Annuals and perennials that attract birds to your yard

Choosing your perennial and annual flowers wisely will keep birds coming back for more.

A hummingbird enjoys the nectar of a fuchsia flower.
Courtesy of Mary-Kate Mackey
Purple salvia and pale penstemon offer a perennial bounty for birds.

A water feature of any size attracts birds to your garden. But whether or not your avian visitors stick around depends on what plants you choose to grow by the water. In other posts [see list at the end] I’ve talked about the benefits of bird-friendly native plants, as well as trees and shrubs that offer shelter and food.

Today let’s look at perennials (and a couple of annuals) you can add to your spring plant shopping list. Perennials return year after year. Their flower heads give a continuing supply of nectar and seeds that will keep your birds coming back for more.

Neatness doesn’t count
Many flowering plants put on a great show in spring and summer. But the late summer and early fall blooms provide extra nourishment for birds that need to stock up for migration or cold winters close to home. So plan on having plenty of blossoms toward the end of the season.

Control your desire for tidiness — easier to do anyway after a full summer of gardening — and allow the flowers to go to seed. Don’t worry about self-seeders — the progeny really are a gardener’s bonus plants. Unwanted extras can be removed with a quick swipe of a hand hoe — less time than it takes to cut off the fading flowers. And the birds will thank you for putting your clippers away early.

Dinner is served
Sunflowers are a wonderful surprise in garden designs, particularly in more formal settings. If you have room for them, tuck the easy-care five-to-seven-footers Sunflower Supreme Mix (Helianthus annuus) among your shrubs. Orange and red flowers join the classic yellow disks for a show-stopping focal point.

Or, if you don’t have space for the skyscraper sunflowers, try the two-foot Sunspot Dwarf (H. annuus). In all sizes, the ripe seed heads tilt down for a lively bird bistro with plenty of fliers hanging at goofy angles to peck at the feast.

Black-eyed Susans bring sparkle to your late-summer garden and no place are they prettier than near water. Rudbeckia fulgida var. sullivantii ‘Goldsturm’ has golden orange daisylike flowers on sturdy two-foot-tall stems. Or try the extra shot of color from R. hirta ‘Indian Summer’, ‘Rustic Dwarf’ or ‘Marmalade’, often grown as annuals.

Coneflowers are another great after-the-bath snack for birds. As well as the popular Echinacea purpurea ‘White Swan’, look for newly introduced white-flowering E. ‘Fragrant Angel’ or a new pink-flowered variety with cream and green variegated leaves — E. ‘Sparkler’. Even more unusual is E. p. ‘Doppleganger’ which sports one pink flower growing on top of another.

Hangouts for hummers
While hummingbirds are drawn to sugar-water feeders, they also need regular watering spots for drinking and preening. Tubular-flowered perennials planted nearby will be a major hit with them. In Zones 6 and above, try hardy fuchsia (Fuchsia magellanica).

Penstemons are also excellent and reliable,such as the dark-leafed Penstemon digitalis ‘Husker Red’. Red flowering Lobelia cardinalis is even happy with its roots right down in the water. All kinds of salvias, such as bedding sage (Salvia x superba ‘May Night’), or self-seeding clary sage (Salvia sclarea) will have your garden humming with tiny fliers.

You'll also want to read these other posts by Mary-Kate about bird-friendly gardening:

These native plants attract birds to your winter garden

How to choose trees that will encourage birds to hang around your yard

A bird-friendly garden needs good shrubs

Mary-Kate Mackey is one of eight garden writers who blog regularly at Diggin' It. She is co-author of “Sunset’s Secret Gardens — 153 Design Tips from the Pros” and contributor to the “Sunset Western Garden Book,” writes a monthly column for the Hartley Greenhouse webpage and numerous articles for Fine Gardening, Sunset, and other magazines. She teaches at the University of Oregon’s School of Journalism & Communication. She writes about water in the garden for Diggin’ It.

Editor’s note: To read more by Mary-Kate, see our blog archive. The Monitor’s main gardening page offers articles on many gardening topics. See also our RSS feed. You may want to visit Gardening With the Monitor on Flickr. Take part in the discussions and get answers to your gardening questions. If you join the group (it’s free), you can upload your garden photos and enter our next contest.

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