Caterpillar On Tomato Plant
Hornworms can cause a lot of damage to tomato plants.

The first sight of a full-grown tomato hornworm is enough to make anyone recoil in horror. As thick as your thumb, with a spiky tail poking out behind, these caterpillars grow to four inches or larger. What’s more, they do it by eating the foliage of your treasured vegetable plants! Here’s how to control hornworms in a way that’s safe for humans and the environment.

Tomato Hornworm vs. Tobacco Hornworm

Tomato Hornworms And Tobacco Hornworms
A tobacco hornworm has a red tail spike.

There are actually two closely-related species of hornworm that wreak havoc in the veggie garden. The tobacco hornworm (Manduca sexta) has black edges on its white stripes, and a red tail spike, as shown below.

The tomato hornworm (Manduca quinquemaculata) lacks those black edges, and the tail spike is often blue. The lack of black stripes is usually the easiest way to identify them.

Both caterpillars feed on host plants like tomato and tobacco (as their names suggest), as well as other members of the nightshade (Solanaceae) family, like peppers, eggplant and potato. Depending on your region, you might find one or both of these species in your garden.

These caterpillars are pretty easy to spot. If you see damage to leaves or fruit on your tomato, eggplant, or pepper plants, look around for caterpillars, which may vary in size but have the same general appearance. You might even spot them by their droppings (called frass), which can get pretty large—the size of chocolate chips and bigger!

Hornworm Life Cycle

Tomato Hornworm Pupa
Sphinx moth pupa with bits of dirt clinging to it

Hornworms start out as small yellow-green eggs laid individually on the leaves of their host plants. They hatch into very small caterpillars, but grow quickly as they devour the foliage. Full-grown hornworms can defoliate even large plants seemingly overnight.

After a few weeks, hornworms crawl down off the host plant into the soil, where they pupate. The pupa are brown with a loop at one end. That loop holds their developing adult mouth parts (proboscis). If it’s late in the year, hornworms may spend the entire winter in the soil, emerging in late spring or early summer.

Tomato Hornworm Moth

Tobacco Sphinx or Hawkmoth Manduca quinquemaculata adult closeup. The adult of the tomato hornworm is the five-spotted hawk moth.
The adult form of the tomato hornworm is the five-spotted hawkmoth.

As you might guess from the caterpillar size, hornworms turn into very large moths, known as sphinx moths or hawkmoths. These are so large they’re sometimes confused with hummingbirds when they feed on flowers! The tomato hornworm becomes a five-spotted hawkmoth, while the tobacco hornworm turns into a Carolina sphinx moth. These moths fly mainly in the mornings and evenings. They mate, lay eggs and die in just a week or two.

Discover 10 interesting facts about hummingbird moths.

Controlling Tobacco and Tomato Hornworms

Tomato Hornworm (Manduca quinquemaculata L.)
Remove tomato hornworm caterpillars by hand; they do not bite or sting.

Despite their spiky tails, hornworms are harmless to humans. The easiest and safest way to control them is to remove them by hand, dropping them into a pail of soapy water. (The soap clogs up their spiracles so they’re unable to breathe, which kills them fairly quickly.) If you dislike the idea of killing them, consider having a “sacrificial” tomato plant or two in a different area that you can move them to instead.

Another way to control tomato hornworms is to encourage their predators to thrive in your garden. Insects like wasps, ladybugs, and lacewings feed on the eggs and smaller caterpillars.

Hornworm covered in braconid eggs
A hornworm covered with braconid wasp eggs

As a last resort, you can turn to chemical or bacterial pesticides like BT (Bacillus thuringiensis) or permethrin. Be aware that these can be dangerous to people too, and may kill all insects indescriminately, including beneficial insects and pollinators. If you do use these methods, follow the directions carefully and use only as and when absolutely needed.

Tobacco and tomato hornworms can cause damage, but they become big, beautiful moths. Unless they’re serious pests in your garden, consider letting them live to become the gorgeous night-fliers they’re destined to be.

Obedient Plant in the Flower Garden
Obedient plant growing with black-eyed Susans

While admiring the flowers in my mother’s yard during a trip to Ohio earlier this summer, I came upon this obedient plant (Physostegia virginiana) that I purchased for her a few years ago. It’s done very well since we planted it, blooming each summer from June to September and attracting plenty of wildlife.

