Bountiful Garden Plants for Birds

Bountiful Garden Plants for Birds Featured Image
Gold finches relish the seeds of cosmos, sunflowers, and other daisy-family blooms.

From wrens to cedar waxwings, birds inspire us with their flight and fascinate us with their songs. We can return those favors by creating bird-friendly environments in our own backyards, even if those “backyards” are terraces or balconies. All it takes is bountiful garden plants for birds and a small amount of garden care.

Basic gardening for birds comes down to a few necessities: food, water, shelter and an absence of poisons.  Invest in birds and they will repay you handsomely.

Fine Dining for Birds

Scarlet flowers of Monarda didyma and hummingbird
The scarlet flowers of Monarda didyma are a sure lure for hummingbirds.

Bird feeders filled with sunflower and thistle seed are excellent but pricey food source for winged visitors.  Birds also appreciate the more cost-effective approach of planting species that bear nutritious fruits, nectar, and seeds.  A planting scheme that includes at least a few flowering and fruiting species native to your area ensures that the birds will have their choice of familiar foods.

Fafard Professional Potting Mix pack

Flowers for Birds–The current vogue for coneflowers (Echinacea spp. and Rudbeckia spp.) is great for seed lovers like American goldfinches and house finches that feast on the seed heads at the end of the growing season. Sunflowers (Helianthus spp.) and purple cosmos (Cosmos bipinnatus) do the same thing.  (Click here to learn all about growing annual sunflowers!) Tubular red blooms, such as those of scarlet monarda (Monarda didyma) is a sure lure for passing hummingbirds. If you grow in containers, choose compact flowers for birds in Fafard Professional Potting Mix.

Vines for Birds–Almost every gardener has vertical space that might be perfect for plants like non-invasive, native coral honeysuckle (Lonicera sempervirens), which bears nectar-rich pink flowers that attract hummingbirds.  Later in the growing season, the honeysuckle’s red berries are likely to catch the fancy of songbirds.  If you have space, easy-to-grow Virginia creeper (Parthenosissus quinquefolia) can cover almost any structure or support while providing brilliant autumn leaves for humans and blue-black berries for avian friends.

Crabapples with bird
Crabapples make great winter meals for fruit-eating birds.

Trees and Shrubs for Birds–Many shrubs and trees produce end-of-season berries, hips, and other fruits some of which persist into the winter, to sustain non-migrating birds like cardinals and waxwings.  Forego deadheading your roses and they will provide you and the local birds with hips that are both attractive and nutritious.  Dogwood trees (Cornus florida) beautify the spring garden with flowers and bear red berries in the fall as do flowering crabapples (Malus spp.).  Deservedly popular and available in many shapes and sizes, Viburnums provide fruits for the likes of robins, cardinals, finches, and a host of other common birds.  Shrubs like deciduous winterberry holly (Ilex verticillata), light up the winter garden and help keep birds alive in cold weather as do the copious bright red fruits of ‘Winter King’ hawthorn (Crataegus viridis ‘Winter King’).

Be a little untidy and let some leaf litter accumulate in at least a part of the yard or garden.  This “litter” is good for the soil and harbors food for ground feeders like juncos and sparrows.

Plant Shelter Belts for Birds

Goldfinch collecting thistledown
A goldfinch collects thistledown for nest making.

Planting a mix of densely-branched shrubs and trees of varying heights helps birds of all sizes and habits find shelter and nesting sites.  Evergreens like holly (Ilex spp.) and arborvitae (Thuja occidentalis) provide protection from the elements as well as food.  Deciduous trees, including North American service berries (Amelanchier spp.) and crabapples (Malus spp.), feature dense branching, crooks, and hollows that make inviting nest sites.
And some of those nesting birds, like goldfinches, need the silky down from seeds like milkweed (Asclepias spp.) and thistle (Cirsium spp.) to line their nests.  Gardeners have no need to plant thistles, but milkweeds are great garden flowers that attract butterflies and other insect pollinators.

