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Brush Piles

If
you have plenty of space and you’d like to let a part of your yard go wild,
consider a living brush pile made of juniper or another evergreen. A brush pile offers shelter and cover for
small birds and mammals, and will be most welcome if placed near a wooded area
or around the edge of a field or meadow. 


While most brush piles are nothing more than criss-crossed layers of
branches, stumps, and even discarded Christmas trees, a living brush pile is
made by taking a partial cut through a tree trunk, allowing it to topple over
but remain attached to the trunk. 

The
tree will continue to live and be fed through this connection with the
roots. In California, a tree type like
California Juniper (J. californica) would
work well for a living brush pile, if allowed to grow to about ten feet tall
and then cut. 

Plant some native
penstemon (Penstemon spectabilis)
nearby for the hummingbirds, scatter some clarkia seeds around, and allow a
vine to twine its way through the pile, and you will have a gloriously messy treat
for the birds.

Natives and Non-Natives

The birds in my neighborhood take
happily to natives and non-natives alike. A naturalist visited my house once and cringed at the sight of two dozen
double-breasted cormorants perched in the eucalyptus trees across the
street. The trees are the worst kind
of non-native: toxic, invasive, highly
flammable, but as long as the cormorants call them home, the trees will
remain. Same goes for the blackberry
bramble up and down my alleyway—my neighbors and I can’t bear to cut it back
when so many brown towhees and song sparrows are attracted to the berries.   


Still, there are plenty of non-natives that
won’t take over the garden. For the
hummingbirds, set out foxglove, phlox, and bee balm. Let trumpet vine climb up your fence. Put in a climbing rose like “Cherokee Rose” (Rose laevigata) or a
deciduous shrub like “Geranium” (Rosa moyesii), for a tasty offering of rose
hips in the fall, as well as a good nesting site. Finally, who can resist a flowering plum or cherry tree? Try the bird cherry (Prunus padus), also
called maybush, for a beautiful show of white flowers in the spring and small
black fruits for the birds in the fall. 

Bird-Friendly Shade Gardens

The shady spot in my garden is bordered by a garage wall to
the south, a camellia tree to the east, and a wild, overgrown wisteria to the
west. It would have been easy to ignore
this area and concentrate on the sunnier places in my garden, but the birds led
me to the shade and prompted me to set about creating a better habitat for
them. They perched along the garage
roof, built nests in the camellia, and twittered at me from the vines of the
wisteria. They were a small but
persuasive group. What could I do?


 First, I
tucked a few birdhouses under the eaves of the garage, near the camellia and
the wisteria vines so they could find them easily. I collected twine and lint and hung it in wire cages from the
tree in case they were in need of nesting material. I set a concrete birdbath in the center of my little shade
garden, and put up several birdfeeders nearby. Before I even began planting my shade garden, it had
architectural features and wildlife to enliven it.

 Finding the
right plant for a shady area is mostly a matter of trial and error. You may have damp shade or dry shade; you
may have a little dappled sunlight or none at all. It is best to choose just a few plants and let them have the run
of the place; this way, it will look wild without seeming chaotic. I wanted plants that would re-seed and take
care of themselves, so I started with a shade-loving wildflower mix to see what
came up. Columbines flourished in my little
shade garden, and I began to collect them, planting the bold “McKanna Giant”,
the frilly petticoat columbines, and the native western columbine. The hummingbirds darted in and out of them
all spring; the song sparrows and juncos relished their small black seeds. I added a groundcover of lamium (“White
Nancy” and “Chequers” have bright
flowers and silvery leaves) and variegated vinca to provide a habitat for
insects and worms and provide color when the columbine stopped blooming. 

 In the
fall, the wisteria drops its leaves, and in the spring, the camellia showers
rose-colored petals on the ground. I
dart in just long enough to clear the leaves from the birdbath, and make sure
the columbine and the groundcovers aren’t blanketed with debris, then I back
out and leave the birds to their shady home.

Hedgerows

Coastal Californians have long relied on hedgerows to help
tame the salty sea wind that blows in off the Pacific in the wintertime. Farmers recognize their benefits for erosion
control and windbreaks, but now hedgerows are gaining new respect as a way to
attract beneficial insects and birds to farms, thereby helping to reduce the
use of pesticides. 

