Planting herbs for pollinators

Garden Talk



Q. I want to include herbs in my garden and need to know more about requirements for growing them. I’m also interested in attracting pollinators, especially honeybees. Which herbs will provide food or habitat for them?

A. With summer quickly approaching, honeybee populations in decline, and herbs gaining status with a variety of gardeners, this is a very pertinent question. Let’s break the answer into two parts, one to address the herbs, one for the honeybees.

Herbs have many attributes that contribute to their increasing popularity in gardens and landscapes. Their historic use, from primarily culinary and medicinal to the 21st century has expanded the role of herbs. Today, we grow herbs for aesthetic reasons, for use in cooking, as medicine, aromatics, ornamentals, household/industrial, and wildlife habitat.

Herbs are considered one of the easiest groups of plants to grow, and once established, most are considered low maintenance; they do very well with little water or fertilizer.

Requirements for growing herbs, regardless of reason, need to be considered before planting them in the ground. And, while herbs are adaptable to a range of soil and growing conditions, most don’t do well in poorly drained soil.

Another limiting factor is the amount of sun available to them; if the site receives less than six to eight hours of sun a day, look for another site or consider herbs that can handle light shade. The sun/shade factor is especially important for pollinators, including honeybees, since most of them are attracted to plants that flower in full sun conditions.

One other point to consider is soil. Heavy clay is a challenging environment for most herbs. Make their life easier and more productive by planting herbs in raised beds or amending existing soil with well-composted organic matter to improve its porosity.

Herbs also do great in containers. So, if you do not have just the right spot for an in-ground herb garden, try mixing them up in pots, window boxes, or any other fun container.

To increase nectar availability in an area, many beekeepers have turned to herbs as a solution. Herbs are versatile, blooming the same year they’re planted in many cases. With sufficient variety, an herb garden can have plants in bloom 10 months of the year, providing nectar and pollen sources for honeybees.

However, not all herbs attract honeybees, so gardeners should pay attention to variety. Herbs such as basil, bee balm, hyssop (anise), mints, sage, and thyme are examples of bee favorites.

Designing an herb garden is similar to other gardens; segregate tall-growing plants such as bee balm from low spreading herbs like thyme to minimize unwanted shading. Perennial herbs should be the focus of the garden as they will last for years without being replaced. Annuals can be used as fillers where appropriate.

Attracting wildlife, in this case a very special pollinator, takes a little extra work, but the effort is worth it when you see and hear the hum of honeybees visiting your herbs.

Garden Talk is written by Bethany A. O’Rear of the Alabama Cooperative Extension System (ACES). She is housed at the C. Beaty Hanna Horticultural and Environmental Center, which is based at the Birmingham Botanical Gardens. This column includes research based information from land-grant universities around the country, including Alabama A&M and Auburn Universities. Email questions to Bethany at or call 205-879-6964 x15. Like us on Facebook. Follow us on Twitter. The Alabama Cooperative Extension System (Alabama A&M University and Auburn University), is an equal opportunity educator and employer. Everyone is welcome!