Fall Beckons

There are two types of people: those who need to know why the leaves change to various colours and those who just want to enjoy their beauty.

Regardless of which type you are, the forest is beckoning – and the trees are enjoying their prime colour weeks. These are the warmest days left this year. Go and explore – look up, look down, see with fresh eyes, and enjoy the whole glorious experience of fall in Altona Forest.





What makes leaves turn colours? Why do they fall? Why are there different colours? Click on the linked sentences below and learn all about it…

Leaf colour comes from the pigments in leaves. The green is chlorophyll – the photosynthesis pigment that helps the tree manufacture it’s food using sunlight. But there are also carotenoids (yellow) and sometimes anthocyanins (red) in leaves.

When the nights are cooler and daylight hours lessen, trees are triggered into a survival process in order to preserve their energy and survive the coming winter. The trees’ energy is stored in it’s trunk and roots. Leaves are expendable – and can be liabilities in winter.  As the chlorophyll is drained from and destroyed in the leaves, the other existing pigments begin to show. Leaves become more translucent and can look like they are lit from inside by the sun.

“At the point where the stem of the leaf is attached to the tree, a special layer of cells develops and gradually severs the tissues that support the leaf. At the same time, the tree seals the cut, so that when the leaf is finally blown off by the wind or falls from its own weight, it leaves behind a leaf scar.” That’s why it’s called ‘fall’

Fall Beckons ~ © 2016 Natasha G




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The Real Pawpaw

I didn’t know what the native pawpaw was until 3 years ago. Maybe I’m a little slow with this: I didn’t even know it existed. Did you imagine that southern Ontario was home to a ‘tropical fruit’?

I thought the pawpaw was a very different fruit not realizing that the papaya, a popular fruit of central-American origin, is sometimes given the misnomer ‘pawpaw’. This gave rise to the fruity confusion. Some disambiguation is needed: the papaya (Carica papaya) is not even from the same tree family as the pawpaw (Asimina triloba). The real pawpaw is a native, eastern North American, temperate, fruit tree bearing sweet banana-meets-mango fruit* that is very rare in Ontario but grows wild in the southern Carolinian eco-zone.

Pawpaw is Canada’s largest native fruit – and a marvel of nature because a tropical fruit tree evolved hardiness to expand it’s range further and further northward to eventually withstand a southern Ontario winter.


The form could be shrub-like or single-stem 20ft tree like this one. The pawpaw fruit are found hiding under the leaves

Where do you find pawpaw? There are still some wild stands in the Niagara peninsula. Was the Altona Forest area once host to this delicious fruit? It would be speculation, but the lake-effect warmth, sheltered sunny valleys, and fertile soils would likely have seen one or two pawpaws grow in the Carolinian areas near the protected shores and valleys of Lake Ontario that are now Rouge National Park and Altona Forest (Petticoat Creek watershed). Since the last ice age is still retreating, could this tree’s northern ‘migration’ be naturally continuing?

Though once common, pawpaws were almost lost to their native Canadian range with the construction of towns and cities on the fertile lands where they grew. The shores of Lakes Erie and Ontario are protective and temperate – and now very developed. Pawpaws fell to progress. Since these areas are the tree’s northern-most range, there would have been fewer trees to begin with since the winters challenged them – and since they need at least one other tree to cross pollinate with, a single tree would have little chance of repopulating an area.

The problem with pawpaws is that they don’t do well as a fruit to take to market – they bruise, their natural black spots don’t look appetizing, they have very thin skins, and they go bad within a couple of days of being picked. This propensity for spoilage made them seep from the collective consciousness, though their history includes being used regularly and prized by the first nations and then settlers.


Ripe pawpaw fruit such as these don’t look appetizing – but looks are deceiving

If you are quick-acting, lucky, and live in Toronto or Ajax, you can buy two native pawpaw trees for your garden through Your Leaf. There are limited quantities. Sadly Pickering doesn’t participate in the Your Leaf program. You will need a pair of trees because they will need to cross-pollinate to provide fruit – of course you and your neighbour can each plant one as long as they are only about 15 feet apart according to Your Leaf.  And since the tree is a suitable city-garden size of 20ft tall at maturity, it will fit well into many urban settings. If you grow one, save me some seeds please.