Scientists at the
University of California Santa Cruz are working with local strawberry growers
to establish hedgerows at the edges of their fields. While these hedgerows are significantly longer and wider than
anything you might plant in your backyard, their plant list is perfect at any
scale: try coffeeberry, elderberry,
California sagebrush, “Blue Blossom” ceanothus, and native buckwheats. Plant wild strawberry around the edges for
an attractive fall fruit. Scatter
wildflower seeds such as poppy, lupine, and yarrow. Mulch with a thick layer of newspaper and wood chips to keep down
invasive weeds. If you don’t think your
yard can accommodate an overgrown hedgerow, look around you. A neglected alleyway or a vacant lot nearby
might be the perfect spot if the owner is agreeable.


A hedgerow takes on a life of its
own. If you don’t keep a nature journal
already, consider starting one when you plant your hedgerow. Sketch its progress as it grows; keep a
count of the birds that are attracted to it. You may be surprised at the rich diversity that even a small hedgerow
can support. 

Coffeeberry: Rhamnus californica

Elderberry: Sambucus mexicana

California sagebrush: Artemesia californica

Ceanothus: Ceanothus thrysiflorus

Buckwheat: Eriogonum latifolium and E. giganteum

Wild strawberry: Fragaria chiloensis

Dogwoods

Maybe I’m just longing for spring, but I’m convinced that
California gardeners could hardly do better than to choose a Pacific dogwood, a
California native, or the more widely known Eastern dogwood, as a focal point in
the garden. Both produce grey branches
that grow in a pleasing horizontal pattern in winter. Both burst into spectacular bloom in April or May, with a second
flowering possible in September. As if
that wasn’t enough, the leaves turn a glowing red, yellow, or pink in
fall. After the leaves drop, clusters
of scarlet fruit provide a feast for the birds into winter. Dogwood berries are favorites among over
ninety different birds, including cedar waxwings, song sparrows, and
mockingbirds.


The dogwood trees in my
neighborhood grow in the shadow of a tall house where they are protected from
sunburn. The Eastern dogwood will only
reach about twenty feet tall, while the Pacific dogwood can reach fifty feet. Both prefer the company of high-branching
trees that can offer them a little shelter from the sun in hot climates. Coastal gardeners may also want to consider
planting a dogwood in a sheltered spot to protect fragile blooms from strong
winds and late spring storms. If you
have the space, consider adding a flowering dogwood to a stand of cedars, oaks,
or the majestic Pacific madrone. 

The Pacific dogwood, like many
California natives, demands very little in the way of routine care. In fact, it is downright offended by regular
garden watering, fertilizing, and pruning. Its bark is tender and any cuts along small branches could provide a way
in for diseases or pests. Plant your
Pacific dogwood in well-drained soil and water infrequently once established.

Bird Gardening in California

From great egrets standing majestically in a coastal marsh,
to spotted owls roosting in an old-growth redwood forest, to mockingbirds
building a nest in a backyard citrus tree, California’s bird population is as
diverse as the geography of the state itself. From my window in Santa Cruz, I see Anna’s hummingbird visiting a
late-blooming salvia, double-crested cormorants perched in a eucalyptus tree
across the street, and a yellow-rumped warbler paying a visit to my neighbor’s
feeder. The good news for California
gardeners is that no matter where you live, your garden can play host to a
variety of year-round and migratory birds.


Winter

Resist the temptation to tidy up
too much during the winter months. I go
out every year in December to prune the roses, cut off any dead or decaying
tree limbs, and trim back the salvia to encourage new growth, but otherwise, I
try to leave things alone. The cuttings
go into a rather untidy pile in the far corner of my garden, where I let the blackberry
vines climb over them undisturbed. In
the vegetable garden, there are usually a few sunflowers still on the stalk,
their heavy dried seedheads drooping towards the ground. If I need to clear them to make room for a
quick crop of winter greens, I toss the seedheads on the brush pile, too. Christmas wreaths and swags go in the pile
after the holidays, and although I leave fallen leaves on the ground in my own
garden, the neighbors are all too happy to contribute their bags of leaves for
my pile. As the oranges begin to ripen
on my tree in January, I cut a few in half and place them in the tangle of
twigs and branches.

This brush pile becomes the winter
living room for the birds. Song
sparrows forage for insects and seeds, wrens seek shelter, and a bright yellow
western tanger appears sometimes to perch on an orange rind and enjoy the
fruit. Birds that overwinter in
California are always on the lookout for an undisturbed place to nest, forage
for insects and seeds, or simply seek shelter during a winter storm. My own garden is too small to accommodate a
brush pile year round, but I am all too happy to offer a corner to the birds in
the winter and clear it out come spring.

