Growth in gardening: Hummingbird gardens

Although sugar-water feeders are helpful to hummingbirds, a garden with a mix of mature trees, shrubs for shelter and plants that serve as a food source are important to attract and maintain hummingbird populations. PHOTO COURTESY OF J. P. RYAN

Two weeks back I wrote a piece about feeding backyard birds, a favorite subject of mine. That Sunday my email lit up with questions. I love when that happens. I answered as many as I could but so many questions pertained to hummingbirds that I thought I would go more into depth with them in today’s article.

A quick look at the natural history of hummingbirds cannot help but impress on us that these are mountain birds. The most diverse location in all the world for hummingbird species is the mountainous regions of Ecuador and Peru. The best way to provide habitat for any animal is to provide settings that resemble where they are found in nature.

Hummingbirds need shelter. Mature trees that develop a canopy over much of the garden are going to be important. Some open sky is needed for escape, but after a short run in open sky these birds do retreat to a tree or shrub. Beneath the trees, shrubs for perching, to provide food and in some cases for nesting, will be important. This is often a significant part of the garden that is forgotten – the only shrubs you will see in many hummingbird gardens are those intended to provide food for the birds. A good selection of diverse bushes for both shelter and food purposes is vital to a diverse, dense population of hummingbirds.

Remember, while sugar is important to these birds, it is not their only food resource. We need to provide for not only their energy needs, but vitamins, minerals, protein and other nutrients as well. This is done with a carefully planned and maintained garden.

Plant a hummingbird garden. The fact is, feeders alone do not provide the needs of the birds while gardens are more likely to result in a diverse population with greater density and provide resources necessary not only for hummingbirds, but for other wildlife species as well. More than that, a hummingbird garden will provide shelter, food, water and space needs for hummingbirds. The garden should include mature trees, shrubs and bushes, perennial and annual wildflowers, vines and other plants that are especially attractive to these birds. Nectar producing plants are only part of the picture – insect sheltering plants will also be critical. Water sources are important too. All in all, a good hummingbird garden is going to be a beautiful, peaceful place for both you and the wildlife to enjoy. Oh, and a beautiful garden can increase the value of your home more than you might imagine.

While I cautioned last week about hummingbird feeders, they do have a place in this type of garden, but not as the central focus. They should be used to:

  • Supplement plants that provide food resources
  • Position the birds in areas for easy viewing
  • Attract the birds to less used portions of the garden

A good hummingbird garden will include:

  • Nectar producing plants designed for hummingbird attraction – Plants with trumpet shaped flowers usually oriented horizontal or downward
  • Insect attracting plants – Plants with large, flat flower heads usually oriented vertically (These are generally yellow or blue in color)

Bloom season is important. In Texas it is possible to have hummingbirds nearly year-round, so you should aim to have plants in bloom as long as possible. Try to select plants with overlapping bloom periods so that there is always something in bloom.

Think about water, too. All wildlife, including hummingbirds, require water. With hummingbirds there may be some concerns that are not addressed by the average bird bath or the wildlife water dish

You must consider:

  • Depth – most bird baths are too deep for hummingbirds
  • Slope – you do not want steep sided containers since they are difficult for an animal to exit
  • Moving water is much more attractive to wildlife than still water. With water, remember it should be fresh, should be moving, needs to be shallow and needs to be usable.

After leaving their southernmost migration areas, hummingbirds reach San Marcos between mid-March and mid-May. They begin breeding in early April and continue breeding through early September. Hummingbirds may still be feeding their young as late as Nov. 1.

The return of hummingbirds each year brings new energy and life to your garden. Filling your feeder with some extra-strength food helps these busy birds recover from their long migration, but later in the growing season, nectar sources from your garden will provide an even better food source. So yes, providing nourishment for hummingbirds is a wonderful thing to do, and while I like the old hummingbird feeders I am far more delighted when I see evidence, in someone’s yard, that they have gone the extra mile and have planted a garden that attracts hummingbirds. You can do it to. Try the following plants and you will be surprised how many hummingbirds visit your yard.

  • Butterfly bushes - are unbeatable in providing food for hummingbirds and butterflies, as well as a huge range of other insects. Unfortunately, they can be invasive in many areas, so choose sterile hybrids that don’t produce seeds, such as Miss Ruby, which can grow 5 feet by 5 feet, or Lo & Behold Lilac Chip, which can grow to be 30 inches by 30 inches. Where butterfly bushes are not invasive, choose Butterfly Heaven, which grows to be 6 feet by 6 feet, or Peacock (Peakeep) in the English Butterfly Series which can grow to be 5 feet by 5 feet.
  • Cross Vine and Trumpet Vine – Both Cross vine and Native Trumpet vine are vigorous and flamboyant self-clinging vines. You can grow these vines on a trellis or sturdy arbor, or allow them to scramble through established shrubs and small trees because they will cling to bark like ivy. The vivid orange summer flowers of the trumpet vine especially, are much loved by hummingbirds, as are the yellow flowers of Flava and its dark salmony hybrid Madame Galen. However, plant this attractive vine with caution because trumpet vine is an aggressive spreader.
  • Scarlet Beebalm - This is another tough native that is a real hummingbird favorite and one of the most colorful perennials for the flower garden. Sadly, native species are prone to mildew, although keeping the soil moist will help to prevent this problem. Try one of the newly introduced mildew-resistant varieties, or the even hardier, Lavender-Flowered Beebalm.
  • A few other suggestions – You might also want to plant any native sage (salvia) – I really like autumn sage (salvia gregii). Or try Coral honeysuckle, Texas Lantana, Turk’s Cap, Yellow Bells Flame Acantus, or Native Hibiscus all will be much appreciated by the hummingbirds in your neighborhood.

I am fond of the birds that visit my garden and I encourage you to attract them to your garden too, just be sure to give them the kinds of foods they need and you will be able to enjoy their visits for many years to come.

Joe Urbach is the publisher of GardeningAustin.com and the Phytonutrient Blog. He has lived in the Central Texas area for over 30 years. Urbach is a certified Texas Master Gardener from Hays County and is currently serving as the director of training. For more information on the Master Gardener program contact the Hays County AgiLife Extension Service at 512-393-2120.

San Marcos Daily Record

(512) 392-2458
P.O. Box 1109, San Marcos, TX 78666