Planting Edmonds: Backyards are for the birds

Planting Edmonds’ is a monthly column written by members of Edmonds Floretum Garden Club.

Birds deepen the pleasure we take in our gardens, captivating us with their plumage, songs and antics. But did you know they also help with insect control in the garden? That’s because more than 95% of their diet is made up of insects, most intensely in the warmer months when they’re feeding their young. In the cooler months, they rely mostly on berries, seeds and nuts.

If you’d like to attract more avian visitors to your yard, there are many straightforward gardening actions you can take. First and foremost, include plants that will provide the food sources birds need. To learn about and see additional bird-friendly practices, head to the Kruckeberg Botanic Garden in Shoreline, where more than 40 bird species depend on the vibrant tapestry of plants — mostly natives — to find food, shelter, nesting sites and a safe place to raise their young.

Photos by Chris Walton

In partnership with Edmonds Floretum Garden Club, the garden recently installed interpretive signage along its pathways to explain the specific features it designed to attract and benefit birds. At a recent Gardening for Birds educational event, hundreds of curious kids learned how to make native seed bombs, fingered the fuzzy and prickly climate-adapted native plants at the sensory table, examined the nests of different bird species, watched baby worms wriggle, and followed the clues of a scavenger hunt.

Clockwise from upper left: Examining birds’ nests, various lichens and plants that have adapted to our climate.

The neighborhood barred owl made a well-timed guest appearance, before being chased off — very loudly and insistently — by Steller’s Jays.

Kruckeberg’s barred owl.

Check out these tips to boost your backyard for birds:

Leave the Leaves  

Rejoice! No need to bag up fallen leaves or buy mulch. Instead, use leaves to insulate your flower and vegetable beds. Beneficial insects like beetles, lacewings and worms will overwinter in them and become food for birds. Watch spotted towhees prowl through the crunchy leaf litter, pushing leaves aside with their beaks to find seeds and insects to eat. The Xerces Society advises against shredding leaves; simply rake them up and place them in a 3- to 6-inch layer on top of the soil. You can leave a thin layer on top of lawns. This natural mulch makes it harder for weeds to grow, helps retain moisture and enriches your soil as it decomposes. When you start to see green tips emerging in the spring, carefully rake leaves aside so they can easily grow toward the sunlight.

Overwinter Perennials and Save the Stems

Don’t pull out your perennials at summer’s end. Follow nature’s example and leave them in place through the winter, allowing stems and leaves to dry and fall to the ground over the next few months. Native bees will lay eggs inside stems, while sparrows and juncoes will busily consume seeds from dried flower heads. As this plant matter decomposes, it builds up robust, healthy garden soil for future plantings. Wait until late spring to pull out any remaining plant parts so that overwintering insects have time to emerge from stems and leaves.

Brush Pile  

Instead of tossing sticks, small logs and branches in the yard-waste bin, maximize their wildlife potential by creating a brush pile. Lay down crisscrossing layers with the heaviest and largest pieces at the base. You’ll notice small songbirds like song sparrows and Bewick wrens hopping inside to take cover from predators and extreme weather. While inside, they feast on the insects and spiders that live there. Avoid including lawn clippings, wet plant matter and compost as they can clog access to the snug interior.

Native Plants  

Native plants, birds and insects evolved in tandem over many years to thrive in our local soils and climates. Some birds and insects are dependent upon native plants to survive, so plant as many as possible. At this time of year, look for cedar waxwings and robins munching on the berries of Pacific madrones and varied thrush foraging for oak acorns.

Non-native plants aren’t terrible, but before installing them, do your research to make sure that they won’t become invasive or negatively impact native plants and wildlife.

Layered Vegetation

A bird-rich garden has plants of many different heights, called layers. Overlapping, interconnected layers allow birds to move about, find food, nest, and raise their young (mostly) unseen by predators and people. Ground covers and small shrubs like oxalis and salal are havens for juncos, towhees, and white-crowned sparrows who make nests on or very close to the ground. Young birds of all species take cover in these low-lying plants when a predator lurks.

Obviously, this approach to planting takes planning and will evolve over the years. Autumn months are the ideal time to install new plantings, so there’s still time this month to get started!

Loving Lichen

Lichen is a natural, healthy part of the landscape in Puget Sound, so no need to remove it from your garden’s woody plants and trees. Songbirds like brown creepers and bushtits forage in it for insects and spiders to eat. Some species, like our buzzy Anna’s hummingbirds, use lichen as an exterior nesting material; some researchers theorize that they do so as a form of camouflage.

Water Source

The burbling sound of running water attracts birds, so adding a bubbler to a birdbath will help catch their attention. Make sure to change out the water frequently to keep it clean and healthy.


A snag is a dead tree that is left in place to provide food and habitat for beneficial wildlife. A snag is a welcome magnet for insects that eat soft wood and the birds that hunt them. You might have noticed flickers and pileated woodpeckers excavating nesting cavities in snags with their sturdy beaks, while chickadees, red-breasted nuthatches and swallows move into existing cavities from previous breeding seasons. To ensure that a dying or dead tree won’t be a falling hazard, it’s always best to get the opinion of a certified arborist.

If you’d like to learn more about how to invite birds into your garden, check out these online resources, and click here to see a gallery of the recent Kruckeberg/Floretum event.

— By Clare McLean

Clare McLean is a local writer who recently earned her horticulture degree from Edmonds College. She is an active citizen scientist with a special fondness for birds, fungi and native plants.

  1. This is a great article. I have done 90% of what is suggested for 29 years. I never take my leaves out of my garden and I do let plant leaves deteriorate naturally. It not only feeds the birds and nourishes the soil it also helps your more tender perennials handle a harsh couple of weeks below freezing temperatures. I have birds all summer long and still today. Still hummingbirds and yes birds eating those now seed pods that were flowers in July etc. Nature will usually take care of itself if you allow it. Balance is crucial. I use no insecticides, herbicides, fungicides at all. And yes the birds do eat the insects…The only thing is I have many evergreens such as compact juniper etc. and vines so thick now for birds and rabbits to hide. I don’t just leave all wood I don’t keep a wood pile as we have rats now in our areas much more. These do attract rats and or termites. Termites are edible by possum but they will eat your house too. So those I bundle and do the size wanted and use yard waste for some of those. Lichen rocks, fences Beautiful.

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