Poets and songwriters often describe spring using images of gentle rains, budding flowers and the trill of birdsong.
Gardeners observe the arrival of spring when hummingbirds return and mama wrens begin building nests.
Attracting these avian harbingers of spring to your backyard refuge is as simple as providing food, water, shelter and places to raise their young. But it takes more than a nest box and a birdfeeder to truly support songbirds and other wildlife in the landscape.
According to Dr. Doug Tallamy, renowned author and University of Delaware entomology professor, when creating a diverse backyard sanctuary, gardeners should “garden as if life depended on it.” That’s what he inscribed in my copy of his book, “Bringing Nature Home: How You Can Sustain Wildlife With Native Plants” (Timber Press), when we met a few years ago.
His message is simple. Native plants support insects, and insects support biodiversity. For example, adult songbirds that eat a diet mainly of seeds still need protein to feed their young.
Without caterpillars and insects, baby birds cannot grow to maturity. Even nectar-sipping birds like hummingbirds use insects to nourish their young.
Incorporating native plants, removing invasive species, providing water sources and limiting pesticides are all steps that home gardeners can take to sustain life in the landscape. Gardeners cannot underestimate their ability to provide the resources necessary to support wildlife, including songbirds.
Bugs in the garden may seem counterintuitive to gardeners who stress over chewed leaf edges or any sign of insect damage. The good news is that native plants evolved alongside their insect predators, which means they can withstand damage and recover with no need for costly pesticides. In fact, birds, lizards, toads and other critters rely on these insects for food and will do the work of controlling insect populations for you!
Native plants, or ‘American flora’ as Dr. Tallamy refers to them, are both beautiful and easy to grow. Jeff Jackson, president of the Lowcountry Chapter of the Native Plant Society, shared some of his favorites for attracting songbirds, hummingbirds and butterflies to the garden:
Dahoon Holly (Ilex cassine) makes a great hedge, screen or small tree in part shade to full sun. The berries are favorites of red-eyed vireos and other songbirds. Purchase at least two plants, a male and a female, to ensure berry production. This native holly often tops out at 20 to 30 feet in cultivation with an 8- to 12-foot spread. It usually is found in wetland edges so be sure to provide supplemental irrigation in drier suburban yards.
Inkberry Holly (Ilex glabra) is a slow-growing native evergreen shrub reaching 6-10 feet in height and width. The small white flowers are important for honey production. Pollinating insects and tasty black fruits in fall make it a feeding favorite for more than 15 species of songbirds.
Blueberries (Vaccinium spp.). Anyone who has ever grown blueberries can testify that birds love them. Fall fruits provide the extra fat that migratory and overwintering resident birds need to survive. Additionally, the shrubs provide protective cover for nesting and foraging.
Upland River Oats (Chasmanthium latifolium) is an attractive ornamental grass that is deer resistant and bird friendly. The small oatlike seeds are eaten by birds while the bronzed foliage from the previous season makes good nesting material for species like robins, vireos and many other birds. Short on space? Plant it in a container with other native perennials for a mini-wildlife garden.
Crimsoneyed rosemallow (Hibiscus moscheutos) is one of several native hibiscus that thrive in wet sites and provide summer-long beauty. Hummingbirds flock to these gorgeous flowering perennials that reach 8 feet tall.
Purple Coneflower (Echinacea purpurea) is an easy perennial that attracts insects, birds and hummingbirds with beautiful pinkish purple flowers and bright orange cones. Plant in full sun and allow them to go to seed to feed birds in the winter months.
Passionflower (Passiflora incarnata) serves as a host for several butterfly species including Gulf fritillaries and Zebra longwings. Don’t be alarmed when the caterpillars of the fritillaries eat nearly all the foliage in midsummer. In a few weeks, your vine will recover and you will be rewarded with masses of beautiful butterflies.
For more plants to bring songbirds flocking to your yard, check out the Clemson Home and Garden Factsheet at www.clemson.edu/extension/hgic/plants/other/landscaping/hgic1700.html,
To purchase some of the native plants listed above, visit the Lowcountry Chapter of the Native Plant Society at the annual spring plant sale 9 a.m.-noon March 16 at Charles Towne Landing. See http://scnps.org/lowcountry.
Amy L. Dabbs is the urban horticulture extension agent and Tri-County Master Gardener coordinator for the Clemson University Cooperative Extension. Send questions to firstname.lastname@example.org.