IT’S A CLOSE CALL for me and my friend Andy Brand: Do we like plants best, or birds (or butterflies or bumblebees or…)? But I think I know the answer to the question, finally: What we like best are bird-friendly plants, because having a garden heavy on those means it will be heavy on avian and Lepidopteran visitors and everybody else, too.
Andy Brand is longtime nursery manager of the famed mail-order and destination nursery Broken Arrow in Hamden, Connecticut, and each September he and I teach half-day workshops in my rural Hudson Valley, New York, garden–with one part of the workshop being about gardening for the birds. Our next one is Saturday 16, 2017 (details at the bottom of this story, or at this other page).
But no matter where you are listening, we talked recently about strategies and plants that bring in the birds and more—particularly the top genera of powerhouse woody plants that fuel fruit production in summer and fall for hungry birds, preceded by spring or summer flowers that support pollinators and other beneficials. I’ve also included resource links at the end, to find plant lists for your area to support the birds.
Read along as you listen to the July 31, 2107 edition of my public-radio show and podcast using the player below. You can subscribe to all future editions on iTunes or Stitcher (and browse my archive of podcasts here).
bird-gardening q&a with broken arrow’s andy brand
Q. Have you had any excitement this year in your Connecticut garden?
A. This has been a great time of year. It’s when a lot of the young birds have fledged their nests but they are still vocal and are begging from food from their parents. There is a lot of activity throughout the yard, so it is an exciting time of year for sure.
Q. I’ve had some funny things that I have never seen before. Normally, because I have black bear in my area who are happy to climb over the fence and just hang out in the yard [laughter], normally I don’t feed from late March or early April till after Thanksgiving.
But I had such great birds in early spring, and I hadn’t taken down the feeder and I was just selfish and I left a tiny little feeder up that I take in each night. And because of that—again, something I haven’t done in years—I got to see as you say some of those fledged extended families, with a lot of juveniles, learning to feed and learning the antics and all swooping around together—titmice in particular seem almost to have an extended-family thing when they are young.
A. They are; there are groups of them—the same thing here.
Q. Have you had any unusual visitors?
A. Just lots of visitors. It seems with all the regular rains we have had this year, everything is so lush and full of fruits and things, that not just the plants are doing well, but the plants and animals are having a bumper year of young ones.
Q. Am I cuckoo, or did you tell me once that you have cuckoos?
A. We have lots of cuckoos this year. We have had lots of caterpillars this year in Connecticut, not just tent caterpillars but also a big outbreak of gypsy moths [above, their caterpillar] and the cuckoos are one bird that can really do a job on them. [Photo By Didier Descouens – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0.]
A. They can tolerate the little hairs and things on those caterpillars and eat them up, so there have been cuckoos calling almost daily here, which is nice—they’re really a fantastic bird that you don’t see most years, which is great.
Q. How long have you been at your garden—how long have you lived there?
A. Twenty-seven years.
Q. So you and I are about the same—I’m a little over 30 here, I think. And we’re both of course only 29 years old, which is the miracle of it all.
A. We started at a young age.
Q. Indeed. [Laughter.] Did you set out to make a bird garden or did plants come first—because I think you studied horticulture and tissue culture, plant propagation.
A. Correct. Probably it was just that I was a big bird watcher, and was always driving to places to see birds and was just figuring why not plant things that I was seeing along the roads where I see birds. Why not plant them in my own yard to bring the birds to me more than having to drive somewhere to see them?
Q. Me, too. I was out like 30 years ago clearing the place I’d bought, overgrown with brambles, and thought this was really great, and they’re really great—and I wonder what they like? So their presence and wanting more, more, more of them got me addicted to their visits, and made me look up what they like.
Making a bird garden—and there are expressions like habitat garden and wildlife garden and so on—but it’s a little different mindset from garden design, isn’t it?
A. It is. My yard compared to some of my neighbors’—I’m sure they raise a few eyebrows when they drive by.
A. It’s pretty wild, for lack of a better term—and I think wild is a good term. It’s not perfectly manicured. I do mow the grass that I have, which is very little. But the shrubs and things are kind of mixed together, and growing together, and it’s a big menagerie of all different types of things.
