Watching the bees buzzing around the flowers and listening to the birds sing bring a little extra joy to our yards, but the birds and bees are perhaps bigger contributors to the health of our gardens than we might realize, says Joanie Smith, owner of Walnut Creek's East Bay Nature.
Smith, whose store sells bird seed, feeders, baths, nesting boxes and bee blocks, among other things, was the speaker at this week's Our Garden class, telling the group about ways to attract these creatures into their yards.
Here are some of her suggestions for having a bird- and bee-friendly garden.
Getting started Birds and bees need food, water, shelter and nesting areas. If you have those things in your yard, you'll have wildlife. The creatures aren't only fascinating to watch, they help pollinate our plants and the birds eat some of the "bad" insects, such as aphids, that we don't want in our garden.
Water, water everywhere While it's important to have all of these elements, water is the biggest draw, especially moving water. You can create a bird bath with an elaborate fountain, or you can just rig up something to slowly drip water into the basin. Birds are attracted to the movement, Smith says, and will be thrilled. A variety of bird baths are available, from those that hang from a tree branch to pedestal baths. You also can just put out a large, shallow dish. Birds prefer ground bird baths, Smith says. They may give the skittish birds more of a sense of security -- cats and other predators can't hide beneath them, waiting to strike.
Meet the birds When buying feeders, take into consideration the type of bird that might be using them. Are they seed, nectar or suet eaters? Thistle seed (Nyjer) feeders are great for finch and other small birds. Mesh feeders allow the finches to cling to the side of the feeder to eat and excludes other birds. A number of our backyard birds prefer tube feeders, which can hold a variety of seeds. These can also attract squirrels. If you're concerned about squirrels eating the food, there are devices to help discourage them. Placement of the feeders is key, however. You'll want to put them out on a limb with nothing else around that the squirrel can use to leap from and onto the feeder. Many birds like suet, which can be fed year round. Suet comes in a variety of flavors to attract different birds. Hummingbirds are perhaps the best-known nectar feeders, but orioles also like nectar. There are feeders for both. Take care to keep the feeders and baths clean. If you see sick or dying birds, take down your feeders, clean them thoroughly, and leave them down for two weeks.
Houses and nesting sites Many birds prefer nesting in old tree limbs and stumps, the very things people are apt to remove. If the branches are not creating a danger to your yard or house, leave them up, Smith says. You also can purchase or build bird houses, but not every bird is a cavity dweller. Know what type of bird you have and use the appropriate house. Putting out nesting material is a good way to attract birds. Pet and human hair is popular, as long as it's not longer than 3 inches -- long hair can tangle around small feet. Don't use dryer lint. It is scented and can signal the nest location to predators. Clean out the nesting boxes and bird houses once a year, sometime in November or December when all the baby birds have fledged. The old nesting material may contain mites or other parasites and should be disposed of. The general rule for placing houses and nesting boxes is to secure them 8 feet up, in sun or shade, and with the entrance hole facing east. Do not put them near bird feeders. Be wary of decorative bird houses that may have tin roofs, which can get too hot and kill baby birds.
Buzzing by Bees are another important pollinator. Consider putting up a mason bee box. Mason and carpenter bees don't produce honey and are solitary bees. They also are not aggressive and do not sting. Many native bees nest in the ground, so leave a few bare patches of earth for them. Honey bees tend to be selective about what type of flowers they visit, usually preferring to concentrate their efforts on large groups of the same variety of flower. Carpenter, native and mason bees will go to every bloom in your garden, making them better pollinators.
Last year, Our Garden donated more than 12,000 pounds of produce to the Monument Crisis Center in Concord. So far this year, we've donated 1,397 pounds thanks to our winter garden.
Our Garden offers free gardening classes 10 a.m. to 11 a.m. every Wednesday, through October. The garden is located at Wiget Lane and Shadelands Drive in Walnut Creek. Master Gardeners are available to answer your questions and diagnose disease and pests, and there is a wide variety of plants for sale.
Next time in the Garden: Drought-proof your landscape with gray water, presented by Natalie Kilmer.