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Adventures in Rural Living

Interview With a Livestock Guardian Dog

Marie James head shotTwo valuable members of our family are our Maremma livestock guardian dogs, Augie and Callie. They watch over our chickens and the people who live and visit within their assigned territory. Though coyotes, bears, and an occasional cougar traverse our property, none of those intruders are allowed within our fencelines. 



 Our Maremma Livestock Guardian dogs Augie and Callie
Augie and Callie are usually very busy day and night doing their patrols and checking on everyone and everything on the farm. But this week, Augie took the time to write a post for our family’s blog, Rural Living Today. After reading it, I asked Augie if I could interview him for this GRIT blog.

The huge fluffy dog agreed, and we sat down for a chat. Here is what he has to say.

Augie, we understand that the term “livestock guardian dog” applies to a group of dog breeds used for centuries to protect and defend flocks of sheep and goats. Tell us more about these breeds. 

Well, there are several breeds of LGDs (that's short for Livestock Guardian Dogs). Of course, I am partial to Maremma Sheepdogs, since I am one, but the others do a good job too! The most common in the western world are (in alphabetical order) Anatolian Shepherds, Great Pyrenees, and Maremmas. The Akbash, Kommondors, Kuvasz, and Tibetan Mastiffs are also becoming better known outside of the old countries.

How are the LGD breeds alike and different? 

We all have some basic instincts that are the same. We all work hard to protect and defend our stock and our property. But there are differences too. Some breeds bond more to the stock or people, and some bond more to the boundaries they defend. Some are more likely to grow fond of children, and some would rather not be touched and petted very much.

How are the LGD breeds different from other dog breeds? 

LGDs are wired instinctively to do whatever is necessary to protect our charges. We will even give our lives for our flocks and our people. We were not bred to be pets, though we are nice to have around and some of us really like people. We weren’t bred to be show dogs, as the focus on beauty and obedience could distract from our effectiveness on our jobs. We are not herding dogs, though we can herd our stock into a corner to protect them if need be.  

 Maremma Livestock Guardian dog Augie
Can LGDs be trained for obedience? 

Why yes, we can be taught to sit, wait, come, stay back, and those kinds of things. If we know you are the alpha, we will obey. But our inner instincts will override our wish to obey if we feel there’s a danger. Don’t be surprised if I suddenly take off for the far corner of the property to scare off a coyote. If you tell me to get back when a stranger is there, and I sense you are in danger, I will want to stay at your side. I’m not being rebellious or disagreeable; I’m just letting my top priority and instincts take over until the danger is gone.

How do you LGDs learn your job?

Well, first of all, we start watching our mothers when we are very young. We will go on patrol with them and they’ll show us how the LGD work is done. Later we learn from other LGDs how to treat the stock, how to be watchful for threats, and how to bark different barks. The other dogs will teach us, train us, and correct us.   

Do you need people to train you too? 

Oh yes, definitely. They should show us our area to patrol and introduce us to our stock and people in the family that we are to guard. They should let us know what is normal and routine around the farm so we will know what isn’t. As puppies we shouldn’t be left alone with stock that might hurt us, or with little critters that we might play too roughly with. If there isn’t an older working LGD to teach us, the humans have to do the training. We will instinctively guard and protect, but we need to know the rules of your farm. 

 Maremma Livestock Guardian dog Callie
What are the basic requirements of a home for an LGD?

First of all, we work best in a team, so we prefer to have a partner or two. We need clear boundaries—good fences—that tell us what area we are to protect. We need a strong alpha human with time to work with us, making expectations clear and showing us what to protect. On a more practical side, we don’t usually like enclosed houses but we need shelter from extreme weather. We need lots of water and good food—plenty of it, because we are large dogs.

Is there anything else you’d like humans to know about LGDs? 

Yes. Please don’t scold us for barking. LGDs bark! We bark day and night. We bark to warn far-off howling coyotes to stay away. We bark to tell passing deer and bears not to come any closer. We bark to announce approaching vehicles and anything that is out of the ordinary or does not belong. Yes, we will even bark at raccoons and chipmunks. Now, I don’t mean we should be allowed to bark for no reason or taunt the livestock with barking. Correct us for that, but please let us do our job-related barking.