It’s close together—there are little rooms where I can go in and sit and watch the birds. I’m lucky enough to have water right next door, so that’s another great thing if you can add some sort of a water feature to your yard. Birds love it, and it is so fun to watch birds take a bath or get a drink.
Q. A big, big, big plus—and even if it’s as you say a small amount. It could be a galvanized water trough.
A. A garbage can lid that you put stones in, and if you can get a little tube that just drips water periodically it just pulls them right in.
Q. And in the winter I find, they also use it. I have some little garden pools and I keep a little defroster hole in the ice—not to warm the water, but to make it not freeze over. And boy, the activity is unbelievable, even in the winter.
A. You’re exactly right. One thing to point out is that I do leave the edges of my property kind of weedy and let things just grow up—different grasses, and goldenrods [above]e and things, to provide natural seed for the birds, and cover for them to scoot in if somebody’s chasing them—a cat, or a fox, or maybe a Cooper’s hawk or sharp-shinned hawk maybe chasing a small bird. They can duck in, and brambles and things like that I leave on the edges, and they provide nice fruit for the birds.
So it’s nice, but it’s not everybody’s front yard, that’s for sure.
Q. It’s not Versailles? [Laughter.]
A. Not quite.
Q. You said something about a mixture of shrubs that are growing together, and you talked about allowing at the periphery some things people might call weeds—whether grasses or maybe sedges or goldenrod—things happening a little looser at the edges. I think that’s an important point that people have to understand: that a lot of those types of places that are a little bit more busy, where one habitat transitions to another at the ecotone or the edge of things…
A. The edge habitat is such a special place for not just birds but all different types of animals, and other critters. The edge habitat is very valuable. One thing to point out: If you are gardening for birds or insects, it’s a different mindset.
You need to expect some of your leaves are going to be chewed, and you don’t want to immediately see chewing and think about spraying, because any of those caterpillars that you are killing—that’s all bird food for many species. They rely on those caterpillars and any other insects that are in our oak trees, and our cherry trees, and trees growing around us that those sprays will eliminate and those birds will then suffer from that lack of food.
Q. So really you can’t garden for the birds without gardening for the insects. [Above, big mixed shrubs borders ring the edge of Margaret’s garden, including winterberry holly.]
A. Exactly. They go hand-in-hand.
Q. And virtually every songbird species depends on caterpillars to rear its young. There are very few songbirds that don’t feed them to their babies.
A. If people are familiar with warblers, in springtime when they migrate through, when you go birdwatching you are looking up into the treetops, where all the little caterpillars are feeding on the new leaves.
Q. People kind of freak out when I say my Number 1 goal in my style of gardening is to attract more insects, because they say, “Ooooh, I hate insects; let’s kill insects.”
A. I get the same reaction.
Q. But I don’t mean that I want to try to up the population of Japanese beetles, which are a non-native insect, or squash bugs. [Laughter.] I’m talking about more what I would categorize as beneficials. Because without them not only, like we were just saying, there are no caterpillars to feed the baby songbirds, but also no seeds and no fruit to feed the birds in many species of plants that depend on insect pollination.
A. Exactly. Our fruits would be drastically reduced without so many pollinators that are out there right now.
Q. So if we’re making a bird garden, we’re maybe going to be a little loosey-goosier, right?
Q. And we’re thinking about that edge, and not plopping a tree in the middle of a vast piece of lawn and calling that a garden or a bird garden, because that’s not going to do it. We’re going to have a transition of shrubs up to that tree, or perennials up to the shrubs up to the tree; islands of shrubs.
A. Diversity is the Number 1 word there. The more diverse the plantings you have in your yard, particularly of fruit-bearing and seed-bearing things, of native plants, the more diversity and better off mix of wildlife you will have in your yard.
Q. So let’s talk about plants, and really what’s great is that as I was saying in the introduction, wherever people live there are some genera of plant that are real powerhouses, with different species appropriate to different regions.
And the reason you say “native” is because native animals, birds and insects coevolved over a long time with one another, so scientists say you’ll get the most bang for your buck by planting natives to feed those insects and birds.
What are some of your powerhouse bird plants?
