I’d like to tell you about my garden friend, Bob. First because this newsletter is about birds and flying things and then because it is a garden that connects us. We live in a house that was Bob’s, separated by a couple of home owners who were not gardeners and who let Bob’s garden become unloved–and that is a nice way to say it. I put my vote in for this place when we were house shopping for a few reasons: the way the smooth, wooden handrail to the second floor felt under my hand, old, polished and warm, the potential of an attic room, and the garden. Mostly because of the roses. It was my full intention at the time to bring back what I saw of the garden despite the weeds and mess.
Once we were moved in, I realized the task was near impossible–I wanted the fence line moved, requiring a township variance, which then made the old stone walk in an awkward way–the list goes on. With the exception of a few trees and two clay bird houses–one in the dogwood tree, one in the Japanese Maple, we began from scratch. Every now and then, something that was once will reappear–the Sissinghurst rose, a stone from the old walk, a plant tag. Since Bob lives walking distance away–and BTW his garden is also on the tour next month–I get to see his amazing roses tended as they ought to be, among lots of other plants. Right now, there is a poppy riot. Bob says that they are worse than mint in the plant thug department. (I forgot to mention mint in my newsletter last week. Please be sure to confine that plant unless you drink many, many Mojitos on a daily basis. I will never again plant that in my garden–lesson learned.) It’s a good thing the roses are in Bob’s garden and not mine; he is a better gardener than I and my plants have to be great despite my gardening skills–really despite most gardener’s skills. This is because my garden is a lab. I really need to know how plants perform under very ordinary circumstances in order to know what most people will experience in their gardens after installation is complete. But Bob’s roses….sigh. Gorgeous. Stopping to talk to Bob on the dog walk over the years, asking about the roses, the topic turned to the number of bird houses he has about his garden. Then to come home and find one inside my back gate. Then there wrens. And a more bird-focused, bird-friendly garden began to emerge.
This morning I saw a robin with a beak full of grass perched on top of the motion light at the back of the house. Below her feet the beginnings of a new nest under construction. One year a robin built her nest in a hanging basket on the front porch. The geraniums were able to survive with very little water until the baby robins took flight. A moment ago from the corner of my eye I turned to see a robin atop a stake I drove in for one of the dahlias still snoozing in the ground. She then took flight and was off.
I’ve seen a lot of robins lately–they seem to come around even more when I have a shovel in hand because they know that digging will bring up some worms and they won’t have to work quite so hard for lunch. And in the morning, I know the finches and cardinals are watching me because I see them from the kitchen window just as soon as I go inside after filling the feeder.
Flying things and gardens are like New Jersey and You–Perfect Together. Birds eat worms, insects and seeds. Insects are pollinators and help to naturally manage other insects–the pest variety–in the garden. So we want to encourage them. Here are a few things to add to the garden for more of all, in addition to making friends with folks who build bird houses:
1. Umbel-flowering plants like Queen Anne’s Lace, Dill, and (yes I am saying this even after last week) Fennel. Butterflies especially love this plant which is sturdy enough to support finches;
2. Don’t spray indiscriminately. Birds eat insects. Insecticides will affect birds–plain and simple. Learn what insects you have first before spraying anything. This includes yourself. There are herbal insect repellants on the market–find one that works for you;
3. Trees and shrubs. Preferably with berries. Both of these support bird life all year; 4. Consider keeping kitty indoors. Safer for kitty and for our bird friends. A reference book you might like is Projects for the Birder’s Garden, edited by Fern Bradley. Also, Bringing Nature Home by Douglas Talamy. Both will help you with plants and ideas for inviting in all sorts of flying things.
From a design point of view, birds and buzzers (what I call insects), add a sense of motion interest to the garden. Motion is often an over-looked aspect of the garden, a dynamic element. Consider how certain plants respond to the wind blowing through them. I remember a large silver maple in my mother’s garden and when the summer wind would blow the lighter underside of the leaves became visible. Amsonia and ornamental grasses are great for this–plus if you leave the grasses up over the winter, they provide hiding places for birds. Note: stick to the native grasses; they are far less thuggish than exotic grasses, especially Miscanthus. The darting flight of a hummingbird and the swooping flight of a finch over the lawn is color in motion, as is the irregular flight, a floating flight, of a butterfly.
What I really love about bringing flying things into the garden, more than what I’ve written, is that it inspires my imagination to reach beyond my garden gate. Where are all these birds going when they leave? If not in the canopy of my trees, where? How many gardens do they visit every day? And where are they spending the winter? How far does that butterfly travel before it finds a place to lay eggs? We so feel we have ownership over our gardens, yes? But do we?
Even my bird’s-eye view of our garden from the third floor studio window gets me only slightly closer to the wonder.