Obedient plant is native to the Eastern U.S. and Canada and is a good choice for cutting gardens. The wild varieties have pink-tinted blooms, but cultivars have been created that have darker pink and stark white flowers, along with a more compact growing arrangement. These perennials can spread aggressively. Here’s what you need to know before you add them to your yard.

Obedient Plant Care

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Ruby-throated hummingbird visiting the blooms for nectar
  • Common name: Obedient plant or false dragonhead
  • Scientific name: Physostegia virginiana
  • Growing zones: 3 to 9
  • Soil: Average to moist soils
  • Light: Full sun to partial sun
  • Attracts: Bees, butterflies and hummingbirds

Obedient plant will tolerate a variety of soil types, but likes to stay fairly moist. In certain environments, it can spread somewhat aggressively. But it’s a shallow-rooted plant that’s easy to remove if it shows up where it’s not wanted. Hummingbirds and pollinators like bees like to visit this plant, which is suitable for growing in zones 3 to 9. Add it to your wildflower meadow or native flower garden for long-lasting summer blooms.

Check out more long-blooming flowers for attracting butterflies.

Ask the Experts

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These perennials are native, but can spread aggressively.

“I’d like to grow more of this obedient plant. How can I get it to spread?” asks Birds & Blooms reader Susan Hockett of Urbanna, Virginia.

Garden expert Melinda Myers: You don’t need to worry about having enough to fill your garden! This aggressive native beauty is known as obedient plant (Physostegia). However, its spread is rather disobedient, so place it where you can easily control its growth and regularly pull unwanted plants to keep it in check. The plant got its name because the individual flowers obediently stay in place for a short while when you bend them. Plant it in full or partial sun in Zones 3 to 9 for best results. Use it in the background or combine it with other vigorous growers to create informal gardens.

Learn how to attract hummingbirds to your small garden.

Garden Benefits

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Pollinators love these tube-shaped flowers.

Obedient plant has a long bloom time, providing weeks of color in your garden through summer and fall. These native perennials are deer resistant, and the tube-shaped flowers will attract plenty of pollinators.

“During the summer of 2020, we planted a hummingbird and butterfly garden in the backyard to give us something to do and get us outside. We researched the plants we needed that would survive our zone and created a space that we could view and enjoy, from our sunroom and our backyard. A family of ruby-throated hummingbirds nested nearby and brought their young to our garden every day. They enjoyed the feeder, but apart from that, they especially loved the obedient plant (above). It blooms for the entire summer, giving the hummingbirds plenty to eat each day,” says Birds & Blooms reader Joshua Cotten.

“Obedient plant is one of my favorite late-summer plants. I love the color and height,” says Birds & Blooms reader Judy Ellis.

Check out the best perennials to grow for hummingbirds.

Backyard Tip

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‘Miss Manners’ obedient plant

Try ‘Miss Manners (Physostegia virginiana ‘Miss Manners’) if you are looking for a less aggressive option for small gardens.

Shop Now

If a plant is potentially aggressive, think about how it reproduces before choosing a strategy to keep it in check. For example, self-seeding flowers stay put with deadheading, while plants with runners are best grown in beds with solid borders.

Why Have My Hummingbirds Disappeared?

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Don’t worry if you notice your hummingbirds have disappeared.

The short answer—hummingbirds migrate south to warmer climates where food is readily available for them through the cold winter months. But they migrate individually, not as a flock or large group, so you might not notice until you suddenly realize, “All of my hummingbirds have disappeared!” Don’t panic—hummingbirds will come back next spring.

Birds & Blooms reader Susan Klos says, “We live in upstate New York in the Adirondacks. It takes longer to get hummingbirds up here than in other places, and they leave sooner at the end of the season, too. So I am grateful for the birds we do get to see.”

How do hummingbirds survive snow and cold weather?

When Do Hummingbirds Disappear?

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If you’re lucky, you may spot Anna’s hummingbirds in fall and winter.

In cooler climates, like much of the Northeast and Midwest and the interior of the West, you can expect the last of the local hummingbirds to disappear from your backyard sometime in fall.

Birding experts Kenn and Kimberly Kaufman say, “As a group, hummingbirds have a long migration season. Some rufous hummingbirds are migrating south by late June. Ruby-throated hummingbirds are on the move by late August and are usually gone from their nesting grounds by the end of October.”

However, in milder climates, like the south and Pacific Coast, you may have hummingbirds all winter.

