FLOWER-FILLED HAVEN FULL OF COLOUR AND FRAGRANCE
All summer long, a garden nestling in the valley of the River Pang in Berkshire resonates to the sound of bees. From a small wildflower meadow at the front of the house to a formal walled garden at the rear, the plot is filled with nectar- and pollen-rich blooms. Since starting to keep honeybees eight years ago, owner Fran Wakefield has filled her quarter-acre plot with plants that provide these essential foods for her two hives.
“Nearly everything I plant now is with bees in mind,” she says. “It’s wonderful to see them in the air at this time of year. They are always so busy and even when you can’t see them, you can hear them. They make a lovely noise.”
Making a bee-friendly plot
Tithe Barn and its garden are in Tidmarsh, an ancient village surrounded by low-lying flower-filled meadows. The soil is rich loam with chalk from the river. The 18th century barn sits almost in the centre of the 28½sq yd (24sq m) plot. When Fran moved here more than 30 years ago, the garden was bounded by leylandii and saw very little sun. The sloping plot was mainly lawn with an old acacia tree in the centre and a few containers to provide colour. Then eight years ago, the neighbouring manor house was pulled down and redeveloped. As a result of the work, Fran lost hedges and the acacia tree, although she gained a new wall to match her existing two 10ft (3m) high red brick walls.
“The changes let the sunshine in,” she says. “I thought, I need to make the most of this.” She decided to strip the garden out and start anew. At the same time, she wanted to keep bees, something she used to do. She got two hives, which are each home to between 45,000 to 60,000 bees in the summer.
“I wanted to create a classical walled garden to complement the 1760s brick and flint barn,” she says. “There is a formal framework of low hedges, straight paths and box-edges borders filled with flowers in soft pastel shades.”
This scheme provides the backdrop for her bee-orientated planting in the rear garden, where one of the hives is located. The other sits in a small wildflower garden at the front of the barn. It all combines to create a haven for both Fran and her bees.
Abundance of flowers
The wildflower meadow replaced an area of lawn to the left of the drive and courtyard area. “It’s a favourite bee haunt,” says Fran. The hive here is surrounded by corn poppies, white field chamomile and purple toadflax. Rich in pollen and nectar, these are magnets for the bees.
From the front of the barn, a path leads down the side, past a small patio with pots of hostas, to a gate into the walled garden.
In summer, this is a riot of colour with roses, peonies, clematis, delphiniums and other herbaceous perennials in full bloom. Flowers tumble over antique terracotta pots, fill the beds, line paths or climb arches and walls. This abundance of flowering plants is ideal for Fran’s honeybees, as it is easy for them to work their way across the borders. They do not have to fly far from their hives in the garden to find sufficient pollen and nectar. Each colony needs to collect 66lbs (30kg) of pollen and 264lbs (120kg) of nectar simply to survive. To provide a store of honey, they need to gather more than this.
“The bees have plenty of choice for their foraging,” says Fran. “They like single, simple flowers such as geraniums that give them easy access to their pollen or nectar.
“I avoid hybrids or double flowering plants, as the bees struggle with these. However, if there is something I want that the bees don’t like, such as a rose or peony, I still plant it. There is enough in the garden for the bees to feed on.”
To the right of the gate is a border of lavender ‘Hidcote’. Every single stem on this plant has multiple flowers, so the bees can work it easily, moving from one to the next with little expense of energy. Lavender also has the ability to release its nectar gradually, to keep the bees coming back.
To the left, a climbing rose, ‘Goldfinch’, covers the walls of the nearest corner. This restrained rambling rose is ideal for a small space. Its button-like, fruit-scented blooms are covered with golden anthers, loved by the pollen-gathering bees. The petals fall onto the square brick courtyard below. Here, square Victorian seed pans are filled with succulents and thyme. These tiny, low-growing plants are ideal for the bees, flowering even when a lack of water affects other plants.
“They all shrug off drought, and are virtually maintenance free,” says Fran. “The only thing I do is add crocks and pea gravel to the bottom of the pot to ensure good drainage because waterlogging will kill the succulents.”
Fran’s second beehive sits in a quiet and sheltered spot between two herbaceous beds along the east wall. Creamy white rose ‘Alberic Barbier’ standards and allium ‘Globemaster’ are planted here. The bees swarm to the alliums’ starry clusters of violet-purple flowers. Flourishing alongside them are valerian, hardy geraniums, catmint and delphiniums. All are popular with the bees, particularly the open-cupped geraniums, which allow easy access to their nectar to the short-tongued honeybees. The open flowers of delphiniums are visited for their pollen, rather than nectar. Valerian and catmint both have clusters of small flowers that are easy for the bees to work. Flowering through the summer into autumn, they provide a long-lasting food source.
Behind the beds, espaliered apple and pear trees, their varieties now forgotten, grow along the east wall. Planted as part of the redesign, they burst into a mass of blossom in spring. On warm days, they are covered in bees seeking nectar and in turn helping to pollinate the trees.
A place to drink
A path leads past these herbaceous beds, to a corner where an arbour is tucked away beneath trees. This is an area of dry shade where pachysandra, ivy, and periwinkles grow. Flowering from March, pachysandra and periwinkles provide food for bees early in the season when other flowers have yet to bloom. The late-flowering ivy is an important source of nectar later in the year when the bees build up their store of food to see the colony through the winter.
A shady stumpery spills over with ferns and hostas, one of Fran’s favourite plants.
“I’m passionate about hostas, growing 20 different varieties. The leaves are like an embroidery. The bees do go to the spike-shaped blooms, but they prefer flowers they can work and work, such as the verbena,” she says.
Access to water is essential for the honeybees. As well as drinking it, they carry water back to the hive where it is used to regulate the temperature. They also use it to break down nectar from plants such as oil seed rape, which crystallises in the hive. The rape grows in the countryside beyond the garden, and Fran often watches her bees travel out to work it. Under the arbour is a rescued animal feeder perched on brick pillars. Planted with waterlilies, it is an important place for the bees.
A path continues along the back wall, where a border is planted with more hostas and frothy yellow alchemilla. This is another plant whose myriad tiny flowers are covered with foraging bees. The foxgloves planted here are another of Fran’s favourites.
The south and west boundary walls support clematis ‘Montana’ and climbing roses. Covered with big, open flowers, clematis are ideal for bees. Climbing rose ‘Perennial Blue’, is a mass of bluish purple blooms each July. Its open flowers are good for the bees who can get into them easily and take pollen.
A central pathway connects the back wall with the barn’s terrace. It widens in the middle of the walled garden to create a square that encloses a still, round pool. “I love watching the honeybees sit on the edge of the pool to drink, before flying off in search of more nectar,” she says.
Fran puts as much energy into her garden as the bees that work the flowers. She is rewarded not only by the beautiful plants but also the honey from her bees. “The garden gives me a deep connection with nature. This comes from the fact that the flowers I grow are to attract insects, not only for their beauty,” she says. “I’m giving nature’s cycle a helping hand.”
Words and Photography: Nicola Stocken
The feature about Fran's bee garden originally appeared in the July / August 2015 issue of LandScape.
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