Thursday, February 25, 2010

Let the Birds Do It!

Each spring for a few weeks I get the urge. I study seed catalogs and linger longingly at nursery displays. Sometimes I even succumb to the lure of bright flowers and elegant shrubs. But despite my fantasies, I have yet to achieve the perfection and visual charm I so often see portrayed as The Ideal Garden.

Two things conspire against me. One, our semiarid climate, seems to be a barrier between my wild, unruly yard and the delicious pictures I see in the gardening or lifestyle magazines. I know that such designs are made for eastern gardens or other places where water can be used profligately. The second controlling factor, which prevents us from ignoring the first and simply spreading water everywhere anyway, is our 400-foot-deep well. Barely adequate (with care) for the two of us, it is not enough to support a traditional garden in the style it prefers. Our yard has been called an extreme Xeriscape test garden—if it can grow here, it can grow anywhere. We’ve tried out many plants, and it is a limited set indeed that can master our inhospitable circumstances.

There is a third factor, no doubt. My own laziness, or perhaps readiness to be distracted by other demands, creates an inability to focus on the garden’s needs and contributes to my sense of failure. So I have had to find another route to (limited) success—I have recruited the birds to my aid. If I want a garden that provides habitat for wildlife, what better approach than to take advantage of the birds’ tendency to improve their own habitat? This generates a serendipitous garden that is less about control than about spontaneity. A garden that continually surprises the so-called “gardener” with new developments. A garden that evolves in harmony with the animals and plants that live within it and is “designed,” so to speak, to meet their needs.

One year I noticed a clump of chokecherries (Prunus virginiana, Padus virginiana) getting started at the end of the driveway, and that was the beginning of gardening by birds. When the peach tree, long suffering from that oozing rot they get, finally died and we cut it down, I found an outline, almost a ghost, of it on the ground. Reflecting the branching pattern above were rows of chokecherries and three currant bushes. This thicket now includes a golden currant (Ribes aureum) and two wax currants (Ribes cereum) there in the back yard, planted by the birds to their own accidental pattern, and the peach tree’s memory lives on in them. If selecting the right site for each plant plays an important role in its survival, who knows better than the birds where their favorite plants will do well?

Real gardeners often look askance at “volunteers.” Letting plants spring up where they will violates their sense of design. In our yard, these plants aren’t really volunteers, they’re recruits. It’s the birds who have recruited their preferred fruits and berries.

Judging by what we get, chokecherries are high on their list, and juniper berries are popular. Currants, of course, also get their attention. (Golden currant, photo left.) These plants operate by providing a juicy, tempting, nourishing treat, the fruit or berry, wrapped around a hard, indigestible seed. If you’ve wondered why blackberries (including raspberries, thimbleberries, and other relatives) pop up along fencerows and under streamside thickets, think about where birds spend their time. More than a hundred species of animals, including grosbeaks, orioles, tanagers, towhees, grouse, and robins among the birds, take advantage of these summer fruits.

Species that provide edible seeds are using a different principle, sacrificing many seeds to the cause of dispersal, but berries and stone fruits attract birds and other animals to their purposes without such losses of valuable seed. Wild plum (Prunus americana), another native I’d like to have, is too large a fruit, too large a seed really, to be carried by birds, and has yet to appear here accidentally.

There are two approaches to accidental gardening: one is to let the birds do it, and live with the results. You’ll find seedlings under bushes and trees, along fences, and even under telephone wires. My husband suggests that perches strategically placed around the yard would help fine-tune this haphazard process. Another way is to let the birds create a nursery for you. We have a large oriental elm in the backyard, a beautiful tree from an unfortunate species, but the birds enjoy perching on its branches. Underneath it, we find a flock of juniper seedlings that will tolerate its shade for a while, but won’t do well there in the long term. So we transplant them to sunnier locations once they’ve gotten off to a good start. This nurse tree approach can often be observed in the wild, but there the survival of the young plants often depends on the timely demise of their nurse.

Other species we’re keeping an eye out for are the vines: wild grapes (Vitis riparia) and western woodbine (Parthenocissus inserta) have berries that ripen and stay on the vine late in the season, providing fall and winter food for many species of birds, including woodpeckers, chickadees, bluebirds, and waxwings. Snowberries (Symphoricarpos spp.) could also pop up, as they too provide winter food for many species. All will be welcome.

When you let the birds help with your landscaping, you will not only be providing them a feast, but will enhance their nesting sites and protective cover, as well as giving many other animals food and home sites, from deer and rabbits to coyotes and bears, allowing you many more surprises in the garden!

Copyright, S.L. White, 2010. Illustration copyright Jan Ratcliffe.
Originally published in Upbeat, June 1997.

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