Birds & Blooms reader Sal Ahmed says, “Of the four Pacific Northwest hummingbirds, Anna’s is the only one that doesn’t always migrate south to warmer climes in the winter. Rufous, calliope and black-chinned hummingbirds leave by late summer. We are very happy to have these little birds (above) reside here year-round.”

Check out 22 jaw-dropping hummingbird facts.

Don’t Take Down Your Feeders Yet

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Ruby-throated hummingbirds fly south in winter.

Some people worry that leaving a hummingbird feeder up in fall will prevent hummers from migrating. This is a myth! No, you’re not going to stop them from migrating. Hummingbirds know to migrate when days are shorter, and sugar water feeders can be an important food source as the birds head south. Also grow these late summer and fall flowers that attract hummingbirds.

If you leave your feeders up for a while after your backyard birds depart, it’s possible that a rare hummingbird from some other region will show up. So go ahead and leave them up as long as you want—or at least for a couple of weeks after you see the last hummingbird.

“It was near the end of the season, and this feisty ruby-throated hummingbird (above) was buzzing around, fighting over feeders and filling up on nectar. I always miss these charismatic little birds once they leave because they fill my summer months with happiness,” says Birds & Blooms reader Cynthia Evert-Mattsson.

Backyard Tip: Foil territorial nectar hogs by putting up several hummingbird feeders out of sight from one another.

Next, find out if it is safe to freeze hummingbird nectar.

Will Cayenne Pepper Keep Squirrels Away From Bird Feeders?

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Some people add hot pepper to bird seed in an effort to keep squirrels away—but is it safe?

“Will it hurt birds if I put hot pepper on bird seed to keep squirrels away?” Richard Yelverton of Jackson, Mississippi.

Kenn and Kimberly: Expert opinions differ on this, and it’s good to question these things. The taste of cayenne pepper does often repel squirrels, and eating moderate amounts of pepper apparently won’t harm birds directly. In the American tropics, many birds even eat the red fruits of native wild peppers without being affected by the capsaicin they contain. In general, birds have far fewer taste buds than mammals, and the burning sensation doesn’t bother them. Avian digestive systems, including throats and stomachs, are very tough, which allows them to eat all kinds of things that would seem daunting to us.

Squirrel Perching On Bird Feeder
Try squirrel proof feeders or baffles instead of sprinkling hot pepper on bird seed.

But there’s a possibility that loose pepper on bird seed could blow around in the wind, potentially getting in birds’ eyes. Of course, the pepper can also get in the eyes of humans who are adding it to bird seed. In general, we suggest avoiding this method. Instead, place baffles and guards above and below feeders. It can take some experimentation to make the feeders truly squirrel proof, but it’s a safer option than adding irritating materials to the seed.

Do safflower seeds deter squirrels?

Does Hot Sauce Deter Squirrels?

hot pepper bird seed

“I added hot sauce to my sunflower seed to discourage squirrels, but they still came. How much hot sauce should I be using?” Doug Decker of Kansas City, Missouri.

Kenn and Kimberly: Hot sauce on bird seed is effective enough for discouraging squirrels that bird feeding stores now offer their own brand of hot pepper sauce for that purpose. We’ve tried this method ourselves and found it a bit messy, and the results varied. Fortunately, there are good alternatives.

Stores that specialize in bird feeding also sell squirrel-proof feeders that are consistently reliable. You could also try seed cylinders, which are blocks of seed bonded together with gelatin to cut down on loose seed falling to the ground and attracting squirrels and other unwelcome visitors. (Psst—also try these no-mess bird feeders). And, if you’re interested in giving the method another try, take the guesswork (and mess) out of it by purchasing pretreated suet cakes or bird seed.

Next, learn what to feed squirrels (and how to peacefully co-exist).

Desert Rose Adenium obesum
Desert rose is native to Africa

When you ask someone why they like growing a particular plant, there are a few answers you can expect to hear pretty regularly. “Beautiful flowers,” they might say. “Love the fragrance,” is another, or “So easy to take care of.” One answer you might not expect is “The stems are so cool!” Desert rose plant growers, though, just might understand. This succulent has sturdy, attractive foliage and striking blooms, but the almost adorably tubby stems are a special attraction of this plant for many gardeners.

