Posted by: Small House Under a Big Sky Homestead | March 22, 2014

Our Garden Habitat for the Love of Songbirds

Most homeowners in our rural SW Michigan area have a landscape that is mostly mowed grass. Apparently they do not believe in landscaping at all as those large swaths of grass comes right up next to the house and offers no flowers, shrubs or evergreens. Boring!

I suspect that they think this is easier to maintain than landscaping but they also do not realize how much serious air pollution is caused using gas run lawn tractors and that an estimated 17 million gallons of gasoline are spilled refueling lawn equipment in the U.S. every year, releasing harmful fumes into the air and contaminating our ground water.

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A view of our back woodlot in the fall when the sassafras leaves are beginning to turn their beautiful fall colors.

Visually our property is not at all traditional for our geographic area; which is mainly mowed grass bordered by woodlots. Instead of the typical country property where grass is king, we have large swaths of curving garden beds, a wild flower meadow, a large fenced in vegetable garden area and woodland with paths snaking through the 15-acre wood lot behind our home. Because of the former owners of this land who voted to save the majestic White Oak trees,  our hard work and my desire for beauty and habitat, our garden looks more like a fancy park than your typical rural homestead.

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A slice of our landscape includes raised beds, our in-the-ground pool bordered by the forest edge. A row of ornamental grasses with tall plumes line the back side of the pools chain link fence.

Our land on the other hand is an ever-changing, free-flowing organic adventure!

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In 2003 it was a very good year for the crabapple tree. This is a tree the songbirds love!

Our 5-acre corner lot was once part of the Oak Savanna Woodland that we are slowly turning into a wild habitat area for the birds. Unlike the plants for the prairies and dune land gardens (which demands a sunny location) or the woodland garden (where exiting shade is necessary for plants to do well) The Savanna and its plants bridge the gap between these two extremes. The wildflowers, grasses, and sedges of this garden type can be planted in the full sun; but they can also take the dappled shade created by mature trees.

How did we create this habitat? Though it took a lot of time and energy the plan was simple and straightforward – we protect and preserve our trees and evergreens, add blue bird houses and merely stopped mowing sections of grass and put down bark chips to build soil and create garden beds. Then we choose to plant native perennials, shrubs and trees. We are a zone 5 garden, with part sun and part shade. Our original soil is sandy fill turned loam and it supports the native and dry land species that I plant here.

My goal is to build suitable habitat for the birds,  insects and wildlife we support here. Habitat, along with food, water and nesting sites is one of the most important elements of bringing birds to the landscape.

  1. hab·i·tat noun: habitat; plural noun: habitats –the natural home or environment of an animal, plant, or other organism.

THE BIRD BED:

Our bird feeding bed was designed with the songbirds in mind. I planted fruit bearing shrubs for bird to land on, eat from and feel safe in. I added staked bird feeders, a bird bath, suet feeders and tall ornamental grasses and perennials to hide the bird seed mess on the ground. Heavily mulched with bark chips the mulch brings the worms and the worms brings the ground feeding birds We call this garden bed the bird B & B!

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THE MEADOW:

The meadow habit is a large oval space that was at one time mowed lawn that we allowed to grow up.  As I mentioned earlier, habitat is the number most important element of bringing birds to our land and this meadow acts as an edge between the mowed sections and the woods beyond it. Birds love that edge. Tall grasses, insects and a canopy of trees are a big draw for birds here as is the plant life of native and prairie plants that function is a transition from our yard to the woods beyond.

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The meadow in its very early years and in the early spring. Gene’s blacksmith forge is the building in the distance. To the far left is our composting station.

It’s actually really simple; Stop mowing and let the grass grow up. Then mulch with bark chips and maple leaves to create a rich loam soil. Lastly I dug out and planted an 8 ft. boarder around the outside of the meadow perimeter to create a flower bed.

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The meadow now. The tall yellow plant to the left is the native cup plant.

