Regional Gardening Reports :: National Gardening Association

In the Garden:
Upper South
April, 2009
Regional Report

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With just a little forethought, any flower garden can become a haven for hummingbirds and butterflies.

Gardening for Hummingbirds and Butterflies

They are the jewels of the garden, the hummingbirds and butterflies. Their colors and movement bring a dimension to the garden that not even the rarest plant can. Although they will often appear no matter what's in your garden, with a little planning, you can make your garden a specially inviting place for them. So as you shop for plants this spring, keep in mind those that will provide a feast of nectar for the hummingbirds and butterflies. Be sure to add some special feeders, too, and several different sources of water.

Hummingbird Heaven
Hummingbirds search out the nectar, which is basically sugar water, in all kinds of flowers, but are especially drawn to deep, tube-shaped flowers. As the long bill and tongue reach down into the flower, pollen clings and gets transferred from plant to plant. The color red particularly attracts them, perhaps because red tubular flowers tend to contain the most nectar, but they'll seek out other flowers as well. Fragrance does not play a role, as birds have a poor sense of smell, so they rely on visual clues instead. Since hummingbirds are like miniature helicopters, able to easily fly in all directions and hover, too, they can harvest nectar from flowers that are upright, sideways, and hanging.

When planting flowers for hummingbirds, aim for a mixture of annuals and perennials as well as flowering trees and shrubs. Some of the favorite plants for hummingbirds include annual and perennial sages (Salvia spp), bee balm (Monarda spp), wild columbine (Aquilegia canadensis), cardinal flower (Lobelia cardinalis), catchfly (Silene spp), trumpet vine (Campsis radicans), coral honeysuckle (Lonicera sempervirens), cypress vine (Ipomoea quamoclit), scarlet runner bean (Phaseolus coccineus), red buckeye (Aesculus pavia), fuchsia, azalea (Rhododendron spp), lantana, mimosa, four o'clock (Mirabilis jalapa), lily, weigela, coral bells (Heuchera spp), penstemon, and phlox.

Of course, if you're interested in hummingbirds, you're most likely to include special feeders filled with sugar water. To make, combine 1 part sugar to 4 parts water in a saucepan, bring the mixture to a boil, and stirring to make all the sugar is dissolved. Allow to cool before filling feeders. Sugar water can be kept in the refrigerator for a week. The sugar water in the feeder should be changed every couple of days. Hanging feeders in shady areas will keep the sugar water from fermenting too quickly. Place feeders among flowers to attract the hummingbirds, gradually moving the feeder closer and closer to the house so that you can enjoy the hummingbirds up close. Even though feeders usually have red plastic parts to draw in hummingbirds, some gardeners add a red bow or red surveyors tape. Garden centers have ant and bee guards to keep these critters out of feeders.

Butterfly Bliss
Making butterflies feel at home in your garden includes providing plants and flowers for both the mature butterflies as well as their caterpillar stage, plus several other amenities.

Like hummingbirds, butterflies go from flower to flower extracting nectar, but instead of red flowers, butterflies are attracted to purple and yellow ones. Rather than tubular flowers, butterflies prefer to feed on flat, open flowers but can be found on a wide range of flower types. Another key is to plant groupings of the same color.

Some of the nectar-rich flowers that attract butterflies include verbena, zinnia, sweet William, pentas, morning glory, impatiens, pansy, petunia, lantana, peony, Shasta daisy, clematis, aster, butterfly bush, hydrangea, lilac, pincushion flower, flax, butterfly weed, cosmos, marigolds, ageratum, heliotrope, moss rose, salvia, sweet alyssum, aster, chrysanthemum, coreopsis, dianthus, gaillardia, goldenrod, liatris, penstemon, phlox, purple coneflower, rudbeckia, sedum, yarrow, and nasturtium.

Besides flowers for nectar, it's also important to remember that the larval, or caterpillar, stage of the butterfly needs food, too. This means that some plants will have their leaves eaten. Because of this, if you want butterflies, you'll have to limit your use of pesticides. In other words, don't panic if you see a swallowtail caterpillar on your parsley, just grow enough for him and you. Some caterpillars eat only one type of plant, such as monarchs on milkweed and its relatives, while others are more indiscriminate. Choose your plants accordingly.

Like the rest of us, butterflies also need water but not just any old water. Ever notice how there are often butterflies on mud puddles? That's because butterflies need a mineral-rich water source. Gardeners often place a shallow bowl filled with sand and water among the flowers.

Because they're cold-blooded, butterflies need warmth to survive. That's why you'll see more butterflies in a sunny rather than a shady garden. It also helps to have stones in the garden, which will absorb the sun's warmth and provide a perfect spot for butterflies to bask in the sun.

Obviously, it doesn't take much more than what you already have in the garden to make it a haven for hummingbirds and butterflies. Making a few additions and changes here and there will make your garden more special than ever this year.

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