Desert Rose Plant Stems

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A desert rose plant has a thick, uniquely shaped stem

Desert rose (Adenium obesum) is a member of the Dogbane (Apocynaceae) family, which also includes oleander and plumeria. It’s native to the sub-Saharan regions of Africa. This plant is a succulent, which means it has thickened stems that help retain water during extended droughts (think cactus or aloe, for instance). In the case of desert rose, the stem becomes woody over time and develops a plump, rounded shape that gives it a unique appeal.

Desert Rose Flowers

Desert Rose Adenium obesum
Grow desert rose in full sun for the best flowering.

Desert rose blooms in the summer months when the plant receives enough water and sun. This is a plant that loves sunlight, and will not thrive without at least 6 hours a day in direct sun. If you’re struggling with growing this species as a houseplant, chances are good you’re not giving it enough light. Move it to the sunniest window you have, or consider investing in a grow light. You can also move your desert rose plant outdoors for the summer months.

Check out the top 10 best houseplants for low light.

Watering Desert Rose

Desert Rose Adenium obesum
Plant desert rose in well-draining soil.

As a succulent, desert rose is quite drought-tolerant, but it will flower best if given regular water during the summer. Make sure the soil is well-drained, as standing water is something this plant won’t tolerate. Allow the soil to go dry before watering again.

Is Desert Rose Poisonous?

Bear in mind that desert rose sap contains toxins that are poisonous to humans and animals (native African hunters use it to tip poison arrows), so use gloves when pruning and keep plants out of the reach of kids and pets.

These 8 houseplants aren’t safe for dogs.

Overwinter Desert Rose Indoors

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Bring your desert rose indoors when temperatures drop.

This plant has waxy leaves and thick stems. We bring it inside for winter, and it loses most of its leaves. Then it comes back to life in the summer sun. What is it? —Carole Carruthers, Maplewood, Ohio

In zone 10 and higher, you can plant desert rose outdoors (full sun, well-drained soil). All other zones should treat it as a container plant, since it cannot tolerate frost or freezes.

Allow it a dormant period in the cooler months by reducing watering from fall to spring (once a week will be more than sufficient). There’s a good chance it will lose its leaves during this time, but that doesn’t mean you’ve killed it.

This is a deciduous succulent, and leaf loss is normal during dormancy. Be patient and provide it with plenty of sun. The plant will send out new growth in spring as temperatures warm and you increase watering.

Check out 11 succulents that will attract pollinators.

More Desert Rose Plant Care Tips

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Desert rose is a succulent plant

What is this flower? We’ve been guessing on how to care for it. —Larry Buck, Oshkosh, Wisconsin

Garden expert Melinda Myers says, “It looks like you are providing excellent care for your desert rose plant. The swollen base and thick fleshy leaves help this succulent thrive in the semiarid climate of eastern Africa and the Arabian Peninsula. With proper care, your plant can eventually grow 5 feet tall and 3 feet wide. Grow desert rose in full sun and well-draining soil outdoors in the summer.

“Water thoroughly and as often as needed during the warm sunny months. Consider watering it a bit more to encourage a larger swollen base. Use one or two applications of a balanced fertilizer in spring and early summer, and move the plant indoors when temperatures start dropping below 55 degrees. Place it in a cool, bright location indoors for winter, and decrease watering frequency.”

Next, more flashy flowering succulents to add to your garden.

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Northern cardinals, a tufted titmouse and a black-capped chickadee share a feeder

It’s not uncommon for still, silent winter landscapes to be suddenly disrupted by distant birdcalls. Within moments, half a dozen kinds of birds appear, flitting among tree branches, climbing up trunks, hanging upside down from twigs. For just a few minutes, the birds bring life to the area with colors, sounds and movement. Then they all fly away together. These mixed flocks of birds are one of winter’s special features. If you’re aware of the activity, you may be able to observe them practically anywhere in North America, and possibly in your own backyard.

Check out the 12 top tips for feeding birds in winter.

Birds Flock for Safety in Numbers

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Dark-eyed junco

So why do we see these mixed flocks? It’s probably not just because birds enjoy one another’s company. For many, there’s a good reason for flocking: It’s safer than traveling alone. Searching for food out in the wild takes lots of concentration, and it’s hard to look for seeds or berries and watch for danger at the same time. With more birds in the flock, there’s a better chance that a swooping hawk or prowling cat will be spotted while there’s still time to sound the alarm and make a getaway.

Learn how to help birds in cold winter weather.

