A Hummingbird Slot Garden - A Step by Step Approach
8/7/2023 1:19 pm
A Step by Step Approach to Create a
Slot Garden for Hummingbirds
Let's get real. It's too darn hot to garden. It's too darn hot to be outside. That's just August in the South and lately, in July too (we had 21 days above 90 in Atlanta in July 2023).
That's also why each year, I try my hand at creating what I call a "Hummingbird Slot Garden," an area for wildlife viewing focused on hummingbirds that can be viewed in air-conditioned comfort from a chair positioned at my front windows.
Step One - Identifying and Framing the View.
I sit down in a comfy chair by a sunny garden view window in my front facing living room. I note the perimeters of what I can see. I'll add a little space in all directions because chairs move and bodies lean. I then check the view from the other nearby window and the front door too, because the glass door is a great place to pause and watch a moment too.
Step Two - Choose Hummingbird Favorite Plants for Three Seasons
To maximize hummingbird pleasure, I choose multiple plants that hummingbirds love. I take into account the three seasons that hummingbirds may join us by picking bloomers for spring, summer and fall. I recommend a mix of annuals and perennials to ensure a continual supply of flowers for these tiny flying treasures.
What plants to pick? Choices abound and everyone has their favorites. Many plants are listed as attracting hummingbirds, but it is not a game of equals. So while I can say I've seen hummingbirds go to Abutilon, a magnet it is not -- at least in the presence of more tempting plants. Take that into account in expectations of actual performance.
I'll start with a confession. In my garden, the spring hummingbirds seem more ephemeral than later in the year. I don't know that there are any less of them, but as I am out working in the garden more, I spend less time watching than in the heat of summer. Undoubtedly, the noise of me working scares them away too. As a consequence, I don't spend too much effort planting for the spring hummingbirds.
Plants worth using in spring include the Penstemons and Scutellaria, available in native and nonnative forms. Spigelia marilandica is said to be a hummingbird attractor too, and I have on occasion seen some hummingbirds feast upon those.
Lonicera 'Major Wheeler' and kin are definitely early attractors if hummingbirds are in the neighborhood. The downside is they are a bit aggressive for a slot garden and are better relegated to a fence. Aesculus pavia (red buckeye) also has tempting blooms, but is not "front garden-worthy" in my mind, sowing rampantly through my wooded areas.
Aquilegias are also always on lists of spring plants for hummers, but I've not seen tons of action there despite an abundance of Aquilegia flabellata, 'Pink Lanterns' and some other cultivars too. Bell shaped Clematis, like C. rooguchi and C. viorna species are also good early attractors. Monarda fistulosa is an early bloomer that attracts them as are the early blooming Salvia 'Bumble' series available in several colors.
The weather may be inhospitable now for humans, but the hummingbirds are in abundance.
The single most popular plant in my garden? This is no contest: Cuphea 'Vermillionaire'. The numerous blooms can keep them on a single plant for a minute at a time. Cuphea micropetala (small leaf cigar plant, but a big plant) is a rather coarse looking plant that is similarly attractive to hummers, but is best for back of the border. Cuphea cyanea brings them in too, but rates second or third to 'Vermillionaire.' (Cuphea ‘Kristen’s Delight’ - a lavender, pink and white combo with frills that resides around the corner also is a magnet.)
Summer blooming perennials that please hummingbirds to no end include Salvias, Rudbeckia 'Henry Eilers', Ruellia elegans 'Ragin' Cajun' and Dicliptera suberecta (Uruguayan Firecracker Plant). Ruellia elegans, which has tubular flowers, has yet to show any invasive tendences like that demon and garden mistake Ruellia brittoniana. Dicliptera suberecta has both a neat habit and lovely grey-green foliage to go with the orangy red flowers.
Verbena bonariensis is composed of hundreds of small tubes that draw in hummers. What I like about it is how it self sows so pleasingly through the garden and brings the hummingbirds and butterflies up above the level of many other plants to give clear viewing.
Sinningias like 'Lovely' and 'Bananas Foster'-- if you can keep them in enough sun and dry soil -- produce perfect hummingbird attracting flower tubes in a variety of colors. That said, I do best with these when I buy them greenhouse grown. The perennialized forms come back, but often do not progress beyond the foliage stage for me.
