Regional Gardening Reports :: National Gardening Association

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

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Birds need what you need: sources of food and water and a place to rest and nest.

Backyard Bird Treats

Birding can be fine family fun, but it's also important for gardeners. Our feathered friends come to gardens that meet their needs, and their presence is a positive barometer for the garden's health.

Habitat's Big Four
Critters of every size and shape need some version of the same qualities that make humans comfortable: sources of water and food, places to rest and nest. As individuals and communities, our regions are serious about creating a welcoming habitat for birds. We do a good job, based on the results of the Audubon Society's annual bird counts. But the beauty of having birds in your own backyard cannot be underestimated. A sterile, noisy garden sprayed weekly with noxious pesticides will not see many, but the rest of us can cultivate conditions to meet their needs. Birdbaths, fountains and bubblers are grand, but a working soaker hose or sprinkler satisfies their needs well, if not so poetically.

You'll often read that it's good to leave a messy thicket where birds can find shelter from predators, and that's true. Neatly kept gardens may offer few secluded thickets for birds to rest and nest, but birds will enjoy and populate a dense shrub or tall tree so long as the other conditions are met. Food sources are abundant in our regions, thanks to our devotion to feeding the birds, but food plants for birds belong in every garden.

Beyond Seed and Suet
For those who enjoy coaxing birds to the backyard, the world of feeders is almost unlimited. The main point is to do it. Offer what they like on a consistent basis and the birds will be yours. Simple pie pans, one with mixed bird seed, another with water, are surprisingly effective and easy to set up in school gardens or even on a deck. If outdoor cats pose a problem, hanging feeders are the way to go; platforms, tubes and sacks all have uses to attract specific birds. For example, a hanging platform feeder full of black sunflower seeds is irresistible to cardinals. Tubular feeders of mixed seed can make a daily show out the back window, but fill it or a sack feeder with Niger (thistle) seed and the finches will find you.

The fans of suet blocks are relatively few in our regions, probably because suet melts so easily. But there are other ways to offer a fatty treat that can be hung outdoors. Dab peanut butter on every point of a pine cone, or roll sweet gum balls in peanut butter and then in bird seed. When citrus is abundant, spear orange halves and set them on a fence or deck rail for a joyful sight. Don't forget the hummingbirds, either. By leaving feeders up year round, you sustain the population as it waxes and wanes seasonally.

Bird Food Plants
The easiest way to provide natural food for birds may be to do nothing. Overpruned shrubs cannot produce fruits, whether they be ligustrum or roses. It may seem like a good idea to trim off those old flowers, but the berries and precious rose hips cannot form if the faded blooms are sheared off. Make it a practice to trim the remontant (reblooming) roses during the summer to encourage their rebloom, but allow the fall flowers to develop their hips for the hungry migrants. While not their most attractive phase, the drying flowers soon become fruits and berries and they're worth the wait. Prune hollies right after the berries come off in late winter, not at midsummer, to prevent berry loss. Plant natives known for their berry production, including the deciduous holly called possum haw and Walter's viburnum. Exotics like leatherleaf viburnum and golden bamboo (Nandina) are equally reliable and attractive to birds. Plan and plant the garden with the birds in mind, and you will have a healthier and more diverse garden.

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