By Paul A. Thomas
University of Georgia
My wife Toni and I have been gardening for hummingbirds for many years now and have learned a few things along the way.
We've learned, for instance, that you need six to eight hummingbird feeders per half-acre of land -- two or three in the open for males and the rest in the tree canopies for the females and young.
And we've learned some garden enhancements that increase the number of birds that stay in your area. There are some essential things your garden should have to signal to a passing hummingbird visitor that your garden is a paradise.
With a little preparation, you can greatly increase the chances of these birds settling down and raising their young, ensuring that future generations will remember each spring that your garden says, "Welcome home!"
Provide year-round nectar
To do this, you'll need plants that will provide nectar beyond what you cook up for your feeders. Since no plants bloom for the entire time the hummingbirds are around, you'll need a proper mix of flowering plants.
Some native plant species cause hummingbirds to put on the breaks and visit the garden.
An easy choice is Aquilegia canadensis (native columbine). This plant is easily grown from seed and blooms very early in March or April, weather permitting.
A most essential plant is the buckeye. Aesculus parviflora (bottlebrush buckeye), A. glabra (Ohio buckeye) and A. pavia (red buckeye) all attract hummingbirds with late-spring, early-summer blooms.
In fact, when A. glabra is in bloom in the woods in May, the hummingbirds rarely visit our feeders, seemingly disappearing for a week or two each spring.
Another essential specimen is Lonicera sempervirens (red honeysuckle vine). This blooms in March and April and has been a big attraction to the earliest of visitors. Trellis this plant on the west or east side of the house for best results.
Our native Campsis radicans, or trumpet creeper, is the famous plant many hummingbird feeders are designed to duplicate. The vines must be pruned each fall to generate short plants and many flowers, but the result is hummingbird heaven for two to four weeks in May and June.
Midsummer is perhaps the easiest time to provide nectar in the garden. All of the plants we recommend are full-sun-loving plants that do well in Georgia soils and tolerate drought fairly well.
My favorite is Salvia guaranitica (blue sage) a Georgia Gold Medal Winner. The blue flowers continue all summer if trimmed after each flower flush, and it's particularly attractive to baby hummingbirds.
Vitex 'Agnus Castus' (chaste tree) is a wonderfully tough, small tree that hummingbirds adore in midsummer. It has blue flowers, too.
Cleome (spider flower), Dianthus barbatus (sweet William), Buddleia davidii (butterfly bush), Impatiens hybrida (common impatiens) and Monarda didyma (bee balm) are essential garden plants.
It's essential to keep feeders filled during August and September, as dry years can see a dearth of flowers.
The best choices are Lobelia cardinalis (cardinal flower), Salvia coccinea (pineapple sage), Lantana camara 'Miss Huff' (a sterile lantana and a Georgia Gold Medal selection), Ipomea cultivars (morning glories and cypress vines), Canna generalis (cannas) and Verbena bonairiensis (upright verbena).
They eat bugs, too
Hummingbirds visit many other plants, but not for nectar. Hummers eat a great many small insects such as gnats, and many genera of the Compositae family such as Eupatorium, Aster and Dendranthemum attract gnats. It's great fun to observe speeding hummingbirds dive-bombing the flowers or skimming effortlessly over the tops of the flowers, picking off tiny snacks.
(Paul Thomas is a horticulturist with the University of Georgia College of Agricultural and Environmental Sciences.)