Creating a wildlife haven one plant at a time

Tuesday, March 27, 2018

Planting an Early Spring Garden to Attract Ruby Throated Hummingbirds

Like clockwork, the first ruby throated hummingbird scout shows up in our garden the last week of March. This has held true since I first started recording their return date eight years ago. You can watch their migration to estimate the arrival time in your area and document your first sighting here
I always put a few feeders up by middle of March in case we get an early bird, but the best way to attract these tiny, high energy hummingbirds and encourage them to stay in your garden, is to include early spring blooming plants they love into your landscape plan.  

These are the most frequently visited early flowering plants in our garden: 
Coral Honeysuckle (Lonicera sempervirens) climbs up a 16 foot post and starts flowering in early March, inviting hummers to drink the sweet nectar with its flashy red blooms. It is a high climbing vine and an excellent option for a trellis, arbor or fence and can even work as a ground cover.

Columbine (Aquilegia canadensis) are dangling their dainty flowers in anticipation of their favorite pollinator’s arrival. The blooms, with their backwards pointed nectar tubes, are the perfect shape for long tongued pollinators. The extended stamens make for easy pollination when the hummers' body brushes against them. These classic woodland plants look fabulous in a semi shade situation and are great pollinator plant for hummers as well as butterflies.

Red buckeye (Aesculus pavia) will soon be in bloom in the woodland garden to the delight of these feisty birds.  The bright red flowers are a magnet for these aerial acrobats as well as other butterflies and several native bee species. 

Crossvine (Bignonia capreolata), which grows gingerly up several trees that stand regally along our creek garnish large, orange, tubular shaped flowers encouraging these little nectar drinkers to stop by.

Native azalea buds will begin to open in the next few weeks. Florida Flame Azaleas (R. austrinum) attract hummingbirds with their orange or yellow trumpet shaped flowers in April. Following in May, the Flame Azalea (R. calendulaceum), adorning gorgeous orange blooms, will liven the woodland gardens with their bright blooms.

Our stately tulip poplar trees (Liriodendron tulipifera) are not actually a poplar tree, but a member of the magnolia family, and begin to bloom in April attracting many insects, pollinators and birds, including ruby throated hummingbirds and cedar waxwings. The tulip shaped flowers often capture water from spring showers, serving double duty as a water source for wildlife in the safety of the tree canopy. 

Are you noticing a pattern here? Hummers love brightly colored tubular flowers. Try adding a few of these plants that bloom in symphony with the  spring arrival of the ruby throated hummingbirds. These native flowers, that require a long tongue to extract the nectar, have a symbiotic harmony with hummers who have high caloric needs and stay airborne when feeding. 

Hummingbirds also need...

Insects. Hummingbirds are big bug eaters. In fact, they need the protein and will eat many soft bodied insects such as gnats, aphids, spiders and mosquitoes. To ensure that these protein sources are a part of your garden do not use insecticides or pesticides.
Sap. Perhaps you have yellow-bellied sapsuckers [woodpeckers] in your trees. Ruby throated hummingbirds and these sapsuckers have a special relationship. Hummingbirds often feed on the tree sap (similar to plant nectar) and insects from the holes that these woodpeckers created, giving them a protein and nectar source from one spot. (additional reading see yellow-bellied sapsuckers post and yellow-bellied sapsuckers and their feeding holes post)

Take it one step further...

You may even encourage ruby throated hummingbirds to breed in your garden by supplying them with nesting material. Female hummers build nests from a variety of materials including moss, lichen, and soft plant materials, like the hairs from lambs ear leaves, that the she will bond together with spider webs. Nests are the size of half a walnut shell, and are typically constructed high up in the tree canopy, in a forked branch of a tree, sheltered from wind, sun, rain and predators.  Don't be surprised if you don't find a nest; they are discreet. But you'll know they have nested when the juveniles are spotted visiting blooms in your garden mid-summer.
Providing natural feeding stations for these solitary hummingbirds by including early blooming plants will lure them to your garden and entice them to make your garden their seasonal home. You'll be entertained by their aerobatic displays and constant energy for months to come. 

Tuesday, March 20, 2018

Blueberries in Spring

My guilty pleasure is a cup of coffee every afternoon.  It gets me through that 3 pm slump and almost human until bedtime. Today as I sit with my coffee mug in hand, exhausted from a full day of garden clean up, I am being serenaded by the frogs in our pond. In the distance I hear a pileated woodpecker fervently banging its head against a tree, either in search of food or constructing a nesting cavity, while a Carolina wren is singing his lungs out from a nearby redbud that recently burst into bloom. The layers of sound in our spring garden are intoxicating and although my legs and feet are aching from a strenuous day, I sit soaking it all in.  

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I savor early spring, as each day brings a new discovery. This past week the blueberry buds burst into bloom and, according to my garden calendar, this means it’s officially spring in my part of the world.

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Our native pollinators agree. The Southeastern blueberry bees, the most efficient pollinator of our highbush and rabbiteye blueberries, are busily buzzing around the newly opened blooms, feeding on their rich nectar buffet. Specialists, they forage primarily on blueberries and are only active for a short period of time during mid-March to April when the blueberries are blooming. 
We have 15 blueberry shrubs on our property, each plant producing thousands of flowers. Each flower, a potential berry. Such demanding pollination services requires the work of a female blueberry bee who can be responsible for the production of 6,000 blueberries!  
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But these bees are not the only visitors. Other native pollinators, including clearwing moths, butterflies, bumblebees, and carpenter bees, take advantage of these early flowers.
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The Eastern Tiger Swallowtail is one of the first butterflies to appear in March, just when two of its host plants, the tulip (Liriodendron) and wild cherry (prunus) trees start to leaf out. I frequently find these swallowtails camped out on the creeping phlox or blueberry shrubs this early in the season.

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They maneuver around the dangling blooms positioning themselves at various angles to best reach their proboscis into the back of the flowers. This often means fighting wind gusts that launch them airborne, but these beauties are determined and gracefully dance their way to another flower. 

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Early bloomers are a delight to behold, providing promise for a bountiful harvest. Come mid-summer we will be stuffing our mouths with fat, juicy berries and thanking these hard working pollinators. 

Happy vernal equinox from our garden to yours!