And that reminds me of some good names for LGDs. How about Bob Barker? Sir Barksalot? Barkley? Tree Bark? Almond Bark? Okay, now I’m getting a little out there with names. Better go do my patrol and stuff that I’m good at.

Thank you, Augie Doggie, for the enlightening interview! For more insight into the life of Augie and his sister, Callie, see Augie’s post at Rural Living Today. 

Marie and her husband, Jim, are developing a farm in the Pacific Northwest with their adult children and grandchildren. At The Homesteader Kitchen Marie and her daughter review kitchen equipment and talk about preparing and preserving delicious food. Along with other family members, Marie shares glimpses of country life at Rural Living Today and teaches practical skills at The Homesteader School 

Growing Veggies in Fall and Winter

For years we’ve been planting our vegetable garden in spring and summer, enjoying the bounty until it runs out or the plants die with the first frosts of fall.

We’ve used mulch and row cover to extend the harvest a bit, but we’ve never had anything fresh from the garden past October.

The only garden produce we’d eat for the rest of the year was whatever had been frozen, canned, dehydrated, or stored away in a root cellar.

This year that’s going to change. Even in our four-season climate, it’s possible to harvest fresh veggies not only in the summer and fall, but all year round. We’re going to get in on the fun. 

 fall pea crop   

Late planting of peas for fall crop.  

All it takes is careful planning and some kind of protection against the elements of winter.  

Over at our family blog, Rural Living Today, we’ve been discussing fall and winter gardening. First we reviewed a great book that had inspired us. Niki Jabbour, author of The Year-Round Vegetable Gardener, raises fresh greens and other veggies during Nova Scotia’s true winters. She got us thinking maybe we could, too.

As we gathered more information and planned our strategy, we put together a brief introduction to cold-season gardening. We’ll continue to blog with more details, ideas, and suggestions from a number of sources.

Fall gardening includes both extending the harvest of summer crops and planting specifically for fall production.  

Mulches, row covers, and low tunnels are fairly simple ways to make this work. For winter production, those methods can be supplemented by the use of cold frames and greenhouses. A combination of more than one material or structure will multiply the protection factor.

Photo by Adobestock/argot

A few factors will improve success with fall and winter gardening. 

Selecting the right plants and varieties 

  • Many root crops may be left in the ground, mulched well, and harvested as need throughout the winter.
  • Hardy vegetables such as carrots, kale, leeks, and mâche may need nothing more than poly hoops.
  • Less hardy vegetables and herbs may require a cold frame to continue providing fresh greens for several weeks or months. Perennial herbs (rosemary, sage, thyme) may remain green longer in this environment, delaying dormancy.
  • Beans, eggplant, peppers, squash, and tomatoes may continue to bear or ripen fruit in a heated greenhouse. 
  • See our suggested plant list here. 
 young cilantro 
New cilantro plant getting ready for fall 


Starting with mature plants  

  • All plants should reach maturity before cold weather sets in. Seeds should be planted well before the average date of first frost. 
  • Some plants will continue to grow in protective structures; others will be in a “holding pattern,” maintaining their freshness until harvest.
Selecting a convenient, sunny site
  • Winter veggies will do you no good if they’re not accessible! Many people like to site their structures near the house or a path that is well-used even in winter. 
  • Root crops buried under deep mulch can be placed anywhere, but plants growing above ground should be located where the sun will warm them on bright winter days. A south-facing slope is ideal. The sun’s rays will reach through clear and opaque row cover, polyethylene, plastic, and glass coverings.

Protecting plants from the elements
Several types of materials and structures provide protection from frigid air and frost. These include:

  • Plastic or glass cloches (jars, jugs, bowls placed over individual plants for light frosts)
  • Mulch (straw, leaves, pine needles)
  • Row cover fabric (flat or hooped)
  • Plastic or polyethylene hoops (film placed over rigid hoops)
  • Cold frame (protective sides with clear glass or plastic lid)
  • Greenhouse (unheated or heated)
  3 cloches 

Three simple cloches from the kitchen--the milk jug allows ventilation, but the storage container and jar should be removed each morning to give the plant air.

