Gardening for the Birds


It’s been really hot out, and the bird photography just isn’t as intense in July. So I’ve been spending more time in my own backyard garden. I’m trying to get the birds to come to me! Especially the hummingbirds, my absolute favorite little birds. I can get hummers in both summer and winter here in Orlando, so I’ve been putting out lots of red flowers to tempt them to my yard. I’ve had limited success, with occasional visits, and one migrant bird that stuck around for about a week last fall. Hopefully I’ll have more luck this fall!

Recently a friend asked about redesigning his backyard and making it more bird-friendly. So I thought I’d write a post about my backyard and the plants that have been successful in attracting the birds. It’s hard to believe that five years ago, the whole yard was just grass! I’ll go bed by bed and describe the plants…

My viburnum hedge has been the single most successful bird attractant. It provides shelter for the nesting birds in the spring, and brings in the Painted Buntings in the winter. I’ve placed my bird feeders close to the hedge to give the birds a quick hide-out if a hawk approaches. I’ve had several nesting pairs of cardinals, brown thrashers, and mockingbirds bring their families to the hedges. I highly recommend the viburnum suspensum variety, which doesn’t grow as tall as the viburnum odoratissmum variety. You’ll spend less time clipping the hedges!

This bed also features:

  • Powderpuff bush (in the middle).  This not-yet-full-grown bush features red flowers that attract hummingbirds.  It also puts out berries for the birds to eat.  It’s a Florida native and pretty easy to grow.
  • Plumbago shrubs (on the sides).  I just planted these last weekend.  Wait six months and they will be covered in gorgeous blue flowers.  This is a host plant for the Cassius Blue butterfly, and it’s very popular with hummingbird moths as well.  Watch for them at dusk!

This bed in the back right of my yard hasn’t been growing too well lately.  So I just replanted it last weekend.  July is a hard time to establish plants, and I wouldn’t recommend planting major shrubs or anything big at this time of year, but I figured a few pentas could take the beating.  Before I planted, I amended the soil with eight bags of top soil and three bags of Black Kow.  It’s stinky stuff, but it works!

This bed features:

  • Red Pentas.  These red flowers are known to attract both hummingbirds and butterflies.  Technically they are perennials, but I tend to replace them every year or so as if they were annuals.  Don’t be surprised if you also find some strange-looking caterpillars looking back at you from these plants!  Make sure you get the ‘tall’ variety, which are more attractive to hummers than the smaller varieties.
  • Purple Firespike.  This is the purple version of the red firespike you’ll see below in my bay window bed.  This plant likes shade, and it supplies flowers full of nectar for hummers.
  • Cross vine (in the foreground).  I wish I had a nice big fence or something for this vine to cover.  It puts out nectar-rich orange blooms that are really pretty.  I have it growing up an obelisk, and in hindsight, I should have gotten a bigger one!  Make sure you have room for a vine if you choose to plant one!

The back center bed used to be my best rose garden, but alas, the rose bushes took a great deal of care, and they didn’t survive the Great Overtime Craze last winter.  I also chose to remove the remaining bushes because they required so much fungicide and insecticide.  It wasn’t good for the birds in the yard.  So I’m gradually figuring out what to do with this bed instead.  Currently I have the following plants:

  • Compton’s Salvia (in the back middle).  This tall-growing salvia puts out pretty clusters of black and blue flowers.  It is very similar to Black-and-Blue salvia, but that variety doesn’t seem to grow well for me.  The Compton’s variety is doing much better.  I think it will start flowering again later this summer, which will be perfect for fall hummingbird migration.
  • Coral Porterweed (on the back sides).  This tall-growing bush puts out lots of bright red clumps of flowers.  My hummer visitors have spent lots of time at this one!  It does grow very large, so stick it in the back, and give it room to grow.
  • Scarlet Salvia (in the middle).  This salvia sports bright red flowers that attract all sorts of bees, as well as hummers.  It re-seeds freely, so plant a few and then you’ll have new “volunteer” plants come up in the area for seasons to come.
  • Orange Bulbine (in the front).  This flower is a lot of fun to photograph, and the insects like it too.  It’s a perennial that is very drought-tolerant once established.  It blooms all year round, which is nice in the middle of winter!
  • Swamp Cypress (far right front).  This fuzzy little green plant is boring until summertime, when it puts up green shoots that burst into clumps of red flowers.  This is the first year I’ve grown them, and they’ve been a fun surprise.