Berry-producing trees and shrubs
are the real treasures in a winter garden.  The toyon, also known as Christmas berry or California holly, is a
California native that produces bright red clusters of berries from November to
January. Junipers offer berries as
well as winter shelter and color. Although they don’t grow well in extreme desert heat or mountain cold,
junipers are widely available elsewhere. Check with your local nursery for a variety that grows well in your
area; the low-growing shore juniper is popular along the coast, and the tall
California juniper grows well in desert areas.

Even apartment and condominium
dwellers attract birds to their patios and balconies in the winter. My neighbor keeps a potted Christmas tree on
her balcony and decorates it with treats for the birds during the holiday
season. Pine cones rolled in peanut
butter and cornmeal, sprays of millet, and strings of berries make for a
decorative and bird-friendly winter display.

Spring

Coastal gardeners often experience
wind and rain throughout the early weeks of spring, with only a few warm, balmy
days to hint at the calmer weather to come. In the mountain regions, snow can continue through March, making shelter
and clean, well-stocked feeding stations more important than ever. But once the warm spring weather does
arrive, I look forward to the spectacle of bird-friendly trees coming into
bloom in my neighborhood.

Pacific dogwood, a California
native, or the more widely known Eastern dogwood, make excellent focal points
for the spring garden. Both produce
grey branches that grow in a pleasing horizontal pattern in winter. Both burst into spectacular bloom in April
or May, with a second flowering possible in September. As if that wasn’t enough, the leaves turn a
glowing red, yellow, or pink in fall. After the leaves drop, clusters of scarlet fruit provide a feast for the
birds during fall and winter months. Dogwood berries are favorites among over ninety different birds,
including cedar waxwings, song sparrows, and mockingbirds.

Flowering plum and cherry trees
also offer spectacular spring blossoms and fruit for the birds later. I like the native hollyleaf cherry and the
hardy wild plum, also known as the goose plum, for their reliability and lovely
pinkish-white flowers. If you’re lucky
enough to have such a tree in your own garden, cut a few branches just before
they bloom and bring them indoors for a spectacular early spring flower
arrangement.

Spring is a good time to plant
annual flowers that will produce seed in summer and fall for finches, towhees,
juncos, and sparrows. My favorites for
spring blooms are columbine, which attract hummingbirds with their
trumpet-shaped blossoms; forget-me-nots, which can be invasive but offer bright
early spring flowers and plenty of seeds later; calendula and marigold, which
also attract beneficial insects to the vegetable garden; and bachelor’s button,
which I interplant among spring bulbs for summer color. The highlight of my flower garden, however,
is a patch planted with meadow wildflowers such as California poppy and yarrow,
purple coneflower, and scabiosa, or pincushion flower. Many of these flowers
attract butterflies as well, so last year I introduced milkweed, which not only
provides strands of fibrous bark for orioles and other birds to use as nesting
materials if allowed to stand through winter into spring, it is also the only
plant where Monarch butterflies lay their eggs. 

 

 The highlight of my spring season is watching
a pair of mockingbirds build a nest in the lemon tree. Both birds share the task of building a nest
of dead twigs and grass about ten feet above the ground. It is a joy to sit on the back porch early
in the morning and watch them forage for food among the berry-producing shrubs
and vines, stopping frequently to chatter at one another or hop to the roof of
the garden shed, where they protest loudly anytime a gull dares fly over their
territory.

Summer

 Ah,
summer. The mockingbirds continue with
their nesting, the hummingbirds dart in and out of the flower garden, and
frequent trips to the seashore are enlivened by sightings of great blue herons,
avocets, and black-necked stilts. Everywhere, it seems, the birds are enjoying abundant fruit, plenty of
insects, and generous leafy cover for their nesting sites.

A wide perennial border alongside
my house is devoted to plants that are attractive to hummingbirds, and this is
the season to enjoy them. I’ve planted
red penstemon and scarlet pineapple sage, native columbine, and lupine to
attract the Anna’s and Rufous hummingbirds that are most frequently seen in my
neighborhood. Desert gardeners should
consider drought-tolerant natives such as California fushcia and monkey
flower. Aloes and red-hot poker plants
thrive in both desert and seaside areas and attract hummingbirds with their
bright orange blooms. In a cottage
garden, flowering plants such as
butterfly bush, bee balm, penstemon and foxglove will attract hummingbirds and
butterflies. I’ve even drawn them to
the vegetable garden with scarlet runner beans, which sport bright red flowers and
edible beanpods.

