QOur family has become very interested in bird watching. We keep several types of feeders filled all year and also provide water. We would like to add plantings in the spring that will attract birds. What are some things we can add to the landscape to attract birds but not turn our yard into a jungle?
AThere are many ways in which you can make your yard more hospitable to birds. While providing year-round feeders is a great way to bring birds close to your house and supplement their diet, most birds still get most of their food from natural sources. Providing a diversity of plants that have a range of fruits and seeds will help attract numerous bird species to your yard.
A number of small ornamental trees provide fruit in late fall and early winter. Some of this fruit may even stay on the trees until spring, when it provides food for birds migrating north. Flowering crabapples are excellent ornamentals for bird food. However, it's important that you select cultivars with bite-size fruit so that the birds can readily swallow the fruit. Many newer cultivars have small, colorful, persistent fruit. 'Snowdrift,' 'Red Jade,' Malus x zumi 'Calocarpa,' 'Harvest Gold,' 'Indian Magic' and Winter Gem are just a few good choices.
Hawthorns, especially thornless cockspur hawthorn (Crataegus crusgalli var. inermis), also provide bright red fall fruit. Mountain ash also provides heavy fruit loads in the fall. Pagoda dogwood (Cornus alternifolia) has clusters of blue-black fruits that birds devour in late summer. Serviceberry (Amelanchier sp.) is not only a beautiful small tree, it also provides lots of blueberry-like fruit in midsummer. Robins and cedar waxwings will be all over this tree the minute the fruit starts to ripen.
There are many ornamental shrubs that will also provide fruit for birds. I have seen pheasants eating the bright red fruit of barberries at the Minnesota Landscape Arboretum. Many viburnums have edible fruit. Black chokeberry (Aronia melanocarpa) fruit is quite the puckery experience for the human mouth, but birds seem to relish it. Honeysuckles, elderberry, sumac, Nanking cherry, winterberry and red-twig dogwood are all good shrubs for birds and other wildlife.
Annual and perennial flowers can also attract birds and provide food. Annuals such as salvia, impatiens and petunias attract those dancing gems, hummingbirds. While deadheading (removing the developing seedhead) encourages many annual and perennial flowers to keep blooming, it's worth letting some seeds develop, especially late in the season. In the fall, goldfinches swarm to the spikey seedheads of purple coneflower that I leave standing in my garden. Many other perennials, including ornamental grasses, provide winter interest and seed for birds if left in the garden.
Don't forget that birds need shelter as well as food in the winter. Groups of evergreens can provide much needed screening from brutal winter winds. Spruce, junipers and arborvitae have dense growth in which birds can take shelter.
Finally, what is a jungle, anyway? The typical suburban lot with two shade trees, some foundation shrubs and a quarter acre of mowed grass is a desert for most wildlife. Perhaps we need to change our idea of what "acceptable" landscaping looks like. There are plenty of things you can do -- add a mixed shrub border, replace some turf with interesting groundcovers, start a perennial bed -- that will add to the beauty of your home and provide the plant diversity needed by birds and other wildlife.
For more information, look for books on landscaping for wildlife at your local library or the Andersen Horticultural Library at the Minnesota Landscape Arboretum. "Landscaping for Wildlife" by Carroll Henderson, of the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources, is an excellent book on this subject.
QI buy a few tuberous begonia bulbs every year, but I'm interested in trying to grow them from seed. Are they any harder to grow than wax begonias?
ATuberous begonias are more difficult to grow from seed than wax begonias. This is because tuberous begonias must first develop a tuber before they go on to develop flowers. The development of the tuber is triggered by daylength, so supplemental lighting must be provided. Tuberous begonia seeds are as fine as dust and may take a month or more to germinate. To have any hope of seeing flowers by late summer, seeds must be started in December or January.
If you just want a few tuberous begonias for their lovely flowers and ability to grow and bloom in shade, it will be more practical to buy a few tubers from a catalog or garden center in the spring. There are several cultivars with a pendant growth habit, perfect for hanging baskets on a shaded deck.
If you are looking for a horticultural challenge, go ahead and try to grow some from seed. Purchase fresh seed and start in December or January. Fill a small flat with soilless potting mix and spread a layer of milled sphagnum moss on top. Water the flat and let drain. Apply the tiny begonia seeds as thinly as possible to the surface layer. Do not cover. Water only from the bottom to avoid washing away the seeds. The seed flat must be kept warm and humid. You also will need to have fluorescent lights placed just a few inches above the flat and set to be on for 14 to 16 hours a day. With luck, the seedlings should develop tiny tubers and be ready to move to individual pots by late spring. When they are large enough, the begonias can be planted outside in the ground or in containers.
With a little care, begonia tubers can be kept over winter. Before frost, dig the plants or remove them from containers. Cut the plants back to the tuber. Dust tubers with sulfur powder (it acts as a fungicide) and place in bags of dry peat moss. Store the bags in a cool, dry location. This is the tricky part, since most modern houses don't have cool enough rooms, even in the basement. Below 50 degrees is best. Check tubers several times during the winter for signs of rot or excessive dryness. You can then pot up the tubers in early spring and get them growing in a sunny window until they can be placed outdoors.
--Nancy Rose is a research horticulturist at the Minnesota Landscape Arboretum. She spends her spare time gardening, inside or outside, depending on the weather. Please address gardening questions to her at the Minnesota Landscape Arboretum, PO Box 39, Chanhassen MN 55317. She will answer questions in this column only.