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Backyard Gardener: Flowering herbs for pollinators

Hello Mid-Ohio Valley farmers and gardeners! We say goodbye to an extremely hot and dry July 2020. As I write this article, I can hear it raining softly outside. Thank goodness! We sure could use it. Many gardeners tell me they have lots of tomatoes, cucumbers and squash ripening in the garden. Early sweet corn is also in season to add some joy to our summer cuisine. Fresh sweet corn with butter, mmmm.

This week I want to talk a little bit about flowering herbs. When planting an herb garden, many home gardeners visualize fresh basil used in summertime pasta salad or mint added to iced tea and newly harvested oregano used to make grandma’s spaghetti sauce recipe. However, did you know an herb garden can be an essential food source for native pollinators and honeybees?

Herbs are a wonderful addition to the home landscape and allow families to harvest fresh herbs such as basil, mint, rosemary and oregano to use in recipes. Nothing can replace this. Once allowed to flower (or bolt as we call it), many of our herbs are very attractive to pollinators and add another attractive component to the garden. When harvesting herbs, I always recommend “Harvest the best, leave the rest.”

Herb growers can utilize fresh cut herbs plus harvest extra for drying and storing later this fall and winter. Once you have harvested what you need, let the plants go to seed (Dr. Seuss would be proud, right?). Your herbs are reseeding themselves, producing beautiful flowers (some such as sage) and supplying bees and other pollinators with a needed food source.

Mint, thyme, sage and chives produce wonderful flowers which will attract honeybees, bumblebees, native bees and the Bee Gees. Bees and other pollinators “should be dancing, yea”. Only joking, your herbs will keep pollinators “stayin’ alive.”

The pleasing and aromatic scent of mint is one reason it is a popular essential oil, garden herb and ingredient in sauces, jellies and drinks. If you have planted any type of mint, you know this herb’s flowers are a bee magnet.

Mint (species Mentha) including apple mint, spearmint, peppermint and others are very hardy and produce beautiful flowers for busy pollinators. Just remember mints tend to be invasive so plant them in a raised bed or other area where they cannot spread out of control.

This next herb adds an earthy flavor to meats, stuffing’s and soups. Thyme (Thymus vulgaris) produces an abundance of lavender-colored flowers for pollinators. Flowers can also range from white to pink. In addition, they have a long blooming period. Thyme is easy to care for once it’s established, and it tolerates drought conditions.

It requires minimal watering and upkeep once it’s fully grown. It is an evergreen perennial, so pick fresh thyme early in the season and then let the plants bloom for the bees. Oh, and the flowers are edible as well. Thyme flowers add a lemony flavor to dishes, and some culinary applications recommend using them to make a flavored butter.

When combined with garlic, this versatile herb is an essential ingredient in flavoring sausage and could easily double as a showy cut flower. Common sage (Salvia officinalis) blooms in early summer with a profusion of lovely purple-blue flower spikes. The flowers are attractive to bees and butterflies and occasionally to hummingbirds.

Sage is drought tolerant perennial and actually looks more like a woody shrub as it grows. The gray leaves of the common varieties contrast nicely with the green of many other plants, so sage doesn’t have to be relegated to the herb or vegetable garden.

Once you have collected the harvested, this herb lets loose with a profusion of gorgeous blooms attracting bees. Smaller varieties can also be grown as container plants to be brought inside for a supply of fresh sage through the cold winter months.

Chives (Allium schoenoprasum) are a member of the onion family and add a mild onion flavor to potato recipes and veggie dips. Chives pink to purple flowers are actually round globes composed of many small, tightly packed, star-shaped florets. Bumblebees and other types of bees love visiting these lovely flowers.

A hardy and drought-tolerant perennial, chives grow in clumps from underground bulbs and produce round, hollow green leaves that are much finer than an onion. Growing to about 10-12 inches tall, this herb is a beautiful addition to floral arrangements and is used for decoration. If allowed to go to seed chives can spread out into unwanted areas of the garden.

Contact me at the Wood County WVU Extension Office 304-424-1960 or e-mail me at jj.barrett@mail.wvu.edu with questions. Good Luck and Happy Gardening!

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