Known for its stunning blooms, bee balm is also great at attracting important pollinators to your yard.
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The flowering perennial bee balm—also referred to as its genus name, monarda—knows how to make an entrance. By July, when most other blooms are slumping in the heat, it's primed to perform. The plant, which is native to the United States, is known for its fanciful flowers. But it's more than just something to admire for its beauty. According to Em Shipman, executive director of KidsGardening.org, bee balm attracts many essential pollinators, like bees and hummingbirds, that are lured to the perennial for its sweet nectar. "They are also favored by many native birds that feast on their seed heads in winter when other food is scarce," she says. The adaptable, easy-to-care-for plant is a bloom gardeners across the country can count on year after year. 

bee balm
Credit: Katrin Ray Shumakov / Getty Images

How to Plant Bee Balm

Shipman says that most gardeners start with purchased plants that have been bred for certain characteristics, such as flower color, overall height, and disease resistance. Once you select your variety, you can bring it home and get it in the ground or in a container.

Plant in Your Garden

The best time to plant bee balm is in spring or fall, according to Shipman. If planting in the garden, choose a spot in full sun with consistently moist, well-draining soil for the best blooms. Before planting, Myers says to check the plant tag for proper spacing insight. "Newer, more compact varieties need less space than the species or larger cultivars," she says. "In general plants grow 2 to 4 feet wide and up to 3 to 4 feet tall."

  1. Loosen any circling roots to encourage them to expand beyond the root ball. 
  2. Loosen the soil to a depth of about 8 to 12 inches and mix in a generous amount of compost. 
  3. Next, dig a hole about twice as wide and just as deep as the root ball. 
  4. Remove the plant from its container and set it in the hole. 
  5. Backfill with soil and compost mixture and water it thoroughly. 
  6. Water regularly to keep the soil consistently moist until the plant is well established.

Plant in a Container 

Smaller, more compact varieties of bee balm make for great container plants. Meyers says to make sure the container you'll be using has drainage holes and is 5 gallons or more depending on the size of the bee balm variety and if any other plants are being planted in the same container.

  1. Loosen the plant's roots. 
  2. Set bee balm at the height it was in its original container.
  3. Fill with a quality potting soil mixed with a  slow release fertilizer.  
  4. Place the pot in full sun and keep the soil evenly moist.
  5. Water every other day.
Monarda Violet Queen Plant Bergamot Monarda didyma purple summer flowers
monarda gardenview scarlet
monarda bradburiana
Left: M. 'Violet Queen' | Credit: Jacky Parker Photography / Getty Images
Center: M. 'Gardenview Scarlet' | Credit: Flowerphotos/Alamy
Right: M. bradburiana | Credit: Joshua Mccullough/Getty Images

How to Propagate Bee Balm 

Take one bee balm plant and turn it into more! There are two different ways to do so. 

From Seed

Adrienne Roethling, the director of curation and mission delivery at the Paul J. Ciener Botanical Garden, says it's best to gather seeds on the species M. punctata or M. fistulosum. "At the end of the bloom season, the colorful petals will fall and the stems are left with a rounded seed head that will eventually turn brown," she says. "Cut the stems and place them in a bag upside down so that the seeds fall to the bottom of the bag." Next, gather seeds and store them in a sealed bag until the following spring season. 

Sow the seeds six to eight weeks before the last spring frost, says Melinda Myers, gardening expert and host of the Great Courses How to Grow Anything DVD series. You can either directly sow the seeds into the garden bed or begin the seed sowing in a pot filled with potting soil. Lightly cover the seeds with soil and keep moist. Move them under artificial light or place them in a sunny window or area of your garden as soon as green appears. 