 So what does this mean for my family's fall gardening schedule? 
  • We made a point of succession planting into late July, directly sowing patches of carrots and peas to mature in the cool temps of September.
  • Though we’ve never had our indoor seed-starting setup in operation past June, in August we cranked up the grow lights and started a batch of seedlings to provide fall and winter harvest. 
  • The row cover we normally use briefly in spring and early autumn will be put to use all fall and winter as an extra layer of protection.
  • The low tunnels we’ve been intending to make for protecting spring starts are now on our September agenda.
  • We hope to build a cold frame to have near the kitchen so we’ll be more likely to grab some fresh salad greens and herbs for winter meals.

In fact, we’re so enthused about cold-season gardening that we’re planning a special September event at a local farmers market. “Growing Fresh Veggies in Fall and Winter” will be a part of International Homesteading Education Month, presented by GRIT and Mother Earth News.

Check out the International Homesteading Education Month schedule and see what’s happening near you!

If you grow vegetables or herbs through fall and winter, I’d love to hear about your favorite plants and methods.

Ten Secrets to a Successful Broody Hen and Chick Adoption

 fuzzy chick   

When it comes to hatching and raising baby chicks, there are a few different ways to go about it. 

The original method is to have hens sit on fertile eggs for about three weeks, hatch the eggs, and raise the chicks themselves. Modern-day alternatives include hatching eggs in incubators and purchasing chicks from hatcheries.

Most incubator and hatchery chicks are raised by people, in brooders outfitted with heat lamps to keep the chicks warm and dry. But another option is to introduce tiny chicks to broody hens and let the mamas do what comes naturally.

Two years ago we raised hatchery chicks in a brooder in the barn. Last year we used an incubator and had two hens hatch a few eggs.

This year, three of our hens went broody in the same week. April was settled in her own nest, while Hedwig and Piggy brooded in tandem. A month later, none of their eggs had hatched. I was ready to order a batch of hatchery chicks anyway, so I thought I’d try to see if any of the broody hens would adopt the chicks. 

 chicks in brooder

After a trip to the post office to fetch a box of day-old chicks, I got the little peep-peepers settled in an indoor brooder with heat lamp. All of the chicks looked healthy and active.

That night, when all was dark and quiet at the chicken coop, my hubby Jim and I put two chicks under each broody hen. We checked back and forth for a while and all seemed well—mamas clucking softly, babies snuggled underneath the hens.

The next morning three proud mothers were doting on their chicks. All was well.

So that night, we put the rest of the chicks in with the mothers. Over the next several days we watched as the hens capably cared for their chicks.

Four weeks later, it appears that our foster adoption worked like a charm. The hens have been contented, nurturing mamas; the chicks are healthy and strong. 

 pair of mama hens with chicks
So what are some secrets to successful adoption? Of course every experience will be different, but here’s what worked for us.

1. Make sure the hens are actually broody, having sat devotedly on eggs for at least a couple of weeks. Most hens--even experienced mothers--will have no interest in raising chicks unless they are already broody. On the other hand, there are exceptions--some hens will readily adopt chicks anytime!

2. Get each broody hen (or brooding team, in Hedwig and Piggy’s case) settled in a private crate or nest box with her eggs and fresh bedding at least a few days before introducing the chicks. While it’s fine to just let broodies remain with the masses, many chicken owners say the hens are more relaxed if they have solitude.

3. Be prepared to get the chicks started in a brooder and to brood them completely if necessary. Set up your brooder and have it warm (95 degrees F.) when the chicks arrive. Have chick starter feed and a chick waterer waiting.

4. When you receive hatchery chicks or take chicks from the incubator, check for “pasty butts” (dried feces) and clean the little rear ends with a damp soft cloth if necessary. Show each chick how to drink by dipping its beak in water. Put the chicks in the warm brooder.

5. Put chick starter feed and a chick-accessible waterer in the mama’s pen. Remove any layer feed that the chicks could reach. It’s fine for the hen to eat starter feed—and the extra protein will do her good--but layer feed has too much calcium for young chicks. If you’re providing only a chick feeder, make sure the hen can get her beak inside the openings.

