Thanks to my friends at Secrest Arboretum in Wooster, my kitchen garden is adorned with cut winterberry stems this holiday season.
I’ve filled pots with evergreen branches and winterberry, and decorated fence posts with swags of red berries and green pine boughs. Secrest curator Ken Cochran sells the cut branches every year, and I’m eagerly one of the first in line to place my order just after Thanksgiving at the arboretum which is on the campus of Ohio State University’s Ohio Agricultural Research and Development Center.
This year, my berries came with a surprise order of birds. As I looked out my kitchen window two days before Christmas, I was greeted by the sight of a dozen chickadees and as many juncos crowding in and around the winterberry. The next day in a fleeting visit that barely lasted five minutes, we had bluebirds. The memory of those bright blue birds and the red winterberries against the white picket fence is sure to stay with me through more than a few gray days of winter.
My mother, a lifelong bird lover, tells me about the birds at her feeder each time we talk on the phone. I hear about the antics of the blue jays, and the visits by the cardinals and grackles. This week, there were woodpeckers. Mom gets excited about her birds, and always has a bird guide and binoculars close at hand.
Bird-watching and gardening go hand in hand. By adding cover, habitat, food sources and water to the garden, gardeners can create a patchwork of landscapes that from a bird’s-eye view, might just look like home. Even small changes can make a big difference to help the birds in every season.
Use plant diversity
To enhance bird habitat in the landscape, think about creating layers with trees, shrubs and low flowers. Tall deciduous trees can provide shelter and places for nesting, as well as shade and cooler temperatures in the heat of summer. A shrub border using conifers such as arborvitae or hemlock offers nesting sites, protection from predators, and shelter from wind and rain. Roses, raspberries and other thorny shrubs can create a thicket to protect birds and provide food.
Lower growing wildflowers, perennials and annuals can provide food and protection for ground-nesting birds. If space allows, a prairie patch using native perennials creates habitat for butterflies and pollinators, in addition to birds.
Keep a brush pile
Instead of obsessing about garden tidiness, the bird-friendly gardener creates habitat throughout the yard. A brush pile made of twigs from conifers and deciduous twigs can offer protection from predators, shelter from weather, and materials for nest-building. Along that vein, using leaves as mulch and keeping a leaf layer over soil provides nesting materials and also offers ready-access to soil for birds that feed on worms and ground-dwelling insects.
Fruit in every season
To attract birds throughout the year, include shrubs and trees that offer food sources in summer and winter. Besides winterberry, some of the best woody plants for birds are serviceberry, black and red chokeberry, viburnum, and dogwoods — both tree and shrub forms. Crabapples and bayberries also produce fruit that birds love.
Hummingbirds begin to visit the garden around the time our native red buckeye tree blooms. This coincidence (an example of phenology, or the link between weather and natural events) can be used as a reminder to clean and fill hummingbird feeders.
In the perennial border, include coral bells, lobelia, bee balm, and columbine to provide natural nectar sources.
Grow a patch of seed-producing plants such as sunflowers, purple coneflower, amaranth, zinnia and sorghum. Instead of deadheading plants like purple coneflowers, allow flowers to fade so that the seeds will develop. Once the seeds are mature, birds will feed directly on them.
While some birds feed on seeds, many consume insects. By tolerating some insect feeding in the garden, the gardener is providing food for birds. This also creates a natural balance in the landscape by keeping birds close at hand to help when new insect problems erupt.
Birds don’t need a complicated water feature, but they do need water. A shallow water source like a bird bath or shallow dish will attract them; add a stone to the middle to provide a place to perch. Birds find the sound of water irresistible, so consider adding a fixture that allows water to dribble or trickle. Bird bath heaters can keep water available through the winter.
Allow dead trees to stand
Unless they create a safety hazard, allow dead trees to stay in the yard, where they can provide food (boring insects) and nesting sites for birds and many other creatures, including native solitary bees.
Plants to avoid
Avoid allowing Russian olive, autumn olive, buckthorn and multiflora rose to grow in the landscape. While these plants do provide food relished by birds, they are also known to be invasive plants in natural areas. The fruit of many invasive plants is also considered to be of lower quality for birds, providing the bird equivalent of empty calories.
Denise Ellsworth directs the honeybee and native pollinator education program for the Ohio State University. If you have questions about caring for your garden, contact her at 330-263-3700 or click on the Ask Denise link on her blog at www.osugarden.com.