Chickadees Are Leaders of the Pack

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Other birds follow the lead of chickadees

When you see a mixed flock moving through the trees, it may seem as if they’re all acting independently. But there are definite leaders and followers.

In treetop flocks, the leaders are usually chickadees. These busy, acrobatic little birds live in pairs or family groups during the summer, but in winter they gather in groups of a dozen or more. These flocks stick together throughout the cold months. As they make a regular circuit through the woods, other small birds fall in with them, following the lead of the chickadees—nuthatches, brown creepers, titmice, kinglets, downy woodpeckers and yellow-rumped warblers among them. These birds are clued in to the voices of their chickadee leaders, and when they hear an alarm note, they immediately look around for danger.

North America has several species of chickadees in different regions—including black-capped chickadees across the Northern states and Canada, Carolina chickadees in the Southeast, mountain chickadees in the Rockies and chestnut-backed chickadees in the Pacific Northwest—but they all serve as flock leaders in their own areas.

Zone Defense

A white-breasted nuthatch makes its way down a tree.
White-breasted nuthatch

Active and alert, chickadees may be quicker to spot danger than the other birds that flock with them. For example, brown creepers, creeping up trees with their faces close to the bark, can’t be scanning in all directions as easily as a chickadee can.

The followers may not help the chickadees much, but they don’t do any harm, either. They usually aren’t competing for the same food, because they all seek nutrition in different ways. Woodpeckers, nuthatches and creepers examine the bark of trunks and large limbs, with the nuthatches often going down trees headfirst. Kinglets may hover under the tips of twigs, while titmice often hang upside down from heavier branches. So several kinds of birds can forage in the same tree without any direct competition.

It might seem as if the same birds are traveling with the chickadees all day, but that isn’t necessarily so. Some of these birds have their own winter territories, and they’ll stay with the flock only while it travels through their own corner of the woods. A white-breasted nuthatch, for instance, will follow right along with the chickadees until they come to the edge of its territory—then it will drop out, and another nuthatch from the neighboring territory will take its place in the flock.

See 7 types of finch birds to look for in winter.

Birds That Flock at the Feeder

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American goldfinches and pine siskins flock in winter

These winter flocks like to keep moving. Instinct tells them to travel within their home range so that they don’t use up all the food in any one spot. So even if you have a backyard filled with bountiful bird feeders, a flock is likely to arrive, stay for a short while and then move on. Don’t worry, though: It will be back, perhaps several times a day.

Treetop flocks led by chickadees represent only one kind of mixed winter flock. There are also mixed flocks of seed-eating birds that live close to the ground, often including dark-eyed juncos, American tree sparrows, white-throated sparrows, white-crowned sparrows and others. Another type of winter flock may include goldfinches, pine siskins and redpolls.

Keep an eye out for these winter flocks, either out in the woods or among the birds that visit your yard. When you spot one of these mixed gatherings, watch to see how the different species interact, and see if you can figure out which birds are the leaders and which are the followers. You’ll find that these diverse flocks add variety and excitement to your winter birding.

These busy, acrobatic little birds live in pairs or family groups during the summer, but in winter they gather in groups of a dozen or more.

Try these whimsical winter bird feeders.

4 Tips to Attract Mixed Flocks in Winter

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Use a heated bird bath to give birds fresh water 
  • Provide cover. Birds seek protection from predators and from extreme weather. Pine, cedar and spruce are great options in all seasons, but especially in winter. Winter visitors will also appreciate brush piles you can make out of fallen limbs and branches.
  • Serve good eats. Black-oil sunflower seed, peanuts and suet provide important nutrients in winter. For some birds in mixed flocks, berries are also important. Some of our backyard favorites are serviceberry, dogwood, juniper, wild grape and viburnum.
  • Put out ground feeders. Some winter flocks include juncos and native sparrows, which prefer to forage on or near the ground. A low tray-style feeder is best, but in a pinch you can sprinkle seed directly on the ground or on packed snow.
  • Add fresh water. In areas with wintry weather, open water can be hard to find. Winter flocks are much more likely to visit a backyard with fresh water. Keep the water clean, and think about adding a birdbath heater.

Do Different Species of Birds Travel Together?