6. On the first night, well after dark when your hens should be drowsy or sound asleep, quietly place one or two chicks under each hen’s breast or snuggled under her wing. Remove an egg or two while you’re there.

7. Watch and listen. Good signs are the chick staying under the hen, the hen using her beak or wing to nudge the chick under her, and the hen clucking softly to the chick. If the hen seems aggravated or doesn’t know what to do, remove the chick and try again later.

8. Check first thing in the morning and throughout the day to make sure all is well. Hopefully you will not find a dead chick, but know that it is possible. Sometimes chick and hen don’t bond quickly enough; sometimes a hen will consider the chick an imposter.

9. If mama and chick seem to be bonding well, place the remaining chicks under her that night and remove the rest of the eggs. A standard hen can easily keep 12 or more chicks warm; a banty can cover several. Again, watch hen and chicks for a while till they are settled.

10. Repeat your visual checks the next day just to make sure the mama is handling all the chicks well and all the chicks are thriving in their new arrangement.

 mama hen and babies
It’s possible that you may still need to raise chicks in a brooder if the hen will not care for the chicks or if you have more chicks than your hen(s) can handle. Be watchful, and take some or all of the chicks back to your indoor brooder if necessary.

If the chicks are more than a few days old they may not bond to the hen even if she is willing. If they won’t take refuge under the hen when the air is chilly, they may die of exposure. One solution for this is to keep a brooder lamp in the brooding area, preferably with a small accessible box under it. Chicks that don’t attach to the hen can huddle under the lamp as they would in an indoor brooder.

Having a hen raise chicks takes some of the workload from your shoulders. You’ll still need to provide plenty of feed and fresh water, but mama will keep the chicks warm and cozy. You can just sit back and enjoy watching her teach her little ones to scratch in the dirt and take a proper dust bath.

It's just another delightful adventure in rural living! 

Hear more about our Successful Hen and Chick Adoption story at our family blog, Rural Living Today.

Readers: Do you have other suggestions for hen and chick adoptions?

Your Rural Neighborhood: It's All Relative

At a recent gathering of local gardeners, a woman mentioned sharing plant starts with her next door neighbors.

“They live half a mile away,” she added. “Isn’t that funny, when your closest neighbors live way down the road?”  

Like me, she had moved from a suburban neighborhood. A few years ago we hardly had to raise our voices to talk to our neighbors, from our deck to theirs. Now we can’t even holler to our neighbors…we have to use a telephone or head on over in person. 

country road

The rural life, while rife with beautiful scenic views and picturesque landscapes, can also feel isolated. If one likes solitude, it can be found on a remote piece of land far from neighbors and traffic. If one likes lots of company, that requires lots of visiting.  

Personally I could not live alone on our property very long. Though I’m very much a homebody, I am not a good loner. Jim and I, settled into our little routine, can go for days without seeing anyone else. We do have a good internet connection and phones. We communicate daily with family and friends via phone, email, and texting.

But there’s nothing like “people with skin on,” as a child once described it. So we make a point of seeing people - both by having people come by and by leaving our place to go out where the people are.

We were fortunate to find a friend from long ago living near our new home, and since then other friends have moved to the area. But we've also found some great ways to branch out and find new friends.

If you’re starting out in a new area, there are several ways you can go about meeting people, making new friends, and getting integrated into the community. 

Meet your neighbors. We’ve met most of the families on our road and found every one of them to be friendly and warm. We’ve shared ideas, swapped tips, and helped each other out. One neighbor, also new, invited everyone over to get acquainted one evening.
Get to know local merchants. Our tiny town has just a few businesses. Farther up the highway are others, and even more in the nearest sizable town. Wherever we go, people welcome us to the community and are glad to give us suggestions or pointers about the area.
Find sources for local information. Visit the local library for community history materials and photos. Pick up visitor guides, pamphlets, maps, and event schedules at the chamber of commerce.
Seek out special interest groups to meet like-minded individuals. Look for garden clubs, service organizations, churches, and other groups and places where people gather with a common purpose.
Volunteer in the community — at a nursing home, food bank, animal shelter — meet people and provide a valuable service at the same time.
Get acquainted with your local county extension agents and agricultural organizations. They have a wealth of information on gardening, livestock, forestry, food preservation, and a multitude of other topics. Get on their email lists to be notified of classes, workshops and other educational events. 

two buddies

Before you know it, your neighborhood will span miles. Some of the people you meet will become your friends, and soon you’ll have a new social network and support system of people to enjoy life with.

