Skip to main content

Introduction to Habitat Gardening

Introduction to Habitat Gardening
by Glenn Olsen

Gardening for birds and butterflies is growing increasingly popular with urban and sub-urban homeowners, especially during our stay at home period. This style of gardening utilizes plants (especially native plants) that benefit birds and butterflies. Additionally, we want to build structure in our yard, that is, plant in a way to create habitat, places where birds or butterflies feel safe, find food, rest, build a nest or seek shelter. This structure is similar to the way plants grow in nature.

In addition to the beauty and joy of having birds and butterflies in your garden, it can be-come a retreat in which you can relax, enjoy and contemplate in your own nature oasis. Our winter months are a great time to get organized for a spring garden or landscape project. This is the time to plan which plants you want and where you want them in your yard. Also, if any flower bed preparation or pathways need to be created, winter is a good time to get that done.

The Upper Texas Coast is part of the migration route that many of our songbirds use as they migrate to and from Mexico, Central and South America each spring and late sum-mer. We can attract many of these weary migrants to our gardens by adding plants that provide food and shelter and create stopover habitat during their travels. Some of the beautiful birds that you may attract during spring migration are Summer Tanagers, Rose-breasted Grosbeaks, Ruby-throated Hummingbirds, and Warblers, the jewels of our birds.

Here are a few of the more commonly available native plants that provide food and shel-ter for many of the birds that migrate through or spend the winter on the Upper Texas Coast. Each of those listed grows well in our area. Additionally many of them are valu-able and important to our native, beneficial pollinators and butterflies. This is only touch-ing on the plants available, there are many others. Be sure to purchase the plants based on the botanical (scientific name) because there are similar non-native plants that grow much larger and/or do not provide the food like the native plant.


Yaupon holly (Ilex vomitoria) and Possum-haw or Deciduous holly (Ilex decidua)
Two medium sized shrubs that grow well and are attractive in a landscape that produce bright orange to red berries that many birds feed on. In the spring they have many small white flowers that attract numerous beneficial insects.


American Holly or Christmas Holly (Ilex opaca var. opaca)
 
This classic American evergreen tree is under utilized in the landscape. The attractive red berries are produced on the female plant, so make sure yours has the berries when you buy it. The berries are important food for many species of birds during the winter and it also provides important shelter from the cold. American Holly is a very stately and attractive tree that would add character and beauty to any landscape.


Rusty Blackhaw Viburnum (Viburnum rufidulum)
This attractive plant with its shiny, dark green leaves is usually an under story shrub of up to 12 feet but if planted in full sun may grow to about 30 feet. In the spring it produces large clusters of small beau-tiful white flowers. In the fall, the bluish black fruit is consumed by many species of birds. Another good shrub that provides shelter for birds in inclement weather. This plant will add year round color to you landscape.


Arrowwood Viburnum or Arrowwood (Viburnum dentatum)
This is an excellent under story shrub that grows 4 to 10 feet tall. It has a nice open and airy appearance, which provides an attractive visual aspect. The bluish-black fruit ripens from August to November and provides much need food for fall and winter migrants


Turk’s Cap (Malvaviscus arboreous var. drummondii)
 
This beautiful shrub grows in the eastern half of Texas as well as in other states along the gulf and south into Mexico. This hardy shrub grows in all light conditions from heavy shade to full sun. However, shade to filtered sun are the preferred light conditions. It grows in many soil conditions from the salty sand along the coast, the heavy gumbo of Houston, and the dry, rocky soils of central Texas. It is drought tolerant too! In heavy shade this plant grows low to the ground and in sun grows up to four feet tall but needs more water. However, the height it is easily managed by trimming back during the winter. Turk’s cap is at the height of its bloom period during the fall migration of the Ruby-throated hummingbird. The bright red flower resembles a rose bud (or turk’s cap). But like other members of the hibiscus family, the stigma extends above the flower petals. Make sure you purchase the native (Malvaviscus arboreous var. drummondii) and not any other. The other species will grow to ten feet tall and is reportedly less frequented by the Ruby-throated Hummingbird.


