Planting a Hummingbird Menu

One of our great summer joys at the cottage on Lake Muskoka is the closeup view we have of the ruby-throated hummingbird (Archilochus colubris) nectaring on flowers in the containers on our sundeck. Of the many hummingbirds in North America, the ruby-throated is the only species found east of the Great Plains.

Hummingbird in flowers

I’ve even enjoyed putting its flight acrobatics to music (‘Honeysuckle Rose’ clip by jazz songstress Jane Monheit).

Those wings may be small but they’re very powerful, beating 50 times per second and capable of flying from Ontario all the way south to Costa Rica and other tropical areas during winter migration.

Hummingbird back

I haven’t put up a hummingbird feeder at the cottage.  I’m terrible at maintaining bird feeders and sugar water stations and don’t want the grief of pesky wasps invading the sweet stuff.  But I also prefer them to feed on real flower nectar, (much safer than sugar water which can harbour bacteria and also contains valuable micronutrients), and always buy flowering annuals that I know from past experience they’ll enjoy.  Over the years, a favourite has been agastache or hummingbird mint – not the purplish-blue anise hyssop (Agastache foeniculum) which is nonetheless a great bee plant, but the more tender species and hybrids of the southwestern species like Agastache rupestris, A. cana and A. mexicana.  Since hybridization of these great plants has exploded in the past decade or so, they are becoming more available as annuals in colder parts of the northeast, thank goodness, since they rarely return when winters are tough.

Hummingbird-on agastache

Like all hummingbirds, the rubythroated’s long beak is perfectly suited to tubular flowers.  And like all birds, whose vision is most acute in the red part of the light spectrum, it’s especially drawn to flowers in shades of red and orange, but will also seek out any nectar-rich flower that meets with its approval, especially in the early season when few flowers have emerged. I’ve seen them feeding on spring-blooming purple ‘PJM’ rhododendrons and yellow narcissus, among other plants.

Here are a few of my favourite choices for a hummingbird menu:

Agastache ‘Kudos’ series – As shown in my video, I grow both ‘Kudos Coral’ and ‘Kudos Mandarin’ from Terra Nova in my deck pots and they are both excellent nectar sources, but the coral cultivar seems a little more vigorous and floriferous, for some reason.

Hummingbird on Agastache 'Kudos Coral'

Salvia guaranitica ‘Black & Blue’Hummingbird sage is one of the most beautiful of the big salvias, with its azure-blue flowers and black stems and bracts. It will overwinter in milder areas (USDA Zone 7 and warmer), but it’s worth growing as an annual in cold regions for its ability to lure hummingbirds to its sweet nectar.

Hummingbird on Salvia3

Salvia microphylla ‘Hot Lips’ –  Another flowery video star, this lively little sage is really fun to grow and the hummingbirds love it.

Hummingbird on Salvia 'Hot Lips'

Crocosmia ‘Lucifer’ Montbretia – Hummingbirds adore the red flowers of this South African bulb, a hybrid introduction of Alan Bloom. My cottage on Lake Muskoka is USDA Zone 4, but reliable snow cover has so far created conditions that have allowed ‘Lucifer’ (USDA Zone 6b) to multiply and spread…..

Crocosmia 'Lucifer'

…. much to the delight of the ruby-throated hummingbird below.

Hummingbird2 on Crocosmia

Here’s my little video of the hummingbird on Crocosmia ‘Lucifer’:

Tropaeolum majus – Nasturtium – Hummingbirds love nasturtiums, but they aren’t as satisfying in the bang-for-buck hummingbird potential as the smaller flowers of my previous two choices. Still, a nice old-fashioned flower (and a lovely salad garnish, since it’s edible).

Hummingbird on Nasturtium

Aquilegia canadensis – Eastern columbine – Since it flowers at the lake in late May and June, this one offers early nectar to returning hummingbirds. 

Aquilegia canadensis

Penstemon barbatus – Scarlet Bugler – Flowering in early summer and then sporadically later, I’ve heard this is one of the best penstemons for hummingbirds. Though I don’t have a lot of it and it’s down by the lake where I can’t keep my eye on it, I’m sure my hummers have found it.

Penstemon barbatus 'Coccinea'

Monarda didyma – Beebalm – Another hummingbird favourite. I can also attest to the popularity of wild beebalm, Monarda fistulosa, which I grow by the hundreds in my little meadows and have seen being visited by hummingbirds.

