Regional Gardening Reports :: National Gardening Association

In the Garden:
New England
November, 2003
Regional Report

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Plant berry-producing shrubs, like this winterberry, in view of your living room or kitchen windows so you can watch the birds enjoying the fruits.

Berries for Birds

One of the highlights of last year's harsh winter was made possible by my winterberry bushes. I love bluebirds and have put up several bluebird houses to keep them around during spring and summer. But these sweet little beauties always head south for the winter. One day last January I looked out and saw four bluebirds sitting on one of my 'Red Sprite' winterberry bushes plucking off the plump red berries. I excitedly watched them through binoculars -- I even called several bird-loving friends to share the news. I also talked to the local bird-feeding store, which had had reports of other sitings. Then I vowed I would plant more food for the birds this year. There's always room for one more berry-producing shrub.

Winterberries (Ilex verticillata) are members of the holly family, which sport vibrant red berries and require both a female plant (for berries) and a male plant (for pollen). Plant the male and female within 100 feet of each other to allow for romancing, I mean pollination. 'Jim Dandy' is a good male pollinator for my female 'Red Sprite'. 'Jim Dandy' can reach about 6 feet tall, but 'Red Sprite' is a more compact 3 feet, making it easy to tuck into a perennial or shrub border. 'Afterglow' is another attractive variety, growing 6 to 8 feet tall with orange-red berries instead of true red. Winterberry flowers aren't anything special, but the glossy foliage and lingering fruits are beautiful.

I added a black chokeberry (Aronia melanocarpa) to a shrub border this fall. These plants produce black berries that can persist into spring -- if the birds don't finish them off -- to accompany the show of white flowers. The foliage turns reddish in fall. Red chokeberry (Aronia arbutifolia) has more impressive, red fall foliage and red berries. Chokeberries are 6- to 10-foot-tall, back-of-the-border plants.

American cranberrybush (Viburnum trilobum) is a classic favorite in our region, producing slightly pendulous clusters of red berries on 8- to 12-foot-tall shrubs. A hedge of them forms a lovely edible border. Other noteworthy viburnums are arrowwood (Viburnum dentatum) at 6 to 8 feet; blackhaw viburnum (Viburnum prunifolium) at 12 to 15 feet; and nannyberry (Viburnum lentago) at 15 to 18 feet. All have cream-colored flowers in late spring followed by red to purplish blue fruits, and yellow to red-purple fall foliage.

More Berries
Rugosa roses with their colorful rose fruits called "hips," serviceberries, red twig dogwood, elderberries, and cotoneasters can also tempt birds to your yard with their tasty fruits.

The Highs and Lows of Berry Production
Some years are good berry-producing years, and some aren't. Sometimes severe winter temperatures or late-winter cold snaps nip the buds, as happened last year in our area on blueberries and some other fruiting shrubs. The lack of wild food even brought bears into residential areas raiding bird feeders for food.

Very high summer temperatures also can impede pollination and lead to fewer fruits, although this is seldom a problem in our region. Some plants, such as apples and crabapples, just naturally have years that are more fruitful than others.

To encourage maximum fruit production, plant your shrubs in full sun in their preferred type of soil, and spread compost around the plants in spring to enrich the soil with nutrients and organic matter. Plant a variety of shrubs so your garden will provide food not just for summer feeders but also for fall migrators, for winter birds that stay around, and for returning birds in early spring. For example, blackberries, elderberries, and mulberries provide summer fruits; dogwoods and viburnums offer fall feasts; and fruits of sumacs and hollies and some viburnums linger into early spring. The sweeter fruits are consumed first, but even the more sour highbush cranberry fruits become sweeter after the freezing and thawing cycles of winter.

I figure if I give the birds enough tantalizing fruits, they might leave my newly planted sour cherries alone!

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