Ask the Experts
How to deter squirrels in the garden, plus hummingbird tips and more.
Is it necessary to boil the sugar-water mixture for hummingbird feeders? I just stir until the sugar is dissolved.
Kenn and Kimberly:
Opinions differ on the importance of boiling the mixture. We always do it to neutralize some impurities that might be in the water or sugar. Besides, sugar dissolves more easily in hot water. But as soon as the feeder is outdoors, contaminants will get into the water anyway, brought by hummingbirds, insects or just a breeze. So at best, boiling the mixture keeps it fresh a little longer. If your water is good and your time is limited, washing the feeder thoroughly and often is more important than boiling the sugar-water mixture.
QI took this photo near Scottsdale, Arizona. I think it’s an immature male, but is it a blackchinned or an Anna’s?
Steve Dummermuth Jr. CEDAR RAPIDS, IOWA
Kenn and Kimberly: Young male hummingbirds are tricky to identify, because they’re often somewhere between the appearance of a female and an adult male. We think this is a young male Costa’s hummingbird for several reasons. The dark outline of the throat patch, extending down and back below the eye, is very typical of Costa’s at this stage, and so is the patch of pinkish purple on the lower throat. Also, the breast and sides are clear whitish—most Anna’s and blackchinneds show more of a gray-green wash on the sides.
QMy shed was left open and I saw an eastern phoebe slipping out. Inside was a nest with four white eggs and two speckled eggs. What kind of bird lays eggs and leaves them in another nest? Patricia Bourgeois DOUGLAS, MASSACHUSETTS
Kenn and Kimberly: The four white eggs in your photo were laid by the phoebe, but a female brown-headed cowbird is responsible for the two speckled eggs. Cowbirds are brood parasites and never raise their own young. Instead, they lay their eggs in the nests of other songbirds, leaving the unwitting foster parents to hatch the eggs and feed the young. Eastern phoebes build open nests that are easy to find, so they are frequent targets for cowbirds. In some parts of their range, as many as one in four phoebe nests contains cowbird eggs.
QDo you have any tips for preventing squirrels from digging in my potted plants? I’ve tried mothballs and repellent sprays, but nothing seems to work. Mary Rumbaugh MIDLAND, MICHIGAN
Melinda: Squirrels are persistent and often destructive pests of container plantings. They have grown accustomed to humans and have all day to find ways to overcome barriers. It will take a variety of tactics and persistence on your part to keep them away. Try treating your plants with cayenne pepper as you plant, or use scare tactics, like motion-sensitive sprinklers and pinwheels. Cover new plantings with fine netting to allow air, light and water through but discourage digging. The squirrels may lose interest and move on. Once plants are established, remove the covering and monitor for squirrel damage.
QI have a 7-year-old oakleaf hydrangea in a shaded location. It grows a lot of healthy foliage that I have to prune regularly, but it bloomed only once or twice. Why do you think that is? William Stovall CHARLESTON, SOUTH CAROLINA
Melinda: It’s all about the timing when pruning this and other hydrangeas. Oakleaf hydrangeas produce flower buds the year before they bloom. Keep pruning to a minimum to maximize the floral display. Remove only the damaged and wayward branches each year as needed. This helps control the plant’s size while encouraging it to bloom. Heavy pruning stimulates growth and results in a larger plant that needs additional pruning. Selective pruning leaves you with more stems with intact flower buds for a better bloom the following year.
THE FORMULA FOR SUCCESS Stir up the perfect sugar water by combining 4 parts water to 1 part table sugar. But skip the red food dye!
PRUNE LIKE A PRO Study the shape of the plant before making any cuts and make sure you always use clean, sharp tools. Avoid overpruning by cutting only a fourth to a third of the canopy per year.