This Month in the Garden: How to Create a Bird-Friendly Winter Garden-Plant Suggestions

This Month in the Garden
Welcome to This Month in the Garden. Winter can be a challenging time for backyard birds as food sources, water and shelter become scarce. Shorter days mean less time for foraging and many insects are in hibernation, making it even more difficult for birds to obtain food. In addition, many seed-bearing plants have already been consumed, while deciduous trees have lost their leaves, no longer offering protection from the harsh winter winds. With freezing temperatures water can also become inaccessible. 

There are steps you can perform in creating a bird-friendly garden that can be beneficial, and even life-saving for our feathered friends. For starters, planting a mixture of evergreens and deciduous shrubs provides shelter during winter months and nesting areas for birds during springtime. Generally, Juncos and Towhees prefer to nest beneath bushes, while species such as Cardinals, Morning Doves, Mockingbirds and Nuthatches prefer the sanctuary of dense foliage. Depending on species, a bird’s food preferences can vary, but most enjoy feeding off insects, berry producing shrubs and trees and the dried seed heads of perennials. Here is a list of bird-friendly plants that you can incorporate into your winter garden.
 Callicarpa dichotoma ‘Early Amethyst’ (American Beautyberry)
The first is Callicarpa or Beautyberry. Callicarpa maintains a tidy habit of 3-4 feet high by wide, displaying beautiful arching branches and loads of colorful fruit. Clusters of pale lavender-pink flowers form in summer and develop into masses of glossy amethyst berries in fall. The fruits tend to persist longer on the shrub than others, offering some (but limited) winter interest and are a desired food of the Northern Bobwhite. Callicapra is hardy in USDA zones 5-8, prefers full fun to partial shade and a moderately moist soil.

Juniperus communisCommon Juniper (Photo Credit Wikipedia)

Common Juniper is an evergreen found across the northern United States and southern Canada, which is also native to Europe and Asia. This small evergreen can be an excellent plant for backyard wildlife gardeners, forming bluish-black berries that are an attraction to a variety of birds including catbirds, thrashers and woodpeckers. Juniper is slow growing, hardy in USDA zones 2-6 and prefers to be grown in full to partial sunlight. The plant reaches a mature height and width of 5-10 feet by 8-15 feet; however there is a dwarf variety, Juniperus communis ‘Compressa’, that grows to a height of just 2-3 feet. Besides Juniper communis, other edible species include Juniperus drupacea, Juniperus phoenicea, Juniperus deppeana, and Juniperus californica.

Ilex (Nellie Stevens Holly)
One of the most attractive of hollies, ‘Nellie Stevens’ Holly is a vigorous grower with dense branches, making it an excellent screening plant. ‘Nellie Stevens’ grows in a pyramidal shape to a height of 15-20 feet tall by 8-12 feet wide, while displaying oblong, glossy, dark green leaves with spiny margins. Inconspicuous greenish-white flowers appear in spring followed by abundant amounts of berry-like bright red fruits which ripen in fall and persist into winter. Ilex ‘Nellie Stevens’ is hardy in USDA zones 6-9, prefers full sun to partial shade and a moderately moist soil. This species of holly will form berries without cross-pollination; however, planting near a male Chinese holly will promote more fruit. Nellie Stevens Holly are especially preferred by Blackbirds for food and nesting.
Sambucus (Elderberry) Photo Credit Wikipedia
Elderberry is known for its white flowers followed by blackish-red fall berries which can be harvested for making elderberry wine and jam, or left on the plant to attract birds and other wildlife. This shrub grows to a height and width of 6-8 feet tall by wide and is hardy in USDA zones 4-7. Elderberry prefers full sun to partial shade and a moderately moist soil, but is adaptable to most sites. A new cultivar of Elderberry known as Black Lace’ is a stunning development in Elderberry breeding, displaying intense purple black foliage, pink flowers in summer, followed by blackish-red fall berries. 
Viburnum ‘Cardinal Candy’
Viburnum ‘Cardinal Candy’ displays creamy white flowers in spring followed by bright red, berries that make for a stunning display in the fall. Fruiting appears to be strong even without another pollinator in the area and are favored by birds and butterflies. Hardy in USDA zones 4-8, Viburnum ‘Cardinal Candy’ matures to 4-5′ tall by wide and prefers to be grown in full sun to partial shade. Its well-branched habit allows it to fit nicely into the landscape. This variety of viburnum has improved hardiness compared to other dilatatum varieties.
Mahonia (Oregon Grape Holly)
Hardy in USDA zones 5-9, Mahonia aquifolium is an evergreen shrub that is noted for its mildly fragrant yellow flowers in spring followed by clusters of edible blue-black berries in late summer that resemble grapes. Holly-like foliage emerges red-tinted in spring, maturing to glossy dark green by summer, turning a purplish hue in fall, followed by a burgundy-bronze tone by winter. Berries are somewhat sour fresh off the plant, but make excellent jellies and are a favorite food source for birds. Plants grow to a height of 3-6′ tall by 2-5 feet wide, prefer partial shade and a moderately moist soil.

Winterberry (Ilex verticillata ) Photo Credit: Wikipedia

Winterberry is a favorite of several species of birds including Eastern Bluebird, American Robin, Cedar Waxwing and Woodpecker with its profusion of bright red berries. This native deciduous Holly requires a pollinator (such as Jim Dandy) for a beautiful display of berries on bare branches in winter. Winterberry is hardy in USDA zones 4-8 and prefers to be grown in full sun to partial shade. It is a slow grower, reaching an eventual height and width of 3-5 feet in the landscape.

Echinacea (Coneflower)
Echinacea, or coneflower are found in eastern and central North America, where they grow in moist to dry prairies and open wooded areas. This family of perennials includes a vast selection of species, ranging in both size and color. Hardy in USDA zones 4-9, Echinacea prefers to be grown in full sun and in a well-drained soil. Flowers emerge from mid-summer to mid-fall forming a showy, upright clump which is a favorite feeding station for many butterflies. After blooming, seed heads are a huge attraction to a number of bird species, including Blue Jays, Cardinals and finches.
Eastern White Pine Seed Cone
Eastern White Pine is a rapid-growing, long-lived, needled evergreen tree that is native to the northeastern United States and hardy in USDA zones 3-9. Pyramidal in its earlier years, this evergreen matures to a broad oval habit with an irregular crown, reaching a mature height and width of 50-80 feet tall by 15-20 feet wide.  Soft, bluish green needles appear in bundles of five, accompanied by cylindrical, brown cones at maturity, which are a favorite food of finches, chickadees and woodpeckers.
Ornamental Grasses
Ornamental grasses include a large selection of species ranging in size and shape, mainly taking the form of an upright clump of arching green leaves. Most are hardy in USDA zones 5-9 and prefer a well-drained soil in full sun. Green or variegated foliage is followed by spikes of soft mauve plumes in fall, that turn to buff or tan as they dry. Plants usually remain attractive well into winter and seeds from the plumes are an excellent food source for over-wintering birds.
How to Create a Bird-Friendly Winter Garden
While natural food and shelter are important in creating your bird-friendly habitat, also be sure to provide a water source for over-wintering birds. In addition, I enjoy making sure that a bird feeder is available during the winter months. Establishing a desirable habitat is the main key and including species of plants such as those mentioned above will not only benefit wildlife, but will add all-season color and interest to your landscape. When planning your garden for next season, consider incorporating some of these selections into your space.
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~As Always…Happy Gardening ~

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