Why buy bird seed? Grow it yourself

Right plants will attract favorite avian species

Chicago TribuneApril 7, 2012 

  • PLANTS WITH BIRDS IN MIND

    Here are several plants that not only beautify a landscape but mays be harvested for bird seed, says Venelin Dimitrov of Burpee. All plants listed should be hardy in Central and Eastern Kentucky, which are in the USDA's Zones 6a and 6b.

    Sunflowers (Helianthus annuus is the annual, but there are native perennials): Black-oil and striped seeds are the most common in commercial bird food. But any sunflower will provide tasty birdseed. Author Sally Roth recommends clipping the entire head with a piece of stem and just using it as a self-serve bird feeder. Central Kentucky finches, cardinals, woodpeckers, bluejays, chickadees, titmice and nuthatches love this plant, said Angela Myers, an assistant store manager at Wild Birds Unlimited in Lexington. It's among the seeds that attract the most diverse range of birds, and the black-oil variety is appetizing to more bird species, she said.

    Gaura (Gaura lindheimeri): Brown-red seeds are produced in the fruit. Let pods turn brown and gently remove them; the seeds fall out easily.

    Purple coneflower (Echinacea purpurea): Finches in Central Kentucky are particularly attracted to this flower, Myers said. When the flower has faded and started to dry, pull the seed head and slice it in half top to bottom. Remove the seeds and allow them to dry. Bee balm (Monarda): Seeds are tiny and require some careful work. Take the dried flower heads and crumble them on a paper plate, then separate the seeds.

    Lavender (Lavendula): Popular with goldfinches, who love the seed.

    Russian sage (Perovskia atriplicifolia): Dry the heads then carefully shake to harvest the seeds. Black-eyed Susan (Rudbeckia hirta): Run your finger over the dried seed heads to release the tiny black seeds. Indian Summer and Goldsturm are two popular varieties.

    Cosmos (Cosmos bipinnatus): Their delicate blossoms belie the rugged constitution of these popular plants. When colors start to fade, they start producing seed. Wait till one has dried, then pull the seeds from the flower head. These are also nectar-producing flowers and will attract hummingbirds, Myers said.

    Mexican sunflower (Tithonia rotundifolia): The bright orange flowers can take the summer heat. Deadhead them for the seeds — dry the heads and pull out the seeds — and they'll bloom until frost.

  • RESOURCES

    For more information on plants that provide birdseed:

    Birds & Blooms magazine: Birdsandblooms.com (type "grow birdseed" in the search field)

    National Bird-Feeding Society: Birdfeeding.org (click on "bird food" link).

    Bringing Nature Home: How You Can Sustain Wildlife With Native Plants by Douglas W. Tallamy (Timber Press, $17.95).

It's one thing for a gardener to provide annuals and perennials that will feed visiting birds all season, whether from the seeds of plants or the bugs the plants attract. But here's another idea: Grow plants from which you harvest seeds to feed birds.

Venelin Dimitrov, a buyer and product manager for flower seed at Burpee Seeds and Plants, says the first thing to do is determine which birds are in your area and then identify the plants that will attract them.

In Central Kentucky, cardinals and goldfinches are the birds most people want to attract, said Angela Myers, an assistant store manager at Wild Birds Unlimited in Lexington. Central Kentucky also gets a lot of woodpeckers, but the l andscape will determine whether they come to your yard. They like mature trees, she said.

Usually, people are trying to get the most color they can. That's why cardinals and goldfinches are so popular, she said.

Myers suggested sunflowers as the easiest plant for attracting a variety of birds, including woodpeckers and the coveted cardinals and goldfinches.

To produce a year-round supply of seed, you'll need a good chunk of land: a quarter-acre, Dimitrov says. But even if you grow a few dozen of the plants, it's a great way to use them after the growing season.

Those interested in harvesting their own seed might have heard that red millet is a common ingredient in commercial birdseed but that it has little nutritional value. That shouldn't be enough to rule out millet, Dimitrov says.

"Some (millets), because of the hard shell, they're good for their digestion," he says. "They don't have a stomach like ours, based on acids and enzymes. It's based on muscles. The gizzard is like a mill that grinds seed. ... Sometimes it's recommended (they) have a good source of grit, like a sand, (that they) use in their little stomachs to grind seed."

If you decide to go with a millet, he suggests Pennisetum glaucum Purple Majesty, which he says is "a really pretty plant, and it produces a nice seed head that can be dried out and used in the winter."

If there's a trick to do-it-yourself birdseed, it's knowing when to collect the seed. You need to stay one step ahead of the birds.

"They're very industrious, and they'll harvest as the seed matures," Dimitrov says. "Most of the native flowers, if you are to harvest the seed, you have to do it right after the flowering is over but before the seed pod explodes.

"So you have to harvest them a little on the raw side and let them dry out in a shady area, (as you) would dry herbs."

Sally Roth, author of The Backyard Bird Lover's Ultimate How-to Guide: More Than 200 Easy Ideas and Projects for Attracting and Feeding Your Favorite Birds, says birds will tell you when seed stalks are ready to pick.

"They know when they're ripe before most gardeners do," she said via email. "But basically it's: Watch for ripening seed heads.

"Test one by smushing and catching seeds in your hand: If the seeds are brown or black, they're ready; if green, not yet."

Roth, who offers more information at her Web site, Sallyroth.com, says she often saves whole seed heads and stalks of seeds and then bundles them together to hang out for the birds.

When saving individual seeds, she clips the seed heads into an open brown grocery sack (a separate bag for each type of seed), and then rolls the top loosely and sets the bag in a dry place for a week or two. Then she rolls the top tightly and shakes the bag vigorously a couple of times to separate the seeds from other residue. Remove the dead flowers and seed heads, and you're left with seed.

It takes about a week or two for seed heads and stems to dry out, and then you can keep them indefinitely, stored upright, Roth says.

Various types of seeds may be stored together, as with any kitchen grain: in a fairly airtight container or canister. They'll keep for years.

Herald-Leader staff contributed to this report.

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