There are some challenges to growing pawpaws since the Altona Forest area is pushing the northern edge of the range. You will need to find a sunny, protected spot that gets ample water. If you are starting from seed, their seeds cannot dry before planting. So if you eat a fruit, put the seeds into a ziplock bag with a damp paper towel and plant it as soon as possible. (If you’re not planting them, offer the seeds to others as they are in demand and a tree that produces sweet fruits will have off-spring that offer that same sweetness.)

For butterfly lovers the pawpaw offers one final draw: it is the host plant for zebra swallowtail butterflies and a sure way to draw them to your garden!

In my annual winery tours of Niagara, I will definitely be sourcing some pawpaws to try! There is a resurgence in interest, awareness, and cultivation of this native fruit. Just imagine the delicious food you can collect from your own garden for your table – and I’m sure wildlife from the area would be only too happy to help you with any ‘lost’ fruit!

*I have to admit (very sadly) that I have not yet tasted an Ontario pawpaw. I have read many accounts of what it tastes like and am going with the banana/mango description though others say it tastes a little like melon or custard since it’s from the custard apple family. Apparently they also smell heavenly – a pineapple, guava, banana sweet scent. If you’ve tasted one, please add a comment about it’s sweetness, colour, flavour and texture!


Leaves of the pawpaw in fall     (Image ~ Pixabay)

Resources ~ Begin Your Reading Here

Pawpaw Overview (University of Texas at Austin)

Planting Guide – Pawpaws (Kentucky State U information)

Tasting Pawpaws in Ontario

Native Pawpaws

Sourcing Pawpaws for Your Garden

Pawpaw Plant Profile (USDA)

Pawpaw Growing Conditions

Planting My Pawpaw

Enjoying Pawpaws (USA information)

Foraging for Pawpaws (US information)

Pawpaw Photo Gallery

‘America’s Forgotten Fruit’

About Pawpaw (US video)

A Pawpaw Grove (US video)

Your Table ~ Got Pawpaws?

The Real Pawpaw ~ © 2016 Natasha G












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Spice World

I’ve discovered a native shrub-tree that is a real find for gardeners. The native spicebush (Lindera benzoin) is a species that has lots to offer both the gardener and local biodiversity.

Spicebush (also called wild allspice) is northern dwelling member of the wider laurel family and has a large range in eastern North America. It is an adaptable understory tree that can be found in lowlands, marsh edges, and woodlands. Forest animals such as possums, raccoons and rabbits feed on the spicebush, pollinators enjoy the flowers and use it as a host, and birds eat the fruit and help spread the seeds.


Spicebush via WikiCommons                                                                                                              Image ~  USGS Bee Inventory and Monitoring Lab from Beltsville, Maryland, USA –

Here’s what makes spicebush a winner:

  • It is a large shrub so it can look like a small scale tree in the smallest of urban spaces. It grows 6-9′ tall and equally wide.
  • It offers springtime flowers. The spicebush puts out yellow floral bundles in the early spring. While the individual blossoms are not showy, the shrub becomes eye-catching and visually interesting with bare branches adorned with small yellow pom-poms. Enjoy it’s beauty while it’s providing early-season food for native pollinators.
  • It offers fall colour. Spicebush bookends the growing season with yellow displays. It ends the season with a show of bright yellow leaves on its wide branches.
  • Female plants produce fruit – small, edible, glossy-crimson berry-like drupes ripen in fall. The berries of spicebush feed birds like wood thrushes, robins, kingbirds, and catbirds. Spicebush is so popular with migratory birds, you might never see a berry.
  • It’s scented; that’s how it got its name ‘spicebush’. The scent from the leaves, flowers, fruit and stems is described as being clove-like, citrusy and spicy. I planted mine in October – to me they smelled tangy.
  • It’s a primary host plant for gorgeous pollinators you will want to draw to your space! Spicebush is a favoured food of the day-flying spicebush swallowtail butterfly’s famously charming caterpillars and the large night-flying  promethea silkmoth’s larvae. It is also favoured by other swallowtails (such as eastern swallowtail).
  • It can handle acid or alkaline soils and short periods of very wet or moderately dry soil. It has excellent adaptability in lowlands and wet soils.
  • Spicebush is a rain garden superstar that should be recognized for it’s full potential. Rain gardens are low-lying areas built to accommodate downpours and short-term puddles- with water flowing from your driveway, roof and gutter system. Rain gardens use water-tolerant plants and create a beautiful, ecologically-smart,  low-maintenance way to support our biodiversity, streams, and water table.
  • Spicebush is very cold-hardy in our area once established.
  • It thrives in part-shade conditions which many gardens have and many gardeners struggle with. For gardens with those impossible low, wet, partly-shady areas, this is an underused gem!