Do You Know Your County Extension Agents?

Some time ago I read that the Cooperative Extension services in some areas were falling by the wayside.  

As agriculture has declined, a domino effect has caused the Extension services to lose both audience and political support and funding.  

In my mind, this is a great loss for those of us who like to live close to the land and grow our own food.  

Cooperative Extension agents are among the greatest resources available to help us. Along with books, magazines, and websites such as GRIT, Extension offices offer support with both traditional and alternative methods for agriculture and rural living. Much of the information is offered without cost, while a reasonable fee is charged for some publications and courses.

cherries on tree

Cooperative Extensions are unique in that they offer information tailored for their specific regions in addition to general resources. Face-to-face classroom experience and phone consultations are available from many offices. Some are even able to send agents to a home, farm or ranch to assist with assessments or answer questions.

Decades ago, Cooperative Extension services were established for the purpose of teaching agriculture practices and passing on results of research projects. Education in home economics was integrated, and in recent years, services have expanded to include topics related to health, business, the arts, and recreation. 

No longer just for rural education, Extension offices offer resources in urban and suburban areas as well. There is at least one Extension service in each state of the U.S. and some provinces of Canada.

Our family has personally benefited from the Extension services in three counties of two states. Our youngest daughter was involved in both dog and horse 4H programs, and I was a volunteer leader in both programs as well. 

Living in town, we first sought out 4H as a social connection for our homeschooled daughter. But we discovered that it was so much more than social. We’ve found 4H to be one of the best youth organizations around. Young people learn not only about their specific areas of interest, but also about community service, leadership, and public speaking.

little girl on tractor

The Cooperative Extension offers a lot for adults, too. Jim and I have taken several short and long courses through our county Extensions. We’ve studied livestock care, horticulture, small farm and ranch planning, forest stewardship, and land succession processes. Some of these classes gave us a head start and kept us busy learning while we waited to move to our farm. 

These days we continue to attend Extension classes and summits in our current county, learning a great deal and contributing as we can. Recently we’ve been involved in community discussions about beef marketing, commercial processing kitchens, and nonprofit organization structures. 

While the Extension services have always given face to face assistance and education, the Internet age has opened up a new way they can share information. Many county Extensions have their own websites, while state and national websites connect the county offices.

When it comes to research, keep in mind that on the Internet, anyone can present an opinion as fact. Often I find conflicting information on topics I’m studying. Personally I rely heavily on the Extension resources for their wealth of scientific research-based information. I trust in the accuracy and integrity of information provided by the Extension Services. 

This is especially important to me when it pertains to how I’m raising my family, my animals, and the food we eat. I frequently consult Extension articles when writing informative and how-to posts on our blog, Rural Living Today. We read newsletters from our local Extension office and make use of the education and publications offered on a regular basis.

Have you discovered what Cooperative Extension has to offer you in your rural living pursuits? Get acquainted with local programs and volunteer opportunities. Find out what you can do in your own backyard. If you’re waiting to make a move to the country, learn all you can before you go. If you’re already where you want to be, you can learn how to use your property more efficiently and productively. 

two ducklings

Since its early days, Extension presence has grown across North America. Perhaps your grandparents and great-grandparents were assisted by Extension agents. Today that help, training, and education is available to you and your family. We personally hope it will be here for our children and grandchildren too. 

Funding to keep Cooperative Extension going is determined to some degree by evaluation of resource usage and event participation. We encourage you to help keep the Extension services alive and well by getting involved on a local level. 

As you increase your knowledge base you will simultaneously be supporting Cooperative Extension services in your county and across the country. It’s also a great way to meet like-minded people in your community. 

To locate your county Extension office, see Collective research-based information drawn from all U.S. Cooperative Extension offices is available at

Learning the Rural Lifestyle

Jim and I were just talking about how much we've learned about rural life in the past two years. That's how long we've been here on our farm, putting into practice what we've read and heard about. 

