Archive for April, 2013

Make Your Back Yard a Hummingbird Hilton

Thursday, April 18th, 2013

A hummingbird feeding on some flowersThis is peak season for hummingbirds but if you want them to be your guests, you'll have to offer some hummingbird hospitality. This means providing them with the same services you'd expect in a good hotel: appealing food and drink, and a comfortable place to sleep. When you translate that into the world of hummingbirds, all you have to do is prepare a sugar solution and put it into a well-designed feeder. That's their food, drink, and lodging right there.

Wait a minute, you might say. You talk about lodging, but I didn't even know hummingbirds sleep, let alone sleep on a hummingbird feeder.

Yes, these flying miracles with hearts that beat up to 1,000 times per minute and wings that carry them as far as 6,000 miles over the course of a year, do stop and snooze. And one of the places they've been known to snooze is on the perches of hummingbird feeders. Just check out this one-minute video on YouTube. (Amazing what you can find on YouTube: there's also a one-minute video of a hummingbird snoring.)

So the key to having hummingbirds visit your yard is simply to put out feeders and fill them with sugar solution. In a previous article we discussed hummingbird feeders, the information still holds up and we stand by our recommendations.

Today we'll go into detail about the sugar solutionhow to make your own and the right way to use it. This might seem a simple matter, and it is in certain ways, but if you don't do it right, the hummingbirds simply won't come, or, even worse, they could be harmed.

Sugar Solution

You've probably heard a fancier name for it: hummingbird nectar, but there's actually no such thing. Hummingbirds extract nectar from flowers but nobody sells flower nectar. However, the ingredient in the flower nectar that nourishes the hummers is sucrose, and white table sugar is 100% sucrose. Since flower nectar is approximately 20% sucrose, all you have to do to create a viable substitute is make a solution of 1 part sugar to 4 parts water. Bring it to a boil to eliminate any bacteria or mold, and when it cools down to room temperature, you're ready to go.

Hummingbird sitting on a feederBut here are some details to keep in mind: use the purest water available and choose a brand of granular white sugar that contains no preservatives or additives (Domino, for example), and DO NOT substitute brown sugar, honey, or any other kind of sugar or sweetener. This is critical. For example, hummingbirds can die from the mold that will start to grow if you substitute honey.

And another thing: DO NOT add red dye to your sugar solution. It is true that hummers are attracted to the color red, but you'll be pouring your solution into a red feeder anyway, so the addition of red dye is unnecessary. More important, the systems of the hummingbirds are so delicate and sensitive that it could do them harm over time. Hummingbirds feed 5-8 times an hour and they consume up to two times their body weight in nectar and insects every day. If their daily diet includes red dye, that could mean a lot of dye over time, perhaps enough to hurt them. So it's best to err on the side of caution and avoid it.

You'll want to change the solution in your feeders every two or three days. If you see no signs of mold or fermentation (odor, or change in the color of the solution) you can get away with doing it less often. But the hotter the weather, the faster the solution will spoil; during very hot spells you might even need to change the solution every day.

Before you add your sugar solution to your feeders, rinse them out thoroughly. At least once a week clean them with some soapy water and a bottle brush; some people use white vinegar. After you've filled up your feeders, refrigerate any unused solution; it should last for about a week but you should use it as soon as possible.

Creating a Hummingbird HabitatHummingbird-Nesting-Material

Much more important than avoiding red dye in your sugar solution is to avoid pesticides, herbicides, and fungicides in the area where you're offering hummingbird hospitality. The tiny kidneys and livers of the hummingbirds simply can't handle any toxic substances, so it's essential that you offer them as pure an environment as possible.

What will give your back yard value-added appeal in the eyes of your little bejeweled patrons is the presence of their favorite plants. In a previous article we discussed four such plants: MonardaButterfly BushLantana, Zinnia and Fuchsia. We would also like to suggest Salvia and Sage as additional plants for your hummer garden. Hummingbirds will want to dine out at these fine nectar-bearing plants and you can be sure that they will appreciate the enhanced ambience those blooms provide in your back yard as much as you do. For a list of plants that will bloom all season long, read our blog article: The Ultimate Dining Guide for Hummingbirds.

Another help in creating the prefect backyard for your hummingbirds is to offer them nesting material. If you don't have access to a prepackaged supply, they will also use moss, cotton fluffs, bits of willows, soft plant pieces, dryer lint, and leaf hairs.

Hummingbirds don't make reservations, but to see the travel itinerary of the ruby-throated hummers, visit In the meantime, roll out the grass carpet and follow our hummingbird hospitality advice. You may soon find that your back yard has turned into a Hummingbird Hilton.

What Flowers Do Not Need A Lot Of Sun?

Saturday, April 13th, 2013

Hanging basket of flowers that only need part sun to growI have flower baskets that face east, so not much sun.  What do you recommend for a flower that does not need a lot of sun and has a vine or drape to it?  I’m in N.C.  Thanks. Pat J.

Answer: If you are limited on sun, generally less than 6 hours per day, there are some really nice colorful foliage plants available these days and they can be more dependable than flowers! There are several options in our Annuals section that would make great shade containers.

