The bee yard has become a wild garden, a place where I experiment with growing, a place where chocolate mint and roses and yew battle with weeds, and where I harvest unwanted weeds for the chickens, but leave the pleasing ones to grow on as a pollinator garden for beneficial insects and wild pollinators.
It all began some years ago… we cleared a spot on the edge of the woods of brambles and trees for a bee yard, a level area of about twenty by forty feet. At the time it was cleared, the earth was scraped clean of forest duff by the tractor (not my idea) and compacted by the wheels of that same tractor as it was scraped and rolled over and leveled with the tractor bucket. I put down some hay to keep the weeds down, free from down the road. This hay had been put in the barn so long ago that they twine around the bales had come apart, or had never been baled. Eventually, the hay made the ground beneath softer and easier to work, after a season or so of roots and earthworms working. This hay, loaded with seeds from a long ago field, would also be the source of many of the plants I ended up cultivating in this wild pollinator garden.
Despite the initially tough condition of the cleared area, I planted some white roses in a line at the front to form a blooming hedge where the lawn met this space, and edged the other three sides with yew, an evergreen that grows slowly, but forms a good hedge once established. I wanted defined edges to this garden, and the roses and the yew formed a defining edge, a border that pleased me and created the bones of the garden. In the middle of this garden, I set the beehives.
I battled compacted ground and tree roots. In the old hay used as a mulch, I planted chocolate mint, and some pineapple mint in the hopes it would spread and to repel ants from the bee hives. I threw in some thyme, and some chives. A red climbing rose towards the back, to contrast eventually with the yew and the shadows of the beech and oak woods at the rear.
The bees buzzed happily all spring, summer, and fall, and I heard them very much alive in the winter, but they were silent the following spring. The roses, the yew, the mint and the thyme and chives came back this spring, and the mint is spreading nicely. I know it can take over and spread further than it might be wanted, but it has plenty of room to roam here, far from any other gardens.
As I went through the bee yard in the spring, I treated it as a prime source of weeds to compost in the chicken pen, and to supplement the chickens’ feed. As I removed weeds, I noticed some that were actually very pleasing, and the contrast of some leaves and colors and textures was interesting. I began to keep some with nice shapes or flowers, in the large areas not yet planted.
Without even realizing it, I was creating a pollinator garden, a place where insects could find a place to nest and a place to gather pollen, something that grows ever scarcer as people compulsively tidy the edges of gardens and fields and those wild places where pollinators have been surviving on the edges. I began to think a garden could evolve in the bee yard from happen-chance. I noticed some volunteer white yarrow, motherwort, yellow rudbeckia, white campion, chickweed‘s small white starry flowers, purple flowering creeping charlie, veronica, sulphur cinquefoil, yellow sorrel, a white flowering something I haven’t identified yet, and some very pleasing clumping grasses. The combination of some textures and colors and shapes was, in spots, quite pleasing. In researching the names, I find most are medicinal or have a history of having been used as remedies for one thing or another. Interesting.
I yanked any weeds that weren’t fitting in, or pleasing (smartweed and dock and plantain, to the chickens!! raspberry canes, to the woods on the other side of the hedge! volunteer birch and beech seedlings, to the chickens! dockweed, to the chickens!) and let the garden fill in, all those remaining weeds developing, but easily subject to revision with a yank here or there.
I managed to select out a pleasing garden from what came up, and from what continues to come up, those seeds from ancient hay, or brought in by birds and the wind, or uncovered from scraping off the forest duff a few years ago. I select, and then wait, and watch, and anticipate shapes and forms and yank or pull certain plants when things don’t turn out. And anything yanked gets hauled to the chickens, or to the compost bin in the chicken pen (to the chickens! to the chickens! all these riches to the chickens!).
It’s really very satisfying gardening, cultivating a large garden of mainly weeds. Always evolving, and fairly low expectations, easily fit into spare time. If ever there was a low-stress, low-pressure activity with a long-term outlook, it would be cultivating a wild pollinator garden of mainly weeds. It makes me almost embarrassed to have enough space to have a garden devoted to experimenting with weeds. It seems frivolous, the abundance of space and the effort, but it holds my interest, to create something out of generally unwanted weeds, a garden without the expense of purchased plants, order out of chaos. Plus, the chickens are big fans of the weeds I do yank out. This wild and weedy gardening would not be half as fun without those chickens eating what I pull out. So I play in the wild garden, like a kid, imagining myself queen of the weeds, with enough space and time to experiment, to wait, anticipate, and to create. Unexpectedly enjoyable, and enough so to keep at it, on top of full time work and family (I may spend my spare time frivolously, but I am a responsible person, really, I am).
I Googled “weed garden” to see if anyone was doing this–oops, not that weed. I found some people are planting pollinator gardens, and I also had much more luck in searching for “wild garden.” I found a book called “The Wild Garden” written by William Robinson in 1870 and now reissued by Timber Press, about using locally adapted plants to create gardens and it’s next on my reading list, along with a good plant/herb identification guide. Another resource is “Dream Plants for the Natural Garden” by Henk Gerrittsen and Piet Oudolf, a book I received as a gift, filled with tough plants that can hold their own in a natural setting, with other plant competitors. If I decide to add in more plants, I’d like to add in some woodland anemone, and also some borage. I imagine it sometimes as a sort of battle royale of tough plants that can compete with one another and form a pleasing wild garden.
Although the bee yard is quiet; no bees this year, we are on a list to get some hardier bees next spring from Kirk Webster of Middlebury, Vermont.
And finally, a weeding tip: it is far easier to yank a weed out by the roots when the soil is fairly moist, as the roots come free more easily.
Editor note: This post has been updated to include new photos, and identification of a few plants I wasn’t familiar with, thanks in part to help from http://areallysmallfarm.com/ which should be your next stop (after this post) . All errors in identification are my own!