In past years there have been a few other opportunities for gardening and livestock in our life. Each little piece of land taught us something more.

Though we're settlers at heart, life has moved us from place to place.

On our last piece of acreage we had horses. Jim built a barn and a riding arena. We were just getting our garden and a few fruit trees in place when it was time to move to another state.

Years before that we were on another little farm where we had beef cattle and a big garden. Chickens were to be our next project, but guess what? We got a new assignment, and across the ocean we went.

In between, we lived in suburban and urban settings where we tried to grow a few veggies when possible and at least were able to prepare fresh homemade food in our kitchen. All the while, we kept learning and dreaming.

black cat and antiques

The beginning of our learning curve was way back in the 1970s, and I can remember exactly who was our greatest inspiration.   

Jim was working in the business world, and I was a young mom enjoying homemaking and doing a lot of things the old fashioned way. My parents and grandparents had modeled and taught me a life that included things homegrown and handmade. I was really in touch with that part of my gene pool.

One day my mom saw an interesting guest on a TV talk show. This young woman had put together a publication about living a lifestyle close to the land. Her publication couldn’t really be called a book, as it was an unbound bundle of mimeographed pages. She was offering copies of it for sale, and she promised to mail succeeding additions to the material to subscribers.

Mom told me about the interview and the publication for sale. But she went a step further and ordered a set for me. I received the most wonderful bunch of information in a 3-ring binder. I devoured it. And little by little, new chapters full of more information were added.

The title of that publication? An Old Fashioned Recipe Book by Carla Emery. You may recognize Carla’s name. As she added more material, the growing bundle of pages became much more than a recipe book. Eventually she combined it all into a book that was published with a new name: The Encyclopedia of Country Living.

Jim and I referred to that notebook often as we tried out new techniques in my home and garden. Carla’s granola became a staple in our pantry. I learned to make yogurt, peanut butter, mayonnaise, and many other concoctions. Jim and I also read her sections on livestock while deciding what to raise on our first acreage.

black angus cow

My tattered, food-stained, and fingerprinted original copies of Carla’s book are long gone, probably misplaced during one of our moves or accidentally discarded during a purging of clutter. But I have gifted two of my kids with the recently published bound version. 

Though Carla passed away several years ago, her legacy lives on in our family and many others--perhaps including yours!!

At our family website Rural Living Today, we've posted a list of other valuable references that have helped us along the way. Check them out here.  

Maybe you'll find a new favorite among them! 

Attracting and Feeding Hummingbirds

I’ve always had a fascination and love for birds. I was just a young child when my dad began to teach me how to identify various birds native to our region. Throughout my life I’ve enjoyed watching birds and figuring out which ones I saw in the backyard or at parks and campgrounds.

hummingbird at orange flower

The tiny little hummingbird has always been a favorite. Shortly after we bought our rural property, I was surprised but delighted to discover that our forested acreage was populated by three different varieties of hummers.

Our first forest hummingbird sighting took place several years ago when we camped while developing our property. One day I noticed something darting around one of the red reflector lights at the top of our trailer. Before long there were three hummingbirds investigating that odd-looking rectangular hard plastic “flower.”

A few years later, when we were to be here for most of the summer, I hung some hummingbird feeders around the trailer and picnic canopy. The fun began.

The social order around the feeders was interesting. Sometimes birds would fight over territory. Other times it looked like a tea party as several birds peacefully sat in a circle sipping their sweet beverage.

I have to confess I spent many hours watching those birds. With my trusty field guide at hand, I identified calliope, black-chinned, and rufous hummingbirds dining outside the kitchen window.

Attracting hummingbirds 

Hummingbirds will fly anywhere looking for food and will remain where food sources are found. Even better (and amazing): they will return year after year. As they move through their annual migration, hummingbirds pass through our area every year from spring through summer.

There are two ways to attract hummingbirds to your yard or garden. One is to provide nectar-producing flowers, bushes, and trees. The other is to hang hummingbird feeders full of nectar made from sugar and water.