I garden with a lot of shade, and some of my favorites for sun/part share are: Abutilon; Bacopa especially the Snowtopia because it’s a nice trailing variety; any of the Begoniathe old standard Angel or Dragon Wing series are always great, but the newer Bonfire series are spectacular as well; and of course the Fuchsias are marvelous. One newer introduction, a variety of  Euphorbia, has tiny nonstop blooms that look a lot like Baby’s Breath and it makes a great filler plant or an entire basket on its own! Impatiens are a natural for the shade, and there is a new variety, Torenia, that will also tolerate some shade.

For pure leaf interest don’t forget about the Sweet Potato Vines. Coleus are also perfect for brightening up shady areas, but some can get quite large, so you would want to check their mature size before considering them for a container. Plectranthus has some interesting leaf texture, as does Persian Shield. For tall, spiky interest use a Dracaena.

Don’t be afraid to look at some of the Perennials, as well. There are many that make terrific options for containers. Start with Hosta,  Heuchera and, Hedera. At the end of the season just put them into the ground to overwinter.

Happy shoppingand happy gardening!

What is the Ideal Soil Temperature for Sowing Vegetable Seeds?

Tuesday, April 9th, 2013

Sowing vegetable seeds in the garden soil

You have spent the latter part of the winter looking through seed catalogs and surfing online garden sites. You've ordered your vegetable seeds and grumble when it's snowing again or when the nighttime temperatures are still causing your furnace to kick on way too often. If you're anything like us, you can't wait for the day you can get your hands dirty in the garden.

We know the feeling and we also know how hard it can be to be patient. For many gardeners, the time to plant seeds into the garden is still a ways away, while some warm-climate residents are already happily crawling around on their hands and knees as they sow the seeds for this year's garden. (We're jealous!) We thought we would pass along the optimal soil temperatures for sowing vegetable seeds outdoors.

However, there are some vegetable seeds that are best sown indoors and are rarely started right in the garden. For various reasons these seeds will germinate best and produce premium crops when sown indoors and then hardened-off and transplanted outdoors:

  • Broccoli: is best germinated indoors at temps of about 85°F, 6 weeks before you plan to transplant

  • Celery: is best germinated indoors at 75-85°F. These tiny seeds are very hard to sow without overplanting and will have to be carefully thinned to the strongest plants.  A handheld seeder is really handy for these dust-speck-sized seeds.

  • Kohlrabi: is best sown indoors for a spring crop, but can be sown outdoors for a fall crop with soil temps of at least 70°F.

  • Peppers (hot & sweet): are best started indoors at 80°F about 8 weeks before transplant

  • Tomatoes: are best started indoors at soil temps of 70 to 90°F, and then transplanted outdoors when soil temperatures are consistently above 50°F.

Chard is an exception to almost every rule: its seeds enjoy and germinate best in cooler temperatures. As soon as you can work the soil, sow your chard seeds.

The following seeds can be sown directly into the garden when soil temperatures reach a minimum of 40°F:

  • Beets

  • CabbageSowing vegetable seeds with a garden seeder

  • Endive

  • Herbs

  • Parsley

  • Potatoes

  • Turnips

  • Radish

  • Spinach

You can sow the following seeds when soil temperatures reach a minimum of 45°F:

  • Leek

  • Mustard

  • Peas

These vegetable seeds prefer slightly warmer soil and can be sown when soil temperatures are a minimum of 50°F:

  • Carrots

  • Cauliflower

  • Lettuce

  • Onionssmall hand seeder sowing vegetable seeds

  • Corn

These veggie seeds will germinate best when soil temperatures are at least 60°F:

  • Beans

  • Cantaloupe

  • Cucumber

  • Gourd

  • Kale

  • Pumpkins

  • Squash

It may seem late in the season, but these seeds prefer it warm and should be sown with soil temperatures at a minimum of 65°F:

  • Chicory

  • Okra

  • Popcorn

And last, but definitely not least, these seeds really like it warm! Sow them when soil temperatures reach a minimum of 70°F:

  • EggplantThermometer for testing soil temperature

  • Watermelon

  • Kohlrabi (fall crop)

Keep in mind your soil will not necessarily be the same temperature as is shown on your outdoor thermometer. Soil holds and releases heat at varying levels depending upon a number of factors. Your soil may not even be the same temperature as your neighbor'sespecially if you use compost and your neighbor doesn't. You may use mulch, or over time you may have built your soil to a healthy, fertile level. It IS true that dark soil will hold both heat and water more efficiently; dark soil = healthy soil (in most cases). We recommend you purchase an inexpensive soil thermometer to ensure better germination results on direct-sown vegetable seeds.

How Should I Start Lemongrass

Friday, April 5th, 2013

Lemon Grass Plant Growig In A ContainerI would like several potted lemon grass plants for my patio. Should I start indoors now? How long will they take to grow 5-6 feet tall? Should I buy the stalks and start myself or just get the plants at a greenhouse? Thanks, Julie M.

Answer: You can start the lemongrass indoors from cuttings.  If you search our blog you will find several articles talking about this.  We do sell healthy starter plants, and these will be ready to go outside as soon as you’ve passed your last frost date. You are in Zone 5a, which means that date should be somewhere mid- to late May. If the plants are growing in pots they are not likely to reach their full size of six feet but should grow tall and full by the end of your growing season. Plants can be brought inside and overwintered as well, if you have a sunny, draft-free location.

Happy gardening!