Monarda 'Panorama' red

Hummingbird bush, Uruguayan Firecracker Plant (Dicliptera suberecta) – I went out of my way to source this plant in 2014, but didn’t have the right conditions (gritty and very well-drained soil) and managed to get only a few flowers by summer’s end. So I’m not sure my hummers ever found it, but it is reputed to be a hummingbird magnet.

Dicliptera suberecta

Here are a few more ideas for your hummingbird grocery list:

  • Cigar Plant (Cuphea ignea) – A tender annual/tropical that’s good for hummingbirds and can usually be found in the specialty annuals section at better garden centres in early spring.
  • Firecracker Bush (Hamelia patens) – While you’re in the specialty annuals section, see if you can find this little tropical with the hummingbird-friendly red flowers.
  • Flowering Maple (Abutilon sp.) – Appears on lots of hummingbird lists, and a beautiful tropical shrub for a large container.
  • Fuchsia – Great for shady containers. And if you can find California fuchsia (Zauschneria californica), give them a whirl in your summer containers, too.
  • Cypress Vine, aka Hummingbird vine (Ipomoea quamoclit) – This is a wonderful annual vine with bright red flowers and a real hummingbird favourite.  I might try this one next year in my planters.
  • Honeysuckle (Lonicera sp.) – Hummingbird favourites, but choose a native northeastern species like L. sempervirens or L. dioica, not an invasive Asian honeysuckle. ‘Major Wheeler’ is a good one to attract hummers.
  • Trumpet Creeper (Campsis radicans) – A big, heavy vine but oh-so-attractive to hummingbirds when those orange trumpets open in summer.
  • Indian Pink (Spigelia marilandica) – A spectacular-looking, early summer denizen of shady woodland places.
  • Cardinal Flower (Lobelia cardinalis) – A good, late-summer hummingbird lure for damp conditions.
  • Pink Turtlehead (Chelone lyonii) – A lovely late-summer perennial for moisture-retentive places.

But plants don’t have to have red flowers to attract hummingbirds (as we saw above with Salvia guaranitica ‘Black and Blue’.). I’ve seen them nectaring on daffodils in May and other yellow flowers, including biennial evening primrose (Oenothera biennis), below, a nice weedy plant in my meadows.

Hummingbird on oenothera

And I loved watching the ruby-throated below nectar on the tiny flowers of Nicotiana mutabilis. The main thing is to offer them that deep trumpet they love to explore with their long beaks.

Hummingbird on Nicotiana mutabilis


The Wright Stuff: A Plantswoman’s Muskoka Garden

Spending most of the summer on Lake Muskoka a few hours north of Toronto as I do, I am far away from the public gardens where I tend to get my regular photo fixes. Fortunately, I have a lovely friend in the nearby city of Bracebridge who generously invites me to pop by her spectacular garden whenever I feel the urge for a hit of colour and beautifully designed borders. Her name is Marnie Wright and over the years, we’ve found we have much in common – including our age!

Marnie Wright

I first met Marnie on a GWA (Garden Writers’ Association) tour in Portland, Oregon, and later on a local garden tour where I mentioned I was working on a long-term colour project. “My garden has quite a lot of nice colour happening now,” she said. “You’re welcome to come by anytime.”  That was my first visit, one warm July day when the blackflies and mosquitoes were still rather hungry. I was completely wowed by Marnie’s wonderful little house and by her abundant gardens filled with interesting structures and whimsical folk art, like these big-eyed dragonflies.

Wire dragonfly

Marnie’s lived in her house for 34 years on a 91-acre property hewn originally out of an alder bog.  Thus the two acres on which she actively gardens has a high water table and can be very wet in spring, once the deep Muskoka snow melts. But summer-damp conditions are perfect for a host of perennials, especially the daylilies (Hemerocallis) Marnie loves to collect – she even grows some from seed.

Daylily bouquets

So if you visit in July, you’ll see rainbow displays of daylilies in the borders.


Some — like beautiful ‘Jade Star’ — grow with blackeyed susans (Rudbeckia fulgida var. sullivantii ‘Goldsturm’) around the three linked ponds in the centre of the gardens….

Daylily & rudbeckia

…and some of the seed-grown ones mix casually with gloriosa daisies and echinacea around a rugged shard of lichen-encrusted Muskoka granite near the barn at the end of the driveway.

