You don’t have to be an experienced bird watcher to enjoy feeding birds through the cold months of winter and early spring. Grow your own bird seed by adding native plants to perennial borders, or plant a few avian favorites in the back corner of your property. Most commercial bird seeds contain safflower, sunflower, millet and corn, but it’s easy to give birds year-round choices with native garden flowers, too.
The Standard Mix
Plant sunflowers and cone flowers in your flower garden or border in an area with full sun and well-drained soil. Use tiny cone flower in place of thistle seed for finches and sparrows. Cardinals, finches and chickadees prefer black seeded sunflowers, while Blue Jays and woodpeckers prefer striped-seeded varieties. Allow seed heads to dry before harvesting.
Raise safflower, a thistle-like forb that forms a base for many mixes, in a sunny, dry area away from the flower garden where it can grow up to 6 feet tall. Safflower prefers dry, well-drained soil and takes up to 150 days to mature. Cardinals prefer this seed.
Grow grasses like red millet and grain sorghum (milo) in a hot, dry area. Find seeds for proso millet and milo at farm supply centers, where they are sold for pasture forage. Harvest seeds from these grasses as soon as they form so they don’t invade your lawn.
Plant a few feed corn plants in your vegetable garden if your neighborhood association allows it. Sweet corn hybrids won’t dry properly. Dry and crack corn for all wild birds.
Sow annual cosmos, coreopsis and Mexican sunflower along with cone flowers in sunny spots in the garden to attract finches and wrens. Stop deadheading plants in late summer and allow them to go to seed. Collect the seed heads or leave them in the garden for winter visitors.
Supplement your perennial collection with plants birds love. Add “autumn joy” sedum; the red heads will persist into winter and provide treats for birds. Black-eyed Susan (rudbeckia) is a native perennial cousin of the annual cone flower that finches and other small birds find irresistible. Blazing star (Liatris species) grows in partial shade and attracts finches.
Bring civilized relatives of pastureland plants into the garden. Dozens of varieties of sunflower varieties grow only 1 or 2 feet tall and produce seed in black or striped varieties. Crack sunflower seeds for smaller birds. Purple majesty millet (pennisetum glaucum) grows 4 to 5 feet tall. Grow it in sun or shade along a fence or in the back of a border.
Things You Will Need
- Garden spaces with sun and shade
- Large area for grasses
- Paper cartons for seeds
- Labels for boxes
- Most bird seeds come from native plants and require little or no fertilization, just the right sun exposure and well-drained soil.
- Safflower provides important oils to birds during the winter. The plants also attract bees to the summer garden. Their brilliant flower petals have been substituted for saffron.
- Collect seeds by shaking seed heads on grasses and flowers or cutting seed heads of very small seeds so they fall into small paper boxes. Allow seeds to dry thoroughly before storing in a cool, dry place to avoid mildew or germination.
- Take care harvesting safflower; it protects itself with coarse stems and spiny flowers.
- Thistles are outlawed as noxious weeds in many areas. Check state laws and local ordinances before planting them.
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