As I learned at our campsite several years ago, anything red will attract hummingbirds. For this reason, red blossoms and red feeder parts will catch their attention. However, hummers will find and drink nectar from blossoms of many colors and sip from feeders with no red on them.

hummingbird purple flower

Flowering plants

Following is a list of some plants favored by hummingbirds. Some are native plants that could be transplanted or introduced into your yard. Seeds and starter plants of other varieties can be purchased online and at local garden supply outlets.

It is thought that many hybrids no longer provide the same nectar that existed in the parent plants, so I focus on heirloom and local native varieties.

Aster, Azalea, Bee balm, Bleeding heart, Butterfly bush, Clarkia, Columbine, Coral bells, Cosmos, Crabapple, Dahlia, Delphinium, Fuschia, Annual Geranium (Pelargonium), Gladiola, Hollyhock, Honeysuckle, Impatiens, Iris, Lavender, Lupine, Marigold, Nasturtium, Penstemon, Petunia, Red-flowering currant, Sage, Salmonberry, Scabiosa, Scarlet runner bean, Snapdragon, Sweet William, Verbena, Weigela, Yarrow, Zinnia.

hummingbird at red feeder


There are many kinds of hummingbird feeders on the market, available at garden centers, discount stores, and even at art boutiques. Most commercial feeders have some red parts to attract the hummers. If there's not enough color on the feeder, a red plastic flower or ribbon can be attached to draw more attention.

If you have lots of hummingbirds, I recommend buying the largest feeders you can to avoid constant refilling during the summer. Some high-use days, our 2-cup feeders are empty by afternoon. Of course they don’t have to be refilled right away, but the sight of hungry hummers fruitlessly checking each and every hole in a feeder just tugs at my heartstrings.

The caveat of having a large feeder is that the sugar solution should be replaced every four days or so, whether or not the feeder is empty. If there isn’t enough traffic for a large feeder, a small one may be a better choice. Or, hang a large feeder only partly full of nectar during slow periods.

Some say that if you let your feeders go empty, the hummingbirds will leave and not return. I have not had that experience. Many times our feeders have gone dry for days, and when we filled them again, the hummers returned. I suspect they just go find some natural food sources while waiting for the cafe to reopen.

Tiny hummingbirds have delicate digestive systems and can be adversely affected by bacteria, molds, and fungi. Feeders should be cleaned frequently to avoid the growth of these organisms and to clear out ants and other debris. It’s a good idea to wash with dish soap and water each time the feeder is refilled, rinsing with white vinegar to sanitize.

Recipe for success 

There’s no need to purchase hummingbird nectar, as it’s simple and inexpensive to make at home with just water and granulated white sugar.  

There are three precautions to take.

  • Use a 1:4 proportion of sugar to water to ensure the hummingbirds get the nutrients they need.
  • Use only granulated white sugar—no brown sugar, honey, syrups, or artificial sweeteners.
  • Do not add any food coloring or dye to the solution.

Thin or overly sweet nectar, other sweeteners, and food coloring all have the potential to cause illness or malnutrition in the birds.

To make a batch of hummingbird nectar, measure out 1 part granulated white sugar to 4 parts water. If you want 4 cups of nectar, use 1 cup of sugar and 4 cups of water. For 2 cups of nectar, use 1/2 cup of sugar and 2 cups of water.

Bring the water to a boil. Then stir in the sugar to dissolve it, and set the pot aside to cool. Fill feeders and hang where the hummers can find them.

Leftover nectar may be refrigerated for a few days or frozen for longer storage. I usually make enough to fill my feeders once and make at least one round of refills.

No matter how you feed them, enjoy those tiny little birds around your home and yard—and even in the barnyard and forest! 

Hummingbird at flower feeder

My family and I are constantly learning new skills and tweaking old ones as we develop and work on our fairly new farm. You can read about more of our experiences, ideas, and lessons learned at our blog Rural Living Today

Live The Good Life with GRIT!

Grit JulAug 2016At GRIT, we have a tradition of respecting the land that sustains rural America. That's why we want you to save money and trees by subscribing to GRIT through our automatic renewal savings plan. By paying now with a credit card, you save an additional $6 and get 6 issues of GRIT for only $16.95 (USA only).

Or, Bill Me Later and send me one year of GRIT for just $22.95!

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