Hummingbird in Garden

How to Design a Hummingbird Garden: reliably attract pollinators (not bears)

Have you ever wanted hummingbirds in your garden? Let’s look at what it takes to design a kick-butt hummingbird garden. There’s something mesmerizing about watching them flit from one place to the next and hover in mid-air while they eat. Earlier in the summer, my son had gotten a little bird decoration on a stick to put in the garden (he asked for that thing every time we went to the garden center, so I finally got it for him.) Something made him decide to set it on the window box that hangs from our porch railing, and he was absolutely delighted the next day when a hummingbird zoomed up to it, to a peek, and flew off. That was the deciding moment – we needed a hummingbird garden.

My son and I knew we wanted to give the hummingbirds a food source, preferably located where we could watch them from the porch, but I also knew that a feeder was not a good option for us. We live in bear country, and one of our neighbors has seen bears come up to her porch to drink the sugar solution out of her hummingbird feeder. I like bears, but I don’t want them coming up on the porch to look for food.
Instead, I decided to plant a hummingbird garden near our porch. It’s on the eastern side of our house, but several feet away from the porch to be sure that the plants will get enough sun to be happy. There were already some lilies planted along the corner of our workshop, and I cut away the lawn to make a larger planting bed.

What we did to help give them the habitat they need

I chose the east side of the house for a couple of reasons beyond just being near the porch. For one, that spot has sunny areas and shady, so it will offer the birds choices on where to spend their time on any given day. If it’s chilly out, they might want to be in the sun, but there are plenty of hot days when they will prefer some shade. This part of our yard also offers access to multiple opportunities for perching, including trees and shrubs where the hummingbirds can sit or even sleep if they choose. It’s also near a creek and a small spring, so there’s lots of water available nearby. Next year, I may put in a small bird bath, as well, but I haven’t decided yet on what that will look like.

When we decided to design a hummingbird garden, my goal was to stick with natives, so I skipped the butterfly bush (which, I admit, I really like for nostalgic reasons). We are blessed in our location to have a wide range of native plants to choose from, and I started small with only a few varieties. I’ll expand the garden next year, but this will be a good start. These initial plants are all meant to be a food source.

For now, we planted:

Image: https://plants.ces.ncsu.edu/plants/veronica-spicata/

Speedwell – Veronica spicata

I know they way hummingbirds prefer red flowers, but I am personally fond of blue. We’ll add more reds and pinks next year. For now, this was one I was easily able to find at the local garden center.

Image: John H

Bee Balm – Monarda didyma

This should be a favorite for the hummingbirds. It’s not just a native but a known flower of choice for them.

Image: Kevin Kenny

Obedient Plant – Physostegia virginiana ‘Crystal Peak’

It’s a cultivar instead of the straight species, but the white flowers are beautiful. I’ll have to watch to see if the hummingbirds come to this one as often as the more colorful flowers.

Why not butterfly bush?

So why did we skip butterfly bush if I like it so much? I like it because I associate it with my grandmother’s childhood home in Ireland. A long time ago, after my grandma died and I was in college, I visited the house where she grew up, and right at the edge of the house was a huge, blooming butterfly bush. It may have been a relic of her mother’s garden…or it may have been a volunteer from a seed dropped by a passing bird. That’s the danger of butterfly bush. It can be invasive, but there are newer varieties that don’t spread, so is there a reason not to plant those?

The main one is habitat for native fauna. Non-native plants don’t usually offer as much in the way of living space and food for the native critters, which is one reason why we are seeing a drop in the number of native pollinators, for instance. Now, to be honest, I haven’t noticed a big drop in native insects in our area. We live way out in the country, where there are still large swathes of native plants flourishing in their chosen niche environments.

I’d like to give all of the critters a boost, though, not just our native hummingbirds, so I’m focusing exclusively on natives in this corner of the garden. For now, anyway. Would it be detrimental to plant a non-native here and there? No, it wouldn’t, as long as it’s not invasive. Who knows, maybe someday I’ll let my nostalgia have a win and plant a non-spreading cultivar of butterfly bush. They are beautiful, and the hummingbirds enjoy them.

All of that is to say, planting butterfly bush would work opposite to all of the goals I’ve set as I design a hummingbird garden.

What makes a plant attractive to hummingbirds?

So how do you actually choose plants that will offer hummingbirds a food source? Lists of plants are great, but I like to understand why they work, instead of just trusting that some website will get it right. Especially since a lot of websites just parrot what they see on someone else’s list. (Yep, I learn from other people’s lists, too.)

To go beyond the same old lists, I dug into the research to see what zoologists and ecologists have learned about hummingbirds and why they do what they do.

The main characteristics of flowers likely to attract hummingbirds include:

  • trumpet shaped flowers
  • nectar-producing flowers
  • red flowers are especially attractive
  • near perch sites with cover for protection

What characteristics should a hummingbird garden strive for?

Beyond the flowers, themselves, what should your garden provide to be a haven for hummingbirds? Here are several characteristics I keep in mind as I design a hummingbird garden.

  • native plants so the hummingbirds will be able best adapted to benefit from them – Not sure what plants are native to your area? There are lots of great web sites and books out there, probably some specific to your region, but the Ladybird Johnson Wildflower Center is a great place to start your research.
  • a mix of bloom times across the growing season so there is always a flower available for them
  • a variety of plants so they have choices
  • habitat for other creatures – including insects for the birds to eat

Next year, my first goal will be to plant more species to increase that variety and the spread of bloom times. Right now, the plants I’ve included are summer bloomers, so I need to add in some other species to get some spring and fall blooms going.

For a few of my favorite mail order plant sources see this post on 5 Nursery Web Site Catalogs I Go Back To Again and Again

What other creatures benefit from a similar type of planting?

Hummingbirds aren’t the only species who will benefit when you design a hummingbird garden. At least in our area, a pollinator garden tends to be highly diverse in the types of species it will attract. Some of them include:

  • butterflies
  • bees
  • other pollinators
  • other types of insects who find habitat in the planting, such as ladybugs
  • small critters who eat those insects or who can live or hide within the plants, like salamanders and skinks

One question I want to explore further is how to optimize for other pollinator species, as well as for any species that rely on that type of environment for habitat or some specific part of their life cycle. We always hear that a pollinator garden will attract all types of pollinators, but I suspect it’s not quite that simple. Bugs and animals need more than just food – they also need homes, and the right kinds of places to lay eggs or let their young develop or mate in the first place. Stay tuned for a future post as I keep digging!