Home Gardening Center Tip Sheet: Creating a Bird Garden

By Sonia Uyterhoeven

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Gardening for Birds

The best way to create a bird garden is to provide birds with what they need: shelter, food, water, and places to nest.

Shelter: Birds need shelter to protect them from predators and the elements. In the winter, they need protection from the snow, and during the year they seek refuge from heavy rains, winds, and predators.

Food: Plants supply birds with a large part of their diet, from seeds and fruits to providing a home for the insects that many birds feed on.

Water: Birds need water for drinking and bathing. Smaller birds tend to bathe in 1/2 inch of water while larger birds prefer a depth of 2 inches. The homeowner can build a small garden pond, buy a birdbath from a garden center, or place a large shallow dish of water in the garden.

Nesting Sites: Birds have different requirements for nesting sites. Some birds like to build their nests in evergreens (like pine or spruce), while other birds prefer deciduous trees (like oak, birch, apple, and ash) where they can make their homes either in the intersections of large branches or in cavities in the tree trunks. Shrubs that are not too dense or thinly branched often make good homes for bird nests. Plants such as rhododendrons and viburnums do not have the three-way forks in their branch structure that can support a nest. While these shrubs offer important shelter and food for birds, they do not provide a suitable nesting site.

Designing a Bird Garden

- Create a habitat for birds by designing your garden with varying layers: tall trees, medium-size shrubs, perennials, and ornamental grasses. This will accommodate many different types of birds and provide them with the needs described.

- Plant your garden to provide shelter for birds. Planting evergreens on the northern side of your property will protect birds from cold northerly winds while allowing sunlight to the southern side of your garden.

- Plant perennials and smaller shrubs in groups of threes, fives, or sevens to create a more natural look and to cover a larger area that birds can easily find and utilize. For example, if you plant only one shrub that produces berries, the berries may be decimated after the first visit. Diversity is important in the bird garden, select a range of plants that provide food at different times of the season and attract a number of bird species.

- Create a dust bath in a sunny spot near the area where your birds feed. Sparrows, in particular, love to spend hours playing on dusty ground, and they are entertaining to watch.

- While it is important to rake the leaves on your lawn to prevent die-off, do not remove leaf litter in your perennial beds or under your shrubs. These leaves will compost and provide important nutrients to the soil. They will also be a haven for many of the insects that birds feed on.

- Create a brush pile at the edge of your property, starting with your old Christmas tree and any fallen branches from trees and shrubs. Create a pile six feet in length with loosely stacked branches. Brush piles provide cover for birds and attract insects to their decaying branches.

Plants Suited for Container Plantings That Will Attract Birds

Dwarf Cape Fuchsias (Phygelius sp.) work well in container plantings. This plant bears showy clusters of fuchsia-like flowers from mid-summer until fall and attracts hummingbirds.

Digitalis purpurea 'Foxy' is a dwarf foxglove that grows 2-3 feet high. The flowers range from cream to rose pink. This plant self-sows. Plant a patch in an area of your garden (full sun to part shade), then collect the seedlings in the spring and add them to your container plantings. Attracts hummingbirds.

Solidago rugosa 'Fireworks' is a smaller goldenrod that reaches 2-1/2 feet tall. This cultivar does not take over a garden like its native counterpart, and the flowers do not cause allergies.

Solidago 'Golden Baby' is a dwarf goldenrod that was developed in Europe as a cut flower. It reaches 1-1/2 to 2 feet tall and does not cause allergies. This goldenrod grows in a nice bush form and does not take over the garden.

Heuchera 'Helen Dillon' is a coral bells that has green and silver mottled foliage with large coral pink flowers on 20-inch stems in late spring. Attracts hummingbirds.

Heuchera 'Chatterbox' is a coral bells that produces deep rose flowers from June until September. Remove faded stems to encourage repeat flowering. Attracts hummingbirds.

Echinacea purpurea 'Kim's Knee High' is a 20-inch dwarf of the classic rose pink coneflower.

Echinacea purpurea 'Kim's Mop Head' is a smaller variation (12-15 inches) of the white flowering Echinacea 'White Swan'.

New and Unusual Coneflowers

There are many wonderful new coneflower hybrids on the market. The temptation is to try them all. Here are just a few.

Echinacea 'Evan Saul' (Sundown) is a coneflower that has a bright papaya color and a honey scented fragrance. It flowers from July until September and has nice strong stems.

Echinacea 'Fatal Attraction' has deep purple stems that complement the bright pink flowers on this excellent grower.

Echinacea 'Fragrant Angel' has large fragrant white flowers with flat petals that are held horizontally and a honey colored center. On a sunny day, this can be an intensely fragrant plant.

Echinacea 'Green Jewel' is a large, 4 inch pale green fragrant coneflower that blends exquisitely with many perennials in the garden.

Echinacea 'Maui Sunshine' is a 3 feet tall bright yellow fragrant coneflower with robust flowers.

Echinacea paradoxa produces large, bright-yellow flowers from July until October.

Echinacea pallida has narrow downward-arching petals on 3-4 feet stems. This graceful plant flowers all summer and makes a wonderful addition to a prairie garden. It is tall and lanky and should be surrounded by other perennials such as anise hyssop (Agastache 'Blue Fortune').

Native Grasses for Birds

Sporobolus heterolepsis – Prairie Dropseed

Panicum virgatum – Switchgrass
Two nice cultivars are: Panicum virgatum 'Shenandoah' (a deep red) and Panicum virgatum 'Heavy Metal' (a nice steel blue).

Schizachyrium scoparium – Little Blue Stem

Sorghastrum nutans – Indian grass

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Generous support for the Home Gardening Center has been provided by Kenneth and Ellen Roman.