This bed is in the back left side of the yard, and I re-planted it early this spring.  It has grown up nicely!  This bed contains the following:

  • Lion’s Ear (bush in far back).  This will be covered in big orange flowers in the wintertime, perfect for wintering hummers.  It’s important to grow plants that bloom at different times of the year, to attract wildlife throughout the seasons.
  • American Beautyberry (in the back).  I was introduced to this bush when I found my first migrant Rose-Breasted Grosbeak eating the berries.  My backyard mockingbirds are very big fans of the berries, too!  Right nowt he bushes are flowering, but the berries will come in a month or two.
  • Hot Lips Salvia (in the middle of the bed).  This red-and-white salvia smells good and is very well received by my mom’s hummingbirds.  You’ll notice I have a lot of salvia plants.  That’s because the flowers are the perfect shape for hummingbirds to sip: long and slender, just right for a hummingbird’s beak!
  • Mexican Sunflower (not really visible in the back).  This is an orange variety of sunflower that grows thick and tall and is covered in orange blooms.  I’ve had them come back from seed for the past several years, and my hummers rewarded me by sipping from the blooms last fall.
  • Purple Porterweed (behind the bird feeder post):  This is a smaller variety of porterweed than the Coral Porterweed.  Don’t be deceived by the little one-gallon pot you may find at the garden center.  This will grow into a bush several feet wide and tall!  The hummers and butterflies love it.  Just ask this monarch
  • Indigo Spires Salvia: This plant puts out spikes of purple flowers that attract the butterflies, especially the little ones like the skippers.
  • Firebush (far right):  This tall bush dies back to the ground in a cold winter, but it comes right back up and puts out lots of orange-and-red blooms for hummers.  One of the common names for this bush is “hummingbird bush,” and it certainly lives up to its name at Bok Tower Gardens.  It’s another good Florida native shrub.
  • Sunflower (front right).  Where you have bird feeders and put out sunflower seeds, you get sunflowers…and if you let them stand after they finish blooming, you give your cardinals natural seeds (and good photo ops when they pose on top of the flowers).  I’ve planted sunflower seeds year-round in warm Central Florida.
  • Marigolds.  I love to alternate orange and yellow marigolds on the edges of my beds in summertime.  The bright colors are so cheerful, and they attract butterflies.  These are annuals, and don’t expect them to last all year.
  • Coral Nymph Salvia (back left, not really visible):  I planted a Coral Nymph salvia last year after being told it was great for hummers.  Its pretty pink and white flowers were some of my favorites last summer, and my visiting hummers last fall did enjoy it too.  It began to spread by seed, so I moved the “volunteers” to the back of this bed.

Of course, the bird feeders also help attract the birds!  I have several tube feeders, plus the big platform feeder.

This bed continues around from the back left bed.  I dug out all the grass and formed the beds myself, telling Rich that I was saving him time mowing.  Now I do all the mowing, and I found out that it takes almost as long to trim around the beds as it does to mow the grass! :)

This bed features the following:

  • Japanese Yew (back).  Actually these are my neighbor’s bushes, but they do attract the birds, so I’ll list them here.  The birds also like the berries that the bushes produce in the spring.  Be careful if you have dogs – these plants are toxic.  In general, if you share your backyard with critters other than the birds, double-check that plants are not poisonous before you plant them.
  • Wendy’s Wish Salvia (right).  These are some of my favorite salvias, with pretty hot-pink blooms.  Last fall’s hummer approved!
  • Butterfly Bush (middle).  Earlier this spring my neighbor asked, “what are those pretty gray-green bushes with the pretty purple flowers?”  They are not blooming as much right now, but these bushes are favorites with butterflies.  (I’ve read that butterflies are most attracted to the blue and purple flowers, while the hummers prefer the reds, pinks, and oranges.)
  • David Varity Cuphea (left).  These “cigar plants” are well-known hummingbird attractants.  I’ve not actually seen any of my visiting hummers on these plants, though!
  • Coral Honeysuckle (back, on trellis).  The hummingbirds at Callaway Gardens spent hours nectaring on this vine’s red flowers.  I planted mine to grow up a trellis.  The small plant had grown to cover the trellis within a few months!

When we put in our screened porch, I wrapped a flower bed around the edges.  Plants you can see here include:

  • Crape Myrtle (far right).  I love the purple blooms of this tree in the summertime!  This tree is deciduous, meaning that it loses its leaves in the winter.  In November, I put a thistle feeder near the bare branches.  The goldfinches love to line up on the branches waiting to hop onto the feeder.  They seem to like the protection that the tree offers, and they will eat the seed pods if you let the summer flowers go to seed.
  • Yellow Lantana (front right).  This is a native variety of my dad’s “favorite weed” (he used to fight the invasive varieties horribly in his orange groves).  But this is a healthy native variety that attracts butterflies.
  • Purple Coneflower (front right).  This pretty flowering perennial flowers in late spring throughout the summer.  If you leave the spent flowers on the plants in the fall, the goldfinches will eat the seeds.  Hummingbirds also nectar from these flowers.

We have a small vegetable garden on the side of the porch, where we’ve had good luck growing peppers and tomatos.  Rich likes his fresh basil and cilantro, too!  Don’t miss the two adorable cats on the porch in this picture. :)

This bed features the following:

  • Red pentas.  The tall thick ones on the far left were planted last November.  The shorter ones on the right were planted this spring.  A few weeks ago I looked out to see a hummer hovering over the pentas!
  • Pineapple Salvia (middle right, not blooming).  This plant smells like pineapple if you rub it, and in the late summer, it puts out red blooms that are great for the hummers.  In my yard this plant seems to do best in partial shade.
  • Faye Chapel Salvia (middle left). At the garden center this salvia looked so promising, but it hasn’t grown tall and thick, and I’m not sure how much attention it gets from the birds.
  • Firecracker Plant (in pots on left and right of porch).  I’ve found that these perennials do really well in pots, and they put out long stems covered in red flowers.  My visiting hummers always check these plants out.

One thing I’ve done that has greatly helped in the garden was to install drip irrigation.  It’s basically a big tube that you run throughout the beds, and you install little irrigation heads in your beds to water the plants.  I have a head in each pot, so I don’t have to remember to water my pots.  I also ran tubes into my birdbaths and fountains, and set the timer to run for a few minutes each morning to refill those so that the birds always have fresh water.  It works well, especially when I get busy with work.

Finally we wind around to the bay window, right next to where we started.  This bed is one of my favorites:

  • Crape myrtle (middle).  Again, the goldfinches love this tree!  Trim it back in March to guarantee a nice shape for June’s flowers.
  • Red Firespike (far left and right).  The red blooms are real hummer attractors.  These plants like the shade, and can get quite large.
  • Red Shrimp Plant and Fruit Cocktail Shrimp Plants (left and right of window).  The flowers on these plants will remind you of a shrimp!  They like shade, and hummers love ’em.
  • Ruellia (left and right of crape myrtle).  These evergreen bushes are covered in purple blooms throughout the summer months.  These were just planted, so don’t be misled by their small size.  They will quickly fill the area in front of the window!

Well, that’s my backyard.  I hope this post is useful for people who are looking to make their backyards more bird-friendly.  I know we enjoy ours!

If you want to know where to purchase these plants, I recommend the following nurseries:

  • Biosphere Nursery in Winter Garden – a small nursery specializing in native plants.  They are very friendly, and their plants are very healthy!
  • Lukas Nursery in Oviedo – a garden’s paradise, they have everything!