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Answering reader questions: When nonnative plants are OK, how to attract hummingbirds

  • Author: Jeff Lowenfels
    | Alaska gardening
  • Updated: February 20, 2020
  • Published February 20, 2020

Email question time.

Let’s start with the most important: When is the Community Tree Forum discussion on what to do about our loss of trees?

It’s Friday, Feb. 21, at whatever they are calling the BP Energy Center now (900 E. Benson Blvd. in Anchorage). It runs from 6 to 8 p.m. and will be a panel format with questions and answers. This is an important start of the discussion we need to have. Come.

Here is a question that allows me to clarify my position on native versus nonnative plants. One reader wants to know why I am not writing about planting anything new anymore.

Well, first, I no longer believe we are the masters of nature and can force our way on all other living things — as you can tell from my pacifist stance on dandelions. Many plants introduced to Alaska have proven not to support the our wildlife and often have other unexpected, negative consequences. If you want more information on why, I once again urge you to read professor Doug Tallamy’s “Bringing Nature Home.”

I also think there are questions of fairness as well as ethics. Is it fair to bring in a new plant that becomes invasive when others are trying to keep things natural? Is it ethical to alter the landscape and biome? These are not questions gardeners here are used to asking.

However, my desired prohibition on bringing new stuff to Alaska applies to perennials and most trees and shrubs. I am all for new, well-behaved, non-self-seeding annuals and vegetables, however. There are new varieties of annuals every year. Well-behaved fruits, like apple trees, are probably OK as well.

In sum, Alaskans simply have to stop “just planting things” to try, and surely we must rethink how we push the envelope of what has grown here before. I love kiwis, but I know they were originally a northern Chinese forest vine and not a New Zealand farm crop. It would be fun to hike the Chugach and pick fruits, but we have to be much more careful. And, I was horrified the first time I saw a Ligularia in the woods by our property. It escapes! Who knew?

Next, what do I think of Korean Natural Farming? KNF is a method of using indigenous microorganisms in soil and biochar in conjunction with fermented products. No manures are used.

The short answer is that I like the methods used and the science employed, as they are very similar to what is found in my book “Teaming With Microbes." My only complaint is that it seems like a bit too much work for this soil food webbie. Good compost is my thing.

Ah, a bird question: Does Alaska get hummingbirds and, if so, how does one attract them to the garden?

Coastal Anchorage gets hummers, so I am sure points south do as well. Even Fairbanks has had confirmed sightings. These are rufous hummingbirds. They are tiny little birds, and pound for pound they make the longest migration of any bird.

All hummingbirds are attracted to red and orange. One suggestion to attract them is to tie strips of red or orange surveyor’s tape around trees. Surveyor flags waving in the breeze are another idea. A red hummingbird feeder is important. And red, trumpet-shaped flowers help as well. For the latter, check out things like bee balms, columbines, lupines, foxgloves, hollyhocks, cleomes, impatiens and petunias. Some suggest red and orange lilies as well.

And, last, a great reminder question: What are those small, South American tubers you rave about every spring when they are too hard to get? Shouldn’t we order them now?

Ah, yacons! (See, I still like new things!). These small, sweet-tasting tubers are relatives of the sunflower and are from the Andes. Container-grown, they don’t spread. They produce a sweet tuber that can be eaten like candy or ground up and used like sugar. There are a few sources at Once you grow your first crop, you can use some of the tubers for next year’s crop so you don’t have to buy them again.

By the way, I am not the only one on to these tubers. Do an internet search for the word “yacon.” You will come up with all sorts of yacon products, including a soil conditioner!

Jeff’s Alaska garden calendar

Alaska Botanical Garden spring conference: Check for last-minute space for this weekend’s event: Sometimes folks cancel and give up their seat.

Star-gazing party: 7-8:30 p.m. Monday, Feb. 24 (weather permitting). Join local astronomers from the Southcentral Alaska Astronomical Society at the Alaska Botanical Garden. Telescopes will be provided, but bring your own if you have one. Leave bright headlamps and flashlights at home (red lights are OK). This event will be held at the research plot next to the parking lot and it is free.

Seed racks: They are here. They are dangerous. How many seeds will you actually plant this spring?

Seeds to start: Sweet peas. Soak or nick them. Pinch after the first four leaves.