These birds are Humming!

Some birds aren’t meant to be caged. Their feathers are just too bright.” Shawshank Redemption


It may seem early, but according to the Hummingbird Migration Sighting Map, hummingbirds are slowly making their way up the cost from Central America and will be here in a matter of days.

Did you know that most Ruby Throated Hummingbirds return to the same place, and even the same feeder, each year? Some will just be passing through but will stop by your garden for a quick snack before moving on.

During migration, a hummingbird flies alone, often on the same path each year. They fly low, just above the tree line or water. Flying low allows them to see and stop at food supplies. As they travel up to 23 miles a day, they need to make frequent stops to fuel up.

You garden may already have some natural resources for these hummingbirds. They are drawn to Tulip Poplars, Rhododendron and azaleas, Clethra, Columbine, Bergamot, Phlox, and Passionflower. They sip the nectar from flowers and tree sap, and even ingest insects that are caught in the sap.

As many hummingbirds come home to roost, so to speak, you want to attract as many as you can to make their summer homes with you. Contrary to popular belief, hummingbirds do not eat only nectar. Insects and other invertebrates are the primary source of protein hummingbirds. An adult female can consume up to 2,000 insects a day. This includes mosquitoes, gnats, fruit files, spiders, aphids, and insect eggs. That beats Mosquito Squad any day!

Another advantage: do you hate to weed? Hummingbirds love to forage for food in naturalized areas, so you can define a section of your yard that you just leave alone and let the grasses and weeds take over, then tell your neighbors it is your Hummingbird garden! Better yet, throw in some wildflower seeds and make it a sort of English cutting garden, and you and the hummingbirds are good to go.

Nectar is still an essential part of the hummingbird’s diet. Plus, over 150 species of plants are pollinated by hummingbirds rather than bees. Flower color and structure are less attractive to bees and other pollen feeding insects in these plants, such as any red flower that bees do not see as well or those that do not have perching platforms like bell-shaped calendula.

Providing a feeder is also a great way to attract hummingbirds to your garden. Be sure to get one that is easy to disassemble and clean. They should be cleaned every week with soap and water, and the nectar changed every 3-4 days.


Red feeders will be more effective and less attractive to insects. Try not to have any  yellow on the feeder as this attracts wasps and hornets.

You should place your feeder in a shady area that is open enough to allow the hummingbirds to fly around the feeder. Shade also prevents the nectar from spoiling on hotter days. Multiple feeders should be spaced 10-15 feet apart. If you see more than four birds at a feeder, or a male chasing another male off, you should add another feeder.

Locating your feeder near trees gives the birds a place to rest between feedings.

Nectar solution is easy to make. Mix 4 parts water to one-part sugar. Boil the mixture for 2 minutes to slow fermentation. Do not microwave – it changes the composition. Refrigerate until needed. Sugar water is perfect with a red feeder. Do not add honey, artificial sweeteners or red dye as they post health issues to the hummingbirds.

There is nothing more charming than looking out your window and seeing a hummingbird at your feeder. They have such a C’est la vie sort of feeling to them. And who doesn’t love a little more C’est la vie in their lives.



Planting Annuals is all a Matter of Timing

pink-geranium-2729139_1920.jpgGarden Week in Virginia is later than usual this year, but when you think of planting annuals, Garden Week every year is a good time to do it. That is, between touring all of the beautiful homes and gardens that are open to visitors this week only. In case you haven’t noted it on your calendar yet, Garden Week is April 27th through May 4th. You can still plan your tours by visiting this web site!

Garden centers across Central Virginia are loading up on flats of begonias, petunias, geraniums and other summer bloomers, but you might be well advised to wait just another week or two before putting them in the ground. No, it isn’t going to snow, but there is still a danger of frost which can nip your petunias in the bud before you get to enjoy a single bloom. Central Virginia’s “frost free” date is between April 20th and May 15th, depending on where you live. The closer you are to the mountains, the later your date.

To be safe, store your potted annuals overnight in a protected place like a garage or hot house just in case Jack Frost makes one last, unanticipated visit. You can take them out into the sunshine during the day so they’ll continue to thrive.

So which annuals are most susceptible to cold snaps?

