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The Birds, the Bees, and You

By: Elizabeth Dickey, Education & Visitor Engagement Director | 04/21/2021

April welcomes us outside to work in our yards. This year, why not garden with an eye to improving the wildlife habitat around your home? Habitat gardening increases the numbers of birds in your yard, boosts vegetable garden yield, and decreases the pests damaging your plants. It also makes your landscape more colorful and varied for your enjoyment.

You can easily improve two components of habitat, food and shelter. For birds you can add plants that produce seeds and fruit, in addition to bird feeders. Brilliantly colored yellow and black goldfinches visit the dried seed heads of sunflowers, golden currants are a bird favorite, and hummingbirds fight each other over access to Agastache and Salvia flowers. Not only will the birds eat the food you provide, they will also eat insects that may feed on your plants. Birds such as robins and chickadees can hunt hundreds of caterpillars a day! Goodbye, cabbage loopers!

When choosing flowers to support pollinators, add plants that bloom at different times. For example, crocus flowers feed the first bumblebees to emerge in late winter; Oregon grape flowers in early spring and catmint is covered with bees starting late spring; butterfly-feeding plants like blanketflower, fernbush, and coneflower are summer bloomers; asters and rabbitbrush provide nectar and pollen in the fall.

A carpenter bee visits Blue Sage (Salvia pachyphylla) in the Plant Select Demonstration Garden.

A carpenter bee visits Blue Sage (Salvia pachyphylla) in the Plant Select Demonstration Garden.

Birds and other creatures will visit your yard if they have places to hide, nest or use as lookouts. Grow plants in a variety of heights. Leave a patch of ground mostly bare and undisturbed for ground nesting native bees. Embrace the virtues of a messy yard by leaving seed heads on plants all winter, and adding fallen leaves to planting beds.

Native bees overwinter in hollow stems. It is best to leave dead stems, from plants such as goldenrod, Rudbeckia, and raspberry alone until late April or later if possible. New plant material will grow up and help hide them. Remove the old ones in the fall. Alternatively, cut those stalks to the ground in spring and carefully set them aside, upright to allow the bees inside to mature and emerge. By late summer you can compost or dispose of them. Butterflies and pest-eating beetles shelter in leaf litter and brush piles, so it is good to spread leaves on your planting beds in the fall and keep a brush pile on site. Do not rake up leaves in the spring—not only do insects benefit, but your plants will too as leaves decompose and add carbon to your soil. 


Rudbeckia are excellent foraging plants for pollinators, feed birds over the winter and house stem-nesting bees and beetles. 

One more important consideration is adopting a wildlife-friendly approach to pest management. Keep an eye on your plants and do not treat for a disease or pest until you find a problem. And when a situation does occur, find the least impactful treatment method possible. See if you can tackle the problem manually or by changing your gardening methods. When a pesticide is called for, research what effect each treatment will have on desirable creatures and chose the least harmful one. Helpful resources are the websites are GrowSmartGrowSafe.org and UC IPM’s Bee Precaution.

By improving the food and shelter in your yard, and adopting wildlife-friendly pest control practices, you will be well on your way to having a healthy ecosystem on your property. We are thrilled to see the launch of the Habitat Patch Program by our friends at the Golden Eagle Audubon Society. This will be a recognition program for properties that benefit birds, pollinators and other wildlife. Enrollment is open! If you are interested in learning more, please e-mail Adra Lobdell at alobdell@goldeneagleaudubon.org.


April Gardening Tasks

  • Test and repair irrigation system
  • Plant fall-blooming bulbs like false crocus, and trees, shrubs and perennial plants including berries
  • Plant starts (young plants) of broccoli, kale, collard greens, kohlrabi, onions, leeks
  • Plant seeds of peas, spinach, carrots, parsnips, beets and “seed” potatoes
  • Prune roses (local wisdom says to do this after the forsythia blooms)
  • Cut back bunch grasses if you didn’t in March or last fal
  • Dig out annual weeds while they are still young
  • Stock up on plants at our Annual Member’s Plant Sale!

Questions about gardening? Call our Horticulture Helpline at 208-275-8614 or e-mail us at info@idahobotanicalgarden.org.

This article was first published in our gardening column, “Weed it & Reap” in the Idaho Press Tribune.