Monday, July 11, 2016

Jewels in the garden

Yesterday, while my husband and I were sitting on our kitchen porch reviewing the day as it started to slowly pink up at the edges, we had eight hummingbird sightings. Now, don’t know exactly how many resident jewels we have flinging themselves across my flower beds, but we did spot two males dueling over the rights to the Jacob Kline monarda just moments after a female was feeding right around the corner, so I know there are at least three individuals.   

I am a hummingbird junkie and once you have your first hummingbird visitor, all you want is more – so I’m always trying to find ways to coax these beauties into dropping by, or moving in permanently. And although feeders are certainly an option when it comes to attracting these beauties, there’s a few things you need to understand about hummingbird behavior to get as many as you can. We know that the name hummingbird comes from the purring or vibrating sound of their wings beating almost 90 times a second, but that's not the only thing about a humming birds that's speedy. They also have an accelerated heartbeat, a incredibly rapid breathing rate and a high body temperature, which means they burn an amazing number of calories each moment so hummingbirds needing to eat often and voraciously. They have an impressively long tongue with which they lick their food at a rate of up to 13 licks per second, sucking up almost half their body weight in nectar each day, nectar being their primary food source along with tree sap, insects and pollen, so feeders with their artificial nectar might sound like a good way to attract them, but there's one other fact about hummingbirds that might point you in a different direction.

Hummingbirds don't like to share their food.

They're territorial, so even though they are only about 3 ¾ inches long and weigh about the same as a couple of  paperclips, they'll defend their territories with the aggression and determination of much larger critters. I’ve seen male pursue other males for hours at a time, and even go after other larger birds. They're fearless. I know those video clips on Facebook with throngs of hummers crowding around a feeder makes us all want to run out and invest in a few dozen, but in my experience it’s rare that a male hummingbird will share his food sources willingly. And since each male demands a territory of about a quarter acre, having all your feeders clustered on the porch so you can see these beauties might be fun for you, but it’s going to be stressful for the birds.  At my house, if there are two males in the same space they will dive bomb each other making sharp chirps (playing chicken so to speak) until one gives up and flies away. The victor will then return to sip in all his solitary glory. So instead of a bouquet of feeders containing liquified processed sugar and sometimes even red dye all of which also have to be cleaned religiously, and which (in my experience) hummingbirds don’t want to share –– feeders which also leak all over the porch attracting not just ants and bees, but vicious, nasty, attacking yellow jackets, I’m a proponent of the planted approach.   

The planting approach is simple, just fill your property with plants that are ladened with nectar and place them all over the whole yard. I did, and now with my 2.5 acres, I've hypothetically created room for up to 10 males and their families. Doesn’t that sound like a lot more fun? I already mentioned monarda as one of my favorite hummingbird attractions, but before I give you a plant list, I’d like to clear up a little misconception. Yes hummingbirds are attracted to and love red flowers; it's a color that they can "see" from miles away, so they're super attracted to those plants; but they also will drink from any heavily nectared plant. So certainly, add some red plants, but don't be limited to only scarlet, crimson, ruby and cerise. Yes they love my enormous clump of Jacob Kline monarda, but they also think my Marshall's Delight and Purple Rooster are pretty glorious as well.  

Monarda (Bee Balm) has the top spot on my list of hummingbird attractors, so if there’s only room for one more plant in your yard, this should be it, but if you want to guarantee these iridescent visitors return to your garden year after year, and you have the room, there’s a plethora of plant possibilities I can recommend.  

The entire salvia family will satiate hummingbirds as will any weigela you decide will add beauty to a shrub border. I am partial to the annual salvia called Black and Blue, you I've had them feed from both annual and perennial varieties. Personally, I have about 12 or so weigela scattered around my property, but I am sort of mad for the Sonic series as their ability to rebloom is fairly impressive. I'm not sure that they are as nectar rich as some of the old fashioned cultivars (they're fairly new to my garden) so if you want to be sure you're getting the biggest bang for your buck get a cultivar that's been around for a while. What both these plants have in common is a tubular flower which is a perfect fit for the long bill of the hummingbird in it's quest for the nectar buried deep inside each bloom.  

Since hummingbirds tend to show up and hang out in the garden from Mother's Day through Labor day, it's important that you choose plants that will be available through their entire visit – another reason annuals are always on my humming bird list. Fuchsias are a necessity, so I've always got a few stuck in pots in shadier spots around the garden and shrimp plants are also something they go crazy for, although I'm not such a huge fan. I prefer petunias, lantana, snapdragons and nicotiana, the last two of which I stick randomly into any bed where I have room, As an aside, once you have nicotianas they will tend to self seed willy nilly (if, of course you don't weed up the seedlings) and I also collect and save my own seeds to toss about with abandon in the spring.  

Columbine, hostas, foxgloves, heuchera are all fabulous perennials to incorporate into your planting beds, and if you have a spot for a honeysuckle to ramble through, please plant at least one. I have one at the rear of my property and a trumpet vine that’s finally throwing itself over my porch roof for whomever has staked out their territory by the house. When planting I always advise massing plants and repeating them throughout the garden to make sure your plantings don’t look too hodge podge, but your hummer friends also want to visit a patch of the same species (three or more plants) to really get a good quantity of nectar. Cardinal flowers are a perfect plant in heavier soil, and they will create their own clump (as the monarda do of course) so those are definitively a hummingbird have to have.

In the shrub realm, flowering quince is a good early plant while butterfly bush is a great way to end the summer and clethra is sometimes even given the common name Hummingbird Plant. I've been told that the Red Buckeye is a good hummingbird magnet, but I can't speak from experience since it's one of the few trees I don't have on my property. In an interesting aside, hummingbirds can only perch on their feet, they can’t use them to stand on a flat surface, nor can they walk, so it’s also important to choose plants they will feel comfortable resting in for those few moments when their wings aren’t going or when they decide to make a nest.

I’m still hoping to find a hummingbird nest somewhere on my property. The nests are tiny and almost impossibly hard to spot, with eggs the size of jellybeans, and I have yet to find one in any of my trees or shrubs, but I’m continuing to look. I believe there must be at least one here somewhere since the number visitors seems to be increases yearly. I like to think I’m feeding generations. The Brooklyn Botanic Garden website gives a great and sometimes forgotten tip on creating a hummingbird friendly environment when they suggest we include some fuzzy plants in our planting plans. Hummingbirds like to line their nest with soft plant fibers, and according the BBG, two of their favorites are the fuzzy stem of the cinnamon fern and pussy willows. They also suggest we let  some thistle and dandelion go to seed just for the fluffy, down like fuzz that’s so attractive to the as nest-building materials for the hummers in your yard.  

I like thinking that the dancing seeds of dandelions are making tiny little beds more snuggly. It’s one of the best excuses I’ve ever come up with for leaving the dandelions in my lawn. That and the fact that they’re also dream food for bees.

Paige Patterson hasn’t been able to weeds for over three weeks and her garden is out of control