Because California summers are
usually dry, a good source of water is essential for birds in your
backyard. This can be as simple as a
trash can lid turned upside-down and filled with water or a small birdbath
attached to the railing of a deck, to something as elaborate as a pond with
running water. 

A small, plastic-lined pond
provides a good source of drinking water. Desert gardeners in particular may want to add a recirculating fountain
to create the sound of running water, which will attract birds in dry climates. Even a simple pipe dripping on rocks, or a
gallon jug suspended above the pond with a small hole punched in it to allow
water to drip out, will be enough to draw birds to your garden. A patio garden can also offer a little water
to local birds. A friend of mine fills
a galvanized bucket with water, adds a few water lilies, and tucks it among her
larger potted plants, which include small trees like camellia and lemon.

For a good bathing spot, consider
making a small birdbath the focal point of the garden. Since small birds prefer to splash around in
a couple inches of water, make sure your birdbath has a shallow area near the
edge for them. Larger birds will step
into deeper water and splash around, so leave a few inches of water for
them. Cement birdbaths are sturdy,
inexpensive, and easy to maintain, requiring only that you keep them scrubbed
and refill them every two to three days during the dry season. 

Autumn

In many parts of the country,
autumn marks the end of the gardening season. Fortunately, though, California gardeners can spend the fall planting
trees and shrubs, scattering wildflower seeds, and enjoying a late blooming and
fruiting season. 

I begin the fall season by checking
for shrubs and perennial flowers that are past their prime and should be
replaced. Recently I’ve been planting
salvia, penstemon, low-growing junipers, and winter-blooming heathers. October is the best month to plant in
California, since the rains are just starting and the weather is still warm
enough to encourage young growth in new plants. A good layer of leaf mulch in the garden helps keep roots warm in
winter and provides an opportunity for the sparrows to forage for insects under
the leaves.

Fall is the prime season for
planting wildflower seeds, whether you have an open expanse of meadow or short
stretch of ground along a walkway. To
get an area ready for planting, clear it of any weeds or debris, rake the area
thoroughly, then water. In a week or
two, weed seeds that would otherwise choke out your wildflowers will begin to
emerge. Rake the area again to pull up
young weed seedlings, then water and wait for another crop of weed seeds to
emerge. By repeating this process two
or three times, you will eliminate most weed seeds with very little effort, and
the area will be ready to scatter with wildflower seed. Check your nursery for a good mix of native
wildflower seeds that grow well in your area.

Another way to plant good food
sources for the birds is to let them do it themselves. Clear an area of ground and create a perch
for birds by running a strand of wire between two posts. The birds will stop to rest and survey your
garden, and while they’re perched along the wire, they will leave behind
droppings that contain the seeds of their favorite food sources. Allow whatever comes up to prosper,
potluck-style, and you’ll have a weedy but welcoming buffet for the birds the
following year.

If you have the space, consider
planting a hedgerow of natives such as coyote bush, coffeeberry, elderberry,
California sagebrush, “Blue Blossom” ceanothus, and native buckwheats. Plant wild strawberry around the edges for
an attractive fall fruit, and scatter wildflower seeds such as poppy, lupine,
and yarrow. Mulch with a thick layer of
newspaper and wood chips to keep down invasive weeds. If you don’t think your yard can accommodate an overgrown
hedgerow, look around you. A neglected
alleyway or a vacant lot nearby might be the perfect spot if the owner is
agreeable. A hedgerow takes on a life
of its own, attracting a rich diversity of birds who will seek shelter, nesting
sites, and food in the form of berries, seeds, and insects.

One of my favorite vines comes into
its prime in the fall: Virginia
creeper. It will scramble over the
ground, climb up a trellis, and will provide good erosion control when planted
as a ground cover on slopes. The leaves
turn a dramatic orange-red in fall, and the berries are attractive to flickers,
titmice, and robins, among others. Here
in coastal California, I look to the long-blooming Mexican sunflower
(tithonia), the Virginia creeper vine, and the migratory Monarch butterflies to
provide fall color in my garden.

