Katherines Tales of Digging in the Dirt!
A Hummer Kind of Summer
One of the surprising things about gardening is that you never know how the season is going to play out. Some summers bring tons of tomatoes, some years are all about beans, and other seasons make you feel like the Pope of Potatoes. My new, tiny garden has been packed with pleasant surprises all out of proportion to its size, but perhaps the most amazing way that it has thrilled me is that it is full of something that I won’t even eat: hummingbirds.
Although hummingbirds are very common in our area, I cannot imagine not being astonished at every sighting. Around here we have the Ruby-throated type, tiny creatures that weigh about 0.11 ounce and look like wind-up Tiffany brooches. Unlike most birds with their horizontal flight positions, hummers fly upright, with their bodies on a 45 degree angle, and look like people riding Segways.
These diminutive flying creatures arrived in my garden one morning when the gourd vines started blooming. They scooted around efficiently, checking me out (big worm-like creature, no feathers, no wings, sipping coffee, harmless) while darting in and out of the garden. They liked drinking from the large, flat, white flowers on the birdhouse gourd vine and probably felt protected under its big green leaves.
As the summer has progressed, the tiny birds zooming around the vines have charmed me to the extent that I have allowed the gourds (which I also cannot eat) to grow over all my other plants. I might not get many tomatoes or beans this year but the gentle whirring and clicking of the acrobatic hummers have made this garden a huge success.
My go-to reference for anything avian is Lew Kingsley, the Birdman of Putnam County, loyal friend, and supreme story teller. Lew says that adding hummingbird feeders to your garden is fine, as long as you keep the feeders very clean and make your own nectar. (See recipe for Lew’s Hummingbird Cocktail below.) Hummers like to drink from tubular or trumpet shaped flowers and a few favorites are morning glories, jewel weed, bergamot, and hostas.
Lew says that, besides nectar, hummers also like to eat insects. He has watched a hummer carefully pluck and eat woolly adelgids, the gross, fuzzy, white suckers that are killing off hemlock trees, and has seen brave little hummers go after spiders. The later makes a dicey meal as spiders have been known to prey on hummers. “Eat or be eaten” is the rule of the wild and hummingbirds have also been known to fight and harpoon each other. The solution to this cannibalism is simple: if your feeder attracts so many hummers that they begin to scrap, simply hang another feeder in a different spot so that there is plenty for all.
Lew’s best hummingbird story involves their tiny nests. These are usually around 1 ¾ inches across and lined with spider silk. The hummers gather lichen and place this outside the nest for camouflage. Despite these efforts, Lew tells that he has seen hummer nests three times. His most memorable spotting was “in 1959, while I was working on Old West Point Road. I was climbing an old apple tree and came eye to eye with a tiny lichen-covered nest with two babies inside. I’ll never forget that.”
Lew’s Hummingbird Cocktail
Lew Kingsley says that the red dye in store-bought hummer food can be harmful to the little creatures. He has made his own hummer cocktail for decades and stresses that the cleanliness of the dispenser and low-sodium water are essential for hummer health.
Here’s What You Need:
One or more inexpensive hummingbird feeders.
· Small saucepan
· Low sodium water: 4 cups
· Sugar: one cup
First Do This:
1. Take feeder apart and place in hot soapy water. Scrub clean, rinse thoroughly. Make sure sipping holes are flushed and rinsed absolutely clean. Place parts on clean towel to drain.
2. Pour 4 cups of water into small saucepan and bring to boil. Keep on the boil for 5-8 minutes.
Next Do This:
1. When water has boiled, remove from heat and add one cup of sugar.
2. Whisk sugar and water until the liquid is totally clear.
3. Cool liquid.
4. Reassemble clean feeder. Fill with clear sugar water and hang outside where hummers are safe to feed. (Safe= hiding places close by and cats far away.)
5. Store remaining liquid in clean bottle in fridge. Feel free to add this syrup to your own beverage and share a sweet cocktail moment in the garden with your hummers.