Out of the frying pan, into the freezer

Ipomopsis rubra, Salvia penstemonoides, S. darcyi, S. guaranitica 'Black & Blue'

It just isn’t fair!  Yesterday, a sweltering 91 degrees here in Red Wing.  Yet a freeze warning has been issued for tomorrow night, with a predicted low of 29 degrees!  The strong north winds tomorrow will probably carry with them many of the hummers hanging out in my yard lately, and the freeze predicted for tomorrow night may prematurely lay waste to the flowers in my garden.

Today, however, a one-day respite between the heat and the frost, I enjoyed a gorgeous 68 degree afternoon in the garden.  Hummingbirds have carved up the garden into many small feeding territories, and there were numerous battles over the blooming salvias and cardinal climber.   I made a conscious effort to enjoy the company of the hummers and the beauty of the flowers, because they may be mostly gone in a couple of days.

Update:  Fortunately for me, although the official low in Red Wing was below freezing, my yard managed to escape a killing frost.  A few of the most frost-tender plants got nipped a bit, but otherwise no damage–whew!

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Labor Day Garden Shots

Salvia border with S. guaranitica, S. g. 'Black & Blue', Yvonne's Salvia splendens, S. 'Wendy's Wish', S. coccinea 'Coral Nymph'

It is that time of year in the garden that I envision for many months, beginning on frigid, dark winter evenings when I winter sow my first seeds of the year, when the garden outside is asleep under a blanket of snow.  In the following months, seeds are sown, cuttings and seedlings are nursed along in the basement under lights, and all are eventually planted out in the garden over the course of a couple of weeks in May.  When the plants I’ve raised are initially planted out in my garden beds, I always have a hard time imagining all that space between the tiny plants eventually filling in; my temptation is always to plant them a bit closer together than I know I should.  After years of doing this, I’ve come to learn to trust that they always fill in, grow together into a tall hedge, and bloom.

Salvia border with Cardinal Climber (Ipomoea x multifida) behind

The peak of bloom of my large annual beds of Salvias coincides with the late summer hummingbird feeding frenzy.  The young are out of the nest, the adults have turned their attention to migration, and all are feeding as much as possible to consume the energy they will need to make the journey back south to Mexico and Central America, where they will spend the winter.  Use of my feeders peaks during the last half of August and first week of September, during which time I mix up about a gallon of nectar a day for the hungry hummers to consume.  It is an absolute joy to be out in the garden at this time, hummers darting about among the masses of flowers, chasing others away from their nectar-filled flowers, born on the same plants I started from a tiny seed or cutting many months ago.

Another view of the Salvia border

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Henderson Hummingbird Hurrah

This weekend (August 20-21) I’m banding hummingbirds at the 3rd annual Henderson Hummingbird Hurrah and also giving my hummingbird gardening presentation.  There are more birds this year than either of the first two years–come on by to watch me band, tour the gardens, and listen to some great presentations!

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article in Northern Gardener

An article about my hummingbird garden has been published in the latest issue (July/August 2011) of Northern Gardener magazine, the publication of the Minnesota State Horticultural Society.  The article includes pictures of many of the plants in my garden.  For those of you who without access to the issue who would like to view a low-resolution version of the article, here is a link.

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More on Deer in the Garden . . .

Stachys coccinea

In my last post, I lamented the deer making a meal out of my Monarda.  Generally, however, it is fortunate circumstance that many of the best hummingbird plants are relatively deer resistant.  Many of the best hummingbird plants, including Monarda didyma, Stachys coccinea (pictured above) and plants in the genus Salvia and Agastache are in the mint family and have fragrant foliage which deer generally avoid.

Plants in the genus Penstemon are also deer resistant, which is a good thing because the genus contains many great hummingbird plants.  I’ve never had any problem with deer munching on penstemon in my garden, with one notable exception.  My sand bed (subject of a future post) contains a variety of hardy species Penstemon, and is the first portion of my garden to provide substantial early color and nectar for hummingbirds, usually throughout the month of June.  Once the snow melts the rosettes of leaves resume growth quickly and I eagerly await the appearance of the soon-to-follow flowering spikes.  One night a couple of years ago in May when the flowering spikes were just beginning to shoot skyward, a deer visited my garden and nipped off every single flowering spike in my sand bed, greatly reducing that year’s penstemon show.  Other than that single disastrous night, I’ve never had a deer so much as nibble on one leaf of any penstemon in my garden.

