Planting a Bird Garden

18 Aug

If you’re a birder and a gardener, you may have thought to yourself ‘Is there a way I can attract more birds to my garden?’ And the short answer is yes. Providing birds what they need – food, shelter and water – is easy, but some thought as to the way you plant your garden will increase both the frequency and variety of avian visitors. You will be attracting three kinds of birds – seed-eating songbirds such as juncos, warblers, wrens, sparrows and chickadees; birds that are primarily after fruit such as cedar waxwings, robins, mockingbirds, Western bluebirds and thrushes and lastly hummingbirds, which are fond of tubular flowers.

For Seed Eaters

Seed eaters harvest this nutritious food in three ways – directly from shrubs and trees, from a variety of grasses and from seed that has fallen on the ground. Two excellent shrubs to plant for seeds are a variety of California lilac (Ceanothus) and Butterfly bush (Buddleja davidii).

Both bloom prolifically, then produce copious amounts of seed that are harvested by a wide variety of songbirds. Buddlejas typically produce their seed in the early fall, while the many varieties of Ceanothus ‘seed up’ in the late fall, providing songbirds with valuable late-in-the-year nutrition. Most Ceanothus can take sun or shade, providing a welcome versatility, while Buddlejas want sun.

Another sturdy shrub beloved by seed eaters are Echiums. Whether it’s the Pride of Madeira (Echium fastuosum) or the ‘Tower of Jewels’ (Echium wildpretti), these profuse bloomers are great sources of seed from late summer through late fall. E. fastuosum forms a 4’x4′ bush, with purple flowers, while E. wildpretti forms a 2’x4′ basal clump, then sends up 4-8′ high towers filled with tiny pink flowers.

Two lower growing plants are excellent choices for seed-eaters. Pincushion plant (Scabiosa) is a charming and long blooming perennial that produces lots of seed in the fall. Whether it’s one of the many S. atropurpurea varieties (‘Florist’s Blue’, ‘Florist’s Pink’, ‘Scarlet’ or ‘Snowmaiden’) or the S. caucasica ‘Fama Blue’ or ‘Perfecta Alba’, these powerhouse bloomers provide lots of much sought after seed. Though they go deciduous, they return in the spring.

Three species of our native Lupine are also recommended for seed-eaters. Yellow Coastal Bush Lupine (L. arboreus) offers 6-8” stands of brilliant yellow flowers on sturdy 4’x4′ bushes in summer, attracting bees and hummers. Very similar, only with lavender fading to pale lilac flowers, Blue Bush Lupine (L. propinquus) offers more subtle flowers on 3’x3′ shrubs. Finally, two forms of the native Arroyo Lupine (L. succulentus) offer color-rich blooms and nutritious seed. Whether it’s the vibrant purple flowers of the straight species or the evocative two tone pink flowers of ‘Rodeo Rose’, this lupine is a must have for the bird garden.

Two ornamental grasses are excellent additions to a bird garden. California Field Sedge (Carex praegracilis) is a handsome 3′ high, clump-forming grass that can handle sun or shade. In the fall, it forms handsome seedheads that certain songbirds will enthusiastically graze. Or add a bit of warm autumn colors with New Zealand Wind Grass (Stipa arundinacea). It’s orangy-bronze blades make for a colorful stand, then come fall and winter it produces nutritious seed.

Hummingbirds

While it is well known that hummingbirds love Salvias and we at Annie’s have many wonderful choices, there are many other flowers that attract our colorful winged friends. Start with the aptly named Hummingbird Mint (Agastache). There are purple-flowering varieties such as ‘Black Adder’, ‘Blue Boa’ and ‘Heronswood Mist’, as well as pink blooming selections such as ‘Sangria’ and ‘Ambrosia.’

All are magnets for both hummers and bees and bloom over a long period in early summer and fall. Easy to grow and adaptable to different soils, they are one of the best ways to add low color to a bird garden.

Two small shrubs top the list for attracting hummers. Cupheas offer the nectar-rich tubular flowers that hummers seek out and Annie’s has four of the small tubular varieties affectionately known as Cigar plants. The aptly named ‘Hummingbird’s Lunch’ leads the way with its reddish-pink blooms, each tipped in burgundy. Forming a compact 2’x3′ shrub, come summer it’s bursting with countless flowers.