A. For shrubs, if I had to pick one for fruit, I’d pick Ilex verticillata.
Q. The winterberry holly. I have like 40 shrubs of it and I am so glad I planted them early on.
A. It is just so fantastic, and every November and December (and if they leave them alone, through January) the fruit are just so prolific. A flock of overwintering robins or bluebirds or cedar waxwings fine them. The whole bush is shaking, and they will literally stay there until every fruit is gone.
Q. It’s amazing, and the thrushes and robins for instance—they are fruit eaters especially in the fall. Do you have different colors of holly berries, besides the traditional red?
A. Yellow and orange, yes, but for us I think red still seems the one they go to first. [Above, ‘WInter Gold’ at Margaret’s.]
Q. Me, too—that’s why I was asking, because you know better because you see many of them in the nursery, where you have quite a diversity. I find that the orangey and yellowish ones are left on the bush way, way late compared to the red ones.
A. They strip every red one off and then decide, alright, all we’ve got left is these orange and yellow ones…
Q. [Laughter.] These damn orange and yellow ones.
A. We use so much winterberry at Christmastime at the nursery making wreaths and all, and we have to literally—it’s a battle with the birds to fend them off the plants, as well as the wreaths. Sometimes we found them on the wreath picking the fruit off the wreath on the wall, so that’s how much they love these fruits from the winterberry.
It’s just important for people to remember if you’re growing winterberry, you need a boy and a girl.
Q. Right. To get fruit.
A. Yes, to produce fruit.
Q. And earlier on, those many, many, many little tiny flowers will be filled with pollinators, with insects.
A. Loaded with insects.
Q. They’re very small; they’re not showy flowers for the gardener—it’s not like a magnolia. But boy are they powerful as attractants.
A. And they’ll produce the most incredible fruits later on, that’s for sure.
Q. And by the way there are other species, including the very strangely named Ilex vomitoria I think, from other zones.
A. Yes, there are other species that grow great in other parts of the country. Another genus which I love because it’s so diverse is Cornus—the dogwoods. There are both shrub dogwoods and tree forms, and you can find different species across the United States. For trees here in the Northeast, I would go with the native flowering dogwood, Cornus florida, and the alternate-leaf dogwood, Cornus alternifolia, my two favorites for fruit.
It’s amazing when the flowering dogwoods are in fruit here, the diversity of migrating songbirds that I can see in that tree at one time—everything from woodpeckers, to scarlet tanagers to the thrushes to you name it. The vireos. And it’s fun to see woodpeckers you associate with drilling holes either in the side of your house…
A. … or in a dead tree, and here they are hanging upside-down in a dogwood, picking off these bright red fruits.
Q. Right. And there is the West Coast, or at least Pacific Northwest in particular, native Cornus nuttallii, the Western flowering dogwood tree. I’m interested in the twig ones, because even if people have an average-sized home landscape, you can tuck in a lot of these twig dogwoods (again: even at the edge as a transition to the taller trees), and some have colorful stems.
A. Gorgeous stems, for winter interest in the garden, and they produce these terminal clusters of little white flowers, followed by the fruit, which is obviously what we’re talking about today to attract birds. There are many types of shrub dogwoods—the ones with the colorful stems, the ones with beautiful white fruit like the gray dogwood, Cornus racemosa, which has really gorgeous fruit. It’s kind of unusual to see a shrub with white berries.
Q. Cornus sericea—doesn’t that get white fruits also? I forget but it sometimes has another name, Cornus stolonifera, and Cornus sericea can have red twigs or gold twigs, and I think that’s native to the whole U.S. except the southern Midwest and the Southeast. [Above. white fruit on C. sericea ‘Sunshine’ at Margaret’s garden.]
A. It’s got a pretty extensive range.
Q. And what about Cornus alba [a shrub dogwood that is not native to the U.S.]…
A. And Cornus amomum here, which is particularly useful if you have a wet backyard that stays soggy, or a small pond. That particularly loves having wet feet, so to speak, and has beautiful cobalt blue fruit clusters. It’s just amazing the color of the fruits.
Q. It’s startling how blue they are. And the sericeas, when those ripen—the minute those fruits size up—I have a ruckus. I call it a ruckus in the Cornus, like whoa, what is going on? Catbirds and everybody else squawking it up and fighting over the fruit.