Oddly enough, most of my deer problems involve hummingbird plants that are native to the Upper Midwest.  The deer love my native columbine (Aquilegia canadensis) as well as royal catchfly (Silene regia) as well as S. virginica.  These I have to spray with deer repellant in order to have any hope of seeing them bloom.

One plant I’ve never had luck with is a native annual, orange jewelweed (Impatiens capensis).  I once prepared a whole bed to devote to a large patch of jewelweed, and obtained seed to direct sow into the bed in the fall.  The next spring I had an abundance of seedlings, but I soon discovered that deer love it, and I could never keep ahead of the marauding deer.  By the time late summer rolled around, not a single plant remained to put out blooms.  I still have a few seeds leftover in that bed germinate every year, but they always get eaten by deer long before they bloom.  I still enjoy seeing jewelweed in bloom in the wild in the nearby Cannon River bottoms.  If you find a patch of this plant blooming in the wild, it is almost guaranteed that you will see hummers battling over the blooms.  Blooming seems perfectly timed with the peak of southbound hummingbird migration.

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Deer Damage


One of the garden highlights I most look forward to is the mid-summer bloom of bee balm in my border.  When it is in full bloom, it attracts more hummer attention than even the most favored salvias.  I often have three hummers at once working of the blooms within feet of one another in the most favored patch.

In mid-May I was surprised to find evidence that deer had munched on my bee balm (Monarda didyma ‘Jacob Cline’).  Most of my hummingbird garden is made up of plants in the mint family, including Monarda.  The strong fragrance of the foliage in many plants in the mint family make them unpalatable to many garden marauders, including deer and rabbits.   Many mints, including Monarda, are often considered deer-proof.

I didn’t worry too much about the early-season nibbling on the bee balm.  Deer had never before snacked on my Monarda, and I figured they probably were sampling it at a time of year here when there is not yet much up for them to eat.  It was also uncanny how the deer munched the tops off of only the stems in the front and sides of the patch–I had planned on cutting back exactly that portion of the patch by late May in order to keep the stems in front shorter for a layered effect and to try to prolong bloom.  This is a technique described in detail by Tracy DiSabato-Aust in her book “The Well-Tended Perennial Garden.”

The picture at the top of this post is from last summer, taken in early July when the taller stems in the back of the patch were just beginning to bloom.

This morning, six weeks after the initial Monarda snacking, I was surprised to find a doe and her spotted fawn standing in the patch, carrying out additional pruning!  Most stems were munched, many of them had been just about ready to bloom:

Now I will have to wait to see if this additional late trim will further delay blooming, or perhaps even prevent blooming altogether.  Anybody else out there have deer who love mints or other “deer-proof” plants?

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Recommended Hummingbird Plants for Upper Midwest

When I give talks about hummingbird gardening, I provide audience members with an annotated list of recommended hummingbird plants for Minnesota.  One of the points I always make when I introduce the list to my audience is that many lists of hummingbird plants available in books, on the internet, and at garden centers include many plants that really aren’t very good hummer plants (e.g. petunias, daylillies).  Another frequently encountered problem with these lists is the inclusion of whole genera (e.g. Penstemon, Aquilegia) when only certain species within the genera are good hummer plants.

Plants on my list should work well for any gardener in the Upper Midwest or Northeast.  Over the past few years I’ve honed the list and will continue to revise it as needed.  I’ve reproduced the list below:

Recommended Hummingbird Plants for Minnesota

by Donald Mitchell 

(plants w/ * are easiest to find and grow here; most do best in full sun unless otherwise noted)

