There are many great bee flowers that also work well in wildflower beds. So why not combine the two purposes? Create wildflower beds that will feed bees (both native and honey), as well as other pollinators. Wildflower beds can also solve design issues in your yard as well. Don’t know what to do with that huge lawn? Or that back area in your yard? It could be a good spot for wildflowers. Here’s how to get started growing wildflowers for bees, with bee flower suggestions.
My own wildflower garden began about 15 years ago with a slope covered in bark mulch. The builders of our house had dumped poor quality soil to create a slope connecting our level back lawn to the lower orchard area. It was pretty dreadful looking and a “dead zone”. I raked away the mulch and planted a general wildflower seed mixture and supplemented with lots of blue lupine seeds (a favorite of mine). This was before the “bee bug” had bit me, so I wasn’t thinking about feeding the bees. (Lupines do feed bumblebees, but no other bees.)
Though many of the wildflowers have passed, I consider the wildflower slope a success. It is a nice space to travel through. The lupines love the slope and it is beautiful in May. Over the years some birches have seeded themselves, which I love. (They don’t cast shade so they can coexist with the wildflowers.) Every year I edit out the plants I do not want growing there. This year I intend to add some more bee loving summer blooming flowers–some of the flowers listed below. Read on to find out how to create your own wildflower garden.
Consider your site
Most wildflowers need lots of sunshine–at least 8 hours. Choose a sight with this in mind. Is the soil wet or dry? Is it shallow or deep? Choose flowers that will do well in those conditions. Well-drained soil is best.
Great wildflowers for the bees
Here is a short list of possibilities. They will attract native bees, honey bees and other pollinators such as butterflies. With a few exceptions, I prefer perennials, so I am not replanting every year. But I have included some annuals that are exceptional bee plants and would work in a wildflower bed.
- Anise Hyssop (Agastache spp.), average soil moisture
- Aster, (Symphyotrichum), wet to dry soil depending on species
- Bee Balm (Monarda spp.), average to dry soil
- Bee’s Friend (Phacelia tanacetifolia), Annual, average to dry
- Blanketflower, (Gaillardia spp.), average to dry
- Blazing Star (Liatris), in either purple or white, dry to moist
- Blue Curls (Trichostema lanceolatum), native to California, average to dry
- Blue Vervain, (Verbena hastata), Average to wet
- Cosmos, Annual, average soil moisture
- Clovers, all kinds, average
- Cup Plant (Silphium spp.), likes very fertile, deep soils, moist to dry
- Culver’s Root (Veronicastrum virginicum), average to wet
- Dill, Annual, Dill doesn’t usually make a wildflower list, but it would look great with wildflowers and bees love it
- Fireweed (Chamerion angustifolium), Average, hard to find in seed form
- Globe Gilia (Gilia capitata), Annual, average to dry
- Goldenrod (Solidago spp.), average
- Joe-Pye Weed, Boneset (Eutrochium spp.), average to wet, not popular among honeybees, but other native bees and pollinators love this flower
- Purple Coneflower (Echinacea purpurea), average
- Meadowfoam (Limnanthes spp.), average to wet
- Milkweed (Asclepias spp.), wet to dry
- Mountainmint (Pycnanthemum spp.), average to dry
- Penstemon, average to dry
- Poppy, average to dry soils, California poppy will feed native bees, other poppies are good for all bees
- Prairie Clover (Dalea spp.), average to dry
- Purple Coneflower (Echinacea)
- Rattlesnake Master (Eryngium spp.), wet to dry
- Rocky Mountain Bee Plant (Cleome), wet to dry soil
- Salvia, average to dry soil
- Selfheal (Prunella vulgaris), average to wet soil
- Sneezeweed (Helenium), average to wet soil
- Spiderwort (Tradescantia spp.), average
- Sunflower (Helianthus spp.), there are many annual and perennial varieties available
- Wild Buckwheat (Eriogonum spp.), likes it dry
- Wingstem (Verbesina spp.)
- Woodmint (Blephillia ciliata), this ones prefers shade and dry soil
Also check out the Xerces Society’s Regional Plant List for Pollinators.
Seeds or plants?
Seeds are economical and satisfying when they grow. But they do need some babying. You should water them every day–if it gets hot, perhaps twice a day–until they are about 1-2″ high.
Plants are great because they are already grown. (They will still need some care for the first year.) But they can get expensive. If you prefer plants, consider searching for plugs. These are smaller plants, for a smaller price. Prairie Moon Nursery offers trays of 38 small plants for a set price and they do not use neonicotinoids.
With either choice, make sure the seeds or plants are not treated with neonicotinoids, a systemic pesticide that will stay with the plant for many years.
When to sow seeds
Early spring for Zones 1-6 and in the Fall (September through December) for Zones 7-11. Preparing the bed may take some time, so plan for that in your schedule. It is OK to sow the seeds in late fall for Zones 1-6. The seeds will remain dormant, then should germinate in the spring.
How to prepare the site
You will need to remove any grass, vegetation, and weeds that are growing on the site. Your wildflowers will not be able to compete with them. This may be the hardest part of the project (but don’t worry, well worth it.) Herbicides are often recommended, but I don’t like this idea. Any kind of chemical will likely damage your soil by killing the microbes and earthworms in your soil–these are organisms that help your plants grow and give a better quality soil. Also, herbicides can do harm to bees, pets, and people as well. (Round-up, a popular herbicide, was once considered “safe”, yet is now known to be a carcinogen.) Here are some non-chemical methods I would consider for my garden.
- a sod cutter to cut underneath the grass and cut it into strips. You can rent these.
- solarization-a technique where clear plastic is placed over the land, collects sunlight, and “cooks” the vegetation (weeds included) underneath it. A great technique, but works better in the summer time and needs several months to kill everything.
- smothering-a technique where something, such as bales of hay, are placed over the area. It will eventually kill the vegetation, but it also needs time.
- old-fashioned digging (this may be necessary for perennial weeds to remove the entire root). Try a dandelion digger for the deep-rooted weeds.
You want to avoid tilling, as this can be harmful to soil structure and will bring up weed seeds to the surface–starting a new garden of weeds. Do it if you feel you must, but try to avoid it.
Rake the area you wish to plant.
Keep it Simple
When you are choosing your flowers, I would recommend avoiding generic wildflower mixes. They often have lots of flowers that do not feed the bees and can be of questionable quality.
Don’t be afraid to create your own wildflower mix, by selecting a handful of different flowers, in the colors you prefer, that will grow well in your area. Planting just a few types of flowers that bloom over a long season, can give you a pleasing display and is simpler to maintain.
Wildflower beds have the potential to invite wildlife into your garden. And then sustain them once they come. It is a fun and satisfying project.