How to grow 5 easy herbs bees will love

Herbs are easy to grow, and some are particularly good for attracting bees and other pollinating insects. Bob Sherman, organic gardening expert, shares his practical growing tips with Friends of the Earth.

Growing herbs bees love is not difficult. Here are some ideas to get you started.

With the exception of bay (a tree) and rosemary (a large bush) and a few others, most herbs will grow easily in a pot on a sunny balcony or in the garden. 

Herbs also provide a valuable source of food for bees and other pollinating insects. Since bees have lost much of their natural habitat, growing a few herbs is a really easy way to enjoy fresh flavours and help bees.

Get more bee-friendly gardening ideas here.

Where to buy herbs

potted plants

All the herbs mentioned here are widely available as plants or plugs (mini-plants) but most grow readily from seed. Growing from seed takes a little longer but is cheap. Seed suppliers include the Organic Garden catalogue and Jekka's Herb Farm.

Buying herb plants or plugs saves you waiting for seedlings to appear. Suppliers include Poyntzfield Herb Nursery, and Norfolk Herbs

Growing herbs from seed

1. How do you grow chives?

bee on chive flower

Chives are easy to grow from seed, in a pot on a window ledge, or from late spring outdoors.

They like a fairly sunny position, but if you’re growing them from seed indoors, position them so they get a bit of shade during the day.

Alternatively, you can buy a small chive plant from a garden centre or nursery.

Harvest the grass-like leaves when you need them, for salads or adding to recipes at the end of cooking. Leave some leaves to form beautiful purple flowers. These are also edible in salads, but it's better to leave them for bees and other pollinating insects as a valuable source of food. 

Always leave some leaves on the plant, and let these die back naturally in the autumn. This will ensure you have plenty of chives next year.

Varieties to try: Common chives (Allium schoenoprasum). Garlic chives (Allium tuberosum), also known as Chinese chives, have a delicate garlic flavour and produce white flowers in late summer.

2. How do you grow mint?

mint flower

Mint can be grown from seed but any little piece of root will produce a new plant. 

Many people have spearmint and peppermint in their gardens so you should be able to acquire some easily from a friend or neighbour. 

If you want some of the more remarkable variations with tones of eau de cologne, pineapple, lemon, apple, ginger, or even chocolate, you can buy plants online from a specialist. 

To make a new plant from root cuttings, take a 10cm piece of root in February or March from the outside of the old plant. 

You will need to restrict the spread of the mint roots, otherwise the plant will take over. So if it’s going in the ground, as opposed to a pot, it’s best to bury it in something that will stop the plant spreading.

I use old compost bags cut in half (these make passable containers too if turned inside out so that the black inner surface is visible).

Poke some holes in the base of the bag for drainage, dig a hole to take the bag and mix that soil roughly 4:1 with garden compost before filling the bag.

Plant the piece of root just below the surface in the middle of the bag. 

If you don't want to grow from a cutting, there are plenty of mint plants available at garden centres that you can tend to in their pots and then transfer them into a larger container once they get bigger.

Varieties to try: spearmint, peppermint, apple mint.

3. How do you grow thyme?

bee on thyme flower

Thyme lasts several years without a great deal of attention. 

Buy a plant from the garden centre or if you want to sow from seed, then plant them in April.

Use a 9cm pot, then cover the top with a plastic bag and wait. Three weeks later the seedlings will emerge. 

Once the first true leaves appear, tip out the contents carefully, tease apart the roots with the tip of a knife or pen and plant as many as you need, spaced 5cm apart, in a seed tray to grow on. 

Plant them out in a sunny spot in late May about 10cm apart.

After flowering, cut the plant back lightly, to help keep a compact overall shape.

Varieties to try: common thyme, creeping thyme. 

4. How do you grow marjoram?

Butterfly on marjoram flower

Like mint, marjoram can be grown from cuttings from an existing plant.

It also grows readily from seed. Follow the advice for thyme and keep the plant watered in dry weather. 

Marjoram does spread but in a much neater and less aggressive way than mint. 

To maintain neat plants, every three years lift the whole plant, divide a piece off and replant it in a new spot.

Varieties to try: sweet marjoram or pot marjoram, which has a milder flavour.

5. How do you grow sage? 

bee on sage flower

Sage makes a small bush and you will only ever need one of them. To propagate sage, cut off a 6cm piece of branch and put it in some compost in a small pot. 

Rooting a sage cutting is as easy as falling over. In fact if a sage plant does fall over or droop and touch the soil it sets new roots. If you cut these rooted branches off you have a new plant straightaway.

Sage is relatively short-lived, normally going into decline after 4 to 6 years. To extend its life and keep it tidy clip over the branches every March, cutting back hard to leave 2cm of the previous year’s growth. This will look less woody than the rest of the branch. Be careful that you don’t cut into the older wood as it is reluctant to sprout from this.

Bees are vital pollinators for our herbs and other plants in our gardens

Want to do more? 

There are lots of things you can do to help our bees – from planting bee-friendly plants to creating homes for bees in your garden or putting pressure on the government to protect bees.

In May and June you can also take part in Friends of the Earth's Great British Bee Count.

Help save our bees