Muskoka Granite-Echinacea-Rudbeckia

Despite the generally moist soil, xeric-loving verbascums tend to self-seed and thrive in a long border with beebalm (Monarda didyma).  The key to their success might be the long ditch Marnie created behind the bed to drain away the water and create a more mesic soil.

Verbascum border

Yes, Marnie’s place looks gorgeous in July, with its roses and summer blossoms……

House -July

…but was just as beautiful this week, on a fine August morning when old-fashioned summer phlox (Phlox paniculata) was doing its ebullient pink thing and pairing oh-so-nicely with the goldenrod that also grows…..

House - August

… by the millions, along with flat-topped aster (Doellingera umbellata), smooth blue aster (Symphyotrichum leave) and obedient plant (Physostegia virginiana)  in the fields surrounding the house.


Summer phlox also makes a nice companion to these pale globe thistles (Echinops sphaerocephalus)…

Phlox & Echinops

…and enhances the vintage garden chairs that Marnie paints a rich purple. These ones are perfect for relaxing in while enjoying a campfire…..

Purple chairs

….but the chairs have looked lovely through the years no matter where they’re situated.

Purple chair

Purple pops up a lot in Marnie’s designs – especially in her annual favourite, ageratum, seen here with dark purple heliotrope.

Ageratum & heliotrope

And in the Verbena bonariensis that looks so lovely in an unusual pairing with yellow blackberry lily (Iris domestica, formerly Belamcanda chinensis).

Belamcanda & Viburnum

Speaking of roses, there was even the odd August-flowering rugosa rose attracting bumble bees to its abundant pollen.

Rose with bee

Marnie is a great collector of interesting vintage objects that find their way into the garden.  Some find a functional use, such as this coffee table – formerly an old wash-tub table from the Beatty washing machine factory in Fergus, Ontario …..

Bench & table

….while others are more picturesque than pragmatic, like this old watering can paired with a Rex begonia on the potting table.

Watering can

A recent acquisition was this bell wheel from a local church, now taking pride of place in a flowery border.

Bell pull wheel

The odd reptile can be found climbing the back wall of the garden shed….


…which, in itself, is a delightful bit of rustic, old Canadiana.

Garden house

Glass objects find their way into the garden, too. On the left are decorative glass totems that Marnie made using thrift store vases and plumbing pipe. On the right is a glass ceiling fixture from one of the grand old Lake Muskoka lodges.  Somehow, I can see this with flickering candlelight (solar, maybe?)


I love all the beautiful vistas that Marnie has created.  These perfumed lilies frame a view to her little “dock”, with a miniature Muskoka chair overlooking a tiny, lake-like pond.

Lilies & dock

Look past the Joe Pye weed (Eupatorium) towards one of Marnie’s rustic arbours in the centre of the garden.  Squint a little, and you can see the little succulents….


….she’s growing in the old picture frame leaning against the bench.

Rustic arbor

There probably isn’t a perennial combination that Marnie hasn’t experimented with in her borders at some time or other.  I loved this July vignette, of queen-of-the-prairie (Filipendula rubra), sneezewort (Achillea ptarmica ‘The Pearl’), gooseneck loosestrife (Lysimachia clethroides), Shasta daisies (Leucanthemum x superbum) and spiky Culver’s root (Veronicastrum virginicum).

Pink and white July combo

And this August combination features the bold pea foliage and yellow flowers of American senna (S. hebecarpa), paired with echinacea, summer phlox and scented lilies.

August border

She works her design magic in pots and planters scattered throughout the garden, often with plants she’s grown from seed in one of her small greenhouses. This pot features a variegated phormium with red and yellow kangaroo paws (Anigozanthos), calibrachoa, golden globes (Lysimachia procumbens) and other annuals.


Outside the barn where she keeps her mowing tractor (45 minutes weekly manages the lawns), there’s always a fun combination.of annuals in whiskey barrels. This year’s colour scheme uses red, purple and white flowers.

Whiskey barrels

Her window boxes are luscious! I particularly loved this one from a few summers back, with orange Thunbergia alata, yellow Bidens ferulifolia, blue Salvia patens, chartreuse Ipomoea batatas ‘Margarita’, purple Ageratum houstonianum and peach Calibrachoa.