Likewise, ‘Blackberry Sparkler’ forms a dense compact shrub, soon filled with whitish flowers with dark purple throats. The inch and a half long ‘cigars’ seem to explode at all angles, putting on quite the show for us humans as well. The Cuphea hybrid ‘Starfire Pink’ makes a bigger bush (3’x3′) but with more petite all pink flowers. And when Cuphea ‘Strybing Sunset’ is back in stock, it features blazing orange tubular flowers, with tiny purple bat’s ears. All are hummingbird magnets.

Verbena lilacina ‘De la Mina’ is a California native that always seems to be in bloom. Quickly forming a 3’x3′ shrub, come spring it bursts into bloom, offering an endless supply of lavender-colored flowers. We love this shrub for its versatility, the fact that it’s a native and just how popular it is with bees, butterflies, hummers and, when seed forms, smaller songbirds.

You wouldn’t think at first that flowering maples (Abutilon) would be a hummingbird plant but in truth, they are one of the best. We see them harvesting nectar all the time from our nursery selections. These include the pure yellow ‘Canary Bird’, the lovely peachy-orange flowering ‘Victor Reiter’, the popular ‘Apricot’ and the heavily veined selection called ‘Redvein Indian Mallow.’ Abutilons are easy to grow – fast, reliable, long blooming and beautiful.


There are a number of vines that attract hummers and one of the best is Passiflora ‘Blue Horizon.’ There are many passion flower vines that will attract hummers but this one is especially vigorous and a real favorite for our hummer friends. A prolific bloomer, with lovely purplish-blue flowers, you can grow it on a fence, over an arbor or even on the side of a house if given support.

Treats for Berry Eaters
If you’re lucky, your garden will be visited by a variety of berry-eating songbirds. These include Cedar Waxwings, American robins, Hermit Thrushes, Western bluebirds, Northern Flickers and Mockingbirds. To encourage such visits, consider planting one or more berry-producing shrubs. Elderberry (Sambucus) is a favorite source for dark, late fall berries and our S. nigra ‘Thundercloud’ is an excellent choice for fruit. A fast growing shrub to 6-8′ tall, it also features nearly black foliage and lovely pink flowers. Another excellent choice is Roger’s Red grape (Vitis californica x vinifera ‘Roger’s Red’). Though the fall grapes it produces are less ideal as a table grape, our berry eating birds will gobble them up. It’s an easy vine to grow and offers blazing red foliage in the fall.

Toyon (Heteromeles arbutifolia) is one of the very best plants for attracting songbirds. A California native found throughout Northern California, come winter it produces heavy loads of tasty, bright red berries. Nearly every berry eater loves these fruits and trees produce a seemingly endless supply of them. Evergreen, very drought tolerant once established and easy to grow, this 8-10′ high shrub/tree is a valuable addition to any bird garden.

One dual purpose plant to consider adding to attract birds is one of the many varieties of our California native Flowering Currant (Ribes sanguineum). Whether it’s the popular pink-flowering ‘Claremont’, the slightly redder ‘King Edward VII’ or the soft pink-flowering R. sanguineum glutinosum, these plants’ flowers attract hummers while the berries attract a variety of the afoementioned berry eaters. Ribes like shade and some regular water, so they’re a good choice for a morning sun or bright shade location.
Now, you may ask, why can’t I simply put out a tray of berries for these birds? And the answer is, the birds only recognize them as part of their diet if they’re hanging from the bush or tree.
Though these selections are not yet in stock, please check back for their availability or add them to your Annie’s Wishlist and then we will email you as soon as they become available.

Final Tips
It is worth noting that planting shrubs for various songbirds also provides cover for these and other birds. This is important, as it will allow our avian friends to feel more protected. And I sometimes am asked “Is it bad to hang a hummingbird feeder for hummers (or a seed feeder stocked with seed) when I want my backyard birds to get their nutrition from my plants?” The short answer is no. Birds instinctively seek out nutrition from plants. Having one or more feeders as a supplement can only be a good thing, especially in winter, when fewer plants are in bloom.

Availability

Just so everyone knows, some of the Annie’s Annuals plants mentioned here might not be available on the week that you’re reading this blog article. Some of the plant varieties discussed are only available in our retail nursery in Richmond CA. This is generally due to us only being able to grow small crops or the fact that the particular plant does not ship well. A quick look at that plant’s page will let you know if it’s available. If not, just click the Add to Wishlist button and we’ll notify you when that plant is ready to take home.

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