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.

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. 

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.

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.

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.

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.

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).