Yard mattress and breakfasts for birds, bees and bugs

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Flowers may be few and far between on a cool day at the end of winter, but flocks of native birds can feast in our garden smorgasbord. Late winter and early spring are the hardest times for birds to find food in suburbs, but even small gardens provide both food and shelter.

As houses replace forests and manicured lawns and fruitless trees replace native vegetation, living space is shrinking. By planting a bed and breakfast for native birds, we can significantly offset the loss of habitat. When designing gardens for birds, it helps to think like one. A new book, What It’s Like To Be A Bird, by David Allen Sibley (of Birder Fame), is a helpful and fascinating guide.

As gardeners, we are able to make important decisions about native plants that are already around our homes and construction sites. Healthy populations of native fruit trees and shrubs feed and support native birds and many other creatures. Let’s think carefully before replacing them with non-native and sterile lawns that don’t feed anyone. When suburban sprawl and excessive order combine, the last remnants of the wilderness disappear. Without safe habitats, birds and other creatures suffer from hunger and higher mortality rates.

Fortunately, small suburban courtyards also offer an opportunity to make a positive difference. By creating a privacy screen with layered perimeter plantings, we also provide a functioning habitat for birds. Natural, uncut hedges provide birds with plenty of places to build safe nests and hide from cats. Oregon wax myrtle, California lilac, red dogwood, and western mock orange are beautiful sieve plants that provide ample bird protection and don’t require shearing. Narrowly cut hedges do not make sense as dense foliage prevents birds from entering. If you prefer a well-groomed look, lightly prune the plants to highlight their natural shapes. Avoid constant pruning by picking plants that will mature to a reasonable size. This simple concept does less work for you and is far less stressful for the plant.

When we mix native shrubs, annuals, and perennials with our favorite ornaments, we can feed hundreds of birds year round. For those with the biggest flowers and fruits, look for a decorative selection of rugged natives in your favorite nursery. For an extensive list of local and regional nurseries with natives, see Russell Link’s now classic Pacific Northwest landscaping.

Slacking off is also helpful: if we postpone garden cleaning until spring we can harbor birds, bees and butterflies, as well as beneficial insects that lay eggs in folds of leaves or nest in hollow grasses. Even a tiny strip of “wildness” can harbor hundreds of insects, which make up most of the bird’s food. Since over 99% of these insects are benign or downright beneficial, they help control pests without affecting water, air, or soil quality.

We’re even building better soil by delaying garden cleaning because when the leaves turn brown, they transfer the nutrients stored in their leaves to their roots. When plants compost, the soil gains natural fertilizer that nourishes the flowers and fruits for the next year. Learning to think like a bird can help loosen up our ideas about what makes a garden beautiful, since birds are just as fun in a mess in the garden as they are in natural areas with tangled undergrowth, fallen branches, and rotting logs. Best of all, gardens that support wildlife can be just as comforting and calming for humans, especially when many of us are confined to our homes. Society with birds and other living things reminds us that we too have a place in nature.

Contact Ann Lovejoy at 413 Madrona Way NE, Bainbridge Island, WA 98110 or visit Ann’s blog at http://www.loghouseplants.com/blogs/greengardening/ and leave a question / comment.