Impatiens (though they are still under a blight here in Central Virginia and may be harder to find)
Warm-weather vegetables
Herbs, especially basil and mint

Not all is lost, though. These annuals are heartier when it comes to cold, so if you feel you need to get some plants in sooner rather than later, you’ll be luckier with these.

Osteospermum (African Daisy)
Pansy (though they will definitely fade off in the heat)
Swiss Chard
Dusty Miller
Sweet Alyssum

Remember to try and put some compost around your annuals. They are grown in soil that has chemical fertilizer at the nursery, so they will need some more food over the summer. Natural compost, a compost tea, or a bought compost like Mushroom compost will help them thrive and bloom. Happy planting, and happy touring during Garden Week!


The Quintessential Southern Plant

Before we begin, let’s clear up one issue. Is it spelled Crape Myrtle or Crepe Myrtle? The scientific name for the plant is lagerstroemia crape myrtle, the traditional Southern spelling is Crepe Myrtle (because the flowers resemble crepe paper). As central Virginia is still Southern (in spite of what some in the deep South may think), I’ll use Crepe Myrtle here.


Crepe Myrtles are a wonderful staple in  the central Virginia garden. They are drought and heat resistant, and their beautiful summer flowers make them ideal choices, even in the driest, or as we’ve seen this past year the wettest, of seasons. In recent years, breeders have developed even hardier forms so that gardeners above the Mason Dixon line can grow them as well, and an increase in color choices and disease resistant forms has made them a staple for both commercial and residential use.

I have a perpetual smile on my face as I drive down Monument Avenue in Richmond in the summer and see the Crepe Myrtles because they are usually blooming when nothing else is showing color. And, when the petals fall it is like a refreshing summer snow.

Note that they come in only in colors ranging from red to lilac, so there are no blues, yellows or oranges, yet. Don’t be fooled by a tag that has an orange look to the blossom – that may be a butterfly bush instead!

It is also interesting to note that Crepe Myrtles are not natives plants, thought they seem to grow everywhere you look. They were originally brought to America in 1790 by a French botanist named Andre Michaux. He grew them in his garden outside of Charleston, SC where they thrived and became a symbol of summer in the South.

Botanists refer to the Crape Myrtles in the U.S. as Lagerstroemia Indica, which grows naturally in China, Korea, Japan and India. That there are over 50 other varieties growing in warm regions around the world is amazing. The differences must be hard to see with the naked eye! In case you are wondering, non-Botanists or nurseries may refer to them simply as the Common Crape Myrtle.

Most Crape Myrtles seem to want to grow to an average height of between 15 and 20 feet. Natchez, a magnificent tree when fully grown, will reach a height of 30 feet. Catawba will max out at between 8 and 10 feet. It’s best to know your space and how much height you want before selecting a Crepe Myrtle. No need to stress the tree or yourself with a surprise.

Which brings me to what is now commonly known as Crepe Murder. Call it excessive pruning, amputation, disfiguring, murder – it all results in the same thing. Ugly, knuckled branches that mar the tree’s shape.

Crepe Myrtles need  to be pruned – correctly. It shouldn’t be noticeable. The purpose is to enhance the natural habit of the tree so it is elegant, easy to maintain, and prevents stressing out the tree.

According to Southern Living Magazine, decapitating Crepe Myrtles is simply a copycat crime. People do it because their neighbors did it, or because a commercial landscaper did it (likely because he’ll get more money the “busier” he is – and don’t get me started here on mulch volcanoes and that rip-off).

The truth of the matter is, if your tree is too tall, then you picked the wrong tree. Pruning a Crepe Myrtle to reduce its height is a battle you’ll never win, and it stresses the tree so that it is less disease resistant and is putting so much energy into trying to survive that you may not get the blooms you’d like. Pruning a tree for more blooms simply puts those blooms closer to the ground, it doesn’t mean there are more of them, likely less.

The great thing about Crepe Mytles is that they transplant easily and you can replace it with a shorter variety. Shrub versions, like Hope, Centennial or Prairie Lace grow to only 3-4 feet tall.

So how should you prune your tree?

Cut off the suckers at the base at the surface of the soil.
Cut off any cross branches that might rub against another. A vertical tree is prettier than a floppy tree.
Remove any limbs flush to the trunk. A stub will result in new shoots where you left the stub.

