Claude Monet famously said, "I must have flowers, always, always."
I think of that quote whenever I see a garden designed or inspired by Kate Frey. She designs lush gardens bursting with a multitude of flowering plants and humming with life, using California natives and other drought-tolerant plants. In a presentation at the National Heirloom Expo, she discussed "Pollinator Gardens: Gardens That Give."
Frey designed and managed the organic public garden at Fetzer Vineyards for 18 years, and in 2005 and 2007 she created gardens focusing on sustainability and biodiversity for the famed Chelsea Flower Show in London. Both gardens won gold medals. They featured California wildflowers as well as legumes and clovers.
"Gardens can be positive spaces for biodiversity," she said, noting that the ecological services provided by pollinators offer benefits to people as well as to the ecosystem. "Vegetable gardens need flowers for beneficial insects and for pollinators."
At the Lotusland public garden in Southern California, "pollinator plants are placed around other collections to keep the gardens healthy," Frey said.
With gardens, people can "foster life for each other as well as for the world," she said. When Frey converted her mother’s front lawn to a "flower field," passersby loved it. Her mom would "sit on the porch and engage with them," and it became a "vehicle of community" for her, Frey said.
Rules for success
Frey offered the following rules for success.
• "Abundance, not minimalism" is one of Frey’s guiding principles.
"Cram (the plants) in and maximize the planting area," she said.
• Plan for 12 months of bloom. Some bees are active as early as January or February.
"Manzanitas are extremely important," Frey said, recommending willow trees and other early bloomers as well.
• Choose plants that offer a diversity of floral resources, she recommended. Flowers can provide nectar, pollen, or both.
"Double flowers are inaccessible to bees," she said.
Double flowers have extra petals that replace or reduce the pollen- and nectar-producing organs. Other plants that do not attract bees include ferns, grapes, grains and conifers.
• Plant patches of the same species at least 3-feet-by-3-feet.
"Honeybees practice floral constancy: They visit the same plant all day long," Frey said.
Massing plants enables bees to forage more efficiently.
• Native plants are best, according to Frey.
"Honeybees go crazy for vinegar weed," she added, a summer annual that needs no irrigation.
Hayfield tarweed is another one of her favorite summer annuals for bees.
"We don’t value our native plants as much as we should," Frey said.
For instance, she noted, lacy phacelia is a 3-foot California native annual used around the world as "bee fodder" in orchards, but "not as much used in the United States."
• Use perennials, shrubs and trees as well as annuals. One study found three times as many beneficial insects in hedgerows versus weedy field edges, and twice the diversity (number of different species). Frey singled out coyote brush as "great bee fodder" and noted it also attracts pest-eating beneficials such as predatory flies and parasitic wasps.
• Improve your soil with cover crops, and use compost to feed your plants.
"Diversity is the key in cover crops," Frey said, to support a diversity of soil microorganisms.
She likes to plant daikon radish to break through hard soil, clovers to add nitrogen, and California poppies for pollen.
• Use woody mulch for paths.
"Landscape fabric allows no nutrient cycling by worms and no nesting by native ground-dwelling bees," Frey said.
Worms move through the soil, digesting organic matter and leaving rich worm castings to fertilize plants.