Ask a Gardener: It’s easy to add native Mason bees to your garden

Question: What’s the buzz about Mason bees? Are they really so helpful to gardeners?

Answer: You can bet the house on that one, honey (little pun here). Yes, our native bees are some of the most helpful pollinators around. Not only do they do a wonderful job getting around to plants and trees, scientist who measure such things say they visit 17 blooms every minute, but they do so early in the season, which makes them invaluable. Honeybees and other pollinators only begin their work when the weather is warm enough, but the native bees, particularly the Mason bees, are one of the first pollinators to start pollinating. That’s particularly important if you have plants that bloom in very early spring, like plum trees.

Also unlike the more cultivated honey bees that need special care year-round, Mason bees are quite capable of making it on their own. Of course, many savvy gardeners hedge their bets and buy Mason bees to increase their numbers and ensure good pollination. There are several local companies that raise Mason bees, and nurseries carry them as well. When you purchase them they’ll be in deep hibernation, and won’t emerge until temperatures reach 50 degrees and stay that way for a period of time. It’s only daytime highs that matter.

You want to place the bees in the warmest part of your yard. Grab a cup of coffee and wander around some morning at around 10 a.m. to find the best spot. The southwest side of a house or fencepost is often the choice spot. Provide a little overhead protection from the elements.

There are many types and sizes of Mason bee houses for purchase. Or you can make your own. You will get full instructions when you purchase your bees. Find sellers of all things Mason bees online.

Oh, and I forgot to mention two additional reasons Mason bees rock. One is that they don’t sting. And the second is, if provided with the right house in the right location, your Mason bees will take up permanent residence and need no help from you.

Q: I want to source my seeds as locally as possible. Can you recommend some places?

A: Good for you for sourcing locally. There are quite a few sources, and I encourage you to look online to find out what they offer:

•  Deep Harvest Farm and Seeds:

, 40 varieties this year;

•  Ed Hume Seeds: Sold locally everywhere;

•  Greenbank Farm:

, sold in the farm shop;

•  Irish Eyes Garden Seeds:

, 70 kinds of potatoes; 25 kinds of garlic;

•  Territorial Seed:

, in Oregon, but well worth looking at;

•  Osborne Seed:

, 33rd year of growing and testing;

•  Uprising Seeds:

, first certified state organic seed grower, works with 20 farms.

Q: I’m confused about hardiness zones. Before I begin buying plants, can you clear up the confusion?

A: The “hardiness” of plants is of vital interest to gardeners. Or to anyone, for that matter, who invests in plants and expects them to grow well. With the introduction of thousands of new plants every year, and plants being sold in places where there are minimally qualified sales people, a grasp of how to find the hardiness of a plant you’re intending to purchase is helpful.

The traditional measure of hardiness is the USDA rating. It is based on measurements of cold temperatures alone, and is primarily useful if you garden east of the Great Plains. The USDA’s single measurement doesn’t always work, however. With its sole focus on cold-tolerance, the Olympic rain forest fits into a zone with parts of the Sonoran desert!

The reason for this is that the USDA measure does not adequately address the varying influences in the many Western regions. Gardeners here are well aware of the “microclimates” as well as annual rainfall and heat units, which vary widely around the Western states. It’s not unusual for a gardener to have several microclimates in their property.

For gardeners here, a better measure is Sunset’s Western Garden Book’s proprietary climate maps.

Sunset’s maps are used nationally by plant sellers and nursery catalogs alike. Sunset’s 24 climate zone system allows much more precise labeling. They take into account winter minimums, summer highs, elevation, proximity to coast or mountains, rainfall, humidity and aridity.

But even with this degree of inclusion, only you know best the weather conditions where you live. So if you know that on occasion you get fierce winds, put less hardy plants out of the wind’s path. If you get late frosts regularly, don’t rush to plant tomatoes early. Use Sunset’s climate zones and add your own knowledge to the mix. That’s the best strategy to protect your plants and bring gardening success.