Backyard Fruit Trees

A woman up the street from me goes to great lengths to
protect her fig tree from thieves. She
drapes netting over the entire tree to protect it from an invasion from
above. As the tree has grown, she’s had
to construct a wood frame to support the netting and keep it in place. She’s built a fence around her front yard to
keep the neighborhood kids out. When
the figs are ripe, she even puts a sign on the tree: “Keep Out! Do Not Take
the Figs!” If the people in my
neighborhood ever held a contest, I’m sure her yard would be voted Least
Friendly.


My own fruit trees are usually inhabited by a pair
of mockingbirds or towhees building a nest. These old orange and lemon trees are so popular with them that I rarely
have a chance to prune or spray dormant oil for fear that I’ll disturb
them. The trees have become the “living
room” of my garden—a gathering place, a focal point, and, for the birds, a
place to call home.


While birds may take a nibble or two from a
small-fruited tree like a cherry or plum tree, this should only encourage you
to plant one. Coastal Californians tend
to choose Meyer lemon or Bearss lime, two citrus trees that tolerate cool
weather well. Inland, warm-weather
gardeners may prefer a Valencia orange tree, a potted kumquat tree, or the
popular Rainier cherry, known for its yellowish skin and pink blush. Most apples require between 900 and 1200
hours of temperatures below 45 degrees to grow and fruit properly, but even
southern California gardeners can grow Anna or Dorsett Golden apple trees. Wine country gardeners might want to try
Gravenstein apples, the crisp and juicy favorite of the region. No matter what fruit tree you choose, the
birds will take great interest in it as a perch, a shelter, and a place to
forage for insects. And chances are,
they’ll leave plenty of fruit for you.

A Better Lawn

California gardeners are always looking for grass
alternatives. Watering a traditional
green lawn can be impractical in areas with long summer droughts, and many
gardeners prefer the more free-flowing look of native grasses or wildflowers. The birds prefer this look, too: it provides them with a source of food and
nesting material.


 If you like
the look of a green expanse of grass, but would prefer a more drought-tolerant
alternative, consider buffalo grass (Buchloe dactyloides), which grows to 4
inches tall and requires no mowing. It
stays green during the rainy season and turns a lovely straw color in late
summer and fall. If you won’t be
mowing, consider adding the native blue-eyed grass or yellow-eyed grass
(Sisyrinchium bellum and S. californicum, respectively) for a modest show of
½-inch blue or yellow flowers in spring. California wildflowers also mix well with native grasses; consider
mixing in yarrow or poppy seed. Yarrow
stands up particularly well to an occassional mowing or cutting with a scythe.

 There are
plenty of good choices for showy fountain-type grasses as well. Lyme grasses such as Elymus arenaruis
‘Glaucus’ or E. condensatus ‘Canyon Prince’ offer vigorous clumps of blue-green
foliage and powdery blue flowers. Deer
grass (Muhlenbergia rigens) is a widely popular native that forms dense clumps
of narrow green leaves. It can grow to
3-4 feet tall with little or no water.

 Even a
traditional lawn can be made more bird-friendly by keeping the grass tall (2 ½ to
3 inches is appropriate for many lawns), leaving grass clippings to decompose
and enrich the soil, and avoiding pesticides and chemical fertilizers that
could harm birds and the insects they are foraging for.

Hummingbirds

Watching a hummingbird work its way around a Mexican sage in
full bloom is one of the finest pleasures of summer here in California. Hummers are methodical about their feasting,
visiting each flower along the stalk in strict order. The deep blue-purple flowers attract them, and the nearly
year-round bloom keeps them coming back for more. 


A neighbor planted three Mexican
sages in a group and dozens of hummingbirds darted in and out all day.  I recommend planting them together like this
if you’ve got room. They can grow two
to three feet tall and just as wide. It
is best to prune them harshly at Christmas or whenever you see the first of the
new growth emerging. There’s no special
trick to it; just cut all of last year’s growth down to the ground. If you live very close to the coast, the
plant could still be in bloom at pruning time and you may not be able to bring
yourself to cut down a wintertime or early spring food source for the hummingbirds. The plant will fare just as well if you
prune selectively, leaving the most choice blossoms on the plant while cutting
the older growth to the ground.

