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Originally published Wednesday, January 9, 2008 at 12:00 AM

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Plant Talk

Winter plants that please the hummingbirds

Q: Are there any flowering winter plants/shrubs that attract hummingbirds? I have a penstemon on my deck that still has a few blossoms...

Special to The Seattle Times

Q: Are there any flowering winter plants/shrubs that attract hummingbirds? I have a penstemon on my deck that still has a few blossoms, and the two hummingbirds that hang around my house in Kirkland all winter still go to that plant. However, it's almost finished for the season, and I'd like to plant something that will attract and possibly give nourishment to the hummingbirds during the winter months.

A: I walked through the Witt Winter Garden at Washington Park Arboretum recently, and the air was quivering with iridescent, divebombing hummingbirds, quite a sight on a cold, gray winter's day. They seemed especially delighted with the Oregon grape Mahonia x media 'Arthur Menzies' just coming into full and glorious yellow flower.

Other winter-bloomers that feed Anna's hummingbirds (the only type of hummer to overwinter here in the Northwest) are Mahonia x media 'Charity,' which blooms a little later than 'Arthur Menzies,' hellebores, sasanqua camellias and strawberry tree (Arbutus unedo). Our native flowering currant Ribes sanguineum bursts into bloom in March, just in time for the return of migrating hummers.

If you decide to supplement with a bird feeder, experts advise sticking with nectar made from water and white granulated sugar. You don't need food coloring, for the red plastic feeder attracts the birds; never use honey instead of sugar — it can transmit a tongue fungus to the hummingbirds.

Be aware that it's not just what you plant but how you garden that matters. Anna's hummingbirds dine on insects and spiders as well as nectar, and an organic garden provides far more bugs to eat and safe places to shelter than one treated with chemicals.

Q: A neighbor who was moving gave me several sacks of compost — mostly barnyard waste, according to the label — and I'd like to use them to fertilize my raised vegetable bed. How should I use them? Should I dig the compost into the bed or spread it on top? Should I do it now or wait until planting time?

A: Compost can create problems as well as solve them, so you might begin by determining if these leftover sacks of barnyard waste are really a "gift." Are they a name brand? Check with reputable nurseries to see if they carry this brand of compost, or look it up online.

Chicken manure works best for fertilizing vegetables, according to Steve Solomon, in "Growing Vegetables West of the Cascades" (sixth edition, Sasquatch Books, 2007). Solomon cautions that barnyard manure often comes from horse stables and contains way too much sawdust to be an efficient fertilizer.

If after a little research you're comfortable with the brand of compost and its ingredients, you could spread it on your raised beds now (it's best not to dig when the soil is so very wet as it is in winter). It'll mellow, filter down and improve soil texture before spring planting, even if the manure doesn't do much to boost your soil's fertility. To better understand this complex subject, check out Solomon's detailed discussion of mulches, compost and manure for vegetable gardens.

Valerie Easton also answers questions in Wednesday's Plant Talk on the back of Northwest Life. Write to her at P.O. Box 70, Seattle, WA 98111 or e-mail planttalk@seattletimes.com with your questions. Sorry, no personal replies.

Copyright © 2008 The Seattle Times Company

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