A. That’s so true of so many of the plants. The fruits barely start to change color, and the birds—catbirds in particular, and mockingbirds—are on them, and they get really territorial. They stake out that shrub; you better not even look twice at that shrub again, because they’ll be on you, chasing every bird that even thinks about trying to get a fruit off of it.
Q. Same I’ve found with the shadbush, the Amelanchier; the waxwings will come through early for those.
A. And our native blueberries, Vaccinium corymbosum, the highbush blueberry [detail above], is the same thing. They’re looking barely pinkish and the birds are pulling them off. [Photo By PhreddieH3 at English Wikipedia.]
Q. And there are huckleberries and other Vaccinium in other areas of the country—the genus Vaccinium is very powerful.
A. You get up into the Northeastern part into northern Maine with the lowbush blueberries, and birds are all low to the ground picking fruit off. It’s kind of interesting to watch them do that as well. [Above, lowbush blueberries in fall foliage color, an added benefit for the gardener.]
Q. Everybody teases me, “You have so many blueberry bushes, do you make jam?” And I am like, “I have never picked a blueberry here in 30 years.” I just put them out for the birds.
We need some evergreens, and in our region the Eastern red cedar (Juniperus virginiana) is very powerful.
A. I was going to say that’s at the top of my list for evergreens. Evergreens are not only good for birds to roost in, offering protection, but Eastern red cedar female plants produce those beautiful powder-blue fruits that so many birds love, but again you need a male and a female plant to have the fruit production on the female.
That’s another one that flocks of cedar waxwings—aptly named—will just dive into and literally as you say, it’s a ruckus. They’re just frantically picking off as many fruits as they can get so their neighbors don’t get them before they do. [Laughter.] [Photo of fruit, above, from Wikipedia, by Quadell.]
Q. In the West, the Western red cedar is actually a Thuja, not a Juniperus. But also a great tree, fast growing, and makes a great screen—so if you need more cover both for visual reasons and to give a place for birds to get out of the wind in winter, the Thuja can be valuable.
A. Our Eastern red cedar [see native range map here, covering about two-thirds of the country] is one of those trees that you frequently see when fields are starting to revert back to forest land. It’s one of the first evergreens you’ll see in kind of an open little bluestem grass meadow.
They’re often in big groups, it almost looks like a plantation, but it’s just seedlings coming up everywhere, but when they become mature they turn into these wonderful sites for saw whet owls, when they are migrating, to roost in. They become very popular, and here in the Northeast it’s sometime in November when they migrate through. If you hit it just right and you get there on a certain day, you’ll see saw whets roosting in Eastern red cedars, and there is something about them that they use and frequent them.
Q. We talked about edge, and around the edge of my property I let wild grape grow up in certain areas—vines are great places to hide, and provide stuff to eat. Parthenocissus quinquefolia, our Virginia creeper…
A. It’s just fantastic—unbelieveable.
Q. …so don’t just pull this stuff out, folks, abut give it a place at the edge of your property if you can. [Note: There is a Western species, too, P. vitacea, the thicket creeper. Read about both species.]
A. And I hate to even mention it, but another fantastic vine for fruit when they get older is poison ivy.
Q. Totally; it’s a great wildlife plant.
A. It is amazing. They just love those white fruits.
Q. What about elderberry, Sambucus?
A. Another great plant.
Q. And there are some showier versions. And you know I am obsessed with Aralia—the native American aralias [or spikenards]. There are Asian ones as well. But the big, statuesque perennial Aralia racemosa in the East, and Aralia californica in the West—and the woody one in the East, Aralia spinosa. Talking about bringing in the birds in the fall, oh my goodness. So if you have some room for some big, semi-shady things—if you have a big place as I do, or room around the edge, some of these aralias produce amazing amounts of fruit. [Below, one of many fruit clusters on Aralia racemosa.]
One more quick plant?
A. I might mention bayberry, Myrica pensylvanica.
Q. Oh, right—of course.
A. Everybody knows bayberry, bayberry candles, but those fruits are incredibly nutritious, I’ve read. Particularly in the winter, birds look for highly nutritious sources of food, and bayberry is one that provides that. It’s a great plant, and tolerates really lousy soils. You can grow it in poor soil.
