When I’m creating a garden bed for pollinators, I choose the flowers for summer and fall first because there are lots of options. Lastly, I choose flowers for spring. The two most important groups of native flowers for spring are woodland flowers, and spring-blooming shrubs and trees.
I have to admit that, so far, my pollinator garden has been least successful in spring. It’s more difficult to find plants or seeds for native, spring-bloomers. I don’t see many bees on the flowers that I do have. Perhaps my plants are still too small and don’t produce many flowers yet. The fact that we’ve had a few cold, late springs has probably also been a factor. I’m now concentrating my gardening efforts and budget on spring-blooming pollinator plants.
Typically, woodland flowers take advantage of the sun before leaves unfurl in spring. They grow early and quickly, and their flowers are important food sources for early solitary bees and bumblebee queens. After the trees leaf out, some of these plants, known as woodland ephemerals, die back to the ground and become dormant. This way they don’t suffer in the shade and drier conditions of summer.
Buying woodland plants and seeds
Woodland plants can be challenging to grow from seed because they will not germinate if they dry out. If you try to grow them from seed, they must be purchased moist-packed in the summer, and either planted right away, or kept moist in the fridge.
I find it easiest to simply buy spring woodland plants from a native plant nursery whenever I can find them. If you’re willing to make the drive, Connaught Nursery in Cobden and Beaux Arbres Native Plants in Bristol, Quebec have good selections.
Look up: spring-blooming native trees and shrubs
One reason I don’t see many bees on my spring blooming perennials, is because they’ve found an all-you-can-eat buffet elsewhere. Native trees and shrubs offer abundant pollen and nectar for bees on their many flowers. Surprisingly, they even visit wind pollinated trees to forage. (Listen to episode 113 of the PolliNation Podcast, Kass Urban-Mead – Bees in Trees to learn more.)
In my garden, I see a lot of bee activity on Pussy Willows and Red Maple in April, followed closely by Spicebush and Rhododendron. Then a lot of trees flower with overlapping bloom times: Wild Plum, Serviceberry, Chokecherry, Hawthorne, and various non-native crabapples. Most of my trees and shrubs are small, so I get a good eye-level view of the pollinator activity.
Buying native shrubs and trees
It can be difficult to find native shrubs and trees, unless you don’t mind cultivars. Since they take so long to grow, I don’t grow them from seed. They’re pricey compared with perennials, so this is where I spend the bulk of my gardening budget. I have bought native shrubs and trees from Make it Green Garden Centre in Kanata, and Green Thumb Garden Centre in Nepean. Ferguson Tree Nursery in Kemptville is another good source, but since they do not sell retail, you have to order a minimum of 10 potted shrubs. They can be a mix of varieties, so I have combined orders with other interested gardeners to reach the required minimum.
Late spring flowers for pollinators
For a long time, I’ve had a gap in late spring when I had hardly any flowers. To fill the gap, I’ve added salvias, catmints, Canada Columbine (has a long bloom time), alliums and chives, and Golden Alexanders. I also let the Fleabane that self-seeded grow in a patch, and small bees and flower flies love it.