A pleasing turn for me this year is Kniphofia. I confess to never loving the brashness of the species form and therefore avoiding it. This year, I purchased a Kniphofia 'Lady Luck' with lime green buds that open to white tubes. As soon as the first flower opened, the hummingbirds found it! So I'll now endorse Kniphofia, but personally will stick to a milder color palette.
Kniphofia 'Lucky Lady' by Acalypha 'Pride of BJ'
Some other perennials I've used or considered but have some hesitation about include Verbena 'Homestead Purple', Hibiscus coccineus, Crocosmia and Phlox paniculata.
Verbena 'Homestead Purple' brings hummingbirds near ground level, but the bunnies often eat the plant to the ground. As perennials go, this is one that has never thrived in my Atlanta gardens. I know that experiences may differ. This year after a shot of Deer Off, it has grown back and is blooming again and drawing flying visitors.
Hibiscus coccineus, our native hibiscus, has always drawn them in for me too. Who could resist that big red flower? I have often pondered moving mine to the slot garden, but never gotten around to it. Its open habit would be good for interplanting near the back of the bed.
Crocosmia bring hummers too, but I prefer Crocosmia potbound as they are known thugs. List after list mentions Monarda didyma, but talk about polarizing plants. They are thuggish, prone to mildewing, and undependable bloomers in less than ideal weather. There are better plants for your garden and hummingbirds, to my mind. This has not been a good year for mine and I am considering removing it from my slot garden entirely.
Phlox also gets mentioned often as a hummingbird favorite, yet it pales in attraction to other plants in my experience.
Annuals are also great for hummingbirds. Favorites this year are Shrimp plant (Justicia brandegeeana), Kangaroo paw (Antigozanthos); Stachytarpheta frantzii (Purple porterweed); Stachytarpheta mutabilis (Red porterweed); Cape Honeysuckle (Tecomaria capensis) available in shades of yellow, peach and orange; Salvia 'Wendy's Wish' and a similar purple form obtained from the Trial Gardens this spring. I'll also include Agapanthus on this list since my success in overwintering it does not allow me to call it a perennial yet!
Kangaroo paw (Antigozanthos)
I will pass on Dr. Armitage's fair caveat about the visuals of Red Porterweed (Stachytarpheta mutabilis) and Purple Porterweed (Stachytarpheta frantzii). While they are super attracting hummingbird plants, they are an oddity to human eyes. You won't get a raceme full of flowers as you might think are coming. Instead, you get small whirls of blooms that move up the stem as the lower ones die out. If you don't like odd looking plants, but want a guaranteed hummingbird attracting plant, I'd advise tucking this behind something else. That said, I wouldn't be without it when I am lucky enough to find them.
Red Porterweed (Stachytarpheta mutabilis)
Other successful annual hummingbird magnets to consider include various Fuschias, Iochroma, Duranta erecta 'Sapphire Showers', and Orthosiphon stamineus (Cat Whiskers).
Orthosiphon stamineus (Cat Whiskers) with Hummingbird visiting
Agastaches, when they don't fry or drown, are attractive to hummingbirds. Sadly, the most colorful red, orange and yellow flowered ones preferred by hummers don't seem to thrive here for more than a season, and some years not that much even. I've all but forsaken bothering with Agastaches in favor of Cupheas.
Anisicanthus quadrifidus likes it hot and dry, but really draws hummingbirds in during the fall so if you have a space for it -- they get pretty rangy - find one. The species form is red, but there is also a nice orange cultivar 'Pumpkin Pie'. This is a plant I struggled to establish through the years, finally finding a spot for it, but seeing the cold snap of last year take a toll on it this year. Once it starts, it usually blooms until frost.
Salvia elegans (I am partial to the 'Golden Delicious cultivar with its bright yellow/green leaves) will bloom until frost giving late staying hummingbirds plenty to feast upon. So will other Salvias, perennial and annual, like S. Leucantha (Mexican sage).