Hydration Stations for Birds

Avian populations appreciate simple birdbaths, ground-level water dishes, or just about any water-filled vessel.  Be sure to refill these backyard oases before they get dry and clean them regularly.  Plants that hold drops of water on their leaf surfaces or in leaf or flower folds, like large-leaved hostas and calla lilies (Zantedeschia spp.), also offer drinks to birds.

Create Bird Safe Havens

Limit or completely curtail the use of pesticides and herbicides in your yard and garden to prevent chemical residue from disrupting the food chain and/or injuring birds.  When expanding existing beds or planting new perennials, trees or shrubs, incorporate natural garden products like Fafard® Premium Topsoil, to enhance soil and plant health without posing a threat to wildlife.  And, while it is impossible to stop all predators, you can improve the odds of avian survival by keeping domestic cats indoors.  If feral cats are a problem, deter them with appropriate barriers.

Chickadee feeding on winter berries
A chickadee feeds on winter berries.

Native American Roses for Wildscaping

Pasture rose
The pasture rose is one of several native roses suitable for wildscaping.

What is a Native American rose?  Is it the beach rose (Rosa rugosa) that grows vigorously on the sand dunes of northeastern America,

Wild rosehips
Wild roses have pretty fall hips (R. woodsii)

or the wreath rose (Rosa multiflora) that rampages all over the eastern half of the United States?  Could it be the Cherokee rose (Rosa laevigata), which grows freely in Georgia? The answer is none of the above.  All are prolific, tough species roses, but none are native to North America.

True native roses, which are both beautiful and useful for wild and not-so-wild landscapes, are a bit harder to find at local nurseries, but they are worth seeking out. They look great in wild landscapes, offering delicate fragrant flowers and colorful hips. Bees and wildlife love them!

Native American Roses

Over 20 rose species are native to various parts of North America, but some are rarer than others.  Most bloom only once a year and bear single, pollinator-friendly single flowers in white, pink, or rose.  When the petals fade, native roses develop nutritious scarlet hips that are a treat for birds and animals, not to mention the humans who sometimes forage for them.  Some natives are armed to the teeth with lots of sharp prickles, making them perfect for boundary or privacy hedges.  Species like Rosa blanda, which feature relatively smooth stems, can hold their own in more “civilized” situations.

The following native roses have the widest North American geographic distribution, making them good candidates for wild gardens.

Rosa Carolina
Rosa carolina

Pasture or Carolina Rose (Rosa carolina): Sometimes called the “pasture rose”, fragrant Rosa carolina roams much farther than the boundaries of its namesake state, surviving in dry open meadows and along forest edges.  It is native to the eastern half of North America and succeeds especially well in the southeastern United States.  The prickly plants grow 3-feet tall and wide with pink flowers that bloom from May to June, depending on the location.  As with many species roses, petal color fades to near-white as the blooms age.  The crisp green foliage turns beautiful shades of orange-red in the fall. Though quite shade tolerant, this disease-susceptible rose flowers and performs best in full sun.

Rosa virginiana
Rosa virginiana

Virginia Rose (Rosa virginiana): Rosa virginiana is a taller shrub rose (5- to 7-feet tall and 3-feet wide) that is less geographically widespread than Rosa carolina. It sports single, fragrant blooms that may be pink, yellow, or rose-purple and flower from June to August.  It requires full to partial sun and is tolerant to a wide range of soil types, from moist soils to dry. Leaves turn fire orange-red in fall alongside deep red hips.

Rosa blanda
Rosa blanda (by Cillas)

Prairie Rose (Rosa blanda): This sweet thornless rose bears several evocative nicknames, including “prairie rose”, “Hudson’s Bay rose” or “Labrador rose”, for its favored locales.  Cold-hardy and tough, it is native across northeastern North America where it survives in open, dry, sunny prairies and open woods.  Its nearly thornless stems and mounded habit make it a good candidate for use in “wild” planting schemes.  Flower color varies from dark pink to white and blooming may occur from June to August.  It only reaches 4-feet tall and wide, but it tends to spread, so it needs elbow room.  Native plant lovers can rejoice in the fact that the relatively smooth stems make necessary pruning easier.

