I love it when a garden activity addresses several issues of concern for the home gardener — in this case, soil health and bee colonies. As gardeners, we know that all plant vigor comes from healthy, live soil, and that we need bees to pollinate our food crops. Enter the humble cover crop, a garden super hero — able to reduce soil erosion and fix nitrogen deficiencies in a single bound, while fearlessly feeding the bees! This is because many cover crops flower, attracting valuable bees in the process while simultaneously fixing all manner of problems below the soil line.
Interested in this double-duty crop? Here are some great suggestions for cover crops that also feed the bees, many of which can be sourced in seed form from your local feed store. Live in an urban area? You are likely to find a feed store on the outskirts of your city — and don’t be intimidated to visit them! Feed stores are a mecca of garden and agricultural materials and products that can change your life.
Clover: Clover is a soil-building master, addressing nitrogen deficiencies wherever it grows. There are several different types of clover to use, from sweet clover to crimson clover and Alsike clover and more — each one with different bloom times and growing requirements. Check with your local county extension office for the type of clover recommended for your area.
Buckwheat: This broad-leaf plant is a fast grower and effective at suppressing weeds. It matures in 6-8 weeks and can be planted in between spring and fall veggie plantings. The white flowers attract bees but can also be used in flower arrangements, but be sure to cut it down before it goes to seed or you’ll have buckwheat growing in places where you don’t want it.
Vetch: This fast-growing member of the legume family does a tremendous job at providing erosion control with its strong roots and at adding nitrogen into the soil. There are many different types of vetch, but hairy vetch and crown vetch are among the two most popular ones for bee-attracting cover crops. Their pink to purple blooms are also an added benefit, so this one really is a triple winner.
Seed Mixes: Great mixes can include flax, alfalfa, forage pea, and barley. Take a trip to your local feed store and ask them about their cover crop seed mixes — they will have appropriate mixes that are formulated for your area. Take a look at the seed list to make sure that it includes cover crops that bees will also like.
Tip for beekeepers: If you keep bees on your property for the purpose of collecting honey, be aware that different pollinating plants can impact (positively and negatively) the look and taste of your honey. Do a little research and follow recommendations from your local beekeepers association or educational group to get the results you want.
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About the Author:
Jenny Peterson is a landscape designer and urban farmer living in Austin, Texas. She comes from a family of gardeners and her gardens include drought-tolerant plants, herbs, veggies, and a wildflower pollinator garden. As a breast cancer survivor, Jenny specializes in gardens that heal from the inside out.