Gardening is for the birds! You ‘betcha’ it is, and winter is a particularly satisfying and rewarding season to attract birds to the garden. Many people hang up a single bird feeder, fill it with seed from the grocery store and call it a day. Instead learn how to plan and plant the winter garden to attract native and migratory birds with natural foods. The food choices in winter are much more limited for birds. If your garden has what our feathered friends need to survive the cold winter months, they will spend more time in your particular garden. Birds use most of their energy during the winter looking for food, shelter and water. Provide these vital elements, and your garden will be full of lovely winter visitors.
Food for the Birds
During the winter, birds are constantly on the hunt for food. By adding just a few of the listed trees, shrubs or perennials, your garden will become a convenient and safe place for the birds to feed. If your goal is to attract birds to the winter landscape, consider planting some of these in addition to your regular evergreens and flowering annual and perennials. Your garden will be beautiful in all four seasons as well as being an avian sanctuary.
There are many trees to choose from that thrive in the Midlands and will provide nutritious berries and nuts during winter. Not only do trees provide food for the birds, they provide an important vantage point for the birds to scout an area for danger before going in to feed.
Vitex (Vitex angus-castus): Vitex is one of my favorite trees, and I try to incorporate at least one in the gardens I design. It is a small to medium tree that blooms beautiful lavender flowers in May. Those blooms turn into dense seed heads that birds absolutely devour during the winter. Cardinals particularly like the seeds and can strip the tree of seeds in a matter of weeks.
Serviceberry (Amalanchier species): This small tree adds four seasons of interest in the garden starting with the small bell-shaped blossoms in the spring and ending with berries in the fall and winter that attract mockingbirds, brown thrashers and woodpeckers.
Arborvitae (Thuja occidentalis): This classic conifer with a pyramidal shape adds evergreen structure to the garden. It has dense branches and clusters of small cones laden with seeds to sustain the birds during the winter months.
Sumac (Rhus species): Sumac is a small tree that is one of the first in the garden to show its fall color. After the leaves have fallen in the winter, the tree is full of spikes of red fruit that are an excellent source of nutrition for our native birds.
Redbud (Cereis canacknsis): Woodpeckers enjoy the insects they find in the bard or Redbud trees. Small birds enjoy the small seeds that are attached to the stems.
Beautyberry (Callicarpa species): Beautyberry is a car stopper in the fall with its spectacular display of autumn color. Its bright-purple fall fruit lasts well into the winter months or until it is all completely devoured by feathered visitors.
Holly (Ilex species): This beautiful, classic foundation plant is ubiquitous in Columbia gardens. The many varieties that thrive in our zone add beauty and structure 12 months a year. This shrub is practically a necessity for bird lovers. The bright red berries that ripen in fall provide an abundant source of nutrition for the birds during the cold winter months.
Winterberry (Ilex verticillata): As the name suggests, Winterberry is one of the showiest deciduous shrubs in the winter landscape. It drops its colorful leaves in fall so that the numerous, brilliant red berries are easy for the birds to spot as they fly by.
Oakleaf hydrangea (Hydrangea quercifolia): Who doesn’t love a hydrangea? The birds love them too. Resist pruning the seedheads that form after blooming. All of the seeds will be stripped clean by the early spring.
Most gardeners prune herbaceous perennials to the ground in the winter. Omit fall and winter pruning to attract birds to the garden. Let the perennials “go to seed” and leave them standing so that the birds will have nutritious food to sustain them during the winter.
Black-Eyed Susan (Rudbeckia species): There are many varieties of Black-Eyed Susans that thrive in the Midlands. The traditional Black-Eyed Susan has a dark center and bright-yellow petals. In the fall, the petals fall away leaving the dark centers full of tiny black seeds. Many small birds absolutely love these seeds and will feast on them all winter long. You may be surprised by Black-Eyed Susans popping up in other areas of the garden!
Fountain grass (Pennisetum alopecuroides): The fuzzy flower spikes that appear on this carefree ornamental grass in the fall and winter turn into the perfect natural birdseed during the cold winter months. Do not prune it to the ground, and the birds will devour all of the seeds before the first warm days of spring.
Yarrow (Achillea species): Yarrow is another carefree perennial that thrives in our area and is very tolerant of our hot, dry summers. It should not be pruned to the ground after the blooms have faded as the center of the flower holds an abundance of small seeds that appeal to many of the native songbirds in the Midlands.
Different birds look for shelter at different levels. Some birds prefer shelter high in the tallest of trees and others prefer shelter in the mid to lower levels of the garden. Think of the garden in layers: the tall canopy of pine trees, the lower canopy of dogwoods or cherry trees, the medium height of large shrubs such as viburnum and holly, the lower level of small shrubs such as boxwood and hawthorne and, even lower than that level, the ground covers such as Asiatic jasmine and ivies.
Try to incorporate trees and shrubs at these different levels to attract a wide variety of birds. Birds also use trees for nesting. Here again, different birds have different habits. Some birds prefer trees with open branches to build their nests such as dogwoods and some prefer a denser canopy such as hollies to raise their young. Try providing both in the landscape. For many years, doves have built nests in the sabal palm trees in my garden!
Water is an obvious requirement for the birds’ survival. Water can be provided in many ways: birdbaths, ponds, even sprinklers and puddles. Birds love to bathe in water; what a happy sight it is to see when a big robin redbreast fluffs his feathers in a birdbath or puddle. Make sure the water is fresh and clean — birdbaths need to be cleaned to remove bacteria. If any chemicals are used to clean the birdbath, make sure it is rinsed thoroughly before adding water for the birds. Luckily we don’t have too many freezing days here in Columbia. If the water in birdbaths or fountains freezes, try to remember to break the icy barrier so the birds can still get to the water.
Attracting birds to the garden definitely takes more planning and effort, but it is worth it. So many of the listed plants already reside in our gardens. Resist pruning the seed heads, and you will be rewarded with new avian visitors. How lovely it is to see birds flitting about in the garden during all seasons and especially winter when the garden is dormant. Birds add life to our winter gardens!
Gardening Chores for December
- To lengthen the life and bloom of poinsettias, keep it evenly moist and in a cool, sunny spot indoors.
- It is not too late to plant pre-cooled tulip bulbs.
- Shrubs and trees may be planted on days when the soil is not frozen. Remember to water the plants even though it is cool.
- Purchase high quality Paper White bulbs (Narcissus), and force them to bloom inside.
- Choose flowering shrub branches to force inside.
- Feed the birds.
- Keep up with your garden diary. Makes notes of what is blooming. What successes you noticed in the garden and what failures to remediate. Take photos to have another perspective to evaluate different garden areas. I find this to be a particularly helpful method when designing new beds or renovating existing beds.
- Make a list of gardening chores to do on a warm winters day. If you are planning to add another planting area to your garden, now is the time to start digging. Prepare the area now by removing all weeds and turf. Add organic matter so that the new garden area is ready and waiting when you decide to plant.
- Cool weather vegetables can be started indoors.
- Buy or borrow a new gardening book to get new ideas for the coming season.
- Enjoy this quiet time in the gardening cycle.