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A mixed flock of winter birds

Question: Several birds show up at my feeders and bath at the same time. A chickadee arrives, followed by a titmouse, nuthatch, woodpecker and then sparrows. Do they travel like that all the time? —Jim Campbell of Lincoln, Rhode Islands

Kenn and Kimberly: You have fine powers of observation! That’s a good behavior description of these mixed flocks throughout the northeastern states. From late summer to early spring, when they’re not actively nesting and raising young, chickadees travel in flocks of up to a dozen or more. Other small birds, such as nuthatches, tufted titmice, and downy woodpeckers, follow along with them. They keep moving during the day, making regular circuits of bird feeders and nature food sources within the range of the chickadee flock, often coming around several times per day to visit feeders again.

Next, discover 20 birds to look for in the snowy season.

Is Frozen Sugar Water Safe for Hummingbirds?

hummingbird nectar

Question: I’ve heard that when sugar water freezes and then thaws, the sugar settles to the bottom of the feeder. Is this true? Does it cause a problem for the birds? –John Taylor of Grants Pass, Oregon

Kenn and Kimberly: Opinions vary on whether it’s OK to freeze surplus sugar water, so we advise erring on the side of caution. We’ve been feeding hummingbirds for decades, and we’ve never frozen our spare food. However, we do refrigerate it for up to a week.

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Hummingbird in a spring snowstorm in Colorado

If you have hummingbird feeders up in weather so cold that the sugar water freezes, we suggest thawing and cleaning out the feeders, then add a fresh batch—just to be sure you’re keeping those flying jewels safe and healthy. You can also bring your feeders indoors at night to prevent freezing, but it’s important to put them back out first thing in the morning.

Follow these expert tips to attract hummingbirds in winter and learn where hummingbirds migrate in winter.

How Do I Stop Hummingbird Nectar From Freezing in Winter?

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Anna’s hummingbird during winter in Oregon

Question: Do you have tips for keeping hummingbird nectar from freezing? We have several birds that stay all winter. —Laurie Black of Salem, Oregon

Kenn and Kimberly: In your area of Oregon, Anna’s hummingbirds appear year-round. They seem to be among the toughest members of the family, surviving very cold weather if they get enough to eat. To keep feeders from freezing, we have experimented with hanging them next to the house and putting a heat lamp above them. It worked well when we had a winter rufous hummingbird in Ohio. You can also bring feeders inside at night, but it’s important to put them back out first thing in the morning, because the hummingbirds need a shot of energy after a cold night.

Psst—this birder had more than 75 hummingbirds visit her yard in winter.

Each month, Birds & Blooms readers send in their burning questions to birding experts, Kenn and Kimberly Kaufman, who are the duo behind the Kaufman Field Guide series. They speak and lead bird trips all over the world.

Got a bird question for Kenn and Kimberly? Submit your questions here! They may appear here or in a future issue of the magazine.

Is Bacon Fat Safe for Bird Suet?

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Downy and red-bellied woodpeckers on a suet feeder

Question: Can I use birdseed mixed with leftover bacon fat in bird suet for my backyard visitors? —Clara Snyder of Joliet, Illinois

Kenn and Kimberly: Making your own suet can be rewarding, but there are a few important things to know before you begin. While lard is a safe alternative to rendered suet, avoid using bacon drippings. The chemical preservatives in commercial bacon become more concentrated once cooked. While this doesn’t pose a health threat to humans, it can be harmful to birds. Bread and table scraps should be avoided, too.

What can birds eat from the kitchen?

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Brown thrasher eating suet

Question: Why shouldn’t we put bread or bacon fat in homemade bird suet? —Carol Coburn of Longmont, Colorado

Kenn and Kimberly: We know it seems as if bacon grease should be OK, since it’s animal fat just like beef suet. But the preservatives in bacon contain carcinogenic compounds that are harmful to birds. When it comes to bread, it’s sort of like junk food for birds—it offers very little nutritional value for them. So if they consume it on a regular basis, the lack of nutrients causes vitamin deficiencies that lead to serious, even fatal health issues. With so many safe and healthy options for feeding birds, it’s best to avoid these two potentially harmful items.

Learn how to clean a suet cage bird feeder.

Safe Suet Alternatives

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Lard is a safe substitute for bacon fat

Many winter birds, including northern flickers, chickadees and nuthatches, appreciate suet for its high fat content. Peanut butter and pure lard are also healthy substitutes for bacon fat. When making suet, start with equal parts lard and peanut butter. Add safe ingredients such as dried fruit, rolled oats, birdseed, cornmeal and flour. Avoid bread, sugar, leftovers, meat, bacon fat and salted nuts.

