P. Allen Smith: Designing a Garden Room for Birds
I designed this simple “room” around one of the sheds in my garden using grasses and other plants to attract birds.
Photography by Jane Colclasure, Kelly Quinn, Hortus Ltd. and Mark Fonville
I like having birds in my garden. It’s amusing to watch them splattering around in puddles or building nests for their young — and they help me keep my garden free of pests. For me, part of the fun of designing garden rooms, whether grand and expansive or crafted from the tiniest of spaces, is that each is uniquely endowed with its own challenges and attributes, in this case a place for attracting birds.
It’s only natural that birds are attracted to areas where they find food, water and shelter from the weather, so include these elements when designing your room. Adding plants that offer fruit, berries, nuts, cones and seeds provides natural sources of food for our feathered friends. I like to include crabapples, hollies, dogwoods and viburnums, as they offer beautiful flowers, colorful berries and great autumn color and winter food sources for birds. Including evergreen trees and shrubs, such as junipers, hollies, boxwoods and arborvitaes, provide them nesting places and shelter from harsh winter weather; they are excellent “backbone” plants for defining your garden room. Some of these evergreens are good foundation plants, bringing the garden closer to the house and your windows.
To start, I survey my interior rooms and study the view from the windows to identify the best viewing areas from within the house. With sketch pad and pencil in hand, move outside and walk the site you have chosen. Determine the shape of your “room” and draw it on paper; use inexpensive graph paper to make this task easier. I think the best shape is one that seems to naturally fit the site. Decide on your “walls,” sketch out your pathways and design your entry. If the site is windy or there is ambient noise, such as nearby traffic or neighbors, you can use elements such as evergreen hedges to block wind and muffle sound. This is especially important when designing a room for birds, as they prefer areas that are relatively quiet and undisturbed. Include an area for a bench or seating. This could be an attached room, such as a porch or patio and will tend to define placement of your flower borders. Include plenty of flowers and herbs, not only for beauty but those with seed heads that will also feed the birds; examples are: coneflowers, cosmos, sunflowers, asters and ornamental grasses. Be sure to allow some of these to stand over winter. Include vines such as clematis, Carolina Jessamine and grapes for additional cover and nesting sites. Birds tend to enjoy native plants first — think about substituting these in place of exotics, for example, use blueberries in place of forsythia. Choose where you wouldlike to have feeders, nesting boxes, bird houses and birdbaths; these are elements that will entice birds to remain in your garden room and can be decorative accents that add a bit of fun. Plan out any structural items, like trellises for vines and poles for houses. The sound of moving water attracts birds, so a small fountain or other water feature will serve this purpose and can be a beautiful focal point within a border.
The most important thing to remember when designing your garden room is to reflect your own personal style. Look inside your home to find your favorite colors and décor, and display and extend those colors and style into your garden. Lastly, remember, your garden room for birds does not have to be “manicured” all the time. Birds actually prefer things to be a little on the wild side.
Favorite Birds for Watching
Bluebirds — in nature, eat primarily insects in spring, summer and fall; berries in winter. For feeders, try suet, currants, sunflower hearts, mealworms and softened raisins. They will acknowledge other bluebirds with a wing wave.
Orioles — in nature, eat garden pests and flower seeds. Sometimes they will take a liking to fruit, including apples, pears, berries and grapes. For feeders, try fresh fruit, bread, nutmeats, suet and sugar syrup. You can hear the male’s loud whistles all summer long.
Gold finches — in nature, eat mostly flower seeds, but will munch on aphids and caterpillars. For feeders, use thistle (Niger Seed), sunflower seeds, millet or nutmeats, breadcrumbs and other seeds. Being athletic, they hang upside-down on feeders and fly in a wavy pattern.
Mockingbirds — in nature, eat fruits, berries and a variety of garden pests. For feeders, use suet, peanuts and peanut butter, dried and fresh fruit and cheese. These birds can imitate sounds from the songs of other birds to peeping frogs.
Downy Woodpeckers — in nature, feed on insect pests using long sticky tongues. For feeders, try beef suet, sunflower seeds, corn, nuts and berries. They hammer on trees and then listen for movement of bugs to eat.
Cardinals — in nature, prefer insects and fruits, but will eat seeds. For feeders, use peanut butter, cracked corn and black oil sunflower seeds. They feed mainly on the ground. Known for attacking their own image in windows, hubcaps or anything that will reflect themselves.
Chickadees — in nature, feed entirely on insects in summer and berries and weed seeds in winter. For feeders, try sunflower seeds, suet, peanuts and peanut butter. Very friendly birds, they can be coaxed to feed from your extended hand.
Wrens – in nature, eat almost 100 percent insects. For feeders, try bread, nuts, peanut butter and suet. They will nest in almost anything, anywhere: flowerpots, hats, benches and birdhouses.
Robins — in nature, eat plenty of garden bugs, fruits and berries. For feeders, try bread, corn, fruit, nuts, peanut butter and suet. Males are known for their red breast. Robins are often viewed as the first sign of spring.
Blue Jays — in nature, eat almost anything including mice, snails, termites and wasps. For feeders, try sunflower seeds or corn, suet, fruits and berries, or sprinkle peanuts on the ground. A beautiful blue, these tough birds mock the calls of other birds.
Cedar Waxwings — in nature, feed on flying insects and in the fall eat plenty of berries; they love fruit. For feeders, try chopped or sliced apples or raisins. They can be difficult to entice to the feeder, but once there they will eat their fill.
Nuthatches — in nature, eat insects found in the bark of trees and nuts and seeds. For feeders, try sunflower seeds and peanuts and suet. Sometimes you can find them hanging out with chickadees and titmice.
Summer Tanagers — in nature, eat mainly insects, including bees and wasps, and berries. For feeders, try peanut butter, berries and fruit. Tanagers hang out in the tops of trees and will dart out to catch insects in mid-air.
- Identification books
- Organic seed mixes
- Dripper for birdbath
- De-icer for birdbath
- Identification sound tracks
- Suet cages
- Nest boxes
- Water feature/small fountains
- Bird houses
- Bird feed recipes
- Critter proofers for feeders