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Attracting Hummingbirds the Natural Way

Many of you put out hummingbird feeders every Spring, having to remember to keep them clean and filled all summer long and into early Fall. I prefer to provide food for hummingbirds the natural way--with plants.

By the way, did you know that because of the high energy of the hummingbird, he eats up to 3 times his body weight every single day?

Hummingbirds can visit as many as 20 flowers in just one minute. In order to have enough food, they must visit hundreds of flowers every day. Woa! That's a lot of flowers!

Quite a few native plants can provide nectar for the voracious appetite of the energetic hummingbird. We have planted Red Salvia, Turk's cap Hibiscus, and Red Trumpet Honeysuckle in our garden. But one of my favorite native plants is very important for the early arriving hummingbirds.

The Red Buckeye Tree, Aesculus pavia, blooms in March, or even late February when the Winter is mild. Since the Red buckeye naturally occurs in the edge of a woodland surrounded by large trees, it usually looks more like a bushy shrub. When planted out in the open, it can become a specimen tree up to 25 feet tall. Like most plants, the Buckeye Tree will produce many more blooms when grown in full sun.

March is a great time to plant the Red Buckeye. You won't see it at the big box stores. Look for it at your local nursery that sells native plants. Young seedlings will begin blooming when less than 3 feet tall.

Your Red Buckeye Tree will become quite a focal point when covered with the large red panicles that come in early Spring. Plant it where all can see and enjoy it.

Source for this plant: Shady Gardens Nursery.


Grow Camellia sinensis and Make Your Own Green Tea

I've been drinking green tea for a few years now. Supposedly it has many benefits, especially for one who is trying to lose weight. A while back I read that the tea bags themselves are sometimes made of harmful materials, so I started using loose green tea instead of tea bags. Although I knew that organic foods are best for many reasons, I had never thought to look for organic green tea until Dr. Oz recently mentioned it on his TV show.

Like many health-conscious Americans, we are trying to grow more and more of our own food. There is no way we can know all the contaminants and pesticides that are in the food we buy. That is why many of us are growing our own food and purchasing what we can't grow from other local gardeners that we trust. Each Spring we plant as many vegetables as we can, and we try to grow as much salad and other greens as possible to avoid feeding our family contaminated greens. In the last few years we have planted plum, peach, loquat, meyer lemon, apricot, cherry, and almond trees along with blueberry and pineapple guava bushes and blackberries, raspberries, and currants. 

Awhile back I found a grower for Camellia sinensis, the plant that green tea comes from. Did you know you can grow your own green tea?

Growing the Tea Plant
Camellia sinensis grows well in the Southeastern United States. The Tea Camellia is hardy in USDA Zones 7-9, but can be grown in a greenhouse in colder climates. We had some single digit nights this Winter, and our plants suffered some. We had some leaf loss, but they seem to be getting ready to put on new growth. The Tea Plant needs the same conditions as most other camellias: light shade, well-drained acid soil, and regular water.

Camellia sinensis in September
Flowers appear in early Fall and are lovely little white single blooms with a vivid yellow center. Overall size of Camellia sinensis can vary with the site, but it will eventually attain a height of anywhere between 4 and 8 feet.






Harvesting Your Green Tea
Tea can be harvested as soon as it begins to grow in the Spring. That is March or April for us here in Georgia, depending on how soon Winter leaves us for good. Pick 2 leaves and a bud. Leaves will quickly grow back and you can harvest again in a couple of weeks. 

The only difference between green tea, black tea, and oolong tea is the oxidation process or fermentation of the leaves. Green tea is not oxidized at all. Oolong tea is partially oxidized, and black tea is bruised and allowed to dry until leaves turn completely black. 

Drying Your Green Tea
To prevent oxidation of your green tea, steam the leaves a couple of minutes on the stove top before drying. Then spread out your leaves on a baking sheet and place in a 200-250 degree oven for about 20 minutes. Once cooled, the tea leaves can be crushed and placed in an airtight container for storage where they will keep for up to 6 months. 

Brewing Your Green Tea
You will need a tea ball. Put 2 teaspoons of green tea leaves in a tea ball and place that in your cup. Heat water in a kettle. Just when water is about to boil, pour the hot water over tea ball containing your green tea leaves. Let steep for 2 minutes or more. The longer you allow your tea to steep, the stronger it will be. According to Dr. Oz, it's best to steep longer for the most benefits. You can then drink it however you enjoy it most, hot or cold. I like mine sweetened a little.


