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Nature Watch: Spring Plantings for Birds and Bees

If I hadn’t looked at the calendar last month, I’d have thought I overslept and it was June. March showers are already bringing April flowers, so you need to get a jump on spring garden planning. My garden is stocked with native plants. I choose them not just for their flowers but for the birds, butterflies and pollinators that they attract.

Already, bumblebees are starting to forage in my yard. They love colorful flowers, especially blazing red, orange and purple, but a bright white will also catch their eye. The native cardinal flower , a brilliant red, is ideal for moist to wet soil with full to partial sun. It normally flowers from July to August, but this year, who knows?

Joe-pye weed adds a dash of purple. This beautiful wildflower, named after a New England Indian healer, will attract a variety of butterflies, from the Clouded Sulfer to the Greater Spangled Fritillary.

Behind these plants, in a moister area, add milkweed and you will create a Monarch butterfly nursery.  Monarchs have learned that milkweed leaves have a noxious taste to many leaf eaters. So they lay their eggs on the backside of the leaves. The larvae nibble on the leaves during their caterpillar stage.

For moist to dry soils, plant black-eyed susans , interspersed with coneflower , bee balm and daisies – a display of orange, deeper purples and white. This row will feed hungry honey bees, butterflies such as the Silver Spotted Skipper, and hummingbirds. As a group, they bloom from June through October.

For dry sandy soil with full sun, choose butterfly weed , which flowers from May through August. These are also the right conditions for bayberry shrubs . Bayberry attracts a variety of warblers, robins and other migrating birds. They eat the shrub’s dark berries that ripen in fall and stay on the bush through winter or until the birds devour them.

Tiger lilies look nice in moist areas in the back of the flowerbed. These hardy native species grow with little or no care and bloom early. Their long stems and flowers provide a perch for mosquito eating dragonflies.

If you have trestles or fences that you want covered, start native honeysuckle. It will do the rest by itself.  In fact you will need to trim it back every couple years or it can take over.

For privacy, plant large border shrubs along your property line. Native northern spicebush can grow as tall as 12 feet in the open sun. Its leaves have a minty or spicey taste that normally doesn’t appeal to deer. Spicebush attracts Spicebush Swallowtail Butterflies and beautiful giant Promethea moths.  These moths are a favorite food for screech owls, which hunt small rodents and other backyard pests.

Gray dogwood , which grows up to 6 feet tall, is another shrub that takes care of itself.  In late summer, the fruit ripens to a beautiful white color and the leaves turn burgundy red. Gray dogwood will bring nesting species into your yard, such as blue-winged warblers, robins and catbirds. Intersperse the dogwood with a beautiful spring bloomer like serviceberry and you will have birds singing in your yard during both the spring and fall migrations. Even forest dwellers like the scarlet tanager will visit a serviceberry bush when its orange berries burst forth in May and June.

Adding some bramble to the borderline might discourage the neighbor’s kids and dogs from entering your yard, and deter deer, as well. Virginia rose is a beautiful native species. Once planted it will expand, so pick an area you want filled in then watch the delicate pink flowers blossom in June and July. Bees and butterflies visit them for nectar and birds eat the hips. They also provide a safe nesting ground for thrushes, thrashers and mockingbirds.

You’ll find scores of resources on the web to help you make your garden beautiful, healthy and friendly to beneficial wildlife. The Audubon Home Page of our Connecticut field office helps answer specific questions. For a simple book to help you plan your garden, I recommend The Bird Garden by Stephen Kress. For the last word on building great habitats, get Kress’s expanded tome, The Audubon Society Guide to Attracting Birds . It helps with gardens as small as an eighth of an acre to large estates and corporate campuses.

So now is the time to start drawing your plans. We have already been out -- raking, weeding and prepping the soil. When full spring and summer come, you’ll be ready to relax and enjoy it.

John Hannan is director of development for Audubon Connecticut and can be reached at jhannan@audubon.org.

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