Living Columns & Blogs

Ask a Gardener: Hot Lips perennial a favorite with humming birds

Salvia microphylla, known to gardeners as “Hot Lips,” attract humming birds to your garden.
Salvia microphylla, known to gardeners as “Hot Lips,” attract humming birds to your garden. Tribune News Service

I just came upon a wonderful plant that hummingbirds adore. While sitting on a friend’s deck, hummer after hummer visited the Hot Lips plants she had in her pots. A perennial, formal name Salvia microphylla, Hot Lips has small red-hot “lips” with white centers. They never want to quit blooming. Next day I raced to a nursery to buy one of these plants, and as I was picking up the pot, a hummingbird landed on the plant! Hot Lips are available at local nurseries, so do yourself and your hummers a favor and snag one!

Question: How do I tell if a plant is really dead? I’m willing to be patient, rather than make a mistake by pulling up a plant that hasn’t really died, but maybe there’s a good way to tell.

Answer: Yes, there is an almost surefire way to tell if a plant is dead or not. Simply scrape the bark away with a fingernail or make a small slanted cut just under the bark with a pocketknife. If your plant is alive, it will be green or white just beneath the bark. Do this on several places up and down a branch. Sometimes just part of a plant will have died back, but the plant will rebound in time. And as any gardener has found out sooner or later, some plants that look completely dead will easily re-sprout from their roots when the time is right.

Q: Though I believe my soil would greatly benefit from compost, I simply don’t have space (or time) to manage a composting system. I’ve heard that you can directly add food wastes to soil. What are your thoughts?

A: Direct composting works, though not quite as fast as a managed system. However, it is much easier to direct compost. To do so, simply dig a 1-foot trench down the center of your bed or in-between rows. Every time you add kitchen wastes, cover them with 2-4 inches of soil. You can plant vegetables, flowers, or shrubs over the trench as soon as it’s filled in.

To keep animals at bay, don’t include any meat wastes. And if you find any animal disturbance, simply dig a deeper trench, and cover with more soil every time you add wastes to the trench.

Q: A friend recently told me that he solved the problem of having to mow his lawn often. He just cut it very short once. But I read somewhere that this practice was not good. Do I remember correctly?

A: You get an “A” for memory! Mowing grass at the correct height is important for healthy lawn. Lowering the mowing height reduces leaf area for photosynthesis, which will ultimately result in a reduction in root growth, and thus the health of your overly mowed lawn. The recommended mowing height for cool season grasses is 2-2.5 inches. If you really want a lush lawn, use a mulching lawnmower, or mow regularly and leave the clippings: don’t collect them. Those clippings act as a fertilizer for your lawn.

Q: My strawberry harvest this year was great, at least in the number of berries. They were small, however. Is there something I can do to increase the size of the strawberries?

A: As soon as your berry plants have stopped producing new berries, they can be put to bed. And doing that correctly will result in more, and bigger, fruit next spring.

It is in August and September that the cell size of the spring fruit bud is determined. With our warmer temperatures, I would guess that it will be August.

First of all, if you want good berries next year, you need to keep watering the plants, even though they are through producing for the year. This is crucial. Your yields next year will be infinitely better with late summer watering of the plants.

When the final crop has been collected, mow the foliage to about two inches above the top of the crowns. Use a lawn mower with the blade set high. Do not damage the plant crowns. Remove plant debris.

The cleanup done, it’s now time to fertilize the plants. Apply 12 to 18 ounces of 10-10-10 fertilizer per 25 feet of row. Brush the fertilizer into the ground and water well. You’ll be rewarded with scads of large and flavorful strawberries next spring.

Kathleen Bander of Bellingham is a life-long gardener. Her column will appear in The Bellingham Herald weekly through the summer growing season. If you have a gardening question you’d like answered in the column, please email it to For more gardening information online, go to