Camellia, the State Flower of Alabama

Although Alabama's State Flower is the Camellia, this popular Southern shrub is native to Asia. The first Camellias were brought to Charleston, South Carolina, in the late 1700's by the French botanist Andre' Michaux. Camellias are one of my favorite winter blooming plants. Camellias are often thought of as the Rose of Winter. There are thousands of different types of camellias, but most often what you see falls into one of two categories: Japonica and Sasanqua.

Camellia Japonica has glossy evergreen leaves and large blooms that may be any shade of white, red, or pick. Some even have "variegated" blooms that are spotched or striped. Blooms which can sometimes be very large come in several forms: single, double, semi-double, or peony type. Flowers hold up well indoors. I like to display them in a clear glass bowl.

Sasanqua Camellias have glossy evergreen foliage too, but the Sasanqua has different characteristics. Blooms are looser and appear more delicate, but the plant itself seems easier to grow. Sasanquas tolerate more sun that the Japanese Camellia, and they grow faster and larger too. 

By having a variety of both Japanese and Sasanqua Camellias in the garden, one can have blooms from Fall all the way into Spring. All camellias prefer some shade. Morning sun is okay, but give your camellias some protection from hot afternoon sun. They are all surprisingly drought tolerant once established, but you'll need to water regularly the first few years to get your shrubs established.

A good reference book to add to your collection would be Camellias: The Gardener's Encyclopedia, by Jennifer Trehane.

Although I do love camellias, personally, I think the State Flower should be one that is native to that state. But that's just me. What do you think?

Did our Severe Cold Winter kill the Bugs?

When temperatures were in the 20's, teens, and even the single digits so many times this Winter, I felt like it would kill off some of the bugs. I've heard many people say, "At least we won't have so many mosquitoes, ticks, and flies this summer!"


Our Birdbath stayed frozen for days
Well, I'm afraid that just isn't so. Ask any old-timer, and they will tell you the bugs will still be here when temperatures warm up. I didn't have to ask an old-timer, because early this morning I found a tick latched on under my clothes. And it has been cold outside this week! 

My father told me of a spider he observed from his front sitting room window during the coldest period this Winter. When night time temperatures were 7 degrees and day-time warm ups crept just to the 20's, the spider remained curled up in a ball, appearing to be lifeless. But when the weather warmed up, the spider would slowly begin wiggling as if waking up from a long nap. Once he seemed satisfied that it was sufficiently warm enough to get to work, the spider would get busy rebuilding his web. 

According to entomologist Xing Ping Hu, research professor with Auburn University, the reason insects are so resilient is that they have adapted strategies for surviving the cold. Hu pointed out that both of our coldest states, Alaska and Minnesota, are bothered by mosquitoes during the summer, so why would mosquitoes be affected by the freezing temperatures in Alabama and Georgia? Yellow Jackets are the only insect population that might be affected here, because they are susceptible to the cold. (See AL.com). That will probably be good news to all the runners who were stung during the Boy Scout Troop Trail Trek in West Point last Fall.

Garden Chores for Late Winter


In my previous post we established the fact that you should wait to prune away seemingly dead stems from winter damaged shrubs. But this weekend promises to be absolutely beautiful, and I know you are anxious to get out in the garden and do something! "What can I do?" you might be wondering.

Well first, one more "don't." Do not fertilize. Fertilizing should be done a little later on, when all danger of frost is past. 

But you can top-dress. Top-dressing is when you spread a layer of compost, composted manure, or worm castings around the plants. Top-dressing can be done any time of year, even in the middle of winter. I use the shavings from our hen house.


Poppies bloom in early Spring



You can spread mulch too, being careful not to cover the crown of the plant. Organic mulch is best--either wood chips, shredded bark, or straw. Gravel is not the mulch to use in Georgia, because it will heat the soil too much during summer and damage the plant roots.

You can plant cool season crops like collards, kale, mustard, and turnips. Sugar snap pea and snow pea seeds germinate best in cool soil. We have 3 batches of peas already coming up, and I plan to sow more today. You can broadcast seeds of larkspur and poppies now too.