Remains of summer plants provide essential food for birds come fall

Is your yard looking a little seedy? Even though it appears past its prime, you may want to resist the urge to tidy up. Those seed heads and other summer leftovers are essential fodder for birds and other wildlife.

Instead of seeing those droopy sunflower heads as a sad reminder of summer, consider them a feast for scrub jays and goldfinches that will stop by for a homegrown feast in your backyard.summe

“My gardening style is to just leave them out until they compost away,” said Veronica Bowers, who runs the Native Songbird Care and Conservation bird hospital and sanctuary in Sebastopol.

Gardeners mindful of what their gardens can provide for wildlife are waiting until very early spring to cut back their perennials. They’re leaving the remains of the season as food and habitat for birds and beneficial insects.

Sunflowers provide nectar for beneficial insects during the growing season. When dry, the seeds are packed with high-energy fuel for avian visitors like the oak titmouse. They offer minerals such as potassium, calcium, magnesium and iron, along with Vitamin B complex, protein, fiber and polyunsaturated fat. Bees may also dine on sunflower seeds.

Make a note for next spring that the sunflowers with the largest heads will provide the most food. Think ‘Sunzilla’ and ‘Russian Mammoth,’ two varieties of big sunflowers.

While drying sunflower heads are best suited for smaller birds, persistent jays will work at them to get the seeds to fall to the ground.

Bowers said other native perennials should be left alone, too, as they also provide food for critters in winter.

“The titmice and white-breasted nuthatch are resident species here in Sonoma County all year round,” she said. “They do eat plenty of nuts and seeds and tons of insects. They will cache food for later, stowing it away in little nooks and crannies in the bark of trees.”

Other plant species beyond their peak that are of interest to wildlife now are California fuchsia, monkeyflower, seaside daisies, goldenrod, native aster and pearly everlasting, a perennial in the sunflower family.

Coyote bush is flowering now, in fall, and birds and insects love it. Wrentits and white-crowned and golden-crowned sparrows like to perch on it, nest in it and feed on the seeds.

“We don’t deadhead anything in our garden,” Bowers said. Or, if she does, the spent flowers go right back into the garden.

Her conclusion is that virtually every plant has a purpose at every time of year, according to nature’s design — for food, for nesting material, even for insects that need places to lay their eggs.

“My assumption is that some species of insect is carrying out some component of its annual life cycle,” Bowers said. “I don’t want to treat that plant material as garbage. I want to treat it as someone’s home, someone’s food and make sure it is kept on the property and in the environment, so it can go on doing the work it’s supposed to do for whoever needs it. Don’t stuff them in a trash bag and tuck them into your waste bin.”

That goes for leaves, too. A lot of sustainable gardening advocates recommend going light on the raking. Bowers said when the leaves of her deciduous trees drop, she either leaves them on the ground where they fall or moves them to other parts of the garden to go to work as mulch. For fire safety, she keeps them away from the house and her bird hospital.

Bowers believes letting things go in the garden in the dying and drying time of autumn is the best way to operate. And natural seed is better than anything you could put out out in a bird feeder.

“If you keep a tidy yard, you are basically creating a food desert for all kinds of wildlife,” she said. “But particularly (for) our songbirds. By keeping certain plant material on the property, you’re ensuring generations of insects will fulfill their life cycle while providing food for something in winter.”

You can reach Staff Writer Meg McConahey at 707-521-5204 or OnTwitter @megmcconahey.

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