As gardeners, we all know there is more to gardening than just the plants. There is a whole ecosystem that includes microbes, insects, worms, mammals (some less desirable than others) and of course birds. All of these players interact in a healthy garden and for the most part support one another. How we design and maintain our gardens plays a huge part in keeping all of this in balance. I have written endlessly about building healthy soils, which encourage lively colonies of soil microbes that keep our plants healthy, which then provide the environment needed for the birds and the bees to visit our gardens. Everything is interconnected, even if it is not obvious to us. Here are some thoughts on attracting birds and pollinators into our gardens.
There are several things we all can do as gardeners to encourage birds to visit our yards. Obviously, installing feeders is a good start. I keep a suet feeder up year 'round and have well over a dozen different species of birds that come and go throughout the seasons. But birds need more than just a feeding station to feel secure in the garden. They need places to hide from predators, a place to build a nest, sources of water and other natural food supplies such as bugs, worms, seeds and berries.
Creating a garden that is bird friendly seems simple enough. But unfortunately, it is often at odds with our concept of a northwest garden. The classic "low maintenance" garden, with a few coniferous trees, some azaleas or rhododendrons and a swath of lawn, is a pretty sterile environment for birds. If you are of the type that likes to keep all the shrubbery neatly trimmed into little green balls that don't touch each other and have an aversion to raking leaves in the fall, then your odds of bringing birds into your yard are slim to none.
I am inclined to think that birds appreciate a bit of chaos in their environment. Having shrubs grow together can be a good thing. Having a large variety of plant material is another. Letting the garden remain "messy" through the winter instead of cleaning everything up at the first frost is a good practice for keeping birds around in the winter months. And remember that bushes that aren't pruned all the time will be more inclined to flower, attract pollinators and produce fruit for the birds. A garden that has year 'round interest to us will also have year 'round interest to the birds.
Avoid the use of pesticides whenever possible. Birds eat bugs as well as seeds and if you eliminate all the bugs in your garden then there is nothing to draw the birds in. A garden full of bugs is a garden full of nutritious bird food. Learn to live with a few bugs in your life.
Provide a source of water. This could be a bird bath, fountain or pond. Either way, make sure to keep it clean. Water will also draw in dragonflies whose larvae will eat mosquitos. Moving water, like in a fountain, seems to work best for attracting birds.
For more information and a lively discussion, come to our class this Saturday the 18th at 10am, presented by our designer Marti Civarra. Weather permitting, the class will be held in my back yard (with all the birds), adjacent to the nursery. RSVP is appreciated! We also have a bonus class opportunity, this Saturday from 12pm-1pm, taught by our very own Whistling Gardener on "Outrageous Tropicals." See you this weekend!