From Clippings

Although Roethling believes the best way to propagate bee balm is from root divisions, it is also possible to grow the plant from stem cuttings. To do so, she says to stick them into a pot and keep the soil moist until rooted. Once potted, place the clippings inside in a bright location out of direct sun. Myers recommends covering with a plastic bag to boost humidity while the plants develop roots, which they'll do in several weeks. Once established, move the containers outdoors and plant them in your garden. Make sure the variety you're propagating isn't a patented plant (newer varieties on the market typically are) as Meyers notes it's illegal to do so.

potted Bee-balm Monarda punctata
Lemon Beebalm
Left: Monarda punctata | Credit: Arvind Balaraman / Getty Images
Right: M. citriodora | Credit: Katya Lyukum / Getty Images

How to Care for Bee Balm

Though bee balm is low maintenance, like any plant, it has a few care requirements that should be fulfilled to ensure proper growth. 

Basic Care 

Bee balm grows best in an area with full sun and moist, well-draining soil. Roethling says that once it's established it can be planted anywhere on your property since bee balm is native and can thrive in salt, silt, and clay. "However, if you have all clay, it would be a benefit to add compost to help break up the clay," she says. It requires frequent watering to keep the soil moist, but after it's established the plant only needs to be watered during dry spells. If it's in a window box or other container, it may need to be watered more frequently as Roethling notes that plants in containers often dry out faster.

Fertilizer 

If you amended the soil with a lot of compost during planting, fertilizer may not be needed. However, to encourage larger, healthier plants, Shipman says to apply a balanced, all-natural fertilizer in the spring. "Plants growing in containers should be fertilized months in spring and summer," she says. "Use caution because too much fertilizer can cause abundant new growth that can be susceptible to powdery mildew. Avoid fertilizing when powdery mildew is present." Myers recommends looking for a fertilizer that's low in nitrogen, which promotes slow growth making bee balm less susceptible to doubt, pests, and disease. 

Mulch

Mulching bee balm will help keep moisture in and smother weeds, says Roethling. She suggests adding a double ground or shredded hardwood mulch at a thickness of 2 to 3 inches. Apply mulch to bee balm each spring season. 

How to Prune and Deadhead Bee Balm

To encourage growth and maintain healthy blooms, bee balm benefits from pruning and deadheading. 

Pruning Bee Balm

To prune bee balm, Meyers says to cut the plant back halfway in the spring when they are about 12 inches tall. She says this delays flowering, so some gardeners cut back some but not all their plants to extend the peak bloom time and control plant height. 

Deadheading Bee Balm

Deadheading, the practice of removing dead or discolored flowers from plants, will encourage new flower growth throughout the growing season. To deadhead bee balm, Meyers says to cut off any faded flowers just above the first set of leaves or first set of flower buds beneath the faded flower.

Powdery Mildew on Bee Balm

One of the most common issues cultivars of bee balm run into is powdery mildew. "Powdery Mildew is a white chalky substance that will take over the stems and leaves," Roethling says. "It'll eventually cause the leaves to turn yellow or brown long before the end of the season." 

How to Prevent Mildew

Powdery mildew is typically caused by poor air circulation and wet leaves, which is why it's always best to plant bee balm in open areas of the garden and water early in the morning so the leaves dry out during the day. Meyers says you can also improve airflow by thinning stems as they emerge in spring. To prevent the powdery mildew from forming altogether, grow varieties that are resistant to it. At the first sign of disease, Meyers says to spray the plant with an organic fungicide and repeat every 10 to 14 days or as directed on the label.

Comments (2)

Martha Stewart Member
July 23, 2021
Beautiful bee balm plants! What do I do when the blooms die back? Dead head it? Or let it, uh, just bee? Was hoping I'd get another round of blooms so I deadheaded mine, but I suspect that was incorrect. It was hugely popular while in bloom!
Martha Stewart Member
July 23, 2021
Beautiful bee balm plants! What do I do when the blooms die back? Dead head it? Or let it, uh, just bee? Was hoping I'd get another round of blooms so I deadheaded mine, but I suspect that was incorrect. It was hugely popular while in bloom!