Rosa woodsii
Rosa woodsii (Image by Doug Waylett)

Wood’s Rose (Rosa woodsii): This is one of the better natives for colorful flowers and hips. Pink-flowered Wood’s rose is a westerner by inclination, found in growing wild in the western half of the United States and much of Canada.  It also goes by the name “mountain rose” because it succeeds in challenging high-altitude conditions.  Small, medium-pink flowers appear annually from May to July on upright shrubs adorned with blue-green foliage and a bumper crop of prickles.  Growing up to 5-feet tall, Wood’s rose is extremely cold tolerant.  In addition to the flowers, the shrubs produce loads of bright, teardrop-shaped hips and have fiery fall leaf color.

Rosa palustris
Rosa palustris

Swamp Rose (Rosa palustris): If your wild garden is damp, Rosa palustris may be right for you.  Native to the eastern half of North America, swamp rose is a large shrub (8-12-feet tall) that likes to be sited at the water’s edge, where it can commune with moisture-loving sedges, iris, and other, similarly inclined plants.  It will tolerate some shade but it blooms and performs best in full sun. The late spring blooms are lightly scented and may be deep rose pink or pale pink.  The prickles are hooked, which makes pruning a challenge.

Rosa setigera
Rosa setigera (Image by Cillas)

Climbing Prairie Rose (Rosa setigera): This spring-blooming climbing rose offers blooms that range from deep magenta to white. Sometimes known as the “bramble-leafed”, it sends out long, flexible shoots that enable it to scramble up to 15 feet, making it useful as a substitute for non-native climbing roses.  If trained on an arch or trellis and provided full sun and good draining soil, climbing prairie rose can be a show-stopper.  The fragrant pink blooms appear in clusters that develop into showy red hips in fall. Wise gardeners remove the root suckers that inevitable sprout at the base, enabling the plant to shoot skyward without producing a thicket underneath.

Landscaping with Wild Roses

Remember that wild landscapes and gardens can be “wild” without looking completely unruly. They are created using native species and emphasize biodiversity, habitat creation, sustainability, and beauty. Plant placement can be naturalistic while also be civilized and pleasing to the eye.
Fafard Premium Topsoil packTo use native roses most effectively, provide enough space.  Many, but not all varieties grow tall and relatively wide, with a tendency to form dense thickets if left to their own devices.  They look great planted alongside bold native Adam’s needle (Yucca filamentosa), breezy native bunch grasses like Shenandoah switch grass (Panicum virgatum ‘Shenandoah’), and native purple coneflowers (Echinacea purpurea).

Species roses have gotten by on their own for millennia, but they will respond with more flowers and hips if given a good start with a quality soil amendment like Fafard® Premium Topsoil, alfalfa meal natural fertilizer, and regular of water. All bloom and perform better if given open air and full sun. Prune seasonally to keep plants tidy and to promote good airflow, which will dissuade fungal diseases.
Native roses are not available in big-box stores or even most garden centers.  The best way to locate specific species is to seek out mail order nurseries that specialize in species roses. High Country Roses is one such source.

Rosa rugosa by the lake
Rosa rugosa is a common garden rose found on North American beaches, but they are not native! (Image by Jessie Keith)

Cultivating Diversity with Wildlife Gardening

Naturalistic garden sm
Low dense groundcovers, meadow-like perennial plantings, shrubby thickets, trees large and small, and other vegetation types provide a patchwork of habitats for wildlife. (image by Jessie Keith)

Want to invite more of nature into your garden?  Then cultivate diversity —from the ground up.  Even a small garden can feed, shelter, and house an abundance of animals and insects (and plants!).  And it all starts with the soil.

