Here in Maryland, we’ve had that little March taste of spring that tries to trick you into going to the local nursery to buy plants. I know that although the local nurseries typically start gearing up around March 1, even now, three weeks later, it is really a month too early to start planting most things around here. So to feed my spring fever and keep myself from impulse purchases, I am instead working on my plans to landscape my yard to create more habitat for birds (as well as look really cool.) Planning such a project is a little intimidating but is also interesting and a lot of fun.
I have to say upfront that I am no gardening expert. When Jim and I bought our property back in 1984, we enthusiastically dove into working in the yard and got a few projects done. But within a few years we were busy with kids and work and the yard became a low priority. If something wasn’t almost maintenance free it didn’t survive the decades since.
So my goals for this project have to be realistic. While we have more time for the yard these days, we’d still rather be out birding on the weekend than digging in the yard or trimming or weeding, so goal number one is LOW MAINTENANCE. Researching it, it turns out that the best way to accomplish this is also the best way to create habitat for birds and other critters: use native plants that are naturally adapted to be perfect for your area, soil conditions and light levels. That way, they are more likely to thrive and they’ll do it with less attention. That is my kind of gardening!
I’ve known vaguely that native plants were a good idea but didn’t really know why. Now I do because I am currently reading, Bringing Nature Home by Douglas W. Tallamy. I challenge you to read this book and not be convinced that native plants are the way to go. The non-native plants that have traditionally thrilled so many gardeners often have very few insects adapted to eat them. While at first blush that might sound good, it means less insects for the birds to eat. Counter intuitively, you learn that more insects are GOOD and help to create a diverse ecosystem that sustains more life than more traditional yards with fairly sterile empty lawns and non-native foundation plants can possibly do. If you can get things in balance, the insects don’t have to be the problem that you expect. He explains it better than I can. You can find the book on Amazon or check out his Bringing Nature Home website if you are interested.
Right now, our yard has a lot of trees and a pretty pathetic lawn. We’ve never been into fertilizing it, so while there is green stuff growing, a lot of it isn’t grass. But being in the Chesapeake Bay watershed, I feel good that we are not contributing to fertilizers going into the bay. Our lot is wooded, so we also have a decent number of dead trees and downed logs and while that might make you cringe, that is actually cool too. (Look carefully and you can see a large downed log at the upper right/center of the above picture.)
Dead trees are full of interesting insects and so are great food sources for a lot of birds as well as potential homes for birds who like to nest in cavities. I think this is one reason why our yard is popular with woodpeckers and similar climbing birds. Almost every day we see Downy Woodpeckers, Red-Bellied Woodpeckers and White-Breasted Nuthatches. We also see Yellow-Bellied Sapsuckers periodically and last fall I saw a Brown Creeper a few times. I’ve also watched Carolina Chickadees disappear into a hole in a tree. Pretty cool.
In the colder months we also leave (mostly) chopped up dead leaves raked into the mulched beds around the house and in other spots of the yard. These areas harbor insects that birds like American Robins, Eastern Towhees, Northern Flickers and various Sparrows like to root around in. Apparently insects can overwinter in this leaf litter to provide food you wouldn’t expect after the temperatures drop. (For most backyard birds, the seed at our feeders supplements a wider diet and isn’t their only source of food.)
And the birds sometimes create their own food sources. We have a couple of spots in the yard where blackberries are growing, most likely “planted” by birds who ate them elsewhere. It is one of those ironic situations where if we’d decided to grow them, we probably would have worried over them, but as they pretty much planted themselves, we enjoy them and go with the flow!
Last spring my sister Linda, who worked in landscaping in a past incarnation, helped us create an island flower garden in the middle of our backyard, which is now filled with native flowering plants as well as grasses and and small anchoring tree. This garden, with its lilac bush and brightly colored flowers, is what drew a huge flock of American Goldfinches to our yard. They were attracted by the flowers and have stayed through the winter, eating the Nyjer seed in the feeders. They also could be seen in the fall up in the tops of the pine trees nibbling at the pine cones. The flower garden was also a hit with the tiny Ruby-Throated Hummingbird that showed up in the summer months.
We also planted blueberry bushes in the bed under our bedroom window at the front of the house. The plants are small yet, but even last year they provided a handful of berries each which something was eating. (I never did see who ate them.) As they grow bigger, there will be more berries to attract more birds.
Our yard is one acre, but a little oddly shaped. Imagine a rectangle with it’s longest edge along the street at the front and the house situated at the left side of the lot. The original owners created avenues of trees going from front to back in the area to the right of the house. This side yard extends back to a funny point at the far back corner of the yard. This corner area is very overgrown and seems to be a place of refuge for the birds. When a hawk comes through the yard, they often head for the back corner where they can shelter.
What I want to do is to try and make our yard more like I think it might have looked centuries ago. My plan for this year is to begin the process of creating a more layered woodland area in the side yard, create a mini meadow with wildflowers in another area and add various berry bushes in strategic places where they will provide food and cover and potential nesting places for birds but also fill in some areas that are currently less than beautiful.
