I had originally started this post with, “How would you like to grow more fruits and vegetables with one simple, inexpensive trick?” Oh how infomercial of me. But how do I convey my enthusiasm in sharing this technique with you and not sound like I’m hawking something on late night television? I’ll do it straight up. Plant borage. That’s the trick. Want to know how and why it works? Read on.
Several years back I got involved helping a gardener who was working on a native bee program at her local community garden. This was right after colony collapse disorder started showing up in the news and she was working as a coordinator for a study on attracting native bees. I enjoyed following her progress and was thrilled to attend a presentation she gave along with a student assistant from the University of Berkeley native bee study. During the presentation she mentioned how hot house tomato growers in Australia used bumble bees to help pollinate their tomato crops. “You need a big bee to really give that flower a good shake,” she said.
This got me thinking about how I could attract bumblebees, and others, to my garden to achieve better pollination. Somewhere during my research I ran across information about the ability of borage (borage officianlis) to attract bees. The flowers on the seed packet were a bright shade of blue and it stated they were edible. It was a done deal and I planted them. Not only did it attract bumblebees, but European honeybees and an assortment of native bees as well. The plants grew fast and tall (almost 3 feet in my clay soil). At the end of the summer when they were mostly bloomed out, I pulled them. I don’t think I’ve ever seen so many disgruntled bees. For over two weeks bees would return to the spot where they were growing and searched in vain. You could almost hear them thinking, “But it was right here.” Because our winters are mild, however, it wasn’t long before another crop popped up from the seeds that had fallen from the parent plants and the bees were back in business. This got me thinking about how I could put this to use in my garden.
Although our winters are mild, our springs are cool and our summers sometimes cooler. Bees aren’t real crazy about getting out in cold weather and you have to take advantage of the few that do. The way to do this is to give them something reliable, that they love, to attract them to your yard. If you live in a flower desert where your yard is surrounded by nothing but yards landscaped with lawns and other non-blooming plants, this will really help you. Plant some borage near your vegetable garden in at least a 3 foot by 3 foot block. Bees are more attracted to large patches of flowers than rows or small clumps.
Check out this video of happy bees collecting pollen.
In a cold winter climate, you’ll directly sow seeds in the garden 1-2 weeks before your average last frost date. In warm winter climates you can plant anytime but planting in both early spring and early fall works well. Early spring planted borage will be blooming at the same time as your tomatoes, squash, cucumbers and other warm season crops. Early fall planted borage will be in bloom when fruit trees start blooming. If you consistently grow borage in the same spot, bees will make a beeline (pun intended) to that location. I don’t know how they remember where it was, but they remember. As soon as it is warm enough for them to emerge from the hive, they will delight in finding your flower patch. And once they get done with checking out the borage flowers, they will move on to your other plants. By doing this I would estimate my tomato production went up about 15% and I had squash on the vine 2 weeks before my neighbors did. In addition to that I had tasty borage flowers to toss in salads (they smell and taste like cucumber) and freeze in ice cubes.
Enter to win
I’m giving away 6 packets of Botanical Interest’s borage seeds so that 6 people can try this in their own gardens. To enter, just leave a comment letting me know what the bee situation is like in your yard and what plants you would like better production on. (Make sure you use a valid email in the comment form.) I’ll select 6 winners on March 1, 2014 and contact them by email for mailing info. Good luck and happy gardening.