Robin is an Extension horticulture educator and cut flower farmer.


Gardening for the Birds
by Robin Trott - posted 05/18/18

Besides plants, one of the best ways to attract robins and other birds is to provide a source of water for drinking and bathing.

Spring is my favorite time of year, full of new beginnings and teaming with possibilities. I love strolling the aisles of local nurseries and garden centers to see what’s new and what’s different. Although the temptation is great to purchase one of each, I try to limit my purchases to plants that attract birds and butterflies. There are many options to choose from, no matter the size or scope of your garden. Here are a few favorites to include in the yard each year, and some tips for planting and placement.

Under the hummingbird and oriole feeders, plant a container garden with many bird friendly plants, including red cypress vine (Ipomoea quamoclit), scarlet runner beans (Phaseolus coccineus), nasturtiums (Tropaeoplum majus), firecracker plant (Cuphea ignea), a variety of herbs, and sunflowers (Helianthus annuum).

Red cypress vine is an annual that is easily started by seed. A member of the morning glory family, red cypress vine attracts hummingbirds and butterflies with its dainty, trumpet-shaped flowers.

A bird friendly container garden includes (left to right) scarlet runner beans, sweet bay laurel (Laurus nobilis), sage (Salvia officinalis), lemon basil (Ocimum x citriodorum), firecracker plant, nasturtium, and sweet Italian basil (Ocimum basilicum).

Firecracker plant was a new addition to my containers last year. This tropical shrub attracts native pollinators, butterflies, and birds. If planted in a container, you can bring it inside when the nights get cold, and treat it as a houseplant until the days warm again.

Nasturtiums are annuals that start easily from seed, and come in a variety of colors and sizes. Nasturtiums attract hummingbirds and native pollinators, and their spicy, edible flowers and leaves are a nice addition to a summer salad.

A variety of amaranth, including, ‘Red Tails’, ‘Green Tails’, ‘Hot Biscuits’, and ‘Opopeo’ please seed-eating finches and other small birds.

Dramatic amaranth
These annuals can be upright and up to 60 inches tall (Amaranthus cruentus), or trailing (Amaranthus caudatus). They come in a bunch of colors, from the upright brown of ‘Hot Biscuits’ to the trailing red of the traditional ‘Love Lies Bleeding’.

Or, they can also be short – 18-24 inches – and brilliant green (A. hypochondriacus ‘Green Thumb’). Whatever you fancy, there is an amaranth for everyone. For greater selection, start your plants from seed indoors four to six weeks before last frost, and transplant outside when all danger of frost has passed. Amaranth attracts small-seed feeding birds, such as finches, sparrows, buntings, pine siskins, and redpolls.

Fetching phlox
Tall garden phlox (Phlox paniculata) is a hardy (USDA Zone 4), native perennial that attracts the first butterflies and hummingbirds that arrive in the spring. Phlox prefers full sun and well-drained soil, and will quickly spread to their mature size, 36-42 inches tall and 18-24 inches wide. Dozens of different phlox cultivars will grow in the upper midwest, but many are quite prone to powdery mildew. Their sweet smell, spectacular display, and bird attracting properties make them worth the effort. For best success, look for disease-resistant varieties, such as ‘David’s Lavender’, ‘Bright Eyes’, ‘Laura’, or ‘Nicky’.

Best placement
Place your bird friendly garden within 20 feet of trees that provide protective shelter and a place to perch. Select a variety of plants for season-long blooms. A source of water is an important feature in a bird friendly garden. Birds get most of the water they need from foods, but they will use the shallow open water provided by a birdbath for drinking, bathing, and cooling themselves down in the heat of the summer. Once the birds discover the safety of your lovely garden, you will continue to see them through the season.

Make sure you have your binoculars, bird book, and camera close at hand so you won’t miss a single moment!


A version of this article appeared in May/June 2017 print edition of State-by-State Gardening.
Photography courtesy of Jarruda/ and Robin Trott.


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Wendy Ford - 05/24/2018

A bird-friendly garden will provide not only edible seeds and berries for adult birds but also caterpillars to nourish their young. Bird parents need thousands of caterpillars daily—pound for pound, better quality protein than steak—to sustain their fledglings. Best plants to nourish caterpillars are the native plants that co-evolved with them, like native white oak and black willow trees. Find a list of what to plant at

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