Is Your Native Plant Garden For the Birds?

This winter, I have been designing a landscape using native plants for the Northern Flint Hills Audubon Society in Manhattan.  This design has been a great experience as I have evaluated the site and thought about what attracts birds to a landscape.  Does the design provide the basic necessities of food, shelter and water for birds?

Here are a few things to keep in mind when planning to make your garden bird-friendly:

Certainly, native plants are a preferred food choice of birds.  Fruit-bearing trees and shrubs can support a wide variety of bird species.  Include plants that hold their fruits through the winter like Viburnums, Junipers and Sumac.  Choose deciduous trees such oaks, maples, hackberries, mulberries, crabapples, serviceberries and dogwoods along with shrubs that will provide berries (viburnums, elderberries, sumac, and chokeberry), seeds and nuts at different times throughout the year.  Native wildflowers like coneflowers, black-eyed susan, little bluestem, sunflowers (use with caution, these can be aggressive), and asters provide nutritional seeds that birds love.

A robin looks for food in a native plant bed.

A mother robin looks for food in a native plant bed.

Utilize trees, shrubs and perennials to simulate the natural layers of the wild.  Birds seek out protection in dense evergreens in winter, while brush and impenetrable thickets keep nesting sites safe from predators.  I like to leave a small brush pile and a few dead branches (unless they are dangerous to people or property) in our trees to provide insect food, nesting cavities, and shelter.  Larger deciduous trees offer birds a higher vantage point for perching and resting.  Ground-feeding birds sift through decaying leaves and even work through the outer layers of our compost pile.

A nest of robins in a hawthorn tree.

A newly-hatched nest of robins in a hawthorn tree. Photo by Cheri Kaufman.


Birds nest

A nest of robins in a hawthorn tree outside the Visitor Center at the arboretum

A water source for birds can be as simple as a bird bath or as elaborate as a small pond.  Any water source is like a magnet for birds.  The sound of water is irresistible.  Keep the water clean and fresh to eliminate the possibility of algae and diseases by changing water every few days.  In winter, water is even more critical for bird survival.  Keep water open and unfrozen by installing a thermostatically controlled heating element in your water feature.  If birds find your reliable pool of water, they will continually visit your yard and you will be rewarded for your efforts with a diverse collection of colorful visitors each day.

The need for suitable habitat for birds has never been more important.  Your yard can be part of the solution by providing a sanctuary for birds.  Just, identify the missing elements and include them in your overall design.  Birds need a safe place to land.  Why not in your yard?  I am guessing that with a few enhancements you can turn your landscape into an oasis for local and migrant songbirds.

Remember to garden for the birds! To prepare your native plant garden to attract birds this year, check out our 2015 Plant List and save the date for our FloraKansas Spring Plant Sale, April 23-27, 2015.


What Would Change Your Mind About Using Native Plants in Your Landscape?

Would you choose a garden that takes less of your time to maintain? Or a sustainable, environmentally, eco-friendly, pollinator friendly garden that heightens the senses? Do you want masses and drifts of color that are attractive throughout the year? What about native plants that can be used in smaller spaces? Are you needing a multi-functional garden that attracts pollinators, which also help your food crops or vegetable garden? How about gardens that look attractive both day and night? What if you could still have the usable space you need to entertain, but have a sustainable garden at the same time blended into the landscape? I want each of these to happen in my native plants landscape.

Butterfly weed

Butterfly weed

It can be intimidating to change the way you garden or landscape.  We want evidence that making such a change really will make a difference in our lives and in our gardens.  Below is one case in favor of using native plants.  When the Lincoln Public Library transitioned its landscape to native buffalograss and prairie plantings, the results were worth the effort.

Case Study from the Great Plains

A Public Library in Lincoln, Nebraska converted 2.5 acres of bluegrass turf to buffalograss and mixed prairie plantings.


  • Reduction of 1.5 million gallons of water per year for irrigation
  • Reduction of 800 pound of fertilizer per year
  • Reduction of 5 gallons of pesticide concentrate per year.
  • Source: Leafings, August 2000, a Nebraska Statewide Arboretum publication.


Pale Coneflower

Pale Coneflower



  • Offer carefree beauty once established
  • Require less water if properly matched to your site
  • Adapted to our soils and climate
  • Attract birds, butterflies and a host of other pollinators to your garden
  • A properly designed garden provides year-round beauty

Home landscapes can be transformed as well using native plants so that they are sustainable, easy to maintain, and beautiful.  To start planning your native plant garden, be sure to SAVE THE DATE for our FloraKansas Spring Plant Sale and keep an eye out for our upcoming 2015 plant list.