Does Carolinian native spicebush grow wild in Altona Forest? I don’t know – but I hope so!  I am not sufficiently skilled to be able to identify them, but the current natural range includes the Niagara area, Bruce Peninsula, and as far north-east as Belleville. Altona Forest’s high water table and wet sun-dappled forest offers ideal growing conditions. If you’ve seen them in Altona Forest or have grown them in your garden, please share your insights.

Planting native species often begins with a hard look at the conditions and constraints of your space: is it wet or dry through the season, how much light will the target spot receive on a daily basis (you can’t cheat light conditions), how much space does the mature shrub/tree require, your soil conditions. Spicebush is an easy fit and problem solver. The only catch is that this native is tricky to transplant because it takes time, regular watering, and care to re-establish itself. Once established, it’s low maintenance.

While the weather is hot, dry, and hostile to planting right now, the year’s best time to plant shrubs and trees begins in September. Fall heralds in warm days, a little more rain, cool nights, and sun-warmed, welcoming earth; shrubs and trees settle in well (with a little consistent watering). I hope this will inspire you for fall planting of this and other native species.


PLEASE NOTE: A coloured Province or State means this species occurs SOMEWHERE in that Province/State. Ontario is coloured, regardless of the limited areas where spicebush grows naturally. Range map provided courtesy of the USDA website and is displayed here in accordance with their policies

Resources ~ Begin your reading here:

Spicebush Overview and Photos

Growing Conditions Spicebush

About Spicebush (wiki)

Shrub Overview

Spicebush Characteristics

USDA Plant Guide (pdf)

Spicebush Importance to Birds

Pictorial Blog Post – Spicebush and Biodiversity

Designing Your Landscape for Wildlife

How to Select Native Plants (Credit Valley Conservation Authority)

Ordering Spicebush (for Ajax, Toronto or York – Pickering does not participate in the YourLeaf program. I have sourced my shrub from a small independent grower)

Human Uses for Spicebush

This is not the same plant as Carolina Allspice – another aromatic eastern NA native worth your consideration.

Spice World ~ © 2016 Natasha G



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Forest Bathing

What is forest bathing? It’s not running through Altona Forest in the rain. I’m referring to a Japanese concept I ran into about 2 years ago – Shinrin-yoku (森林浴). It’s a practice of engaging with forests to increase your psychological and physiological health – and doctors in Japan give prescriptions for it. Since its early 1980’s inception, this type of ecotherapy focused on tuning into nature, and letting go of the ‘mental noise’ and devices that structure our days. I’ve been noticing how it links with groundbreaking science. Let’s just call it ‘forest therapy’ and look at what walking in the forest can do for you.

May9 041.JPG

You can expect physical activity and perhaps the social interaction of the experience to increase your sense of well-being. You already know how activity positively affects the body, but does walking in a forest go beyond conventional benefits?

Stress reduction is one factor: the same person walking on a city walk for the same amount of time doesn’t get the same level of benefit as walking in the forest. The one variable is where the walk takes place – forest.

It’s almost instinctive knowledge that simply being in nature is healthy and beneficial. Fresh air, dappled sun, cool tree canopy. To connect with nature in a forest gives us mental and physical health benefits that have developed over the millennia of our evolution. We developed synergy with natural spaces.