Salvia elegans 'Golden Delicious'
Strobilanthes hamiltoniana (Chinese Rain Bells) is a late bloomer that some years doesn't bloom until after the hummers have flown south. When it does bloom early, however, its purple blooms are a sure fire attraction. Added bonus, this plant blooms past a light frost or two
Lobelia cardinalis -- if you can grow it past a single season -- is also a hummingbird temptress that goes into early fall. It's just too frustrating for many gardeners, however. (It taunts me by growing wild in the woods by my lake!)
Verbena bonariensis will continue its show until frost too. If you are a tidy gardener, I can understand not having this plant. It self sows willy nilly (but pulls out with ease) and gives height where you might not want it, but still, it is a three season champ for wildlife from bees to butterflies to hummers.
Undoubtedly I've left off some folks' favorites for enticing hummingbirds through the three seasons they may be with us. The above listed plants reflect my experiences and preferences in my microclimate. When you plan your slot garden, I encourage you to include others and see how they perform.
My sources for the harder to find plants mentioned above have included UGA Trial Garden Sale, Grower’s Outlet, Plant Delights, The Kai Garden, and Nurseries Caroliniana. A couple of nurseries in the Lancaster region of Pennsylvania that I highly recommend also are great sources should you get up that way: Groff's Plant Farm and Black Creek Nursery.
Step Three - Create a Planting Arrangement
No matter how much I enjoy watching hummingbirds, planting nothing but tubular plants is boring to the eyes. My garden needs to delight all my senses (as well as bees and butterflies), so I make certain to intermix some hummingbird attracting plants that have broader leaves than most tubular flowering plants, like Rudbeckias, or plants with wider flowers more visibly pleasing to the human eye, like Abutilon and a sterile Buddleia davidii (Butterfly Bush).
Rudbeckia submentosa 'Henry Eilers' - bold flowers, foliage and feeds hummers
The slot garden arrangement is also grounded by pre-existing perennials like Dahlias, Gladiolas, Digiplexis, Yucca 'Color Guard', open faced Clematis, asters as well as quite a few small evergreen shrubs and small trees, including a Dragon's Eye Pine, Acer palmatum 'Bihou.'
I also bring in multiple strong summer sun foliage plants like Acalypha 'Pride of BJ' or Acalypha wilkesiana 'Copperleaf.' Big leaves of orange, copper and red help form visually pleasing links with the tiny tubular flowered plants the small hummingbirds like to dine upon best. My favorite source for these remains the spring sale at The Trial Gardens at UGA.
Acalypha wilkesiana 'Copperleaf'
I'd like to pretend that I plan out the arrangement in detail as a thought exercise, but since I depend on spring sale additions for annuals, it is more of a "buy what I like and place" process within the boundaries of the sightlines. I place, back up, look, move things around, and repeat until it seems pleasing to my eye.
One thing I take care to avoid is a strict descending order of size. Doing so makes it harder to catch sight of hummingbirds. Instead, providing some up and down movement by using taller plants they like throughout the slot, especially Verbena bonariensis, gives the eyes a great opportunity to track hummingbirds before they dive toward lower plants.
Step Four - Go An Extra Step by Providing Perches
Step four is to make certain that you give hummingbirds perches upon which to rest. Hummingbirds work hard to eat, but they do need rest time too. They will use tree and shrub branches from which to dive and eat. That said, if you want to observe them up close, consider using trellises and garden art to draw them lower to rest.
The hummingbirds in my slot garden are especially fond of the trellises I use for growing my bell shaped Clematis like 'Rooguchi' and C. viorna. So consider offering a combination that allows them to both perch and feed!
These need not be tall trellises. I've even had hummingbirds perch atop plant stakes. This year a self sown triangle shaped Celosia cristata has often given a hummingbird a short respite!
Step Five - Enjoy in Air Conditioned Comfort
I am truthful when I say that if I stay put for at least five to ten minutes and watch, I will see hummingbirds in my slot garden from mid to late summer. This year has been wildly successful. As a bonus, today I discovered the view from the window above the front door looking down on my sloped toward the house garden provides the best view of all to catch extended sight of hummingbirds. It's amazing I get any work done of late!
Maybe you'll take the time to try something like a hummingbird slot garden one year. Then you too can enjoy your garden more from inside in the dog days of summer.
Submitted by Liane Schleifer