bales hold moisture so you can water less frequently. As it turns out, I have to water the bales twice for every time I water the rest of the garden. The bales seem wet enough, but the plant roots can’t seem to find it. Bummer.
Lemon Queen Sunflowers: At this time, the Lemon Queens (the sunflowers used by the Great Sunflower Project) seem to be doing fine. They are about three feet tall and look healthy—but this is my second batch. The first batch got picked out of the ground by Steller’s Jays, so I had to reorder the seeds and plant again. I started the second batch in the kitchen and held my breath when I finally transferred them to the garden. So far, so good.
Encap Honey Bee Mix: I planted this because I was curious. The bag says it contains mulch, fertilizer, seed and sparkling crystals that “swell and glisten when enough water has been applied.” So every day I water and look for sparkles. When the ground starts to float away, I stop, but still no sparkles. I’m getting plants from it, so I should be happy, right? But I want sparkles.
Last year’s perennials: Every year I plant more perennials, always looking for those plants that attract bees. Except for the Siberian squill, last year’s perennials are doing well. And here’s the best news: I saw a host of bee species this year I never saw before. Every year I think I’ve reached some kind of limit—an asymptote—but every year I see more and more different species. It is really true that if you plant flowers and hold the pesticides, you will enhance your wild bee population in short order.
In addition to several new-to-me Andrena bees, I’ve also spotted an Agapostemon, large leafcutters, Osmia aglaia, Bombus californicus, and a couple of species I haven’t yet identified. Is that cool or what?
My ceanothus bushes are as loud as my honey bee hives, but the sound comes not from honey bees but from scores of bumble bees. The blossoms are heavy with them, dipping and bobbing under their weight. The laburnums, highbush cranberry, and aronia have also been teaming with wild bees, while my honey bees have been distracted by maple, cascara, bitter cherry, and now blackberries.
One problem I didn’t see coming was my nesting tubes. They filled up early, so I purchased several more canisters in a hurry and they too were quickly filled. Next, I carefully removed the paper straws, stored them in a different container, and replenished the straws. When they filled, I had to do it again. The season is still young, so this exercise isn’t over. At least it’s a good problem to have.
Fall flowering perennials. I planted many new fall-flowering plants this year, mostly based on your recommendations in the plant lists. Yesterday, my bed of Autumn Joy sedum got undermined by a mole that managed to turn them all over, one-by-one, right down the row. I replanted them before the sun did too much damage (I hope). We’ll see.
So there you have it, the highlights and lowlights of my pollinator garden so far this year. So tell me about yours. What’s working and what’s not? What’s disappointing and what’s amazing in your bee garden today?