Blue Mist Flower (Conoclinium colesetinum)
The gorgeous pale blue flowers of this medium sized leafy perennial is a magical nectar source for many species of butterflies. The ageratum like blossoms grow at the tips of the stems and are so abundant they cover the entire top of the plant. Hummingbirds and pol-linators also make good use of these flowers. Easily grown in light shade to full sun in various soil conditions. Growing from about 16 inches to 26 inches tall ( but can grow taller) these hearty misflowers are an attractive addition to any landscape.

The plants mentioned are only a few that contribute to a colorful, attractive garden or landscape and help create habitat for birds and butterflies whose presence softens the urban environment and creates a more enjoyable and interesting yard.

For information on additional plants and for an introduction to birds, visit www.birdfriendlyhouston.org

To purchase plants from Houston Audubon's Natives Nursery at Edith L. Moore Nature Sanctuary, visit www.houstonaudubon.org/nativesnursery

For additional information go to www.npsot.org/houston and click on suggested plants.

If you are seeking the advice for landscaping for birds or the installation, I would be happy to talk with you. Contact me at h.glenn.olsen@gmail.com. 

Glenn Olsen
Past President: Native Plant Society of Texas
Owner: GO Native Landscaping for Birds and Butterflies

Comments

Popular posts from this blog

Pine Siskins and Salmonellosis - How to Identify and Prevent the Spread

Backyards across the United States have had an unusually high number of small, heavily striped finches, known as Pine Siskins, making a recent appearance. This year’s irruption of Pine Siskins has been one of the largest in recorded history! An irruption typically occurs during periods of food shortage in a species’ home range, causing them to spread out southward in search of resources. Pine Siskins, whose range is typically limited to the boreal forests of Canada and the northernmost U.S. states, faced an extreme shortage of conifer seeds, resulting in their takeover of bird feeders in a yard near you! Learn more about the irruption. Unfortunately, these birds are facing yet another threat across their irruption range. Salmonellosis outbreaks in Pine Siskins have been documented heavily in the Pacific Northwest, resulting in mass die-offs of this species and others that use feeders alongside them. This disease has now, unfortunately, made its way to Texas.  Salmonellosis is caused by

From Avian Absence to Bountiful Bird Haven: How One Yard Finally Got It Right

On Christmas Day 2018, my 7 year-old daughter joyfully opened a gift we had both long-awaited, that of a DIY birdhouse kit. I had envisioned a project we could complete together, one that would develop her budding interest in bird watching and give us something to do during the cold winter days ahead. Indeed, after applying a haphazard coat of brightly-hued paints - as only a first-grader can do - twisting in the tiny screws on every corner of the aviary abode, we hung 3 bird houses from our live oaks in the front yard. With noses pressed against the living room window, we eagerly anticipated a flurry of feathers and happy chirps. Yet, surprisingly, no birds arrived. A week went by, then a month, soon migrating flocks returned north and not one bird took an interest in the houses. Not a parent to shrug off a child’s genuine interest or attempt, I began wondering what could have gone wrong. I attempted to solve the problem with a trip to our local retail chain hardware garden c

Creating a Pocket Prairie in an Urban Backyard

In September of 2017, my girlfriend Amanda and I, along with our dog Scout, moved out of our apartment and into a house in Houston’s Sunset Heights. One of the selling points of this house was that it had a small backyard the three of us could enjoy together. It was a simple space comprised of zoysia grass, Japanese yew, and bamboo. In June of 2018, Scout was sniffing around our backyard and decided to eat a couple of Japanese yew berries that had fallen on the ground. This led to her getting sick and spending the next two nights recovering at a veterinary clinic. This is the event that made me start to question everything growing in our backyard. Why did we have grass, shrubs, and bamboo from Asia? Why had we never seen a butterfly in our yard? We decided we needed to make some changes. To begin my research, I read The Houston Atlas of Biodiversity by Houston Wilderness, Bringing Nature Home by Douglas W. Tallamy, and Native Texas Plants by Sally Wasowski and Andy Wasowsk