Garden centers are simply awash with flower seedlings begging to go home with you. Annual flowers purchased in multi-packs are called bedding plants because their purpose is to fill beds with color, but many serve a dual role by providing nectar and pollen for bees and other beneficial insects that can help pollinate your vegetables or protect them from pests. Whether you are planting pots or an eye-catching bed, the right bedding plants will please both you and beneficial bugs.
A short list of good candidates follows, but you may need to think for yourself when faced with dozens of options. First consider flower form, and how accessible the nectar reservoirs are to different types of bees. Numerous insects prefer open flowers that make it possible for them to alight on the petals to feed, while bees with longer tongues favor tubular flowers. Growing flowers with different forms increases visual interest and helps your garden host a wider range of bees. Here are eight fantastic examples.
Often called sweet alyssum (Lobularia maritima), alyssum is a dainty cabbage cousin that starts blooming in spring, weeks ahead of most summer flowers. Alyssum’s fine texture make it an excellent annual to slip into the edges of containers or small beds, where the plants grow into billowy clouds of white, pink or purple. Tiny hoverflies and wasps are attracted by alyssum’s honey-scented nectar, the fragrance of which is most noticeable in the evening.
Cosmos comes in two garden-worthy species, both much loved by bees. Cosmos bipinnatus has fine, feathery foliage and bears flowers that are predominantly pink, but can be white to dark rose, depending on variety. The young seedlings of pink cosmos grow slowly, so bedding plants are worth their cost, but this is not the case with orange and yellow-blooming Cosmos sulphureus, which is among the fastest flowers you can grow from seed. Instead of buying seedlings of sulfur cosmos, pick up a packet of seeds.
Fabulous French Marigolds
Marigolds are attractive to bees provided you choose a variety with open centers, so insects can easily find the yellow florets. Little ‘Gem’ marigolds fit this description, but they are not as long-blooming as many French marigolds, which are the preferred type among pollinators in my garden. When you find a strain you like, it’s easy to save seeds for planting in future seasons.
Portulaca (Portulaca grandiflora), sometimes called moss rose, is hugely attractive to honeybees, perhaps because the blossoms close at night and in rainy weather, protecting the precious pollen supply. Tremendously tolerant of hot weather, the semi-succulent plants adapt well to containers or sunny beds. When shopping for bedding plants, look for single or semi-double varieties with open centers, which bees prefer over varieties with dense double blossoms.
Salvias make up the color branch of the sage family, and you may find several types at the garden center. The species most beloved by bees and butterflies is Salvia coccinea, which is called scarlet sage though it is also available in pink and coral. The tubular flowers are visited by hummingbirds along with butterflies and long-tongued bees, and the sturdy plants bloom for months with little care.
Snapdragons (Antirrhinum majus) are built to be pollinated by big bumblebees, the only pollinators powerful enough to open the heavy-lipped flowers. Learning experiments with bees suggest that snapdragons with stripes or veins in the blossoms are easiest for bees to find, but any variety will become a bumblebee beacon in the garden. To prolong the bloom time of snapdragons, pinch off the first flower spike to encourage the growth of secondary branches.
Sunflowers (Helianthus annuus) are powerhouse plants for attracting pollinators including beetles, flies, wasps and many types of bees. Sunflower blossoms also may attract stink bugs, which is better than having these pests on your peppers. You can start sunflowers from seedlings, seeds, or both. To extend the sunflower season, plant an early crop from purchased seedlings, and then sow sunflowers from seeds after the weather turns warm.
Zinnias love growing in warm summer weather and they are great favorites of bees and butterflies. Bypass double-flowered selections where you can’t easily see the yellow florets in the middle, because insects will have to search for them, too. Tall varieties make great cut flowers, while shorter narrow-leaf types are champs at resisting disease.