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Grow Your Own Birdseed!

Q. Dan in Cedar Creek Tennessee recently left this message: "I want to ask Mike about growing birdseed. I went shopping for some and, man that stuff is expensive! What can we grow in the garden that will feed our little friends over the winter? I'm looking for something we can bag up. I know about sunflowers, but I think there's a certain kind they like. Thank you."

A. Thank you Dan for a great question! Over the years we have done many articles about growing plants that attract birds, but the focus has always been on meat-eating birds in the summer, as they are one of Nature's best pest controllers--from bluebirds chowing down on caterpillars to tiny hummingbirds, which the University of California notes, are predators of a surprising number of insects.

In fact, the noted University of Delaware entomologist Doug Tallamy has been quoted as saying that [although] "hummingbirds need nectar, 80 percent of their diet is insects and spiders.")

But as usual I digress. To answer your question, there are three plants you should grow to feed birds over the winter: sunflowers, sunflowers and sunflowers.

There are several types of sunflowers that produce large seeds. But The National Wildlife Federation says that while birds will {quote} "devour all types, black oil sunflower seeds are your best bet. Even though they're smaller than gray and striped sunflower seeds (sometimes called 'confectionery', as they're the types whose shells line the floor of every Major League dugout). Black oil seeds, they note, contain lots of protein and fat, the highest percentage of oil, and have the thinnest hulls, making them easier for birds to crack open.

(Note: I'm a member of the NWF and thus assured of having more return address labels than any human could ever need [Oh, and I'm helping to save tigers, polar bears, great apes, and yes--even hummingbirds--as well.])

The website of Adams Fair Acre Farms, a family business based in New York State that dates back to 1919, reminds me that sunflower shells and husks are allelopathic, meaning they can inhibit the growth of nearby plants (like black walnut roots do to kill tomatoes).

And a LOT of those uneaten plant parts will be deposited underneath your sunflowers, so either cordon the area off and reserve it for future sunflower production or use a tarp to collect the debris and then pour it on plants you despise.

Fair Acre Farms also notes that harvested seed is difficult to keep fresh; it needs low humidity, good airflow--and, I'll add, protection from vermin. Several other sites also note their tendency to spoil quickly in storage, so I came up with a plan that prevents the need for storage.

Plant as many 'oil' sunflowers as you can near a window that provides bird-watching access; remember that the action is going to be six to ten feet off the ground. Chemical fertilizers are the enemy of giant sunflowers, so feed the growing plants only with compost, worm castings and the like.

They're also a {quote} 'long season' crop, needing 100 to 120 days to produce ripe seed, AND that's only after they're planted in very warm soil. But luckily, those numbers are for sunflowers that are direct seeded, so you can gain six weeks by starting the seeds indoors with your tomatoes and such. OR arrange to buy started plants from your local nursery if you haven't started plants from seed before. ("Sunny windowsill" is Latin for 'Death to Plants'.)

Depending on your climate, the seeds will begin ripening by late summer. At that point, cover the seed heads with grocery store paper bags (poke a bunch of holes in them for airflow) or cover the heads with bird netting or wire mesh. The seeds will continue to mature because only the leaves are needed to process light.

When the first chill arrives, uncover one of the heads and watch the show. Then space the rest of the plants out over winter. You'll not only be growing your own bird seed but helping the birds eat in a much more natural setting than feeders, which are strongly associated with devastating avian diseases, due to overcrowding at the feeder and all the bird poop it collects.

In addition, do NOT 'clean up' your garden in the Fall; the more natural you leave it, the more food you'll provide for the birds. This is especially true of tall plants, like hostas, which produce large seed heads that birds love to eat over winter.

And think local! Much of the advice I found online would only be true for a VERY specific climate, so search carefully you should! Contact your local Extension office, inquire about correct planting times in your area, and ask for lists of other plants that attract birds--especially bushy perennials that produce berries and provide protection from predators.

And remember to lean into Nature. Birds have survived winter without us for untold centuries; they know how to feed themselves. And whether we like it or not, bird feeders are for human amusement only. And they can be a threat to the health of the birds you think you're helping.

(I got into this business to talk the truth, not to be popular. I think I've succeeded nicely on that last part...)

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