One very simple way to look at it is that humans are a part of nature – not distinct or removed from it.  The types of places that sheltered our evolution resonate in our bodies: we physically react to terrain that nurtured our species. The colours, sights, sounds, touch and smells of nature are as much a part of us as oxygen. We have been denying our deep connection to the natural world for longer than two heavily-industrialized centuries… moving away from the environments that sustained us. It’s interesting that the effects of being in forests are both immediate and increase exponentially over time.


image from urbankidadventures.com

Forest therapy goes beyond just the benefits of a ‘walk in the park’; the full Japanese experience takes it a level further for deeper health benefits. It involves all of the senses and engaging in the experience. It’s not a fast-paced heart-rate enhancer (though you could work on that as separate goal). Forest bathing is meant as a way to connect with nature – slow walking, sitting, silent contemplation, looking more deeply. Slow down – get rid of the myriad of devices, still the hyperactive commentary in your head, and try to stay in the moment. Notice what is around you. This practice has similiar effects to meditation. Look up, and side to side, far into the distance and also close to your trail – don’t only look at the trail just in front of you. Stop to contemplate and enjoy a flower, tree, lichen, or mushroom. Touch the trunk of a tree (tree huggers had it right all along!). Listen for the taps of woodpeckers, songs of birds, the shuffle of squirrels. Breathe deeply. All these simple processes lower cortisol levels, lower blood pressure,  improve mood and decrease ADD in children.

As you are breathing deeply you will absorb the forest’s phytoncides. These plant-produced chemicals are a plant’s defense system to protect themselves from attack – from insects and bacteria. Phytoncides are being researched to find exactly how they work within our bodies – because there is a proven synergy where the human body has learned to utilize these tree-produced chemicals (good voc’s – volatile organic compounds) to bolster its own defense systems. These chemicals work on the cellular level to increase our bodies’ fight against disease – even major diseases like cancer. They are antibacterial and antifungal and boost our immune systems by increasing the activity of  ‘natural killer cells’ which attack invasive cells in our bodies. Our bodies can’t produce phytoncides, but they know how to utilize them – and the positive effects last for days after contact has ended.

This discovery is seductively interesting: extrapolate what it can mean for long-term health for anyone with regular access to walking in a forest!

How much ‘forest bathing’ do you need? Mary Carol Hunter of the University of Michigan’s research indicates that just 10 minutes in nature 2-3 times a week begins to show beneficial changes to mental health, cortisol levels, and with increased time short term memory began to show improvement. Twenty minutes a day ‘significantly’ boosts vitality levels – based on an older study.

Walk slowly. Breath deeply. Take your time ‘bathing’ on Altona’s trails and enjoy an increased sense of vitality, energy, and resilience to illness!

(Please please please…. don’t take it too literally! I don’t want to find you bathing with the frogs in the amphibian pond!)


Resources ~ Begin your reading here:

Join Us – Get Started With a Free Guided Hike in Altona Forest

Forest Bathing ~ © 2016 Natasha G



Found on slideshare.net







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Going Guerilla for Milkweed

There is something delicious about being rebellious! It’s also amazing to see your actions make change for the better happen in a visible way. When what you do saves monarch butterflies and improves biodiversity, it feels even better.

This past fall I signed Suzuki’s Monarch Manifesto and really meant it. I collected about 20 ripe, split-open pods of ‘common milkweed’ from a field near a friend’s cottage in Haliburton. These are native, wild-grown, and are diverse genetically from the few remaining milkweed plants in Altona Forest.


Swamp milkweed – prefers full sun and wet soils (poor soils are fine)

I collected ripe common milkweed pods on a dry, cool day in fall… and stored them in a paper bag. On a sunny, slightly breezy day at Altona Forest’s hydro corridor entrance, I let the fine filaments of the seeds take flight into the sunny open areas that milkweed thrives in. It was amazing – and strangely exciting and therapeutic- to see all those seeds take flight. (I recommend it for the sheer fun value!)

The hope is that these seeds will become tall milkweed plants. They will provide nectar, nurseries and protection for monarch butterflies. The monarchs help to pollinate the plants and the symbiotic circle will continue with new seeds flying in fall to help continue seeding the hydro corridor’s sunny wasted spaces. Milkweeds (asclepias) are perennials – so they will return year after year to support monarchs and other pollinators.

