To bees, size doesn't matter. They don't care how much space a landscape may cover. These pollinators prefer to focus on flowers.
And they will find them. On patios or decks, in window boxes or wine barrels, bees will come buzzing if they discover something they like in bloom.
"When we talk about pollinators, we (garden experts) make it all really complicated," said Ellen Zagory, director of public horticulture for the UC Davis Arboretum. "We stress to plant for a long season of bloom and offer lots of (plant) suggestions, but that's mostly for people with a big garden and a lot of space.
"But you can still have pollinators in a smaller space, like a deck or a patio," she added. "Anywhere the flowers can get sun."
The key: Create a portable pollinator garden.
"It's small and easy," Zagory said. "Then, you can relax and enjoy it. You can move it around to find the right spot. The bees will like it, too."
Hundreds of bee-friendly plants will be available at the arboretum's spring sales., starting Saturday, March 10. Open to Friends of the Arboretum members only, the sale features a wide range of Central Valley-tested drought-tolerant flowering plants that benefit pollinators as well as save water. (Non-members can join at the door.)
The plight of honeybees, threatened by Colony Collapse Disorder, continues to concern gardeners as well as environmental and agricultural experts.
"It's not just the honeybees," Zagory said. "All the bees need help."
By adding pots of nectar- or pollen-filled flowers, gardeners can help bees in spots that are usually barren.
"People just want to do the right thing, but they don't know what to do," Zagory said. "So, we've tried to simplify (recommendations) to make it easier."
For starters, try a trio. Choose three different flowering plants for the same large pot.
"Think of it like a flower arrangement: One tall, one medium, one low-growing," she said. "Thrill, fill, spill; a tall plant provides the thrill, the medium fills the middle while trailing plants spill over the edge."
Anything in the daisy and mint families are candidates for bee-friendly containers. Zagory recommends blanket flowers (Gaillardia) with their "thrilling" red, orange and yellow petals. For spill, little seaside daisies (Erigeron) attract little native bees while cascading over a container's rim. As fill, colorful catmint (Nepeta) pumps flowers into any gaps.
Zagory has become a devoted proponent of pollinators, adding flowers that will attract bees, birds and butterflies wherever she can.
In the arboretum's Terrace Gardens, a broad concrete walkway became a bee oasis with the addition of 45 large containers, planted mostly with low-water blooming perennials.
"The pots ranged from 10 inches to 3 feet across," Zagory said. "I experimented with lots of different combinations."
Artichokes and wallflowers, geraniums and salvias, oreganos and succulents; they provided portable color as well as mini-bee havens.
"Some plants work better in pots than others.," she added. "Succulents will last a long time (grown) in a container. They can go five years (without replanting or dividing), they're so adapted to that space."
Among her favorites in her container experiment: Sedums. Also known as stonecrops, these plants can take a lot of abuse and adapt well to life in pots. Bright yellow Palmer's sedum blooms throughout winter and early spring while Autumn Joy puts on its flower show in fall.
"California natives, on the other hand, outgrew their pots right away. One goldenrod can fill a whole large pot on its own. The plants grow so fast, you can't water them enough."
The asset that allows native plants to adapt so well to drought works against them in a container.
"It's their roots," Zagory explained. "California natives have such strong roots. They grow out and down, in search of water. Their root systems quickly fill the whole pot."
Only the smaller native perennials such as the seaside daisy coped well with multi-season confinement in a container garden.
Annuals such as dwarf sunflowers and California poppies produce flowers quickly and can grow in deeper containers, Zagory noted. "There are a lot of really good annuals that you can try. Remember: They need sun."
When planting a portable pollinator garden, start with good commercial potting soil, Zagory instructed. "Don't use garden soil. We have too much clay. In the container, it shrinks and pulls away from the sides. (When irrigated), all the water goes down the sides and doesn't hit the roots. where it's needed."
Also, keep in mind that you want those plants to grow. Start small and let those transplants mature. They'll be happier and bloom more. That makes the bees happy, too.
"Plants need room to grow," Zagory said, "even in a container."
Arboretum spring plant sales
- Where: Arboretum Teaching Nursery, Garrod Drive, UC Davis
- When: 9 a.m.-1 p.m. Saturday, March 10
- Admission: Members only; join Friends of the Arboretum at the gate and get a 10 percent discount plus $10 off purchase
- Details: arboretum.ucdavis.edu
- Additional public sales: April 7, April 29 and May 12