We keep some of our honey bees in the vegetable patch. Our bees are pretty lazy, preferring to wait for some sugar water rather than to go and collect some pollen but on a sunny day, our garden is alive with the buzzing hum of bumble and honey bees out and about. Different bees are attracted to different types of plants. For example, honey bees work a particularly large selection of crops so it is natural that they work the raspberries in our garden which we have a large supply of. Bumble bees are perfect for runner bean flowers and blossom on trees (they can venture out when it is colder and later than a honey bee can). There are different ways of attracting bees to your vegetable garden to pollinate your crops – remember, no bees, no fruit or vegetables unless you want to get the paintbrush out and pollinate everything by hand which might take some time! One way of attracting bees to your crops is to plant some flowers they love nearby or with them. Some of these can be edible too, making them another great plant to grow in your garden to transfer to the kitchen table.
Edible flowers that bees love:
- Borage – this is the best edible flower to grow that is a bee’s favourite. It is a blue flower with green leaves that resemble comfrey. There is another blue flower that resembles it that flowers earlier that you must beware of – it is not edible while borage is. Borage flowers have a sort of star-shaped petal arrangement with delicate, purple details. The fake borage flower resembles a vibrant, bigger version of a forget-me-not. If you are sowing seeds, buy a packet in spring and sow. Borage’s ability to self-seed ensures that you should have these plants in the vegetable garden for life, as long as you do not pull any up while weeding. Pick the flower heads and use in culinary preparations. They have a cooling, cucumber-like taste so they go very well with Pimms or salads. Otherwise, they look beautiful when scattered on top of a coffee or chocolate cake – the colour stands out against the icing in the most incredible way. Borage was originally grown for medicinal purposes, treating gastrointestinal issues (cramp, diarrhoea, colic), airway diseases (asthma), urinary infections and cardiovascular complaints. Planting borage near strawberries or fruit trees is supposed to make the fruit taste better but it is also a good companion plant for legumes, brassicas, spinach and tomatoes, that it is also supposed to improve the flavour of. It should flower around June or July.
- Nasturtiums – These are great for gardens with poor soil as the worse it is, the more they thrive. They come in all types of vibrant colours and patterns, looking beautifully bright. They will flower from late summer through the autumn until the frost arrives. Then they die back and often pop up and self-seed VERY reliably the next year. Once you have sown a batch of nasturtium seeds, you will never need to sow another again! Any nasturtium seed will do, I recommend ‘Empress of India’ of the top of my head. Nasturtium flowers can be picked and added to a salad or another dish that accompanies a peppery flavour. It is recommended to include them in tempura, anything that needs a little heat. You can sow them in spring and be seeing them in July.
- Viola – You need to start these off in early spring indoors in little pots as they are fussy germinators. They taste sweeter and less peppery than most other flowers you can grow. Many people like to add them on top of cakes or scatter them over a trifle because of this reason. And they look delicate and beautiful. They are a pansy-like, deep purple coloured flower with splashes of yellow in the centres.
- Calendula (pot marigold) – Bright orange flowers that are quite easy to germinate outdoors and are excellent companion plants for nearly everything. Plant them all of the place for a splash of colour. They can be used in fresh salads or dried and used to colour cheeses, apparently. Their colour makes them a perfect substitute to saffron. Throw them into any Mediterranean or Middle Eastern cuisine. You can also infuse the petals and make calendula tea. Calendulas can be used in ointments to treat minor burns, cuts and skin irritations, such as acne. They contain anti-inflammatory properties and have been used to treat constipation and abominable cramps. I even know of someone who suggests making a conditioner from calendula flowers for people with blonde hair – it brings out their colour naturally. Sow outdoors in spring when all the frosts have gone. The seeds are easy to harvest and keep for next year and the plants themselves are again reliable self-seeders.
Non-edible flowers that bees love:
- Foxgloves – Tall, wildflowers that come in an arrangement of colours, mostly whites, purples and pinks. They look lovely but are deadly to all. Foxgloves and ragwort are the two plants I am always on the look out for if I am giving my weeds to the pigs or poultry. They will grow even where you don’t want them – right in the middle of your vegetable bed, often. However, bees do love them so do save a few. Plus, they will make a lovely array of colour from June to July.
- Comfrey – Inedible but brilliant for the vegetable patch. Bees adore the pink flowers (especially bumble bees who should do the majority of pollinating in your plot), they are very hardy and resistant. They can grow anywhere. Harvesting their leaves (that will grow back instantly) you can make your own comfrey feed for plants. Their thuggish behaviour makes them a great boarded plant as they prevent weeds from growing anywhere near them.
- French Marigolds – Unlike the pot marigolds, the French ones are not edible but they are stunning and a great companion plant. Their petals are bright yellow with splashes of crimson red painted over them. Their leaves are a shaggy, dark green and they can grow to be quite big. They will last from mid-summer to late autumn, depending on the weather. You need to start marigolds off indoors, like violas. Sow them in small pots as early as February or March and plant them outdoors when the frosts have gone and they are big enough to handle. They make great companion plants for carrots (deter carrot fly with their strong smell), tomatoes, legumes, brassicas (deter cabbage whites). They are one of my favourites to grow as they are such stunners.
- Cosmos – Another favourite, these simple and delicate flowers can come in an arrangement of colours – my favourites are the whites and light pinks. They remind me of the type of flower a fairy could perch on. They are bee friendly and add delicate colour and beauty to your plot. Sow them indoors in trays in early spring if the frosts are hanging around later than normal (like I had to this year) or sow them direct into the ground in spring. They are another one I would recommend harvesting the seed from and storing for the next year.