Over the years, I’ve noticed there is a pattern to my gardening. In the spring, gardening is full of excitement, so much so that my big yard even feels small as I search for spaces to poke in new varieties or add more color. By summer, however, my yard feels so large that keeping up with deadheading is nearly impossible. While deadheading spring and summer flowers keeps plants blooming and branching, at the end of summer, you can leave seed heads on for migrating and over-wintering birds, who gladly consume the seeds for much needed calories and nutrition.
Leaving seed heads doesn’t just cure your late-summer gardener guilt, it is also beneficial to the plants, too. By waiting until the following spring to do your clean-up, any still living tissue is saved, preventing a wound which can be a weak point for possible infection. Those branches also collect leaves and snow, naturally mulching the crown of the plant, and in turn providing cold protection and moisture. The sculptural aesthetic of standing stems and seed heads is referred to as “winter interest” by landscape professionals; a term you can use freely if you are accused of being a messy gardener.
As we think about fall-sowing flowers, here are some tips if you want to design your garden to be more inviting to birds next year.
- Live on the edge. Edges are the spaces where two habitats meet, like where shrubs meet a garden, or where shrubs meet trees, creating varying heights. Birds love the edge because there they find protection from the elements and predators, usually a diversity of food, and a lot of different perches. If you are designing a new edge or hedgerow, consider a meandering natural line instead of a straight line, and adding shrubs that hold fruit in winter. Add a border of perennials and annuals from the list below to these edges to provide winter seeds.
- Leave a few snags. A few dead branches (provided they are safely away from structures and high traffic areas) attract birds for nesting, feeding, and perching, and offer winter protection from the elements.
- Winter water. Give birds water in the winter by providing a heated birdbath or place an immersible de-icer in a birdbath or shallow dish. A low-tech option is a covered black container with a small hole in the top for birds to sip out of. The container collects solar energy keeping water from turning into ice until temperatures dip below 20°F.
If the winter interest method just doesn’t fit your comfort zone, do your usual fall clean-up, but save some seed heads to create a bird feeder wreath, or simply bundle and hang them near a safe perching place for the birds to enjoy.
Here are some flowering plants that you and the birds are sure to enjoy.
Black-eyed Susan Rudbeckia
Pincushion Flower Scabiosa