You don’t have to be an expert gardener to turn your yard into a sanctuary for birds and wildlife. Just choose hardy native flowers and shrubs and transform your yard in stages.
If you love birds but hate gardening, you don’t have to confine yourself to setting out seed and suet by the ton and crossing your fingers. You can ditch your boring lawn gradually and turn your yard into a real bird paradise that practically maintains itself. All you need is the will and a little elbow grease.
Birds like fruit, seeds, caterpillars, bugs, and water–not necessarily in that order. To attract birds into your yard, plant shrubs that provide seeds or fruits for them to eat, or plant wildflowers and native perennials that attract caterpillars and other bugs. Not all bugs are bad, especially if you happen to be a bird.
For example, if you have a dry patch of ground in full baking sun you might want to plant some native wildflowers that attract caterpillars in the spring for robins and songbirds. If you have a partially shaded spot under a large tree, a flowering dogwood or viburnum will draw cardinals and waxwings in for the berries and the shelter.
The following landscape features are bird favorites, each for different reasons:
Aesclepious tuberosa (butterfly weed) is a cultivar of milkweed that monarch caterpillars love to munch on. Later, when the caterpillars become monarch butterflies, they flit happily around the brilliant orange blossoms until some crested titmouse swoops down for a snack. Watching this kind of bucolic carnage is really good for kids, and the butterfly weed is indestructible once established. Other perennial plants that butterflies (and caterpillars, which are really just baby butteflies) like are Monarda, Buddleia (or ‘butterfly bush’), lantana (annual in the northern U.S.), salvia, and veronica.
Look around your property for areas you aren’t using and have become ‘dead space’ so far as interest and beauty goes. I like to have some chunks of lawn, but I also like lots of beds and shrubs that ‘frame ‘ the lawn and create outdoor ‘rooms’ and various areas to hang out and watch nature.
Start by planting a few shrubs in corners of your yard. Choose locations that are visible from a window so you can see the birds visit on cold winter afternoons. Lift the sod at least six feet out from the mature plant circumference (not the size of the shrub at purchase) and follow some good planting instructions, then mulch well and water plenty the first year. Most shrubs will also appreciate a dousing three or four times with root stimulator, available at any retail garden center and not damaging to the environment.
Once you discover how easy that project was, look for another place to plant perennial flowers and position a small birdbath. Curve your bed and don’t make it too narrow. Six feet out is a minimum width. Six by twelve feet is a good starting size. You can always add more space by lifting more sod later.
Plant perennials that are hard to kill the first time you try this. Any kind of daisy or coneflower will spread rapidly and tolerate a lot of neglect, and the birds will appreciate the seeds and your efforts. Daisies and coneflowers also make great cut flowers. Try planting some coreopsis, salvia, and veronica too.
If you live in a part of the U.S. that is located in zone 6 or warmer, consider planting buffalo grass instead of a conventional lawn. This hardy prairie grass stops growing at just a hair above where you want a lawn to be, is incredibly drought tolerant, and stays dark green and thick enough to crowd out weeds. You don’t have to mow or water or douse buffalo grass with chemicals. Lawns don’t get much easier than that.
Wildflower meadows are also wildly popular in some parts of the U.S. Keep in mind that creating a wildflower meadow comes with an initial expense (and it isn’t cheap), and also, you will have to either replant every three to five years or burn the meadow to the ground every other year to maintain all the wild plants.
If you plant your wildflower meadow only once and let it go, in about three years you will have nothing but yellow flowers left, since many, many wildflowers (especially the blues and pinks and reds) require regular abuse (by means of abrasion and fire) in order to maintain their numbers. Meadows gorgeous though, and birds love them, so if you have the cash and the inclination, give it a try.
Finally, if you live in a part of the country where water is scarce, consider planting a no-grass xeriscape. Lots of great design and how-to books are available on xeriscaping, and a well-planned xeriscape will definitely win you bragging rights amongst your ecologically minded friends. Plus, xeriscapes are truly lovely and truly low to no-maintenance.