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Start a Hummingbird Garden

Learn how to draw the world's tiniest birds to your garden with these colorful flowers.
  • Tiny joys

    Gardeners Kathi and Michael Rock of Madison, Wisconsin, are enchanted with hummingbirds. "Hummingbirds truly embody the magic, joy and freedom that we as humans would love to have," Kathi says.

    Kathi knows hummingbirds' amazing statistics: They can fly faster than any other birds and have the largest proportionate brain size. And, of course, they can hover and snatch insects in midair.

    Kathi and Michael first fell in love with hummingbirds a decade ago after adding a hummingbird feeder to their backyard. Now they have two dozen feeders and more than a hundred kinds of annuals and perennials to cater to the tastes and habits of their flying friends.

    "We try to have plants that bloom at every point during the season," Kathi says. The feeders fill in when flowers aren't growing in early spring and after fall frosts.

  • Sharing their Midwest expertise

    The Rocks pass along their 10 years of expertise by hosting a hummingbird gardening website and by giving community presentations. They've learned a lot over the years about hummingbird habits in the Midwest.

    Although there are 300 kinds of hummingbirds, the ruby-throated (left) is the only one common throughout the Midwest. The tiny birds arrive here in May and June, then leave gardens to build nests in isolated forest areas. As soon as mating is over, in early July, the males begin to migrate because they play no role in raising the young. Females head south after their offspring learn to fly.

    "We see an increase in the number of hummingbirds beginning in early August," Kathi says. "Our peak time in Madison is traditionally mid-September. By then, most of the adult males are gone, and we're seeing female and immature birds almost exclusively."

    Hummingbird Gardening in the Upper Midwest

  • Hummer flower magnets

    Hummingbirds will dine from flowers of any color, but red attracts them best. "They can see red up to a mile away," Kathi says.

    Flowers with tubular blossoms evolved with hummingbirds, so the Rocks keep a good supply. Hummingbirds also eat spiders and insects, including mosquitoes and gnats.

    Kathi recommends six plants to get your hummingbird garden started: perennials honeysuckle, bee balm and cardinal flower, as well as annuals Mexican cigar plant, blue anise sage and Texas sage. These plants are pictured here and on the next five slides.

    Bee balm (Monarda didyma, left) has blooms that look like starbursts and fragrant foliage. It reaches 3 feet tall and 2 feet wide. Grow in full sun or light shade. Zone 4.

  • Red trumpets

    The red or red-orange variety of honeysuckle (Lonicera sempervirens, left) blooms with trumpet-shape flowers on a vine that reaches 10 -- 15 feet long. Grow in full sun. Zone 4.

  • Bright red blossoms

    Cardinal flower (Lobelia cardinalis, left) attracts hummers with fire truck red blossoms on 2- to 3-foot-tall stalks from late summer through fall. Grow in full sun or part shade. Zone 2.

  • Good for containers

    Mexican cigar plant (Cuphea 'David Verity', left) grows 2 feet tall with orange tubular flowers and tips that resemble lit cigars. It flowers from early summer until frost, grows well in containers and thrives in full sun.

  • Purple for hummers

    Blue anise sage (Salvia guaranitica, left) blooms with purple flowers from summer through fall. It reaches 2-4 feet tall. Grow in full sun to part shade.

  • Prolific bloomers

    Texas sage (Salvia coccinea, left) flowers prolifically with red flowers summer through fall. It reaches 2 feet tall and grows easily from seed. Grow in full sun.

  • Make your own nectar

    When your flowers aren't blooming, feeders will help attract hummingbirds. Mix one part sugar with four parts tap water. Sugar dissolves quickly in warm water, so there's no need to boil it. When nectar looks cloudy or moldy, wash the feeder and refill with a fresh batch.

    While a traditional feeder is hung off a house or on a stand near your home, many different varieties are available, including ones that you can place in the ground (left) at any attractive spot in your garden.

  • Follow the migration

    In the fall, young hummers linger longest in nectar-filled gardens before heading to southern Mexico or Central America. "They fly 500 miles over the Gulf of Mexico nonstop across the water," says Alicia King, director of the Bird Conservation Alliance in Indianapolis.

    When will they be back? You can track spring hummingbird returns at the website below.

    Ruby-throated Hummingbird Migration

    Bird Conservation Alliance

  • Hummingbird plant resources

    Hummingbird-friendly plants are available by mail. Try Glasshouse Works, Goodwin Creek Gardens and Sunlight Gardens. Pictured: Red bee balm juts above cleome.

    (A version of this story appeared in Midwest Living® July/August 2008.)

    Glasshouse Works

    Goodwin Creek Gardens

    Sunlight Gardens

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