I’m getting ahead of myself. For a ‘weed’, milkweed can be challenging to get started from seed. Just ask people who’ve tried to grow it. I’ve been asked how to make it grow – but I’m as new to it as you are. I sourced great tips:

  • Milkweed seeds are fully ripe only when the pods split open naturally – when they open when you lightly press on the pod’s seam. Harvesting earlier means the seeds are wasted – too green to be viable;
  • Ensure that the seeds are fresh, dry and well ‘ripened’ – they are prone to mold and bacteria if damp. Molded and rotted seeds won’t grow. Carefully dried and stored milkweed seeds can last up to 15 years;
  • Find an area with the right sun conditions – generally as much sun as possible
  • Let the seeds fly and ‘overwinter’ (go through the needed ‘vernalization’ of a moist cold period required for germination);
  • Distribute them where the milkweed would be mostly undisturbed by foot traffic and animals.

Milkweed may flower in it’s first season, but people growing milkweed report that it can sometimes take up to three years for a bloom. Experienced milkweed gardeners recommend the ‘milk jug method’ because it allows for outdoor growing, natural stratification (the breaking down of the seed’s hard outer layer), and easy transplanting. If you need to stratify and vernalize the seeds artificially, then separate them from their ‘wings’ and keep them in a fridge for 30 days with slight dampness and sterile vermiculite.

I hope to see a few milkweed plants this summer. A beginning. Hope for a wildflower-filled future in the hydro lands at the north gate of Altona Forest. If you grow the native milkweeds, I invite you to join me in being a ‘native guerilla’.

The sunny open spaces in underused land is a great opportunity to ‘go guerrilla’ with surplus native wildflower seeds you may have. What else would like this area? Any of the monarch’s other native food sources like rudbeckia (black-eyed susans), all varieties of cone-flowers, native lupine, prairie smoke, blazingstar, native asters and blanket flower. Natural fields and meadows are areas with high biodiversity of birds, pollinators and native flowers  –  a habitat missing from Altona Forest thanks to development.


Perfect relationship – monarch and common milkweed

Altona Forest is off limits – due to protective regulations and poor growing conditions for  field wildflowers.

Guerrilla gardening is an art. Aim for good seed variety – and Ontario natives. There are many similar plants that are not native. Choose only native plants – to support local biodiversity in the roadside ditches, empty lots, and yes – places like the hydro corridor. All great projects begin at home – so plant some native wildflowers in your own garden first. They will provide food for butterflies and seeds for you to scatter.

There are 3 main things to keep in mind when going guerrilla for wildflowers:

Source: Don’t deplete one natural area to add to another (or to a home garden) – that’s simply destructive. If you’re collecting milkweed seeds like I was, be kind and respectful of genetic variety and take one pod from each plant that has multiple ripe and viable pods. If you are wild-collecting – it’s illegal to collect from any conservation area.

Native Species: Be sure that what you are collecting and dispersing is actually a native wildflower. How do you know? You can work backwards and choose some species from a trusted book or website on natives… and harvest them from your friends’ gardens. Or you can purchase some native plants from a trusted source, and collect their seeds when they mature.

Place: As in real-estate, success is all about a great location. Common milkweed doesn’t grow in wet conditions (however swamp milkweed does!). Milkweed needs at least 7 hours of direct sunlight in a typical day. Field wildflowers generally need as much sun as they can get… and they don’t like to be trampled so beside a foot path is not the best spot.

When you are wandering Altona Forest later this summer, stand at the hydro corridor gate and the area just in front of you will hopefully have some milkweed blooming. Please tell me if you see monarchs!

Tip & Project: Take a variety of native wildflower seeds from your garden and make ‘seed bombs’ or ‘seed balls’ with them. It’s as much fun to make seed-bombs as it is to deploy them! This is a great project for a social club or for kids –  Instructions…


Swamp milkweed in Altona Forest


Resources ~ Begin your reading here:

This time I’ve hotlinked resources through the article… so simply click through to begin your own reading

Some of the tips on growing milkweed come from the live webinars presented through the US Fish and Wildlife Service’s monarch butterflies conservation initiative. Though some of the best information and Q&A comes from the live chat window during the presentations!



Going Guerilla for Wildflowers ~ © 2016 Natasha G


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Meeting Mothra

Let me be frank: I knew absolutely nothing about the giant moth I met today. I really dislike bugs and strive for a mutual-avoidance policy. Yes; that’s pretty closed-minded of me. However, I got to be a part of something immensely hopeful and rather special, so I’ll share this with you to spark your interest. It certainly sparked mine and I slipped down the rabbit-hole of internet research to learn more.

