Container Gardens for Birds

I’ll never forget the trip I took
to Vancouver Island a few years ago. Along the main streets in the town of Victoria, enormous hanging baskets
were suspended from wrought-iron poles. Flowers tumbled out in every direction, forming a shaggy mass of blooms
that completely covered the pot. An
eclectic assortment of plants was packed into each container: I counted ten different plants in one
basket, including penstemon, helichrysum, lamium, and fuchsia. I met a woman
who was taking care of the plants; she said that she watered them daily and fed
them weekly. It seemed like a lot of
work, but her efforts paid off: the
hanging baskets were stunning.

Whether you live in an apartment, a
manufactured home, or a house surrounded by a small strip of already-landscaped
grounds, you may have already figured out that container plants are the way to
go. I have seen complete vegetable
gardens arranged in oak barrels, a cut flower garden planted in window boxes,
and gorgeous blooming annuals cascading out of hanging baskets and porch-side
pots. A surprising assortment of plants
will grow happily in a container, and that includes plenty of plants that
attract and sustain birds. Here are some
ideas to get you started.

Selecting the Container

Choosing a durable, attractive
container is the first step. Plastic
pots have come a long way: many are now
made out of molded plastic designed to look like stone, but they cost less and
are significantly lighter, an important consideration if you like to move your
plants around often. Oak barrels are
another affordable and attractive option, and in California, many nurseries
carry wine barrels cut in half, the dark red stain of Cabernet still embedded
in the wood. Stone and clay pots age
beautifully and hold up well; consider getting at least a few for the front of
the display. Finally, don’t hesitate to
get creative about containers: I have
punched drain holes in one-gallon olive oil tins and planted geraniums in them,
and a neighbor of mine uses metal troughs from the feed store for her larger
container plants. 

If you have enough space, and you
don’t think you’ll be moving the container, you can even make your own out of
cement, embedding seashells, glass, or pottery around the edges. It’s best to consult your favorite garden
centers or craft store for detailed instructions before taking on a project
like this, but here is the general idea: all you need is a pair of plastic or
cardboard boxes, one smaller than the other, to serve as molds. Line the larger mold with cement, insert
wooden dowels to create drainage holes, place the smaller mold inside to keep
the cement in place, and let dry for 24 hours. Remove the molds—cardboard works well because you can simply tear it
away from the planter—and let it set for a month before use. 

Now that you’ve chosen your
containers, be sure they have adequate drainage holes and some ventilation
space underneath if they’re sitting on a patio or deck. Garden centers sell platforms on wheels for
plants that may have to move around from time to time; terra cotta “feet” are
also available to elevate the container slightly and prevent unsightly rot or
mold on your deck.

Finally, choose a high-quality
potting soil. Unlike plants in your
garden, plants growing in containers don’t benefit from unlimited space and a
natural community of soil-dwelling microorganisms. Ask the staff at your nursery to recommend a rich, organic
potting soil that will support your potted plants over the long term.

Selecting Plants

Although some plants may be more practical
for container gardening, don’t be afraid to experiment. I have grown large native shrubs in
containers successfully, and many dwarf tree species will live happily in a
container for years. 

Fortunately for hummingbird
enthusiasts, many nectar-producing plants thrive in containers. Fuchsia grow well in hanging baskets and act
as a magnet to hummingbirds, and I have even grown the larger native California
fuchsia, zauschneria, in a large half-barrel container. Salvia, penstemon, and monarda all handle
container life well, and a trumpet vine or the annual cardinal climber vine
will spill out of a container and climb up a trellis if you provide one. If you put out hummingbird feeders, place
them near your container garden to introduce the birds to your nectar plants.

A large planter devoted to
seed-producing plants is a great way to attract sparrows and other seed-loving
birds in the fall. If you put out a
feeder, consider hanging it above a container or putting it on a stake in the
center of a container, so that birds’ favorite food sources can sprout in the
soil below and produce seed in autumn. Sunflowers, poppies, and cosmos provide beautiful flowers in summer and
plenty of seed come fall.

