Regional Gardening Reports :: National Gardening Association

In the Garden:
Upper South
May, 2011
Regional Report

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The flared, tubular flowers of million bells are an open invitation to hummingbirds.

A Haven For Hummingbirds

One of my gardening pleasures is to work in the cool of the evening during summer, with my pets resting nearby. The vegetable garden area is centered with a honeysuckle, so hummingbirds usually join us at this quiet time. That distinctive whirring sound of their wings, which is so much louder than their size, is a signal to be very still and appreciate their beauty and remarkableness. As a rather typical human being, I want more, so this year I am developing an area just outside my office that, hopefully, will also lay out the welcome mat to hummingbirds.

Actually, I had already started when I planted this area a year-and-a-half ago by including Major Wheeler honeysuckle. This is a form of our native honeysuckle, Lonicera sempervirens. Although mine hasn't bloomed yet, it is described as bearing a great many red-orange flowers for much of the summer -- if I remember to trim it back periodically. Perhaps even better, it is supposedly not going to be bothered by mildew.

When the first hummingbird buzzed by several weeks ago, I hurriedly mixed up some sugar water. The formula is four parts of water to one part granulated sugar. Bring this to a boil until the sugar is dissolved, then let cool. I had already cleaned the feeders, so as soon as the mixture had cooled, I hung two feeders on 3-foot garden hooks placed in the flower beds. And, yes, the hummingbirds immediately started to come to them. No red food coloring is needed as long the feeders have red parts on them.

In addition to the honeysuckle and feeders, the plan is to add other elements to the garden to attract hummingbirds. With research, I've developed a list of possible plant additions.

Creating a Garden for Hummingbirds
Hummingbirds feed by using their long, slender bills to probe flowers for nectar that they sip with their tubular tongues. Because they have such high metabolisms, hummingbirds must feed all day long. Male hummingbirds are territorial, so to have the maximum amount in your garden, it's best to create several areas out of sight of each other. The goal in choosing plants for hummingbirds is to look for those that are nectar-rich, with an assortment that will provide for the birds from spring through fall.

Although hummingbirds are most readily attracted by red, tubular flowers, don't worry about interspersing other brightly colored flowers, including yellows, oranges, and even blues, as evidenced by the reports of the sage variety 'Black and Blue' being a popular hummingbird flower. Plant the chosen flowers in clusters of staggered heights so that you're providing a veritable buffet. Since hummingbirds can fly forward, backward, and even upside down, flowers that hang down or cascade provide another possibility. In addition to hanging baskets, many of the plants that provide nectar for hummingbirds fit well into container plantings, especially the annual sages, nicotianas, and petunias.

Some Hummingbird Favorites
Among perennials, bee balm (Monarda didyma) is a good choice, with the red-flowered 'Jacob Kline' being among the most popular. To get the longest bloom period, deadhead them after the first bloom. Other perennials to consider include cardinal flower (Lobelia cardinalis); any of the sages (Salvia species and varieties); columbine Aquilegia species and varieties); phlox (Phlox species and varieties); butterfly weed (Asclepias tuberosa); torch flower (Kniphofia species and varieties); foxglove (Digitalis species and varieties); primrose (Primula species and varieties); coral bells (Heuchera species and varieties); penstemon (Penstemon species and varieties); veronica (Veronica species and varieties); anise hyssop (Agastache species and varieties); and hollyhock (Alcea rosea).

Of the possible annuals and tender plants to consider for attracting hummingbirds, Texas sage (Salvia coccinea), especially the cultivar 'Lady in Red,' rates among the highest, but any sage is a good choice. Some others to try include snapdragon (Antirrhinum varieties); cigar plant (Cuphea hyssopifolia); geranium (Pelargonium species and varieties); flowering tobacco (Nicotiana species and varieties); impatiens (Impatiens species and varieties); lantana (Lantana camara); petunia (Petunia varieties); million bells (Calibrachoa varieties); fuchsia (Fuchsia varieties); nasturtium (Tropaeolum majus); four-o'clock (Mirabilis varieties); zinnia (Zinnia varieties); verbena (Verbena species and varieties); and cosmos (Cosmos species and varieties).

For shrub plantings, butterfly bush (Buddleia species and varieties) is a good choice. Although silk tree (Mimosa julibrissin) can be a bit of a garden pest due to its re-seeding habits, I can vouch firsthand for its appeal to hummingbirds. When the large specimen in my garden is in bloom, it is alive with hummingbirds feeding.

There is a goodly number of both woody and annual vines that are nectar-rich. These include trumpet vine (Campsis radicans); the aforementioned trumpet, or coral, honeysuckle (Lonicera sempervirens), such as 'Alabama Crimson', 'Blanche Sandman', or 'Major Wheeler'; clematis (Clematis species and varieties); scarlet runner bean (Phaseolus coccineus); sweet pea (Lathyrus odoratus); cardinal vine (Ipomoea x multifida); Spanish flag (Ipomoea lobata); cypress vine (Ipomoea coccinea); and morning glory (Ipomoea varieties).

Add a Water Feature
All birds bathe but, rather than splashing in a puddle or pool of water, hummingbirds tend to prefer flying through a spray of water. A sprinkler, mister, or dripping fountain set up near a perching spot will encourage them to linger in your garden.

Hummingbirds are among the most fascinating birds in the world. This year, make sure some of them spend time in your garden.

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