The two co-chairs of the Altona Forest Stewardship Committee are much more bug-oriented and monitored the cocoons they received at a entomological presentation over a period of weeks and released two cecropia moths into (we hope!) Altona Forest. They are native species to our area – the largest moths in Ontario. Part of the giant silk moth family, their silk is stronger than the silk commonly used for fabrics. They are spectacular creatures.

These moths are beautiful – with velvet wingspans of about 11-15 cms. The bottom wings move independently of the top like sliding doors as they open and move. Each wing has a partial ‘eye’ with the top wings having a full black eye at the tips. The bands of creamy white occur near the base, at 2/3, and the edges of the wings. They have striking russet-red and white banded bodies with red legs.

The first to emerge from chrysalis and gain strength was a female (we believe) who was released on May 21. She emerged from her container and … perfect for the non bug-lover… immediately flew onto my back and climbed almost to my hair. She sat there posing for many photos against my black t-shirt. She then flew to a cedar at the edge of Altona Forest and nestled herself into the tree’s cover. We watched her for about an hour as a speck against the tree.


On June 2, the second (who we hope is a male) was released in the same location. He was more hesitant and enjoyed the branches of an apple tree before heading (the wrong way) over a rooftop and hopefully to the protective cover of a nearby tree.

Cecropia are night-flyers and the two released will hopefully have found shelter during the bird-feeding daylight hours. While hidden, hopefully the male will pick up the scent of the female with his large fern-like antenna, and find her to create a new generation in Altona Forest or our neighbourhood. The forest has many larval host trees – birch, ash, dogwood, sugar maple and apple.

These moths have a limited life span in this life-stage; only a couple of weeks. Their emergence from the cocoon stage is temperature or weather dependent: this ensures that they all emerge at the same time to allow for a viable breeding window. Since these specimens were partially raised indoors after their obligatory cold-weather stage, their emergence was not synchronized. We hope they find partners!

Their primary focus once they emerge is to survive to breed. The females constantly move their wings to release pheromones that the males are able to pick up even a couple of kilometers away! They are easily seen and offer a large delicious meal for many birds or other predators – so their short time as moths is precarious.

Since cecropia moths are nocturnal and only in flight for a few weeks (late May to early July each year), sightings are rare. Have you been lucky enough to see this moth in Altona Forest or the near-by area?



Many thanks to John and Larry for inviting me to the ‘release party’ – more photos


Post Script: Just days after meeting the giant moth above, I met a second member of the giant silk moth family with a 6″ wing span on an Altona Forest south trail. These are 2 of 4 local giant silk moths – this one is called polyphemus.


Resources ~ Begin Your Reading Here

Cecropia Moths – wiki

Cecropia Life Cycle

Photo-story of Life Cycle

Attributes and Range

Giant Silk Moths – The 4 Types

Butterfly and Moth Guide – Ontario

Meeting Mothra ~ © 2016 Natasha G

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Feeding and Protecting Hummingbirds

Hurray For Spring! What signals spring for you? Tulips? The last stubborn bit of that pile of driveway snow disappearing?  A visit to the garden centre?


Young male in a native redbud tree about 100ft from Altona Forest

My spring truly arrives when the ruby-throated hummingbirds return to my garden. They are my ‘boys (and girls) of summer’ and harbingers of all the glorious warm days ahead. I am always ready for them and prepared to offer them safe, healthy, dependable food sources to protect them and their new generation born in our woods.

When I lived on the land bridge between Lakes Ontario and Erie, I’d consistently see my first hummer in mid-April. Here in Pickering it’s 3 weeks later. Why? I think it’s because the land bridge acts as a migration path for those headed to the far north (it’s much safer to fly following land rather than risk flying non-stop across the deadly expanse of a Great Lake). And Altona’s location is less migration and more ‘destination’ to nest for the summer.

If you provide hummingbirds with nectar other than pollinator-friendly flowers, be aware that they are easy to draw – but just as easy to kill. Mold in feeders, bacteria-filled ‘sour’ nectar, and chemicals are all potentially lethal for them in the huge quantities they consume.