Q. Well I have a little of that. [Laughter.]
A. I think everybody does.
Q. Bayberry–I’m going to get me some. [Laughter.]
more bird plant possibilities and references
- Some top online references can help you dig deeper in choosing plant to support birds. Three favorite sources:
- Audubon has a zip code-searchable native-plant database
- Cornell Lab of Ornithology’s list of best starter plants for birds
- From pollinator-supporting Xerces Society, region-by-region pdf’s of pollinator plants (including woody plants)–and remember, supporting pollinators supports birds
Some of Andy Brand’s and my powerhouse bird trees and shrubs, including others that we didn’t mention in the podcast:
- Amelanchier (shadbush, serviceberry)
- Cornus (dogwood, shrub and trees)
- Ilex (holly, including winterberry)
- Juniperus virginiana (Eastern red cedar)
- Myrica (bayberry)
- Parthenocissus (Virginia and thicket creepers)
- Picea (native spruces)
- Rhus (sumac)
- Sambucus (elderberry)
- Vaccinium (blueberry, huckleberry)
- Viburnum (photo above)
- Also: Oak trees (genus Quercus) bring in lots of insects and caterpillars that birds love, if you have any in the garden or nearby
- Also: Black cherry (Prunus serotina) is among the widespread native trees appealing to many species of birds (as many as 33, says Wildflower.org).
prefer the podcast version of the show?
MY WEEKLY public-radio show, rated a “top-5 garden podcast” by “The Guardian” newspaper in the UK, began its seventh year in March 2016. In 2016, the show won three silver medals for excellence from the Garden Writers Association. It’s produced at Robin Hood Radio, the smallest NPR station in the nation. Listen locally in the Hudson Valley (NY)-Berkshires (MA)-Litchfield Hills (CT) Mondays at 8:30 AM Eastern, rerun at 8:30 Saturdays. Or play the July 31, 2017 show right here.You can subscribe to all future editions on iTunes or Stitcher (and browse my archive of podcasts here).
join me and andy in the garden september 16
I WISH I COULD walk every visitor around personally at Garden Conservancy Open Days—and answer every question. But that’s impossible when hundreds of guests stream through for the self-guided walkabouts I’ve been hosting for 20 years.
Many visitors have asked me to take it to the next level, pretty please. Now Andrew Brand of Broken Arrow Nursery—they always do plant sales at my big Open Days—and I are offering a sort of “Open Day-Plus” on September 16: smaller, ticketed, workshop-style events and sales lasting a half-day each, with lots of individual attention.
Space is limited, at each of two sessions per day.
Ticket includes $25 Broken Arrow shopping credit.
The September program (from 9:30-noon, and repeated from 1:30-4 PM):
Baked Treats & Beverages: Fuel up, get acquainted, and tell us what you want to know more about, so we can fine-tune the program and cover it all.
Tour/Meet My Garden: Tour with me, Margaret, focusing on how I made a garden for the birds (60-plus species visit yearly); my maybe-too-crazy obsession with gold foliage; my passion for great groundcovers; the “meadow” I’ve cultivated above the house by observing carefully and mowing differently; and most of all, my intimate relationship with the place that goes way beyond aesthetics.
Workshop/Native Flora and Fauna: Broken Arrow Nursery Manager Andy Brand is expert in many things, but two of his personal passions are native plants, and wildlife. He is founder of the Connecticut state butterfly society, and a keen expert birder, and understands the intricate relationships between the plants we grow and the creatures that visit the garden. He’s also got an eye for improved versions of great natives for our gardens, and we’ll learn their features, use, and tips for successful culture. Why aren’t more people growing these incredible plants?, Andy asks…and watch out: Soon you will be!
Plant-Talk Hangout: We’ll spend the last chunk of our time together just talking, guided by your questions.
Shopping: Shop for plants from 11:45-1 and 3:30-4:45. Tip:Browse the Broken Arrow website (or call 203-288-1026 for advice on landscape-size plants in stock at the in-person retail nursery) to have larger specimens or multiples of something or just specific plants delivered on event day to take home.
$90 ticket price includes tour, workshop, Q&A session, plus refreshments…and a $25 credit at Broken Arrow plant sale. NOTE: All registrants will be emailed directions to the starting location, next door to Margaret’s garden in Copake Falls NY.