Judith’s Garden: Welcoming birds & butterflies
We all love the flowers we grow in our gardens — an ever-changing palette from spring to fall — and by contrast, the stark beauty of winter.
But birds and butterflies add their own ephemeral magic to our gardens — they are like the icing on the cake. For me, the opportunity to observe these winged visitors as the seasons pass is an endless source of pleasure and wonder.
A few highlights
This year the waning weeks of summer were pure delight, as butterflies and hummingbirds savored those last mellow days of the season.
Not long ago I watched a lone Monarch butterfly with a consort of Painted Ladies all feasting on a large patch of Autumn Joy Sedum, while nearby half a dozen Monarchs fluttered above the tall stands of New York Ironweed and Joe Pye Weed. Meanwhile hummingbirds zipped all around, also seeking nectar from the late summer flowers.
By the third week of September — when the Fall Equinox signaled the official end of summer — the hummingbirds had already set out on their epic journeys to spend their winters in Central America. Soon the final Monarchs will leave on their own amazing trips to their wintering ground in central Mexico.
Fall is when I love to watch the various sparrows and warblers as they forage on the ripening seeds of grasses and perennials, including a huge stand of Purple Moor Grass and clumps of Heliopsis outside our bedroom window.
Sometime in early November (once I am convinced the big bear, who lives up in the forest near here, should finally be hibernating) I will put out the winter bird feeders. Then, right on cue, in less than five minutes, the first chickadees of the season will arrive. Chickadees are regular visitors at our feeders all winter long, sometimes joined by house finch, siskin, goldfinch and the occasional grosbeaks.
Also each year in early November I can count on a host of robins and cedar waxwings to discover the succulent fruit on the six winterberry bushes that grow around the corner of our driveway.
Throughout the winter other birds come and go. Just this past December we watched in amazement as an emboldened flock of turkeys landed in the crabapple tree near the house and proceeded to devour the remaining fruit.
Then, somewhere around the Spring Equinox the bird mix changed, as sparrows and other small birds scratched through the mulch beneath my shrubs in search of a succulent insect meal.
In early May, I rehung the hummingbird feeders, and on May 7 the first hummingbird appeared. And by the third week of May the garden was alive with Tiger Swallowtail butterflies — perfectly timed for them to feast on the emerging lilac flowers.
Soon they were joined by many others — including Painted Ladies, Monarchs, White Admirals, Mourning Cloaks — which also remained in the garden throughout the summer, visiting the many different flowers in search of nectar.
And it is always fun to watch the nesting patterns of the various birds. For the past three years, a pair of catbirds has made use of the dense trio of Miss Kim Lilac shrubs outside our kitchen window as a safe spot to raise their brood. And all summer long a song sparrow — perching at the top of an evergreen — kept watch over his growing family in a nearby group of spireas.
Meanwhile the acrobatic phoebes, who tuck their nests under the eaves of our barn, delighted us as they dart down and capture their insect prey in mid-air.
Every year, I watch in awe and delight as these and many other small miracles unfold before my eyes, all adding to the many pleasures I get from being a gardener.
Supporting wildlife in our gardens
Beyond passively enjoying these winged visitors, I also strive to make my garden a truly hospitable habitat, which I hope will encourage them not only to visit but also to stay awhile.
If we all do this, taken together our gardens can make a vital contribution to the larger environment. Today, as human development relentlessly expands — everything from housing and roads to farming — it fragments our wild places, making it harder and harder for all kinds of wildlife to find places where they can successfully reproduce and maintain their species. By creating a network of wildlife-friendly gardens, people can actively help these beautiful creatures propagate and flourish.
So, with that in mind, here are several ways we can transform our gardens into welcoming oases for the birds and butterflies we love to see.
1) Grow native plants
Back in 2007, Douglas Tallamy, professor of Entomology and Wildlife Ecology at the University of Delaware first published his landmark book “Bringing Nature Home,” which was based primarily on his own extensive research.
In this eminently readable book he starts by describing how, for many birds, caterpillars and other insects form a major component in their diet.
In turn, the individual insect species, which of course includes butterflies, lay their eggs on very specific plants that their emerging caterpillars can eat. And, because insects evolve relatively slowly, most often these will be native plants that have been here for hundreds of years.
Hence, for many birds and butterflies, native plants form the bottom tier of the food chain. And growing a good mix in our gardens — including perennials, shrubs and trees — will indirectly contribute to the food supply of many kinds of butterflies and birds. His book provides extensive lists of plants that support different insects and birds.
2) Grow trees and shrubs that produce fruit or nuts
Especially in the colder months, fruit and nuts are another important food source for many birds. And there are literally dozens of shrubs and trees that can flourish in Northeastern gardens which are also excellent food sources for birds.
To help you choose the best species of woody plants for your garden check out the excellent book, “Trees, Shrubs and Vines for Attracting Birds” by Richard DeGraaff. The author provides a detailed description of over a hundred species, including many of my personal favorites such as serviceberries, crab apples, winterberries, mountain ash, and two native species of viburnum — the wild raisin and the American cranberry bush — as well as several kinds of roses.
3) Adopt bird and butterfly friendly gardening practices
Finally there are many simple things we can do to make our gardens more appealing to birds and butterflies. Here are five to consider:
• Even in winter many flowering perennials and ornamental grasses are a source of viable seeds. Wait until spring before cutting them back so that they can contribute to the food supply for birds that winter in our region.
• Don’t be afraid to leave your garden a bit messy, especially in winter. Butterflies as well as other insects often overwinter in garden debris and dead leaves. And, once the ground warms in springtime, you will see returning sparrows and other small birds scratching the soil in search of insects to eat.
• Lawns take both time and energy to mow and upkeep, while they contribute very little to the overall environment. So, if you have a large lawn, consider letting part of it revert to meadow. Mow this area just once or twice a season; in a year or two it will be full of beneficial wild flowers and grasses. And for the lawn you do mow regularly — raise your mower blade to three inches or higher. Not only will this result in healthier greener grass, but your lawn will also support small insects and worms that too contribute to the food chain.
• Birds need safe cover, both for nesting and to avoid predators. When planting shrubs, rather than dotting them around singly, mass them together in irregular groups of three or five.
• We often hear about the need to support the many kinds of pollinators — especially the different species of wild bees that in many cases are nearing extinction. As they visit our flowers bees and butterflies (as well as hummingbirds) are looking for nectar, but in so doing they also distribute pollen to adjacent flowers. Thus planting flowers identified as “pollinator-friendly” will bring both bees and butterflies to your garden. Check the informative website of UVM’s Jane Sorenson at riverberryfarm.com/pollinator-plants-at-river-berry-farm for charts of pollinator-friendly garden flowers by height, color and bloom-time.
Plant it and they will come
Fall is a wonderful time not only to make plans for the future gardens, but also to get digging, divide and move perennials and even buy new plants.
So, if creating a garden oasis for winged visitors is on your wish list, this is the perfect time to start.
And, if you live in a communal setting with common land, why not get together with your neighbors to create a neighborhood garden that both people as well as butterflies and birds will enjoy.
Judith Irven and Dick Conrad live in Goshen where together they nurture a large garden.
Judith is a Vermont Certified Horticulturist and teaches Sustainable Home Landscaping for the Vermont Master Gardener program. You can subscribe to her blog about her Vermont gardening life at northcountryreflections.com.
Dick is a landscape and garden photographer; you can see more of his photographs at northcountryimpressions.
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