For a bright, colorful contrast,
try California fuchsia, another drought-tolerant shrub that attracts
hummingbirds with its red, trumpet-shaped flowers. The foliage is a light green-gray that pairs well with Mexican
sage even when the plants are not in bloom. California fuchsia can get a bit leggy, so save it for hillsides and
informal gardens. Like Mexican sage, it
blooms well into late summer and fall, and will continue to flower in winter in
the mildest climates.

Birds in the Kitchen Garden

I drive through the vineyards in Sonoma County, the heart of
California’s wine country, at least once each season. I am always struck by their beauty: in autumn the grape leaves turn burgundy and gold, and in spring
the mustard flower carpets the rolling hills, the gnarled vines standing out in
stark relief against the expanse of yellow blooms. In summer, there’s another familiar sign of the season: bright silver streamers tied to every other
grapevine to keep the birds away.


 The
winemakers can’t afford to share their cabernet sauvignon crop with the birds,
but their tactics got me thinking back to the summers when my mother grew table
grapes in a vacant lot across the road. The scarecrow that stood next to the vine was there for comic relief
only; in fact, it seemed entirely natural that the neighborhood blue jays would
take their fair share of grapes and leave the rest for us. Since then, I’ve always welcomed birds into
my own kitchen garden. Their lively presence
adds to the rich diversity of life that seems so appropriate in a garden whose
primary purpose is to produce food for the table. 

 Kitchen
gardeners get great satisfaction out of their neatly tilled plots,
evenly-spaced rows of seedlings, and bountiful harvests. A healthy garden teems with life: lady beetles, lacewings, hoverflies and
honeybees go about their business, pollinating the tomato plants, patrolling
for aphids on young artichoke leaves, and beautifying the garden. Birds are drawn to a kitchen garden that
offers them a few treats and employs good organic gardening practices: no
pesticides or chemical fertilizers, a diverse insect population, and a rich,
well-amended soil to support subterranean life.

Shelter and Foraging Areas

 To successfully
share my kitchen garden with the mockingbirds, towhees, and finches that
frequent my backyard, I plan food and shelter areas just for them. Orange and lemon trees offer nesting sites
and a convenient perch from which to survey the activities of the garden. “Washington” navel is a popular variety for
west coast gardeners, and the fruit is harvested around Christmas, when there
are no nests to disturb. “Improved
Meyer” trees produce a sweet, thin-skinned lemon that is perfect for
lemonade. Although dwarf varieties are
available, the tree has a 12-15 foot spread when grown on its own rootstock.

 Foraging
areas abound on the edges of my vegetable garden, where woody perennial herbs
like rosemary and oregano mix with a native Oregon grape (Mahonia aquifolium),
and a tough old climbing rose that creeps over the fence. A lavender and pineapple sage stand in the
corner and bloom all summer and fall, their flowers attracting hummingbirds. Nasturtiums emerge each spring to add
cheerful–and edible–red and orange flowers to the display. This sturdy border offers birds shelter and
cover, a place to forage for insects, and food sources in the form of berries
and rose hips. I clip a few herbs when
I need them, do a little light pruning in the winter, but otherwise leave the
area as wild and untouched as possible.

 Children
especially enjoy growing birdhouse gourds in the kitchen garden. Although these climbing vines require a long
growing season—eight to nine months, harvesting the bottle-shaped gourds and preparing
them for next year’s visitors can be a fun project. The gourds are usually harvested at the very end of the growing
season just before the frost, dried until the seeds rattle and the outside of
the gourd is hard, and drilled with entrance and drainage holes. Mold can be sanded off with sandpaper or
steel wool, and the gourd can be preserved using polyurethane and even painted,
although you may find that you prefer the natural look of unpainted gourds hanging
in your garden. 

Plenty of Food to Share

 At the
other end of my vegetable garden, a wide swath of flowers attract more birds
and pollinators. I choose sunflowers
that offer plenty of seed come fall. My
favorites include “Sunseed”, an early-maturing 4-5 foot variety known for its
abundant seeds. “Giganteus”, a 12-14
foot variety, was hard to resist for its impressive stature alone, but also
proved to offer plenty of seeds on stalks that were too tall for me to reach
anyway. In front of the sunflowers I
grow cosmos and pincushion flower, both of which attract bees and butterflies
to the garden, and a variety of poppies, whose seed provide another food source
for birds in the late summer and early fall. Last year I added a California fuchsia, a native also known as
“Hummingbird flower”, to the far corner of my vegetable garden. Although mine dies to the ground in winter,
it blooms profusely in the summer with very little water and attracts Anna’s
and Allen’s hummingbirds for months on end.