Vines and shrubs that produce
berries and fruit can also grow in containers. I’ve seen blueberries thrive in a large half-barrel, and I’ve planted
climbing roses in sturdy redwood boxes and watched them climb up a trellis,
providing an autumn food source in the form of rose hips. Dwarf species of fig, flowering plum, and
cherry will all grow in large containers, providing both flowers and

Don’t forget winter shelter in your
container garden. For years I grew a
living Christmas tree on my deck, but when the dwarf conifer got too heavy to
bring inside each year, I decided to leave it outdoors through the winter
season and offer it to the birds. Sunflower seed heads, small packets of nesting material, and suet
feeders decorated the tree at Christmas, and birds in my garden used it as a
resting spot on their trips through the neighborhood.


The key to a successful container
garden is to keep it looking good year-round. This is easy in a temperate climate like California, where plants like
cineraria and primrose bloom during the darkest months of winter. Alyssum, lobelia, and linaria also fill in
empty spots and attract plenty of interesting insects at the same time. A visit to the garden center every couple of
months will provide you with an abundant mix of annuals that can fill in an
empty space. Also, don’t hesitate to
rotate plants as they go into a stage of dormancy: geraniums can spend the winter indoors to encourage a longer
blooming period, for instance, or Mexican sage can be cut back and moved to an
out-of-the-way location during its winter rest. 

Bird-Friendly Tips

A container garden is often, by
design, located near the house on a deck or patio. It is not easy to move about a container garden without
disturbing its inhabitants, but try to locate your bird-friendly plants as far
from the front door or seating area as possible, so that birds can forage for
food in peace.

A container garden is also an
excellent place to provide a water source, whether it is a fountain built into
one end of a patio or a small birdbath mounted on a deck railing. Birds rely on water throughout the year for
bathing and drinking and will use almost anything—a dripping faucet, a
water-filled saucer—as a watering hole. Most birds prefer a shallow water source, about three inches deep, and
moving water if at all possible.

It’s not easy to provide nesting
sites in a container garden, since many plants that are best suited to
containers won’t get big enough to accommodate a nest. For that reason, you might want to add some
nesting boxes to your garden. Wrens,
bluebirds, robins and swallows all take to nesting boxes. Keep them away from birdfeeders and keep the
birdhouses separated from one another—a pair of nesting birds will appreciate
the privacy. Be sure the entrance to
the birdhouse is pointed away from bad weather and protected from predators.

Ongoing Care

Container plants can suffer some
stress in their confined environment. Be vigilant about feeding plants in pots. I use a balanced, organic fertilizer, mix it with a bucket of
fresh potting soil, and top-dress container plants with the mixture about four
times a year. Use a garden fork to
scratch the fertilizer and potting soil mixture into the container, and water
well. Plants in hanging baskets and
small pots should be repotted every 1-2 years. To refresh the soil in larger containers, such as those holding trees or
large shrubs, try to dig out some soil around the edges of the container and
pack in fresh potting soil once a year.

Regular watering is essential in a
container garden. Fortunately, many
nurseries and mail-order garden supply companies sell “self-watering”
containers with water reservoirs in the bottom, near the root zone. Patio drip irrigation kits are also easy to
install and use, and allow you to keep your garden watered while you’re on
vacation. Be careful about over
watering, though: even pots with good
drainage holes can become waterlogged. Allow the top two or three inches of soil to dry out between waterings.

A container garden is a practical
and beautiful way to garden in a small space, even if you have limited time and
resources. It is always a delight to
see the way that birds will flock to the smallest corner of a patio, or the
busiest balcony overlooking a city street, as long as a few berries, some tasty
seeds, and a little fresh water has been provided. Spring is just around the corner; now is the time to start
planning your own paradise for the birds.