Gardening with the birds in mind

Rudbeckia, a cone flower, is a favorite of song birds. 

Still raking! Looking at the positive side – don’t need a gym to get in shape with all that stretching and bending. Think of the dollars saved that can be spent on new plants. Gardening is great for keeping you fit for life. My great-granny and grandmother spent many hours in their gardens every day and were long lived. I can happily say I’m following in their footsteps. 

I used to be so embarrassed because my grandmother would be out in the garden in her nightgown. Now I understand – I slip out in my PJs early in the morning to check on something in the greenhouse or start watering, and the next thing I know its midmorning, and I’m still in my PJs. I am my grandmother’s child! 

Watering has been high on my list of chores thanks to the droughty weather we have been having. Thanks to the lack of rain, the garden has become an all-night buffet to Bambi. The deer slip into the garden in the early morning hours, after I have gone to sleep and dine on tender plants. So far, Mr. Dillo hasn’t started his marauding ways in the garden.

One of the joys of spending time in the garden is our feathered friends. I love listening to the cooing of doves. It always reminds me of time spent at my grandmothers. The antics of the Green Jays and their raucous cries have provided hours of pleasure. We have a resident roadrunner that daily inspects the plant nursery hunting for insects or a careless lizard. He is totally unconcerned by my presence, mostly considering me a nuisance.

Whether real or imaginary, birds have captured our imagination. Writers have used their imagery to convey qualities we advocate. Some of the most prominent illustrations include the dove of peace, the bluebird of happiness and the wise old owl. 

Over the centuries, mankind has been envious of flight which gave rise to the legend of Icarus. One of the best known myths concerns the Phoenix rising from the ashes. 

The eagle, a symbol of power, has appeared in the Song of Solomon, adorned the scepter of Zeus, and Odin, the chief god of Norse sagas, would appear as an eagle. Native American Plains Indians only used eagle feathers on their warbonnets. The eagle has been the imperial emblem of Austria, Germany, Poland and Russia. It is the national emblem of the United States. The eagle has arrows in one claw and an olive branch in the other symbolizing our desire for peace but prepared for war.

It is believed that birds evolved from the dinosaurs. While it’s hard to visualize a feathered dinosaur, it’s important to remember they provide a service to the gardener, helping to manage the insect problem. To make our feathered friends welcome in the garden, it is necessary to provide food, water and shelter. 

A birdbath can be an attractive addition to a garden, providing a graceful accent or focal point. It is also an easy source of fresh water for our feathered friends. It is important to remember placement is everything. You don’t want to locate it where predators can use covering shrubs to make surprise attack on the visitors you wish to attract. It should be cleaned on a regular basis to provide a source of clean water. A small pond can be another source of clean water. The pleasurable part of having a pond is the music from the waterfall and flashes of vivid color of the Koi and all the beautiful water plants. 

I’m not fond of birdfeeders and much prefer to plant to attract birds. In my last column I mentioned planting our native Beauty Berry (Callicarpa americana) as a food source for birds. It is an attractive shrub that can reach 6 feet tall by 5 feet wide with large, light green leaves. The tiny, pale pink clusters of blooms occur in summer to be followed by the showy purple fruits of fall. The fruit are attractive in floral arrangements, but I leave them for the birds. You do not want them planted where fruit can fall and stain outdoor furniture or walkways.

My grandmother always had Chinaberries. I’m not fond of the messy small trees, but it was definitely funny to watch drunken mockingbirds after they had filled up on overripe berries. Chinaberries are considered invasive and shouldn’t be planted. Another shrub she had in the garden, Pyracantha was covered in creamy white blooms in spring and always provided a brilliant show of reddish orange berries in late summer to early fall. The large shrubs were covered in berries and thorns which provided a safe haven for the birds protecting them from marauding cats. 

Native Barbados Cherry (Malpighia glabra) with its weeping limbs and delicate pink flowers has red fruit that is a delight to the bird population. It is planted on the margins of my shade garden where it receives morning sun. Butterflies love the nectar of its blooms.

Malvaviscus arboreus drummondii, better known as Turk’s Cap is native from Florida to Mexico. The nectar attracts hummingbirds while the fruit serves other birds. It is very easy to grow. The biggest problem I have with it: its enthusiastic growing habits.

Agarita (Mahonia trifoliolata) is a small, prickly evergreen shrub native to South Texas that provides berries birds can’t resist. The fruit makes a very good jelly, but you have to fight the birds to get your share and then there are the prickly leaves.

Don’t forget to plant roses – they will fruit if you allow the blooms to mature. The fruit, high in vitamin C and sugar are a favorite of our feathered friends. Other shrubs and small understory trees include viburnums, persimmons (blooms smell heavenly) and yaupon holly.

These are a few of the shrubs that provide food and shelter for our feathered friends and beauty to the garden. We shouldn’t forget trees. A great many of our native trees provide a place for nesting as well as food. Anacua (Ehretia anacua) has furrowed bark, white showy flowers in spring followed with berries the birds enjoy. The dense foliage provides perfect nest areas. The Hackberry (Celtis) is another messy tree that provides nourishment for birds. Plant both of these trees on the margins of your garden to lessen the mess you have to deal with. Oaks provide shelter from the wind and places for nests. Be sure to include the native pecan. 

The husband is always fighting with the birds for his Chile Pequins (Capsicum annuum). The small perennial shrub is native and grows wherever the birds drop the seed. In my garden they are allowed to grow anywhere they pop up – makes the husband happy!

Be sure to plant Mealy Blue Sage and Tropical Sage to provide seed for the birds. Don’t forget to plant rudbeckia – the seed cones are a favorite of many birds. Add some sunflowers, Gaillardia pulchella, Blackfoot daisy (Melampodium leucanthemum, Butterfly Weed (Asclepias tuberosa) and you have added color, beauty and food for the birds!

Get a little wild and plant a mix of trees, shrubs and flowers to create a safe haven for the birds. Add a water feature, and you can go to the birds! 

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