Shed Window Box

In the shade next to her front door is another window box with tuberous begonias, salmon fuchsia and purple violas, among other annuals.House windowbox

Behind the house are her two small greenhouses, which help her get a spring head start on annual seeding. In summer, one is filled with small figs and the other with a jungle of ‘Sungold’ cherry tomatoes, Marnie’s favourites — safely protected from hungry deer and growing tall in the warmth and humidity.

Greenhouse tomatoes

She passes me a handful and I swear they’re the sweetest little tomatoes I’ve ever eaten.

Sungold tomatoes

At the end of a long path beyond the greenhouses flanking the forest is Marnie’s swimming pond, which also features an assortment of water lilies and other aquatic plants and a windmill to aerate the water.


The cool water offers welcome relief on hot summer days – not just for Marnie, but for her old dog April.

April in pond

Another spot where visitors can escape Muskoka’s summer heat is the shade garden near the road.  Here a path wends through giant hostas and other traditional shade plants that revel in the rich soil (all entirely organic).

Shade garden

Here Marnie tries out seldom-seen perennials like devil’s bit scabious (Succisa pratensis), which is happy in shade like this or in full sun, provided the soil remains moist.

Succisa & bee

It grows tall enough to look lovely beside deep-pink Astilbe tacquetii ‘Superba’.

Astilbe & Sucissa

There are lots of rusty foxgloves (Digitalis ferruginea ‘Gelber Herold’), left, that self-seed throughout the shade garden. And I love the jewel-like, blue fruit of the North American native umbrella leaf (Diphylleia cymosa), one of many big-leaved perennials that thrive here in the dappled light.

Digitalis & Diphyllea

Whenever I visit Marnie’s garden, I come away with the impression that she has managed to do something that other skilled plant collectors and designers often forget to do. I think you might agree…..




A Niagara Garden Tour (in Three Acts)

In June, I had the pleasure of spending several days touring local gardens with a gang of 65 garden bloggers from across North America and England.  Part busman’s holiday, part chance to see my region afresh through the eyes of others, the Garden Bloggers’ Fling was a really fun experience  One of my favourite Fling days was our trip to the Niagara region, culminating with a walking tour of three gardens in Niagara-on-the-Lake. A   pretty little town about 20 minutes east of Niagara Falls, NOTL is a tourist mecca for its flowery main street filled with shops, its restaurants and its neighbouring vineyards, but mostly for the annual Shaw Festival – six months of theatre highlighting the plays of George Bernard Shaw and other playwrights whose works touch on societal mores.

As we walked through the three spectacular town gardens that had just been featured on the NOTL Garden Tour,it occurred to me that each could have been the leafy set of its very own theatrical production.


Our first garden was a little bit of Victorian heaven, in which I could easily imagine Henry Higgins striding about, snipping at the boxwood parterres while Eliza Doolittle followed him, ogling the blossoms like the Cockney flower vendor she was while practicing her phonetics. “The rine, in Spine, falls minely on the pliiine….”. The formal parterres were arrayed around a Victorian armillary sundial, each square enclosing shimmering white peonies and a kousa dogwood. Beyond lay a perfect patch of lawn attended by four nymphs.  Indeed, in ancient Greek mythology,  Pygmalion (on whom G B Shaw patterned his play) fell in love with a statue – perhaps one that looked just like these draped beauties.

Boxwood parterres

At the rear of the garden, behind a rectangular pool with fountain and four urns was a lovely Victorian garden temple in the most sublime mustard with khaki-green columns. On either side, more tiny, perfect buildings… guesthouses, perhaps?

Formal pool

All the furnishings had a prim Victorian air, including a cast iron cherub standing triumphantly atop a turtle, and a pretty Grecian-inspired urn in front of a cast-iron table and chairs.

Cherub & Grecian Urn

There was about this garden an air of the folly, its elements designed to evoke a different era, a different world, a sophisticated escape. Indeed, as George Bernard Shaw wrote in Pygmalion: “What is life but a series of inspired follies?  The difficulty is to find them to do.  Never lose a chance: it doesn’t come every day.”


The second garden occupied a large, leafy corner in old town – a rarified woodland so shade-dappled and cool, it seemed to be on another planet from Queen Street with its heat and crowds and hustle and bustle. Our tour began in front of a large pink sculpture nestled between two young ginkgo trees.  “What do you think it is?” asked the gardener, who was there to guide us around in the owners’ absence.