The way my meadow works is layered from back to front. In the back you’ll find taller, native shrubs like Viburnum, St. John’s Wort’s, Forsythia and Burning Bush and tall perennials such as; culvers root, obedient plant, cup plant, goldenrod and more. . The middle is a layer of tall native perennials like cup plant, yellow loosestrife, white boneset, yarrow, goldenrod, white asters, spiderworts, wild bergamot, wild columbine, and ornamental grasses that are planted in front of the shrubs. The foreground consists of daylilies, daisy’s, shorter Forbes, autumn sedum joy, spiderworts, malaria, blazing star, pink cone flowers, black-eyed Susan’s, and more. Eventually I plan to add more evergreens to the mix and a few nut trees in the sunny meadow but since they are expensive it will be awhile until that happens.

Not only does this wild meadow costs less to maintain than mowing, it uses much less fossil fuels and creates much less air pollution which benefits the humans in this mix too. This meadow provides a wonderful habitat for birds, insects, butterflies, frogs, toads, snakes and mammals.

We use no chemicals, no herbicides; just the labor of digging out or smothering weeds and invasive with leaves restoring one area at a time.

RAISED GARDEN BEDS:

Over the years our raised cedar beds have held everything from strawberries plants to perennials. Currently they grow butterfly shrubs, forsythia, gaillardia flowers and a mix of perennials and shrubs that I have propagated. These small shrubs and flowering plants are growing here short-term and will be moved elsewhere when they reach a viable size.

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A raised bed filled with butterfly bushes and mulched by bark chips.

In the summer months I add several metal garden sculpture items for added interest; a painted sundial and a metal piece to hold a climbing vine. Some summers I plop a purple painted metal chair in this bed for more color and interest.

THE HERB BED:

The herb bed is made out of old railroad ties that were on our property when we moved here. The herbs we grow are sage, fennel, yarrow, chives, artemisia, and lavender. Recently I added an old metal dog gate to this bed that was given to me by a friend as a piece of “garden art.” I planted a purple butterfly bush behind it for a bit of color and form and this year I plan to add a flowering clematis vine to grow up the gate and add another splash of color. A bird bath helps to draw the birds to this bed in the summer months.

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Our raised herb bed with bird bath and dog gate as ornament.

THE WOODS BEYOND:

We mow a curving pathway through the meadow leading into the woods beyond. We walk this path almost every day as we walk our dog into the wood behind us. This land belongs to our neighbor who has given us permission to walk here and in return we help to maintain the paths; picking up sticks and branches and dumping our oak leaves on the pathway to keep the weeds at bay. The woods also include thickets and brush piles for the wildlife who feed and nest here.

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A 2001 view of our wood lot with Sassafras trees in the fall.

Our property has been certified as a wildlife habitat by the National Wildlife Federation and is recognized as a Monarch Way Station.

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Once you have created and certified your Monarch Waystation habitat you become eligible to display a weatherproof sign that identifies your monarch habitat as an official Monarch Waystation.

BIRDS OF THE SAVANNA:

These are the birds that frequent our property include; eastern bluebird, blue jay, brown headed cowbird, American crow, chickadee, mourning dove, northern flicker, common grackle, coopers hawk, red tail hawk, Baltimore oriel, American robin, chipping sparrow, cedar waxwing, goldfinch, downy woodpecker, red-headed woodpecker, hairy woodpecker, pileated woodpecker, phoebe, tufted titmouse and more.

We watch them year-around enjoying the mating, nesting and bringing their babies to the suet to eat and to our water station. This gives us great joy; in the watching and in the knowing we are helping the songbirds to thrive.

If You Would Like to Read More:

1) Birdscaping in the Midwest: A Guide to Gardening with Native plants to Attract Birds (my favorite book.) ISBN:978-0-299-29154-9.

2) Design Your Midwest Garden, Patricia Hill, ISBN: 978-1-931599-81-8 (my second favorite book.)

3) Go Native: Gardening with Native Plants and Wildflowers in the Lower Midwest, Carolyn Harstad, ISBN: 0-253-33561-2.

4) Gardening with Prairie Plants, Sally Wasowski, ISBN: 0-8166-3087-9

I hope I have inspired you!

Small House / Big Sky Donna

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