The Beekeeper’s Companion Since 1861
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The Curious Beekeeper

Small-Space Gardening for Bees: How to Make Your Scout Bees Happy

- July 1, 2023 - Rusty Burlew - (excerpt)

I was relaxing on a friend’s second-floor balcony in the city of Issaquah, not a stone’s throw from Seattle. It was a mellow spring day, and as we chatted about recipes and interest rates, I noticed bees exploring her itsy-bitsy potted garden. Honey bees, bumble bees, sweat bees, and masons tumbled among the spring ephemerals with the roar of I-90 in the background. I wondered where the bees came from.

In suburban landscapes across the continent, beekeepers raise honey bees in places laden with concrete, asphalt, and chemically perfected lawns. I glanced over the rail to see the glinty roofs of parked cars, a man with a deafening leaf re-positioner, and a maintenance person spraying thick-leaved shrubbery. I could understand an occasional visit from an inquisitive honey bee because they fly so far. But the others? They reminded me that nature always finds a way.

Small gardens in a busy crowded world

Alongside containers of Virginia bluebells, columbine, shooting stars, and wild geranium, my friend grew a small tree in a large ceramic urn and six pots of mixed herbs: oregano, basil, peppermint, and chives. The plantings lined the sunny end of the diminutive deck, leaving enough room for a modest glass-topped table, two chairs, and a needy cat. Although humble and compact, the garden smelled minty and fresh.

Since that day, I’ve become curious about the potential of small gardens for pollinators. Far from being for humans only, tiny gardens provide way stations for wildlife, places where pollinators can be safe — at least momentarily — from the bustle of human existence. Like picnic spots, they provide a peaceful respite for a fun meal, a refreshing drink, and a moment to frolic in safety.

Can honey bees use a small garden?

Beekeepers often reject the idea of small gardens for honey bees. Why? Floral fidelity. Since honey bees prefer to forage on crops with large numbers of identical flowers, there seems little point in planting a tiny garden for them. Onesies and twosies won’t feed the masses.

But think again. The flying force of any colony comprises foragers and scouts: scouts to search and foragers to collect. Incredibly, some recent research shows that, depending on the time of year, up to 25% of the foragers in a single colony may be scouts.1 Scouts must discover the enormous swaths of clover, fireweed, or sourwood that feed the colony. But to find those treasures, the scouts clock many miles on their wings. Periodically, they need to rest, refuel, and rehydrate.

A petite garden with a few flowers can help a scout recuperate before she continues searching for nectar, pollen, water, resins, or a new place to live. Like a trucker on an endless freeway, honey bees need a pit stop, something you can provide with a miniature garden.

Some small-space alternatives

You can find many variations on small-space gardens. Depending on your particular setup, you can choose a popular design or mix and match. Here’s a list of captivating styles.

Vertical gardens

Vertical gardens, also called green walls, provide exciting possibilities. They’re great for small spaces because the garden spreads up instead of out. Vertical gardens are usually supported against a wall, trellis, or fence and used for everything from small pots and soil-filled bags to high-tech planters. They can feature decorative greenery, vegetables, herbs, or flowers even on the tiniest deck.

Some people simply tip wooden shipping pallets on end, attach them to something sturdy, and fill the spaces between slats with plastic bags or flexible pots. Other gardeners construct elaborate hydroponic pools dangling from hooks and linked with piping. I’ve even seen netting hung behind pots to support viney creepers.

Easy-to-reach vertical gardens have many advantages. Weeding is a breeze and watering is simplified. Even dead-heading and harvesting require only a fraction of the effort needed for ground-level gardens. And if you like to watch pollinators, you get a front-row seat.

Because the plants are easy to replace, you can quickly swap blooming plants with those that are past. This way, you and the pollinators have something to enjoy all season long. And if you like, you can go with a theme such as blue-flowered plants, fragrant plants, herbs with bee-attractive flowers, moon gardens, or blooms with scads of pollen.

For best results, consider the hours of sunlight your spot will receive, how you will water it, and where the water will drain (especially if it’s on a balcony). Choose plants that are manageable yet adored by bees and other pollinators.

