Gardening’s For the Birds
AUG. 19, 2020
As summer draws to a close, we can look ahead to autumn’s delights. One of fall’s pleasures may be enjoying your fall garden. The little joys—the unremitting blooms of the Black-eyed Susans, the tender roots of that Boxwood twig you planted, and, hopefully, the call of the Canada geese winging their way south. I hope, dear reader, that you and I can hold onto some of the insights we gained from our months of self-isolation and apply those insights now and in the future—how satisfying it became to simply watch the trees bud and leaves emerge. What a simple pleasure, having the time to watch the squirrels scamper across the telephone wires and the birds nibble at your feeder.
Let me propose an easy and satisfying project based on our reawakened enjoyment of life’s simple pleasures. Why not devise adaptations to our gardens, patios, or decks to make these areas even more welcoming to those songbirds, bees, and butterflies that have entertained us during our long sequestration? Some of those little, feathered balls of energy may winter over here in Maryland while others can be enticed to return next spring to our welcoming gardens. Expand
Why garden with birds, bees, and butterflies in mind?
There are at least five solid reasons for encouraging these tiny creatures to visit your garden.
• Birds and butterflies entertain and delight us. (Honey bees, too, can prove entertaining—at a safe distance, of course.) There is the simple pleasure of watching them zoom in to rest on a railing or perch on your feeder. What are they thinking as they select the perfect seed, cooperating with one another or pushing each other out of the way—not unlike kids on the playground. How does that delicate splash of color emerge from its dull cocoon? The minor-key song of the Chickadee, the melodic chirrups of the Song sparrow, the hearty songs of the Robins fill the day. There’s also the particular pleasure of learning to identify the birds that visit our feeders. Is that a House finch or a Purple finch? Am I listening to the Cardinal’s song, or is that a Robin? How does that Nuthatch hang on as he skitters, head down the trunk of that oak? It always takes my breath away, watching a tiny Goldfinch undulate like a yellow snake across the sky. As we learned during our forced confinement, there is a great deal to be observed, if we have the time and the patience.
• Another compelling reason to provide for the birds, bees, and butterflies is the work they do in our gardens. They are the seeders and pollinators. They carry the potential for new plants and the magic dust that allows plants to flower and reproduce. Without the pollinators our mums and asters would never bloom, our fruit trees would bear no fruit.
• Tired of swatting at those pesky flies and mosquitoes? Avoiding those smelly sprays and noisy bug-zappers? Well, leave it up to the birds! Their favorite meal may be a juicy fly or a crinkly mosquito! Birds dine on those nasty aphids and mites that can plague our plants. Woodpeckers, finches, chickadees, and (here’s an easy one) flycatchers eat oodles of insects every day; picking off a fly on the wing is a favorite pastime for a swallow. Barn swallows will eat over 1,000 insects per day! But they’re light eaters when compared to the Purple martins which eat 2,000 mosquitoes per day. No wonder folks put up those pretty apartment-birdhouses designed specifically for Purple martins!
• Birds can also save you some work in the flowerbeds. Ground feeders, like finches, towhees, and sparrows eat the seeds of future weeds, eliminating or at least diminishing the number of weeds you’ll do battle with in your flowerbeds.
• Finally, some of those more impressive raptors—hawks, owls, and kestrel—will help keep down the rodent population. These sharp-eyed hunters eat mice, voles, squirrels, and snakes. (Sorry about the squirrels.) A nesting pair of Barn owls eats over 3,000 rodents during their mating season. A hawk eats one or two large rodents each day. And for all of us struggling with voles beneath our lawns and in our gardens, hear this! Kestrels eat 4–8 voles each day, depending on the season! (They’re welcome to all the voles in my lawn.) Expand
How can I encourage the birds, butterflies, and bees to visit my garden?
There are only four essentials for making your garden, patio, or terrace a welcoming habitat for these visitors.
Food: You can, of course, set up bird feeders and buy bags of birdseed. This is a great way to draw birds in, so you can get a closer look at them. A few cautions, however: If you are successful, buying seed to keep your hungry guests well fed can get expensive. Also, if you begin supplying a feeder, you need to continue refilling it. The birds that visit will come to rely on your largesse. If your feeder goes empty for too long, your feathered friends might suffer. And, prepare for clean-up duty. The birds will be a bit cavalier in their exploring of your feeder, tossing seeds hither and yon. You’ll have to keep a broom and dust pan handy or your patio floor will look like the floor in a saloon that offers free peanuts—unshelled. Bees and butterflies need only flowers—trumpet vines, sunflowers, petunias, and roses. No clean-up necessary.
Water: A reliable water source will be a valued gift for your visitors. A few plastic flowerpot saucers will do—you’ll have to dump and refill them often. A birdbath is a charming, old-fashioned solution. They’re usually a bit larger and will hold enough water for a few days. Either choice must be shallow. The birds need to be able to stand on the rim or a rock in the birdbath. A major project that offers a lovely solution is adding a pond to your garden. A pond provides essential water for all the small creatures that share your neighborhood—birds, butterflies, foxes, raccoons, and rabbits.
Shelter: Here’s the excuse for all of us who are lazy gardeners. Resist a too-tidy garden or flowerbed. Birds, bees, and butterflies need places to hide and shelter from predators and weather. You’ll provide essential shelter if you leave a few forsythia to run wild or create a small wood pile with those fallen branches you collect. There are plans on-line for clever insect apartment buildings you can create and install in your garden.
Safety: Whether you’re figuring out where to hang the feeder or locate the birdbath, consider the safety of the birds as they rest. If there are cats and dogs in your household or neighborhood, you will need to consider height—how tall a base will be needed to keep the cat from jumping into the birdbath? If you hang the birdfeeder from a tree, how far out on a branch should you go to keep squirrels from easily jumping into the feeder?
And, speaking of squirrels, as we gardeners face the unremitting struggle to keep squirrels out of our flowerpots, birdfeeders, and bulbs, let me offer a few suggestions for squirrel-repellants.
Nature’s solution: Try planting some or all of the following flowers in your garden. Squirrels are repelled by:
- Lilies of the Valley
1. Hot stuff: Mix 1/3 cup of flour, 2 tablespoons of Cayenne pepper, and 2 tablespoons of powdered mustard. Sprinkle the powder around birdbaths and feeders. The birds won’t be bothered, but the squirrels may! 2. Wet stuff: Mix equal quantities of water and vinegar. Spray areas where you wish to repel the squirrels. You can also try adding peppermint oil or garlic.
With over 400 species of birds sighted in Maryland, and almost 300 of them fairly common, what are we waiting for? Hold onto those quiet hours when you can sit and observe the world around you—feed the birds, watch the bees move delicately from flower to flower, catch your breath as a golden Monarch butterfly visits your purple asters. And when winter comes, you’ll still find a few old friends looking to you for seeds when snow and ice blanket the earth.