After several guesses from our group, she replied, “You’re all right, of course. It’s anything you want it to be.”  And indeed, that freedom to interpret art and beauty in one’s own eyes (and ears) encouraged me to adopt a musical theme for this garden: the Rimsky-Korsakov opera Scheherazade. More on that later….

In the meantime, this is our first view of the fabulous swimming pool, surrounded by layers of foliage in rich, jewel-box colours. (I saw the owner a few weeks later and he said that he wished we could have seen it when all these trees were in spring blossom mode. I’m sure that would have been heavenly.)  And I love the linear pool border with its fountains of ‘Gracillimus’ maiden grass (Miscanthus sinensis).

Swimming pool & foliage

Speaking of jewels, did I mention that I love turquoise? I do, especially used cleverly to echo the turquoise water of the pool.

Turquoise pots.JPG

And this! How cool (literally and figuratively) to have a shallow part of the pool in which to dabble your toes, without committing fully to a swim.  The perfect place for Scheherazade to spin a tale like Sinbad the Sailor, while dabbling her dainty toes…

Pool & Chairs

Or perhaps she could find a seat in a cool, shady glade like this.

Woodland seating

The garden is filled with textural foliage, and in the damp spots there are yellow flag irises (I. pseudacorus).

Foliage texture

Now climb the stone stairs…..

Stone stairs

….and turn towards the covered terrace with its pillars and shimmering drapes…..

Draped terrace

….and the infinity-fountain spilling neatly down the house wall into the garden, and perhaps you begin to see why I’m thinking of Scheherazade?

Garden view

Because if this isn’t the perfect stage setting for a vizier’s daughter to think up a thousand and one tales to engage the king (and save her life) through all those Arabian nights…


….while reclining on velvet plum pillows atop a divan in candlelight, I can’t imagine what is.

A Midsummer Night’s Dream

Our final Niagara-on-the-Lake garden requires an imagined stage shift a few hundred miles away to the little town of Stratford and its eponymous summer festival featuring the plays of William Shakespeare. To find out why, let’s just head into this first enclosed garden, with its appropriate stage name mounted on the entrance gate.

Garden sign

Yes, it is definitely a green room. Cool, verdant and an enclosed sanctuary to calm the fevered summer brow.

Green Room

Judging from all the rustic outdoor lamps set artfully beside benches and chairs throughout this waterfront property, the gardeners seem to enjoy it by dark. Thus, my Shakespearean theme: a bucolic setting for a midsummer night’s dream – and maybe a pretty splashy garden party, too.

Luytens bench & lamp

Now, step through the unique vine-and-animal gate and the curtain goes up on a spectacular view of the infinity pool dropping away to the mouth of the Niagara River flowing into Lake Ontario.

Pool entrance Gate

There’s something very theatrical about this little seat pour-deux.

Swim stools-infinity pool-Lake Ontario

Walk around the swimming pool (more on that in a minute) and you get the final, jaw-dropping vista: Old Fort Niagara in New York State across the river.  Built by the French on the site of a 1726 trading post at a time when they controlled the Great Lakes and the Ohio Valley, the fort was expanded to its current size in 1755 but fell to the British in 1759 in the Battle of Fort Niagara during the French & Indian War.  The fort remained in British hands until after the American War of Independence, when it was occupied by American forces. During the War of 1812, British forces seized the fort, but relinquished it to the United States after the 1814 Treaty of Ghent.

Old Fort Niagara

Back to the swimming pool. Is this not the most beautiful setting for a midsummer night’s dip….?

Swimming pool

….followed by a nightcap next to the outdoor fireplace, of course.  For me, this concept of rustic outdoor parlor elevates the pool – which can often be difficult to work gracefully into a landscape – into a lovely setting with a surprisingly cozy ambiance.

Swimming pool parlor

The garden beds are not overly ornate, but could easily substitute in a pinch for the setting in Act 2, Scene 1 of the Bard’s play, where Oberon says to Puck  “I know a bank where the wild thyme blows, where oxlips and the nodding violet grows, quite over-canopied with luscious woodbine, with sweet musk-roses and with eglantine…” 


Let’s just sit down here in this mossy chair and wait for the sun to set. Then we’ll turn on the lamp and watch the lights of the Toronto skyline twinkle far away across the lake.  We may even nod off here – to sleep, perchance, to dream.

Garden chairs and rustic lamp