If you have, sorry, butchered your Crepe Myrtle and would like to try and save it, here is a link to a video from Southern Living that may help. It won’t happen in a season, but you can restore your tree to its natural beauty with some special pruning and then low maintenance attention. And we all love low maintenance, don’t we?

Every central Virginia garden should have at least one Crepe Myrtle in it (the shorter versions do well in pots, in case your landscape is full). I’ve heard often from friends who visit here in the summer that they are delighted to see so many trees in bloom. I don’t take that for granted. I get the same delight.

Mulching Thoughts

I have to bag my leaves now?

It’s not too early to start planning how you’ll handle this change for the coming Fall.


The City of Richmond has just recently decided it can no longer send trucks out to vacuum up the leaves that cover residents’ lawns in the Fall. To some, particularly those on the Southside of the city, this is a tremendous inconvenience. Perhaps it should be seen as a tremendous opportunity instead.

Leaf mulch is one of the best “free” mulches you can use in your garden and it helps to create a healthier yard.

From an environmental and labor intensity perspective, the hours you spend raking or blowing, then bagging the leaves only to send them to a landfill makes quite the carbon footprint, and leaves your back sore. You’ve likely been told that, in addition to looking tidier, the fallen leaves would kill your grass. This fairy tale has probably sold more rakes, leaf blowers, and bags than anything else. Removing the leaves removes important nutrients. Homeowners then have to go out and purchase, in an alternative format, chemical fertilizers to replenish their lawns. It’s a vicious cycle.

It’s true, if your lawn is smothered in leaves, the grass will suffer. I don’t advocate leaving them as they’ve fallen. Instead, consider these alternatives:

Mow them into the lawn. Most lawn mowers now are mulching mowers and can chop the leaves up into tiny pieces that will quickly decompose and add nutrients back into your lawn. I’ve found that I may sometimes have to make two quick passes with my mower for the leaves to disappear into the grass, but those 10 minutes are much easier and environmentally friendly than using a gas powered blower for 20-30 minutes to get them into a pile to bag up.

If you don’t want to mow them into the lawn, use your mower bag to gather up the shredded leaves with the grass, then put them into a compost pile. Come spring time, you’ll have a great source of natural plant food for your vegetables or spring flowers.


If you have to bag up your leaves, WORX has a great leaf shredder that can go over a stand supported bag (preferably a bio-degradable bag) that will enable you to have to purchase far fewer bags. I’ve found it reduces my leaves to one-third of their original volume. If you prefer, you can just put your leaves into a trash can (metal may be preferable) and use a weed-eater to shred them.


Another alternative is a leaf vacuum that does just what it says: it sucks up leaves, mulches them and blows them into a bag that hangs off your shoulder. This is great for getting leaves out of tight spaces. Most are electric, so have long extension cords on hand. Be warned, they don’t work well on Magnolia leaves, but then nothing but a good rake really does.

One final option that works out well is to blow or rake your leaves into your border and then cover them with mulch. This way, you maintain your tidy look while keeping the nutrients in your beds.

Fallen leaves, in additional to providing a physical layer of organic materials above ground, provide food, shelter, and nesting or bedding materials to a variety of wildlife. It also acts as overwintering protection for a number of beneficial insects which aid in pollination, reducing compacted soil, and act as food sources to birds and other animals.

And we haven’t even commented on microbes yet.  All plant life depends on microbes, which are really the most important “crop” you can grow. The chemicals you put on your lawns and plant kill these microbes, which makes your plants more dependent on the chemicals – a continuation of the vicious cycle you can easily stop just by using your leaves instead.

On a final note, if you are a serious gardener  looking for free sources of organic matter to use as compost, mulch and soil-building materials, try letting your neighbors know they can drop-off their leaves at your house. Then go to town on your beds!

So, the question remains. Why spend money on mulch and fertilizer when you can make your own? Look at the city’s decision to forego leaf pick-up as an opportunity to create a healthier yard, happier plants, and a microbe heaven. Come Spring, your yard will thank you in bigger blooms, greener grass, and healthier shrubs and trees.


Images: pixabay and flikr CCO!