Regional Gardening Reports :: National Gardening Association

In the Garden:
Coastal and Tropical South
February, 2010
Regional Report

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Think before you plant! Nandina has been prized for years in many parts of our region, but it is listed as invasive in parts of Florida.

Birds, Berries, and your Garden

The view out the window on a wet winter day is still nice: As soon as the sun comes out, the birds head for the berried shrubs. Watching them feast has become a much anticipated winter ritual. How long will the nandinas last? How long will they leave the possum haw holly berries to ferment?

Multifunctional Shrubs
Shrubs, whether featured as individuals or gathered into a dense hedge, serve several roles in the garden. They add interesting shapes and textures to any landscape, and gain gravitas with bountiful berries to make them useful as well as ornamental. Their form may be vase-shaped like beautyberry, rigidly upright like arrowwood, and almost round like many robust hollies. Some can form thickets at the back of the garden, wonderful places for birds and other wildlife to rest and nest, safe from predators. Hedges of hollies or viburnum define space in the garden, lead the eye along a path or driveway, and provide a bird's best buffet in winter. Hedges are proof that, as stewards of the earth, we can beautify our little piece of the world for ourselves and the birds that live with us and pass through on their annual migrations. On a more practical level, a thorny hedge is a very real barrier to trespassers, both two- and four-legged.

Bird's Favorite Berries
Serious birders can tell you what birds prefer which berries, but in my garden it's a free-for-all. They devour nandina, holly, beautyberry, and anything else that has gone to seed, including roses and hackberries. These last come from a thicket that resulted from a lost tree and a vast improvement to the garden overall. Because the birds love it so, and will hang upside down to feast until every berry is gone, I allow two pokeberry plants to live each year. I did not plant them, but missed pulling one up years ago and discovered its high rank among the birds that visit. As one who lives where neighborhood cats roam free, I do not put up bird feeders. Yet families of cardinals and robins stay here for months, and hosts of jays and mockingbirds keep it interesting with their crazy habits. By allowing seed heads to develop in summer and planting a diversity of berried shrubs, the birds get what they need and the garden has a natural grace that follows the seasons. Many of the best choices in berried shrubs will be native plants, but do not overlook improved varieties of these, and other, reliable species when shopping for shrubs.

Care and Pruning
As a group, berried shrubs are easy to grow because they all but tell you what to do for them. When the berries have been eaten or drop off, the stems that remain can look a bit ragged. Your urge is to clip them off, and that's exactly the right thing to do. Clip off a couple of inches more all over and the annual pruning is done. New growth starts within a few weeks, your cue to fertilize the shrubs. Pale leaves or worse, wilting, tells you when these (mostly) drought-tolerant shrubs need more water than they are getting. Although they are not all closely related botanically, this group of plants will sometimes develop yellow leaves in their centers. In most cases this indicates a root problem, possibly a fungus. Rake away the mulch, allow the area to dry out, and consider using a fungicide drench if the situation does not improve.

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