You can also buy premade suet cakes that are easy and convenient to use.

Next, check out the best suet feeders for backyard birds.

Can You Grow Fruit Trees in Pots?

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A small lemon tree growing in a container

You don’t need a sprawling orchard in your backyard to grow fragrant, delicious fruit. You just need plenty of sun and ample indoor space, plus some patience. Laurelynn Martin and Byron Martin, authors of Growing Tasty Tropical Plants in Any Home, Anywhere and co-owners of Logee’s Plants for Home and Garden in Danielson, Connecticut, offer some expert tips to grow indoor fruit trees.

Indoor Fruit Trees Need Lots of Light

Most fruit trees—even the more shade-tolerant ones—need at least six to eight hours of direct sunlight per day to produce a crop. A large, unobstructed southern- or western-facing window is an ideal spot for a potted fruit tree. If you don’t have enough natural light, look into grow lights.

Learn how to grow an indoor lemon tree.

Give Indoor Fruit Trees Room to Grow

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Make sure to place your fruit tree in a large space

When planted in the ground, fruit tree roots spread out to find water and nutrients. Most potted plants do fine in plastic containers, notes Byron. Just make sure your pot is large enough to allow for growth and has drainage holes, as water buildup can cause root rot.

“Plants that are susceptible to root diseases are best grown in terra cotta pots,” Byron adds.

Fill containers with standard potting soil mix and add plant-specific fertilizer regularly. Psst—here’s our guide to plant fertilizer 101.

Watering and Pruning Indoor Fruit Trees

Close-up of limes on the tree (Citrus aurantifolia)
Water your indoor lime tree regularly

Water fruit trees when the soil becomes dry on the surface, making sure to saturate the potting mix. If possible, keep your home’s humidity around 50% for best results.

Byron also suggests pruning to maintain the trees’ size and form while being careful to not cut off the flowering growth.

Get expert tips to grow an indoor avocado tree.

Pick the Right Types of Fruit Trees to Grow Indoors

Larger temperate fruiting trees, such as apple, cherry, pear and plum, belong outside, says Byron. They require chilling time and plenty of height and room to bear fruit. Instead, he recommends selecting tropical or subtropical fruiting plants that’ll be happy indoors.

Citrus Trees

Kumquat tree
Kumquat tree

Byron says citrus trees, such as kumquats, are great plants for indoor gardening because they produce fruit very early in their growth.

Lemon and lime are two easy picks for beginners. Meyer lemon trees are quite hardy, and their fruit has more flavor than grocery store versions. Lime leaf and Key lime trees also yield quick crops.

Here’s how to grow a clementine tree indoors.

Arabica Coffee Plant

Yellow cherry coffee
Yellow cherry coffee

Try growing your own coffee beans with an Arabica coffee plant! Laurelynn says coffee plants tolerate lower indoor light than most other fruiting plant options.

“The cherries, or coffee beans, are green before they ripen to red,” she says. “Then you can shuck off the fleshy pulp and get the raw coffee beans inside.”

She suggests storing the beans in the freezer until you have collected enough to roast for a cup of coffee.

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Lemon Guava Trees

lemon guava tree

Lemon guava (Psidium littorale) is a tropical plant that does quite well indoors.

“It tolerates the dry air and lower light found in homes, has shiny leaves and begins to fruit at 3 feet,” Laurelynn says.

Wait for guava to turn completely yellow before enjoying its sweet flavor.

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Tree Tomato

Tree tomato
Tree tomato

Originally from South America, a tree tomato plant produces egg-shaped red fruit that has a custard-like texture. The plant, which is sometimes called tamarillo, will fruit from late summer through the winter.

It does well indoors and is best grown from a cutting, according to Laurelynn, because it’ll flower and produce fruit when the plant is smaller.

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Get the top 5 tips for growing tomatoes indoors (from a tomato expert).

When to Take Your Fruit Trees in Pots Outside

Once danger of frost has passed in your area, your fruit trees can enjoy the outdoors and the beneficial insects that will pollinate them. Here’s how to find the first and last frost dates for your area.

Byron points out that it’s important to move the plants slowly. Put them in shade or partial shade first so the leaves don’t burn, and let them harden off for a few days.

Next, check out the best outdoor fruit trees for small spaces.