Q: Over the winter I started feeding the birds for the first time and found I really enjoyed seeing them at the feeder. What can I do to make my yard more attractive to the birds? Can I grow my own seed to feed them?
A: Let’s start with the second question, and as a point of reference, my daughter calls me “The Bird Nerd.” I spend countless hours in late winter and early spring sitting on the back porch enjoying the show put on by the birds. When I see something special, the family knows about it as I try to drag them to the window, binoculars in hand.
Much of the country saw a 50 percent increase in the price of black oil sunflower seeds this year due to tough growing conditions for sunflowers. I’ve heard from lots of bird lovers who are wondering what it takes to grow their own.
Sunflowers are easy to grow from seed and will produce lots of seed for the birds, but unless you’ve got lots of room, it’s going to be hard to grow enough to feed them year round. But every little bit helps and what’s more beautiful than a bed of sunflowers? The plants also are great for Honey bees who visit the hundreds of tiny flowers that make up the head.
Seeds should be direct sowed in the soil after chance of frost has passed in good garden soil and in full sun. The sprouts are attractive to rabbits who will chew them to the ground, so if bunnies are on the prowl in your garden, protect the seedlings.
The plants need one inch of water a week when rain is scarce; don’t skimp, they will be happier if properly irrigated. A layer of organic mulch at the base will help too. At the end of the season, nature will alert you to the right time to harvest. As the head dries out and starts to look down, the back of the head will turn yellow and the birds will start to enjoy the fruits of your labor. I like to remove the whole head and dry them in my tool shed. The seeds are easy to get out after the head has dried for a few weeks. I also hang a couple heads right on the feeder and watch as the birds enjoy them.
Sunflowers are wonderful massed in the back of a border, along a fence line, or filling a bed in the vegetable garden. There are myriad varieties to choose from, some are only a couple feet tall while others tower over the garden. For a big sunflower that sets lots of seed, try ‘Mammoth Grey’. This giant can reach 10 feet or higher with a huge 12- inch head. ‘Titan’ produces lots of big seeds in its massive 2-foot head. ‘Short Stuff’ is my favorite compact variety with 8-inch heads on 3-foot stalks; it’s a good seed producer too. I have a soft spot for this variety as it was selected by the late Merlyn Niedens, a plantsman extraordinaire whom I had the pleasure of interviewing for The Organic Gardener Radio Show years ago. Be sure that anything Merlyn chose will be a winner.
But don’t stop with sunflowers; there are lots of other plants that the birds will enjoy including cosmos, coneflower, black-eyed Susan, sedum, liatris, purple millet, goldenrod and others. Those plants can be left to stand in the garden, and the birds will harvest the seed when needed.
Now to the first part of your question… Attracting birds to the garden is a great thing to do. Not only to you get to enjoy watching them, they will stick around and keep insects at bay. It’s a wonderful way to deal with pests.
The birds need three basic things that will bring them to the area and keep them coming back. A place to nest (and hide), a food source, and water. Evergreen trees and shrubs near the feeder offer a perfect staging area for birds to land, check things out and then head to the feeder for a treat. They also offer a place for them to nest and raise
A good feeder that’s squirrel proof is easy to find or build. I keep squirrels off the feeder by using an 8-inch round, 3-foot long piece of ductwork screwed to the bottom of my pole feeders. Fill it with a variety of seed; although I prefer black oil sunflower seed, there are lots of other choices. Suet is also a great source of energy for the birds, especially during a cool spring.
A birdbath not only offers a water source for the birds, but you’ll get a chance to see them splashing, primping and preening in the bath. There are inexpensive heaters that can be hung in the birdbath during cold weather.
One of the best things, though, for the birds is an organic landscape. They will be happier and healthier when nesting and feeding in an area that’s chemical free.