How to Design a Native Plant Garden

One of the biggest criticisms of native plants is that they often look too wild, unkempt and messy.  Grasses dominate while wildflowers struggle to provide the visual impact desired in a landscape.  Wild is as wild does.

So how do we tame the wildness of the prairie? How do we design a native plant garden that doesn’t look so wild?  Is it even possible?  I believe it can be done.  You can have the beauty of the prairie and all the benefits of a native ecosystem with a properly designed native garden.

Consider these fundamentals as you design your native plant garden:


Butterfly weed and ornamental native grass display

Match plants to your site. Look at your landscape.  Is it sunny or in the shade?  Is the soil clay or sand?  Evaluate these elements and choose plants that will thrive in the microclimate of your yard.  Sun-loving native plants need at least 6 hours of direct sunlight to grow happily. Otherwise look at more shade-loving natives.  A carefree landscape begins with matching plants with climate.  Choose plants that occur in the same or similar climate for a maintenance free garden.  It has been my experience that this is the most important element in developing a successful native garden.  Anytime you stray too far off, the plants don’t flourish and they require more effort.  Planting a swamp milkweed on a dry hill or a primrose in a bog will never work.


Native Columbine

Native Columbine

Design for succession of bloom. There are no Wave Petunias in the prairie or plants that bloom all season, so choose plants that will bloom in spring, summer and fall.  If you go to the prairie throughout the year, you will observe wildflowers coming into or out of bloom.  The prairie is constantly changing.  Design with those changes in mind.  Discover how native plants appear at different times of the year and highlight interesting elements such as seedheads for winter interest.  Grasses can be included for structure, winter texture and movement.   Little bluestem in fall accentuates the seedheads of the Missouri Black-eyed Susan beautifully.


Summer Prairie Garden

Summer Prairie Garden

Group similar plants together. Fifteen blazing stars blooming in the summer create a focal point in the landscape.  Place them next to a spring blooming wildflower and a fall blooming wildflower and you have organized the display for year round interest.  Use grasses sparingly to frame the garden or as a backdrop for some of your wildflowers.  This makes it easier to maintain, because you know what is planted in each area.  When weeding, you know everything else has to be removed because wildflowers will reseed.



Kansas gayfeather and gray-headed coneflower

Keep your plants in scale. Choose plants that don’t grow taller than half the bed width.  So if your display bed is six feet wide choose plants that are no more than three feet tall.  A compass plant would be way too tall.

Define the space. A well-designed native garden can be enhanced with a border.  It can be edged with limestone, brick or some other natural material.  This element alone makes your native garden look clean, attractive, and intentional.  Even a clean-cut edge can really help define the garden’s borders.

Control Perennial Weeds. You will save yourself many headaches by eradicating problem weeds like bindweed and Bermuda grass before you plant.  It is better to wait until these weeds are eliminated before you establish your new garden, trust me!!!

It sounds so easy, but we all know that landscapes, no matter how well-designed, will take some input on our part.  Beautiful gardens don’t just happen. They are the result of planning, development, time and a little bit of effort.

I am still learning too.  My epiphany came several years ago after trying to grow dry, sun loving plants in a wet, sunny garden.  It took me three tries to realize the futility of my efforts.  Hopefully, you can learn from these basic principles and find success in your landscape.  If you need information about native plants, visit our plant library, landscape designs or give us a call.


Winter Prairie

Temperatures are cold, hours of darkness are long, and January is a nice time to observe the following beneficial features of a winter prairie garden.


  • Habitat for micro-wildlife – Insect eggs persist and survive on residual vegetation – a good reason for leaving thatch on site when cutting it in the spring. For animals that don’t hibernate or achieve some form of dormancy, extant biomass provides insulation for body heat, protection from wind, and visual cover from predators; seeds provide an important source of food for small birds and mammals, and these animals will eventually feed others in the food chain.



  • Vegetation buffer – Dormant plant matter provides an above-ground blanket or biomass buffer that reduces soil moisture loss, and slows changes in temperature. This effect improves chances of winter survival for wildlife, and the roots of living, dormant perennial plants.



  • Developing seed bank – Allowing seed heads to persist on site, relax, and drop their seeds builds an inventory of propagules in the soil that can produce new seedlings in the future.

Mixing Seed 013_cropped

  • Aesthetic beauty – Unique textures, variations of drab colors, organic ways of holding ice and snow, and even some landscape “disorder” provide interesting features for traditional yards that generally lack winter interest.


Winter Prairie Hoarfrost

Be sure to enjoy the subtle nuances of the dormant prairie in winter over the next couple of months.

Happy new year,