Published in the Toronto Star October 29, 2016
“The tweet that I love best comes from a beak.” Mark Cullen
Time was, birding season was in the winter, when there was pretty much nothing else to do while standing at the kitchen window. My, how times have changed! I have this on good authority: bird seed sales in Canada have gone through the roof in the last 5 years.
Canadians have discovered that birding is a year-round affair that entertains us, benefits the environment by adding biodiversity to our neighbourhoods and provides an educational form of entertainment that kids, seniors and everyone in between can enjoy.
If you are one of the many people who haul bags of bird seed home on a regular basis, here is an idea: why not grow your own?
Here are my top 6 bird seed growing plants and tips:
- Purple Cone Flower. [sp. echinacea]. A native plant that native people used to help boost their immune system long before Europeans arrived on our shores 500 years ago. Everyone, it seems, has tried Echinacea tincture as prevention to colds and the flu. I know that I have. Fact is it is very easy to grow in a sunny position. It is a reliably winter hardy perennial up to zone 4 (Ottawa/Montreal) and does not have a lot of cultural needs. I have 50 of them growing on my property and they do not get watered, ever. I don’t have to control insects or diseases. They bloom from mid July through September, you can cut them while in bloom and bring them indoors and (here is the kicker) the seed heads attract small song birds like finch, nuthatches and black capped chickadees, to beat the band. My Echinacea ‘plantation’ attracts birds from late fall through winter: until all of the seed heads have been foraged seedless by birds.
- Maiden Grass [sp. miscanthus sinensis]. Another song bird magnet late in the season. I have two large beds of this plant, about 70 in all, that I allow to stand all winter long, about 3 meters high. After a summer of slowly emerging from the soil they mature into clumps of seed-heavy plumes. They stand tall even after a deep snow fall and birds forage through them right up until the spring thaw, when other feeding options present themselves. If you have ornamental grasses in your garden do not cut them down come fall, but let them stand for the birds. If you don’t have any grasses in your garden, now is the perfect time of year to plant some. The selection at garden retailers is generally good and you will see exactly what you are buying as they have had all summer to mature. Hardy to zone 3.
- Black Eyed Susan. [sp. Rudbeckia]. Who doesn’t just love this plant? It blooms for up to 12 weeks beginning in mid summer, butterflies and honey bees enjoy the nectar and pollen while it is in bloom and when it finishes blooming it produces prodigious quantities of seeds that many foraging song birds enjoy late into the fall and winter. Requires sun. Hardy to zone 3.
- Sunflower. Choose between the perennial helianthus (which you can plant now) or the annual heliopsis which you sow directly in the soil in spring. Personally, I prefer the traditional annual sunflower that produces a bright face, surrounded by bright yellow petals. Sunflowers dominate my garden from early summer into late fall. I let them mature in situ, I enjoy watching the bees forage like mad while they bloom and the song birds pick away at the mature seeds in September and October. To see a mother finch teaching her young fledglings how to forage a sunflower is an education in itself. Bring the kids along and note how a sunflower follows the sun during the day, turning as the earth turns on its axis, to face the sun.
Perennial sunflowers are not nearly as much fun but they are a reliable perennial and that is a bonus. Most varieties grow to about 60 cm and all of them require full sun for best performance. While shopping for helianthus be sure to ask for varieties that produce seeds, not the hybridized cultivars that have had seed-production bred out of them. They bloom for several weeks beginning in mid summer.
- Serviceberry and Crabapples. Both of these winter hardy shrubs can mature into small trees. Both produce a great show of bloom early in spring, attracting bees and other pollinators. Serviceberry is a native plant that attracts cedar waxwings mid summer (and the occasional red squirrel, in my experience) while crabapples tend to hold their fruit until mid to late winter or early spring, when the softened ‘apples’ are attractive to birds like cedar waxwings, blue jays and cardinals.
The other main ingredient in attracting birds to your garden is clean, still water for drinking and bathing. Consider buying a bird bath heater to keep water open all winter long.