Written by Ron Vanderhoff
Category: Habitat Gardening
For those interested in attracting a diversity of bird life to their gardens, it is fall and winter in local gardens which affords the greatest opportunity. Many garden birds are year-round residents and are well known to most gardeners. But, due to our mild Mediterranean climate, it is during the fall and winter months that the bird diversity in our gardens may triple. Many bird species, which spend their summers in more northern climates, have now returned to Orange County to feast upon our plentiful supply of seeds, insects.
Kinglets, thrush, vireos, juncos, waxwings, robins, and many species of warblers and sparrows all but disappear from our gardens during the summer, but return in abundance in the fall and winter. Are you seeing these birds in your garden currently? You should be. If not, maybe there is something missing.
In a garden, birds require three things: resting, nesting, and food. Resting refers to places to hide and avoid danger. Nesting means areas for birds to build nests and raise young.
But one of the best ways to attract a larger variety of birds to a garden, especially at this time of year, is to provide a diversity of food sources – something that will appeal to the varied tastes of the many different bird species now in the region.
Beginners, hoping to attract birds to their garden, simply hang a bird feeder, fill it with “wild bird seed” and wait to see what shows up. The answer is usually lots of house finches and a few house sparrows. These two seed-eating species will be delighted by your generosity. This is a good way to get started attracting birds, but this simplistic approach only attracts a very small portion of the wild bird potential that might otherwise be attracted to a garden.
Diversity of food prevents one species, such as house finches, doves or starlings from dominating your garden, perhaps even spoiling your best intentions. On the other hand, plants that are laden with ripe fruits and berries, of the sorts that birds prefer, offer a sure way to greatly increase the value of your garden as a wildlife resource, while also adding seasonal interest and variety.
Many plants produce fall and winter berries or fruit. Familiar garden plants, such as non-native pyracantha, cotoneaster, nandina and certain palms will help. But the berries from native plants attract a greater diversity of birds and often greater numbers as well. The flowers, foliage, leaf litter, etc., of native species also supports a greater diversity and abundance of insects and invertebrates upon which other birds will feed as well.
Some of the more useful berry producing native plant species are toyon, California coffeeberry, California wax myrtle, Catalina cherry, mahonia, and several species of manzanita.
Of all of these native plants it is Toyon, also sometimes called California Christmas Berry (Heteromeles arbutifolia
), that may be the most satisfying, both to the gardener and the birds. The bright red berries are a favorite food of robins and waxwings, with more than 20 species of birds utilizing the abundant and showy red toyon berries. In its season no berry is more attractive.
Fortunately, Toyon is also one of the easiest California native plants to grow and one of its most versatile. Give it enough room so that little or no pruning will be required and an area with only sporadic irrigation and it will be a handsome, no fuss addition to any garden. And as with most California native plants, fall is an ideal time to for planting.
Ron Vanderhoff is the Nursery Manager at Roger’s Gardens, Corona del Mar.
Questions from Readers November 14th.
Question: I’m planting sweet pea seeds this weekend. Some sources suggest soaking the seeds in water before planting, while others say it’s not necessary. What do you think?
Emily, Costa Mesa
Answer: Sweet peas seeds have a very hard outer coat that prevents the internal embryo from dehydrating. However, this hard coating can also inhibit moisture from entering the seed, slowing down germination. I’ve grown lots of sweet peas, with and without soaking, and had good results either way. Nonetheless, I usually suggest soaking the seeds first, since this reduces the germination time by as much as three or four days. The advantage of this treatment is that the gardener does not need to keep the seedbed moist for as many days, which I believe is the main cause of poor sweet pea seed germination.
To pre-soak sweet pea seeds, fill a glass with a couple of inches of warm water from the tap. Add the sweet pea seeds and let the glass and seeds set overnight, but not more than 24 hours. Pour the water out and you’re ready to plant the seeds.