With the spring rains delaying our plantings, there are many of us who are just now getting around to finalizing our plans for summer color. And because there is plenty of wildlife out there — perhaps wondering what’s been keeping us so long — it’s time to make amends to them all.
The only upside to this late start for summer gardening in North Texas might be the chance that it gave us to sit back and consider additional landscaping ideas, and it’s my hope that your new choices will include plants known to attract those oh-so-important bees, hummingbirds and butterflies. Nurseries have many in ready supply, and this weekend is a great time to get the ball rolling.
Rolling out the welcome mat
The list of plants that will bring these welcome guests into our gardens is extensive. Your biggest goal will be to choose plant types that integrate well into an existing garden design and are great hosts to these beautiful visitors. When all the cogs on the gears mesh together in harmony, a wildlife garden is a joy to behold.
Start with good structure to your overall plantings. Hollies are a personal favorite of mine. They’re handsome landscaping backdrops to my color beds, and they also bring bees to their spring flowers and birds to their mid-winter berries. So, wherever you can, choose woody plants that will serve several purposes.
Celebrating the humble honeybee
Bees are pollinators, so you’ll see them actively working fragrant, nectarous plants with tubular flowers. Native flowering plants are especially desirable where they are available, including many of our early summer wildflowers such as gaillardias, monardas and coneflowers. Old heirloom varieties of annuals typically have more pollen and nectar than the modern hybrids, although you can certainly include a good mixture of all.
Some of the best (and the list is huge) of the bee-friendly plants include lantanas, verbenas, sunflowers, salvias of all kinds, bee balm (monardas), fall asters, rosemary, vitex, crape myrtles and gloriosa daisies. (I know I’ve left out dozens of others, so consider this list a starter kit.) A good rule of thumb is that if it produces showy flowers, it’s probably going to be a great plant for bees.
Also, as you go about the process of maintaining your gardens, be very cautious about using inorganic and even organic insecticides that could reduce or eliminate your bee populations.
You might consider this an odd comment in a story about bee-friendly plantings, but there are people who are reluctant to plant flowers that might attract bees because they fear the possibility of being stung. For folks with extreme sensitivities to bee stings, it is an appropriate concern, but for the average person, honeybees represent little to no threat.
Most gardeners find that working their plants while bees hover nearby presents no special concerns. Just give them a little room, trying not to encroach. That said, bumblebees, when present, are a bit more assertive and deserve a little extra polite distancing from humans.
Another beneficial beelike insect is the large, low-flying cicada killer wasp that looks like a bumblebee on vitamins. These insects hover above the ground line, watching for cicadas to emerge. They attack, sting and kill the cicadas and take them back to their ground nests to feed their young. They won’t hurt you unless you try to corner them.
Sweets for hummingbirds and butterflies
Hummingbirds seek nectar from deeply throated, tubular flowers. Madame Galen trumpetcreeper is an outstanding example. Gold Star esperanza, flame anisacanthus, pentas and the many wonderful salvias also rank high. Turk’s cap (a hibiscus relative) bears bright red flowers, and it drives hummingbirds wild. So will cypress vines, morning glories, monardas, cupheas, firebush and even hostas.
Butterflies also seek nectar, and the best butterfly gardens will feature a variety of offerings from a list that includes vitex, lantanas, pentas, Mexican sunflowers, cosmos, firebush, hibiscus, summer phlox, butterfly weed, milkweed and other asclepiads. Additionally, Gregg’s mistflower, pride of Barbados, Mexican petunias, coneflowers, spider flowers and verbenas are also butterfly magnets.
Some plants are critical food sources, making them important additions to a pollinator garden. This list includes wild milkweed for monarchs, parsley and dill for black swallowtails and passionvines for Gulf fritillaries.
The list goes on, but this should be enough to get you started.
My best suggestion: Head to a well-supplied nursery. (And if you have any young children in residence or grandchildren who often visit, bring them along to add to everyone’s fun.) Take a moment to look through the nursery’s flowers. Odds are you’ll find bees and butterflies, and maybe even a few hummingbirds, right there in the mix, working their plants. That’s the best proof of all.
Neil Sperry publishes Gardens magazine and hosts “Texas Gardening” from 8 to 10 a.m. Sunday on WBAP/820 AM. Reach him during those hours at 800-288-9227. Online: http://neilsperry.com.