 Even
ordinary square vegetable plots like mine can be areas of interest for the
birds. I built bamboo trellises for my
tomatoes, peas, and beans, using a three-pole “tent” design with one horizontal
pole running between two “tents”. Hemp
twine strung between them is all I need to allow climbing vegetables to
ramble–and, as it turns out, to provide an extra perch for mockingbirds
searching for nesting materials in the spring. On a warm summer morning, my trellises are a hotbed of activity as song
sparrows, towhees, and the occasional black-headed grosbeak stop there to
survey the garden. Even the
hummingbirds visit my trellises in early summer, when “Scarlet Emperor” running
beans sport bright orange/red flowers before producing wide, flat, broad
bean-type green beans for the dinner table.

 Reliable water
sources also keep birds interested in my vegetable garden in the summer. Although I tend to favor drip irrigation to
keep water consumption low and to direct moisture at the roots of plants, I
have learned a trick that allows me to water deeply and accurately while
providing a water source for the birds as well. I grow squash and cucumbers on broad, flattened mounds, planting
around the edge of the mound while leaving an empty spot in the center. In that empty spot I dig a hole deep enough
to hold a one-gallon plastic nursery pot. Once the pot is placed in the hole, I fill it up with water every few
days. The water drains slowly out of
the holes in the bottom of the pots, reaching the roots of my vegetable plants
where they need it most, and water is available to the birds during the hours
it takes to slowly drain.

Diverse Insect Populations

 When the
summer growing season comes to an end, I set aside one or two beds for winter
crops like spinach, leeks, and salad mix, and plant the rest with cover
crops. These inexpensive, fast-growing
crops help loosen heavy clay soil, reduce weeds during the rainy winter season,
and, in many cases, add nitrogen to the soil. In the spring, I till them under to enrich the beds before the next
planting season. Fava, vetch, and
crimson clover are popular cover crops in my area. Annual rye and mustard are other good choices for opening up
heavy soils. Most of these crops are
tilled under before they bloom; however, I can’t resist leaving a mixture of
purple vetch and bright crimson clover to bloom in my own garden. The flowers are a rich nectar source that
attract a wide variety of beneficial insects, adding to the overall diversity
of the garden and making it a more bird-friendly place year-round.

 Even the
compost pile and the garden paths offer areas of interest for the birds. I use seedless rice straw to mulch the paths
between my beds, and I’ve seen mockingbirds hopping along the path, gathering
material for their nests. My compost
pile is nothing more than a length of chicken wire made into a round container
three feet in diameter. When I turn the
pile every few days, a new population of worms and insects is revealed. Insect-loving birds like sparrows and
thrushes have visited my compost pile in search of a tasty dinner.

 Don’t
forget that birds help in the kitchen garden by controlling pests. Insect-eating birds such as chickadees,
swallows, sparrows and wrens are welcome guests who clean up after
themselves–and then some. Many of
these birds consume 90 percent or more of their diet in insects. Aphids and their larvae make a particularly
tempting snack, and what the birds don’t eat, the ladybugs will.

 I have
never lost a crop to birds. Lettuce
seedlings come up untouched. Young
berries are shared, but never consumed entirely, by the birds. I could even claim one of the heavy
sunflower seed heads for myself if I really wanted one. Still, I can sympathize with kitchen gardeners
whose hard work and careful planning result in a feast for the birds, not for
themselves. A lightweight, fine mesh
netting can discourage birds from sampling your fruit trees and berry
brambles. Choose a stiff netting that
will not allow birds to become entangled, and make sure the weave is small
enough to prevent birds from getting their heads stuck. Floating row covers, made of light, polyspun
fabric, will protect strawberries and tasty young lettuce seedlings from birds
and predatory insects alike. They offer
the extra benefit of adding just enough warmth to extend the growing season in
early spring and late fall. 

 Even if
they get a few nibbles, I have always found that birds are a vital part of my
kitchen garden. For more information on
bird-friendly seeds, gardening supplies, or all-around good advice, try Seeds of
Change (888-762-7333), Peaceful Valley Farm Supply (888-784-1722), Territorial
Seed Company, (541-942-9547), The Cook’s Garden (800 457-9703) and Gardener’s
Supply Company (800-427-3363).