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A classic American native and cottage garden favorite, Bee balm is beloved by gardeners not only for its beautiful whorled blooms in red, pink, purple and white; but for the evocative fragrance given off by foliage warmed by the sun or touched by the gardener.
And it’s just as beloved by wildlife as it is by gardeners. Plant bee balm and you can be sure of the attention of hummingbirds and bees in the summer and by seed-loving finches in the winter. It’s an all-around garden winner that provides so much for so little effort.
Light: Bee balm does best in full sun. Though it will grow in part shade, it tends to stretch and become leggy over time.
Soil: Bee balm does best in evenly moist soil rich in organic matter. It can tolerate lighter soil, but richer soil will encourage taller, stronger specimens. Boggy conditions are not tolerated, nor are soils that are allowed to dry out for long periods of time.
Spacing: Plants should be spaced 18-24 inches apart.
Bee balm is in the mint family, and absolutely lives up to the family name. It will intensively spread over a season via a mat of underground stems (stolons), but can be kept under control by regular digging and dividing.
Planting: Plant bee balm in the spring or early fall. Either time of year works well; however, when fall-planting Bee Balm, it's best to trim back the foliage to encourage the plant to focus its energy towards the roots.
Growth Habit: Bee balm can grow up to 4 ft tall with a spread of 3-4 ft, but dwarf varieties top out at just 15 inches, with a spread of 18-24 inches.
Staking: Taller cultivars of bee balm occasionally need staking, but usually the strong square stems do a good job of keeping it upright and stray outer stems can be cut off. If your garden battles high winds in summer, it would be advisable to create a string and stake network for the plant to grow through at planting time.
Watering: Bee-balm prefers evenly moist, well-draining soil. Soil that is allowed to substantially dry out can contribute to summertime problems with powdery mildew and weaken the plant. During its first year in your garden, it’s crucial to keep to a regular watering schedule so it can establish a strong root system.
Fertilizing: Soil rich in organic nutrients should give bee balm what it needs during the first year or two, but it can benefit from the addition of a balanced organic fertilizer if soil is not being amended regularly with compost or rotted manure.
Mulching: Mulch is a great idea for bee balm as it is loves moist soil, is shallowly rooted, and tends to crowd itself out. Sometimes even a sprinkling of good soil will suffice in a pinch; however, a two-inch layer of organic material such as well-rotted manure, compost, or double-shred hardwood will preserve the moisture bee balm loves in order to stay beautiful.
Trimming & Pruning: Deadheading bee-balm will encourage the plant to continue to set blooms from lower nodes late into the summer season. For best results, make sure to do so on a regular basis, and not just at the end of the first flush of bloom.
Pests & Disease: The major enemy of bee balm is powdery mildew, which is a fungal disease that attacks when heat and humidity pair up – particularly with drier conditions in the garden.
Overwintering: Bee balm is remarkably hardy (Z 3-9), and does not need extraordinary measures taken on its behalf at the end of season. However, the wildlife-conscious gardener may wish to leave the last of the seed heads on the plant over the winter for birds.
Dividing and Transplanting: Bee balm spreads rapidly, and dividing it regularly is one of the most important things you can do to ensure its vigor and that of the plants around it. Simply dig it up, discard the woody center, make small divisions of the newer shoots and roots, and replant.
As there are so many colors of bee balm, it can work successfully in almost any sunny garden setting with a variety of plants such as Shasta daisy or garden phlox. It is a mid-border plant – working well with lower-growing perennials like dwarf amsonia to hide its sometimes scruffy lower legs. A lovely combination is bee balm paired with variegated phlox or daylilies, or placed it in front of an echinacea. Remember to match it to plants that desire the same conditions of sun and moisture retentive soil, and don’t crowd it too fiercely.
Native Americans have long used the foliage of bee balm as an anti-septic in traditional medicines, as well as using the foliage as a light tea. In early Revolutionary days in America, the practice of using it as a tea was adopted by colonialists unable to buy black tea from England.
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