The key to creating a wildlife-friendly yard is to grow lots of plants and plant species —especially natives.  This is mostly about food: nectar, pollen, fruits, nuts, and leaves.  More plant diversity means more dietary options and niches, supporting more furry and feathered (and warty and creeping) things.  A diversely planted garden is alive with feeding activity.  Bumblebees mob the pollen-rich blooms of blueberries and shooting-stars (as assassin bugs lie in wait).  Butterflies flutter about the sweetly scented flower-heads of spice viburnums and meadow rues.  Caterpillars and other insect larvae browse the foliage of their favored (and —in some cases—exclusive) hosts.  And at the upper end of the food chain, birds, amphibians, mammals, and other omnivores gobble down fruits, nuts, and insects (while hummingbirds buzz in to sip from the tubular, brightly hued, nectar-rich flowers of penstemons and salvias).  Plant more species (especially natives), and they will come – and eat.

More plants also mean more places for your local wildlife to hang out.  Low dense groundcovers, meadow-like perennial plantings, shrubby thickets, trees large and small, and other vegetation types provide a patchwork of habitats where animals and insects can forage, nest, shelter, advertise for mates, and do all that other wild stuff.  Accessorize with some bird feeders, bird (or bat or bee) houses, toad abodes, bird baths, butterfly puddles, and other wildlife-appropriate man-made features, and you’ll have a place for just about every critter in the hood.

Bee on Ageratum houstonianum
Planting for pollinators with favorite bee and butterfly blooms is one simple way to plant for wildlife. (image by Jessie Keith)

If the thought of all that up-close, wildlife-friendly habitat gives you (and your neighbors) a touch of the creepy-crawlies —then keep it at a comfortable distance.  Border it with some hardscape and lawn where the children and dogs (rather than the deer and the garter snake) can play.  Provide some observation areas from which you can safely monitor the children and the wildlife.  But consider leaving some lawn-free corridors to connect your plantings with those of your neighbors (hint, hint).  Together, you can form one contiguous neighborhood mega-wildlife-garden.

And put away the pesticides.  No matter that your spray-can trigger-finger instinctually starts twitching at the very mention of insect-hosting plants.  You’ll doubtless find that insect damage is far less noticeable and less troubling in your wildlife planting than in other, more pampered areas of your yard.  More diversity means less likelihood of one critter spiraling out of control.  So protect that diversity by not spraying it with poison (although in some areas a deer fence might be in order).

As with all gardens, the best way to proceed is from the ground up.  And I do mean ground – as in good old dirt (a.k.a. soil), the base layer of terrestrial life.  For it is life in the underground (comprising mind-numbingly large numbers of bacteria, protozoa, fungi, and other soil microbes), which supports life up in the sunlight, including the plants that populate our gardens.  The healthier the soil is, the greater the possibilities for our gardens – and for their human and non-human inhabitants.

So before you plant anything, check with the soil.  Is it heavy clay or porous sand?  Does it have a nice topsoil layer or none?  Is it in the sun or the shade?  If possible, send a soil sample off to your state’s horticultural extension service for analysis and recommendations (most states offer soil testing for a relatively modest fee).  And in most cases, add organic matter such as Fafard® Premium Organic Compost. This top-quality compost is at the top of the menu for most soil microbes.

To convert a whole swath of lawn to a wildlife perennial planting, use the technique known as sheet mulching.  Blanket the erstwhile lawn with a thick layer of wet newspaper or cardboard, and cover the paper with Fafard Premium Organic Compost (1 cubic foot per square yard) and several inches of “soft”, seed-free organic material (such as leaves or straw).  Add more compost and top with 3 or 4 inches of wood chips.  Allow your mulch parfait to decay for a few months before planting into it, or plant immediately by creating topsoil-filled hollows in the bark layer.  Keep the border edged and weeded while your new planting establishes – and then watch diversity happen.

Scarlet beebalm, purple coneflower and orange butterfly weed
Natives like scarlet beebalm, purple coneflower and orange butterfly weed are sure to draw lots of wildlife pollinators. (image by Jessie Keith)