You know it’s spring when the birds begin to sing, the butterflies gracefully flit around your garden, and the bees buzz from one flower to the next. But did you know you can take steps to enhance your garden’s attractiveness to the birds, bees, and butterflies? Even better, you can create a garden that entices them to call your yard home.
As daylight extends and warm temperatures arrive, the bees and butterflies are close behind. The chapter on creating a wildlife habitat should have provided you some basic information on what wild creatures need to feel at home in your garden. But there is more to it than just meeting the bare minimum when you want to attract lots of birds, bees, and butterflies. In this chapter, you will see that by adding certain plant types, you can increase your bird, bee, and butterfly populations.
One of the greatest lessons I learned on creating a bird, bee, and butterfly habitat came from the National Wildlife Federation’s web site, NWF.org.”) They suggest that when you are planting a hedge you should plant for the widest range of wildlife. The hedge would ideally include at least one evergreen, two nectar-producing plants, two berry-producing plants, and one thorny species. This combination will provide nesting areas, protection from predators, plus food, nectar, and pollen sources.
Evergreens, primarily conifers, are important for birds in particular. They provide dense shelter, good nesting locations, and food. There are varieties suitable for every space and growing condition.
Nectar-producing plants come in many types, and you can create beautiful layers of these plants in your yard. You’ll find nectar-producing plants include deciduous trees and shrubs (those that lose their leaves in autumn), as well as vines, annuals, and perennials, such as red maple (Acer rubrum), blueberry (Vaccinium angustifolius), crossvine (Bignonia capreolata), and candytuft (Iberis sempervirens).
Berry-producing plants are ideal for attracting and feeding birds, with many also providing spring flowers with nectar and pollen for bees and butterflies. Birds will nest in the crotches of trees and shrubs. Gray catbirds, American robins, northern cardinals, cedar waxwings, and northern mockingbirds all like to use American highbush cranberry (Viburnum trilobum), elderberry (Sambucus canadensis), and American mountain ash (Sorbus americana) as a source of food, shelter, and a place to raise their young.
During the summer the birds can sustain themselves on fruits such as cherry (Prunus avium), raspberry (Rubus spp.), blueberry (Vaccinium angustifolius), serviceberry (Amelanchier arborea), grape (Vitis spp.), as well as plum (Prunus spp.) and fig (Ficus carica). Remember these trees and plants will flower before they fruit, providing pollen and nectar to a wide variety of bees, butterflies, and other insects. And don’t forget that hummingbirds will search out your trumpet-shaped, nectar-laden plants as well, such as bee balm (Monarda spp.), cardinal flower (Lobelia cardinalis), trumpet creeper (Campsis radicans), and lupines (Lupinus polyphyllus.)
The NWF also mentions adding a thorny shrub to the hedgerow mix. I like to add holly when I’m designing a mixed hedgerow. The prickly leaves will keep critters, such as cats, from easily following birds into the hedge, providing protection.
Why not add some perennials and annuals in and around the hedgerow? Perennials provide nectar and seed sources for many backyard birds, bees, and butterflies. Purple coneflowers and black-eyed Susans have a wide range of growing conditions that will provide nectar and seed.
Since you are building a garden anyway, why now add beauty and life to your garden by purposefully selecting plants to attract wildlife? This way you get pretty plants and the specific wildlife they attract.
Here are ten of my favorite plants for the wildlife garden that also have the growing range to have a national appeal:
- Phlox (Zones 3-9): Phlox comprise a large, diverse group of flowers blooming from early spring through fall. Phlox subulata is among the earliest spring blooms, welcoming the season’s first hummingbirds and butterflies.
- Liatris (3-10): Also known as blazing star and gayfeather, liatris can grow from two to five feet, depending on the variety. The nectar-rich flowers attract sulfurs, whites, swallowtails, painted ladies, monarchs, and other butterflies. Seeds ripen in the fall and are loved by seed-eating birds, including finches, chickadees, titmice, nuthatches, and buntings.
- Butterflyweed, or Asclepias spp. (Zones 3-9): This starts attracting hummingbirds and butterflies in midsummer and is a favorite nectar plant for adult butterflies. It is also a host plant for larvae of the so-called “milkweed butterflies”—monarch, queen, and soldier.
- Black-eyed Susan, or Rudbeckia spp. (Zones 3-9): These bright yellow perennials love full sun to part shade and bloom summer through fall. In fall and winter, the seed heads attract chickadees, goldfinches, and house finches.
- Coneflower, or Echinacea spp., (Zones 3-10): Bees, birds, and butterflies love this perennial. Cut it back in early summer to prolong the bloom time.
- Aster (Zones 3-8): Asters provide brilliant explosions of color at the end of the season, and foraging butterflies can't resist it.
- Mahonia (Zones 5-11): Mahonia needs full sun to part shade. This evergreen shrub with toothed leaf edges and blue berries provides food for wildlife in late summer and fall.
- Joe-Pye weed, or Eupatorium purpureum (Zones 4-9): This plant is a classic seed provider. Pinch it back early in season to make shorter plants and to boost flowering and seed production.
- Sedum (Zones 3-10): Sedum takes the starring role when other plants are fading. It is very cold-hardy, and finches and chickadees like the seeds. Don't cut off seed heads until spring so that you can enjoy your wild visitors throughout the winter.
- Holly, or Ilex spp. (Zones 5-9): This evergreen is a must-have winter classic with nourishing red berries. Species' characteristics range from small bushes to 60-foot-tall trees. Winterberry, or Ilex verticillata (Zones 3-10), for example, drops leaves in the fall to show off its brilliant berries; it is a favorite of blue jays.