Pocket gardens

Often designed specifically for pollinator or vegetable plantings, pocket gardens can fit where no typical garden dares to go. They usually comprise pots or small raised beds arranged on a porch or balcony like the one in Issaquah, or they may fringe low stone walls, steps, or outdoor seating.

Instead of adding something new, I’ve seen a fire pit, a koi pond, and a sunken swimming pool transformed into attractive below-ground-level planters that bees love. You can repurpose just about any outdoor structure into a pocket garden. Even a narrow planting along a picket fence is popular when space is limited.

Mobile gardens

As the name suggests, mobile gardens are designed for moving. People sometimes plant them in wagons, carts, trailers, or wheelbarrows and move them as the season changes the angle of the sun and the layout of shade.

In the larger sense, the term “mobile gardens” may refer to container gardens you can move from year to year if not during the year. You can bury the plants directly in the rolling containers or in pots within the containers.

The mobility of these gardens allows endless flexibility. You can re-arrange or relocate the planter or take them indoors during harsh weather or seasonal changes. They allow gardeners to optimize sun exposure, protect plants from temperature extremes, or create aesthetic variations for special occasions. They work perfectly for pollinators because you can move the planters between blooming periods.

Straw-bale gardens

Straw-bale gardens offer an alternative to planting in soil. You simply haul in rectangular bales, add water and allow them to “cure” for a few months, and then plant. Depending on what you plant, they will need about 6-8 hours of direct sunlight per day.

Choose bales that are free from insecticides and herbicides. Most bales have a low number of weed seeds; however, try to avoid hay in favor of wheat, barley, or oat straw to keep hayseeds at a minimum.

Straw bale gardens are perfect for annuals because the bales disintegrate after a year or two. But during those years, the bales can produce a bounty of flowers for bees and produce for you. My bales produced potatoes, tomatoes, squash, and bush beans alongside sunflowers and zinnias.

The toughest part of a straw bale garden is moving the bales. The size of bales varies with the equipment used to harvest and tie them but on average a rectangular bale measures about 32-44 inches long, 16-22 inches wide, and 14-16 inches high. They are deceptively heavy, so you will need some help.

Straw bale gardens offer many benefits:

  • You don’t have to dig
  • You needn’t squat on the ground to weed or watch pollinators
  • You can garden in places covered in concrete, asphalt, or clay
  • Your drainage is automatically excellent
  • You can position them where sun and shade are best
  • You can reposition the garden from year to year
  • You needn’t deal with quite so many creepy-crawlies (slugs don’t like scratchy stomachs)
  • You don’t need to maintain it forever or haul it away. If you don’t replace the bales, they will compost on their own.

Hanging gardens

My parents lived in a neighborhood of vintage Victorian homes, one of which had wraparound porches on all four sides. I used to wait with wide-eyed anticipation as every spring and summer those porches were laden with hanging planters of every conceivable size and color.

The homeowner hung the pots at all different heights, depending on their content. The flowers were stunning red, white, and blue pollinator magnets with an American flag on each corner post. Throughout spring and summer, the display drew bees, butterflies, hummingbirds, moths, and quite a few amateur photographers. I still envision those lusty porches from my distant past and regret misplacing the photos.

Fairy gardens

If you have kids — or even if you don’t — a fairy garden makes an enchanting addition to any small landscape. You can plant a fairy garden in shallow clay planters, bird baths, flowerpot saucers, or anything that holds soil.

Miniature structures or figurines nestled among the low plantings add to the surreal landscape, something kids seem to love. In addition, you can find low-growing versions of many pollinator plants, or you can use small native flowers, or even groundcover like stonecrop (Sedum spp.), creeping thyme (Thymus serpyllum), creeping jenny (Lysimachia nummularia), or alyssum (Alyssum maritimum).

Additional creature comforts for pollinators

We all know that pollinators need a continuous supply of nectar- and pollen-rich flowers with diverse shapes and colors. But to make your bee visitors deliriously happy, you can ….