Q. I would like to attract hummingbirds to my garden. I was thinking of buying that hummingbird mixture available at stores. Is this safe, or should I plant flowers to attract them? If so, what flowers are hummingbird favorites?
A. The ruby-throated hummingbird is common in our Midwestern gardens. Hummingbirds require nectar to fuel their constantly moving bodies. They gracefully hover over flowers using their tongues to enjoy the sweet nectar deep in the flowers.
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Hummingbird flowers are typically tubular and red. Hummingbirds supplement their diets with insects, including aphids and thrips. They may also point downward, making it easy for a hovering hummingbird to gain access. Flowers that cater to these small, exquisite birds include:
• Beard tongue (Penstemon).
• Bee balm (Monarda didyma).
• Cardinal flower (Lobelia cardinalis): Cardinal flower is an intense red, and some varieties have red leaves. Unfortunately, cultivated varieties are bred for looks and not the quality of nectar, so it is best to have the common species predominate.
• Columbine (Aquilegia canadensis).
• Cypress vine (Ipomoea quamoclit).
• Jewelweed (Impatiens capensis): A native annual, jewelweed has orange or yellow summer flowers. It normally grows in shady moist areas and will reseed itself each year.
• Morning glory.
• Scarlet runner bean.
• Trumpet creeper (Campsis radicans).
If you wish to supplement the flower nectar, you can set up hummingbird feeders. Buy feeders with a lot of bright red plastic or glass on them. Place them near perch areas and in the shade to keep the sugar solution from spoiling.
However, instead of buying the commercial hummingbird food, you should create your own. Researchers have found that hummingbirds on a diet that included red-dyed nectar tended to produce eggs with shells that would not break open and offspring that were deformed.
To create your own sugar mix, add four parts boiling water to one part of white sugar. Heat until sugar is dissolved. It is important that the proportions of water and sugar are accurate. A higher sugar concentration can cause kidney or liver damage, while a weak mixture does not provide enough sugar for their high metabolism rate. Again, do not add any red dye.
Be sure to include flowers that bloom at different times from spring through fall. When the ruby-throated hummingbird migrates to Mexico each fall, it crosses the Gulf of Mexico on a nonstop flight lasting 18 to 20 hours.
Q. I have a small patch of grass in my backyard that I would like to turn into a small prairie. I have seen ads for meadows in a can that contain wildflower seeds that you simply sprinkle where you want, water and then wait until the flowers grow. Do these products really work, or is it a waste of money?
A. These mixes go by a variety of names such as meadow in a can or wildflower mix. Gardeners usually think they are getting a seed mix that will result in a prairie-like field of flowers, with the associated environmental benefits of soil improvement, stabilization and habitat for wildlife.
Generally, these mixes contain nonnative annuals, which will look good in the first year but will die off quickly and be replaced by weeds. If the mix includes species such as Ox-eye daisy (Chrysanthemum leucanthemum), Baby's Breath (Gypsophila paniculata) or Dame's rocket (Hesperis matronalis), this is a clear indicator that the mix contains invasive plants and should absolutely be avoided. When such invasive seeds are dispersed by birds or wind into natural areas, they are so successful that they crowd out the native species.
Therefore, it's a buyer-beware item. If you are new to prairies but want to grow prairie plantings, you can create your own mix using species native to our area. You can purchase seed or plugs from a reputable source, or find a prairie expert to help you. For more information on plants native to Illinois, see the University of Illinois Extension Wildflowers Web site at urbanext.illinois.edu/wildflowers/intro.cfm
Q. I have several tall sedum plants that have been established for about 10 years. They seem to grow healthy each year until late summer/early fall. When they begin to bloom, the center of the plant falls. It looks like something was nesting in the middle of the plant, but that is not the case.
A. After several years, the center of sedum plants will show signs of dying out. At this point, you must divide the plant in order to keep it vigorous. You can divide sedums in spring or after they have bloomed in fall. Sedums do not like wet feet. In fact, too much water, as well as fertilizer, can cause flopping.
If you are growing Autumn Joy sedum, note that it tends to get tall and floppy, even when new in the garden. To prevent this, try pinching or pruning the plant. When it gets to be about 8 inches tall, usually around June, cut it back about 4 inches. It will still bloom, but be less likely to split open in the fall.
• Provided by Mary Boldan. Master Gardener Answer Desk, Friendship Park Conservatory, Des Plaines, open 9 a.m. to noon on Monday, Wednesday, Friday and Saturday. Call (847) 298-3502 or email Cookcountymg.firstname.lastname@example.org.