The trick to doing this right is to make sure that you pick plants that are not just native to the United States in general, but that are native to your state and more specifically your region of the state. One online site that I’ve found to be very helpful is The Ladybird Johnson Wildflower Center, where you can use their Native Plant Database to figure out what might work for your yard. While from the name of it, you might just be thinking of garden flowers, it actually includes trees, scrubs, herbs, vines and ground covers too. You can narrow the search by entering your state or province, types of plant, light requirements, soil moisture, bloom month and color, leaf characteristics and plant size. Then you can browse the results and see what plants might be a good match.
For those in the Mid-Atlantic like me, the US Fish & Wildlife Service’s Chesapeake Bay Field Office has some helpful Native Plant Guides for Maryland and for the Chesapeake Bay Watershed. Check your local state government or local universities to see if they offer lists of plants native to your area. I am currently in the process of seeking out local nurseries that carry native plants. I’ve found quite a few in the past at my favorite little nursery, Willow Oak Flower and Herb Farm down the road from me, but there is also a place in Carroll County, Wakefield Valley Nursery that I want to check out, found through a website listing of the Maryland Native Plant Society. And of course, there is Behnke’s Nursery down in Beltsville that has a huge selection of plants, some of them natives.
Our particular yard is at the western edge of the Coastal Plain portion of Maryland. So I’ve been focusing on plants that are suitable for this specific area, narrowing it down by sun and soil requirements. Right now, I’m still in the planning stage but I have my eye on Coralberry (Symphoricarpos Orbiculatus) for under the windows at the far end of the house. A bank of these should provide some closer cover to the American Goldfinches when the local Cooper’s Hawk does a fly-by of the Njyer feeders hanging from branches of the maple tree nearby. It should also provide berries for birds in the fall and into the winter. The pictures of these plants look gorgeous so it should look wonderful there too.
I was considering Bayberry (Morella Pensylvanica) for along the chain-link fence that separates our yard from the neighbors behind us. Chain-link isn’t exactly pretty, so the idea of covering some of its length is appealing. The Bayberry would also provide cover areas and berries for the fall and into the winter and should do well in our sandy soil here. But with all the trees we have, it may not be sunny enough to keep them happy, so I’m currently leaning toward a variety of Viburnum called Southern Arrowwood (Viburnum Dentatum) that ought to do well in the spot I’m considering. This is a plant that provides flowers and berries as well as cover and the size seems about right.
To start building the under story layer of the wooded side yard, I’ve got my eye on Northern Spicebush (Lindera Benzion) which we’ve seen a lot in nature areas when hiking around our area this past year. It seems to be a good one to go under trees and again will provide cover and food for the birds.
Before I can get started on this under story area though, I need to get rid of a LOT of non-native vines that have crept into the side yard. Some (English Ivy) has come over the fence from our neighbor on that side’s yard and is threatening to fill the back triangle area with a pretty sterile covering of ivy. Some (Japanese Wisteria) settled into our back yard, from who knows where, many years ago and does its best to straggle the trees each year. The purple flowers are beautiful, but it is crazy aggressive; we cut it back and back and back and it just keeps going. We really need to get rid of it entirely (if we can!) There is actually a native version of Wisteria that is supposed to be OK to use, although I haven’t checked to see if the conditions are right for it in my yard.
Three other vines that have also snuck into this wilder side area of the yard are Vinca, Japanese Honeysuckle and Poison Ivy. Again, you have to be aggressive about going after these things or they will try and take over every surface. I’ve spent quite a few hours in recent warm days cutting and pulling out these invaders (and have the poison ivy rash to prove it. The Tecnu Extreme Medicated Poison Ivy Scrub works wonders, although I can’t put it on the patch that developed on my left eyelid. Sigh.)
There is also an open area of the side back yard that is covered in violets every spring after the crocus and daffodils are done. This is the area that I want to turn into a mini meadow of sorts. I’m not planning to be too structured or ambitious about it this year. I’m going to approach it mostly by not mowing this area during the spring and summer months so that what grass there is in this area will grow tall.
Last fall I purchased some Seedles wildflowers from my sister Linda at a craft show where she had a booth; I intend to plant them in this area. She is no longer stocking these and recommends Vermont Wildflower Farm as a good source for wildflower seeds if you are thinking about creating a meadow. She says that for bigger areas like this, they are actually more economical. American Meadows is another possibility that she shared with me. Linda cautions that you should be sure to check the neonic or GMO policies of places that sell seeds and plants. (You’ve probably heard about this in the news over the past year or so.) Linda did a really interesting blog post about neonicotinoids last spring that explains in a very easy to understand way how these can be a danger to bees and other pollinators and butterflies. She also touches on how this in turn impacts bird populations. Be sure to check it out.
So that is where my plans rest at the moment. I hope to be able to buy the various berry bushes next month and get them in the ground. Until then, I’ll be working on tweaking my plans, seeing what plants in my herb garden survived the winter (and so what I’ll need to buy for that) and considering what native perennials to add to the backyard flower garden . . . and cutting back and pulling out more vines. That should keep me busy!
What are you planning for your yard? Do you have plants in your yard that work well for birds and other critters?
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