Here are 10 safety-conscious tips to welcome hummingbirds to your garden:

  1. The best, easiest, low-maintenance way to draw hummingbirds is to plant nectar-producing plants, shrubs and trees they love. Try natives like redbud (tree), cardinal flower, bee balm, blazing star, beard-tongue (much prettier than it sounds), trumpet vine, or some non-natives like weigela, honeysuckle, morning glory, rose of sharon (shrub/tree), fuschia, zinnias etc…
  2. Choosing the right feeder is very important. Choose one with wasp-blocking ports, ant-blocking/ ant moat design, bee-guards, ones that have little/no yellow (which is a colour that draws some wasp species who actually chase hummers away) and has lots of red on it. The sweet nectar you are offering will draw all sorts of pollinators – and it can be a challenge to feed just the hummingbirds.
  3. Red draws hummingbirds. You don’t need red food colouring in nectar – these concentrated chemical dyes can harm the birds and their young. Companies add it to lure hummingbirds to their product – so you’ll buy it. Instead, if you want to increase your gardens’ visibility to hummingbirds, use a red feeder or tie red or orange ribbons to your feeder pole.
  4. Choose a feeder that is easy to clean (you will be cleaning and refilling it regularly!). More important than providing food is making sure that the feeder is squeaky clean (and cleaned 1-2x a week each week) throughout the feeding season. Choosing a well designed feeder for cleaning will not only help you protect the birds, but save you hours in trying to get into tiny areas where dangerous mold could grow.
  5. Clean and prepare your feeders about two weeks before you expect your first hummingbird. This not only establishes you as the ‘place to be’ for arriving hummingbirds, but provides food for the earliest travelers who might be desperately hungry after their migration into cold and food-scarce areas. You might save the life of an early arriver. In Altona Forest, the first hummingbird consistently arrives in the second week of May.
  6. Change your nectar every 4-5 days in cool weather (whether or not you see hummingbirds)
  7. Change your nectar every 2-3 days in warm weather – harmful bacteria grows quickly in sugar-water. Clean your feeder with a tiny amount of the mildest dish soap, vinegar or simply hot water. Rinse well … and then again… to keep all chemicals out of their food. Use brushes (I buy a fresh child’s toothbrush each season for sole use of cleaning the hummingbird feeder ports and insides) to clean into the hard-to-reach spots where potentially lethal mold and mildew accumulate. Hummingbirds are very susceptible to harsh cleaners so I use soap that is 98% plant sourced and still rinse thoroughly.
  8. Begin with one feeder, but if you see an aggressive bird monopolizing that feeder, hang a second. Learn from my mistake: your second feeder should be around the corner or visually hidden from the first or the aggressive bird might ‘claim’ both. This territorial behaviour is natural: they arrive to mate, nest, and find a feeding territory to support their young. Territorial flight displays are spectacular so just enjoy!
  9. Judge your feeder’s capacity needs based on how many birds you draw. I find that a small tube feeder is enough for my multiple families because I clean and add new nectar every 2-3 days.  Don’t overfill – it wastes nectar. In time you’ll learn how much your visitors need for 2-3 days. (The photo below is my version of a ‘full feeder’)
  10. At season’s end, you will see your ‘regulars’ disappear (mid-to-late September in Altona Forest) as they begin their long migration back to Central America. Continue providing nectar and keep your feeders fresh for 2-3 weeks to support young inexperienced birds, stragglers, and commuters heading south from as far north as Thunder Bay. Those who find you on their migration route will likely visit you again and again over subsequent years.

A female sipping in my garden

Hummingbirds are vastly different from us in how their internal organs work and how their livers and kidneys can process chemicals – we don’t yet fully understand how ‘fake foods’ affect them, their eggs, and chicks. We have to be aware and bear the responsibility that we are their nursery each summer… they travel thousands of kilometers to nest in our woods.

Providing hummingbirds with food is easy; doing it with their safety and longevity in mind is harder. Are you up for the challenge?



A male with the ‘flash’ on his throat feathers              image ~ pixabay


Resources ~ Begin Your Reading Here

Ruby Throated Hummingbird Migration to Our Region

2016 Ontario Ruby-Hummingbird Migration Tracker

Historical Ontario Migration Sightings Map (zoom in to see the Altona Forest arrival dates)

Migration Tracker (Through the US)

Hummingbird Range Map

Feeding And Protecting Hummingbirds ~ © 2016 Natasha G


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