  • Perennials— In order of bloom:
    • Native Columbine* (Aquilegia canadensis) Eastern US and MN native, hardy throughout state. Earliest blooming native hummer plant. Tolerates shade. Avoid hybrids—they have bee- or moth-pollinated parents, less nectar.
    • Coral Bells (Heuchera sanguinea) native of southwest, but hardy here. Early bloomer. Avoid fancy-foliaged Heuchera cultivars—less nectar.
    • Scarlet Bugler (Penstemon barbatus)  Native of the western U.S. does well here in well-drained soils. Blooms early-mid season. Many but not all penstemons are good hummingbird plants, choose western species w/ red flowers.
    • Bee Balm* (Monarda didyma) Mid-season bloomer, native to eastern US but not MN. Select red-blooming mildew-resistant variety, e.g. ‘Jacob Cline.’  Native M. fistulosa is not hummingbird-pollinated, less attractive.
    • Royal Catchfly (Silene regia) Another mid-season bloomer, native to eastern U.S., but not MN. Needs well-drained soils.
    • Cardinal Flower* (Lobelia cardinalis)  Native to eastern U.S., including Minnesota. Great mid-late season bloomer, likes moister soils. Shade tolerant.
  • Annuals—most of these are actually perennials where they are native but they grow quickly enough to work well as garden annuals for us. Many will bloom throughout the summer if started early from seed or cuttings.
    • Salvia—Avoid perennial salvias and those not native to the Americas. Some salvias (e.g. Pineapple Sage, S. elegans) are great hummer plants, but bloom in Fall, too late for us. Salvia foliage is fragrant, making up for hummingbird flower’s lack of scent.  Most will reseed in the garden.
      • Texas or Scarlet sage* (S. coccinea) Easy from seed, blooms all summer. Many cultivars/colors available, including popular ‘Lady in Red.’
      • Scarlet sage* (S. splendens) Easy from seed. Provides impressive red statement to advertise to hummers. Avoid short cultivars. Good taller cultivar (2-3 ft) is ‘Lighthouse.’  ‘Yvonne’s’ is a very tall (to 6 ft) cultivar; see resources below for seed source.
      • Anise sage (Salvia guaranitica), including the popular cultivar ‘Black and Blue.’  One of the few great hummer plants w/o red flowers.
      • Autumn sage (S. greggii) small shrub with wide variety of available flower colors, contrary to common name it blooms all summer
      • Many other new-world Salvias are great hummer plants, but difficult to find in local nurseries—try mail-order for plants and/or seeds: Salvia praeclara, S. subrotunda, S. miniata, S. blepharophylla, S. microphylla, S. darcyi, S. involucrata, many others.
    • Flowering Tobacco (Nicotiana)  Avoid the commonly-available scented species and hybrids (e.g. N. sylvestris, alata, x sanderae), these are moth-pollinated, don’t have as much nectar, and are not as attractive to hummers.
      • Nicotiana lansgsdorfii  Long-blooming species with unusual greenish-yellow flowers. 2-3 feet tall.
      • Nicotiana mutabilis  Taller than N. langsdorfii, but doesn’t get blooming until later in the summer. Flowers start out white and age to dark pink.  A great hummer plant.
    • Standing Cypress (Ipomopsis rubra)  Tall spikes with finely dissected foliage. Sometimes noted as biennial, but acts as an annual for me. Will reseed itself in the garden, but will bloom earlier if started from seed indoors.
    • Canna* (Canna indica) Try species-type cannas with small red flowers, rather than the frilly-flowered hybrids. Rhizomes multiply rapidly underground and are easily lifted and stored over winter.
  • Vines—many good options here, both woody perennial vines and annuals
    • Woody Perennial
      • Trumpet or Coral Honeysuckle* (Lonicera sempervirens & Lonicera x brownii ‘Dropmore scarlet’)  Eastern U.S. native, but not MN. Peak bloom early summer, but will bloom sporadically into fall. Many cultivars available. Hybrid ‘Dropmore Scarlet’ is hardier, into zone 3.
      • Trumpet Creeper* (Campsis radicans)  Hardy in S MN. Native to eastern U.S. but not MN. Blooms mid-late summer with large red flowers. Yellow-flowered cultivar and hybrids available, but may not be as attractive to hummers.
    • Annuals—many good ones to try, need full sun
      • Scarlet Runner Bean* (Phaseolus coccineus)
      • Small Red Morning Glory (Ipomoea coccinea)
      • Cypress Vine (Ipomoea quamaclit)
      • Cardinal Creeper* (Ipomoea x multifida)
      • Spanish Flag* (Mina lobata)
      • Chilean Glory Vine (Eccremocarpus scaber)
  • Trees/Shrubs—There are no good hummingbird-pollinated trees or shrubs reliably hardy in zone 4.  Red horsechestnut (Aesculus pavia) marginally hardy in MN.  Often-recommended Weigela (native to Asia) produces little nectar. Asian honeysuckles are somewhat attractive to hummers, but many are invasive. Flowering crabapple and lilac used somewhat by hummers during spring migration. If you have trees that attract sapsuckers, hummers (and other birds) feed from the active sap wells.
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