American goldfinch on a echinacea. Photo: www.americanmeadows.com
If you’re used to feeding birds, you can’t have helped but notice the huge jump in the cost of “birdseed,” seeds and seed mixtures for birds. Some seeds have tripled in cost over the last few years and feeding the birds is becoming a more and more expensive pastime.
And the market is a huge one: in the United States alone, more than 40 million people put out bird feeders, leading to a $6.3 billion business in birdseed and bird feeders. And production costs keep rising, so the seed costs you ever more each year.
But what if you grew your own birdseed? It’s actually easy to do if you have a sunny space and a bit of time on your hands. To make things easier, birdseed can be grown from seeds—that mean seem obvious, but isn’t really—, bringing costs way down compared to having to buy plants. A few packs of seed—or some leftover birdseed you simply sow—and you’ll have your birdseed garden underway.
What Do You Need to Grow Birdseed?
Essentially, sun, good drainage and soil deep enough to sow in. And some time in spring or early summer to get the job done. Normally, you’d sow seeds for birds in the ground, but you can also grow seeds in containers. You’ll need to clear the site of weeds and debris to give the seeds a head start and work the soil lightly so it will be ready to receive seed.
There is no particular design for a birdseed garden. You could sow in rows, do the square-foot garden thing or simply broadcast seed (scatter it by tossing it left and right as you walk through the garden).
The proper seed depth is vital: seed left on the surface will feed the birds—instantly!—but won’t, of course, germinate. Too deep and it might germinate, but won’t be able to break through to the light. Calculate the seed depth as being about 3 times the height of the seed. That means different seeds of different sizes will have different sowing depths.
When broadcasting seed, typically you simply sow heavily, rake the soil lightly after you sow to work the seeds in, then hope for the best.
And always water to start seeds germinating. If the summer is dry, you may need to water regularly through the growing season as well.
As for fertilizer … honestly, most birdseed plants aren’t too picky about rich soil, but it never hurts to work some compost and slow-release organic fertilizer into any soil if your budget allows it.
Now, stand back and watch your birdseed garden grow!
Obviously, you can’t spray toxic chemicals on flowers you want to collect birdseed from. Rather, let the birds themselves take care of pests, maybe doing a bit of hand picking (drop undesirable insects into a bowl of soapy water) if you feel they’re missing a few bugs.
If you do feel the need to spray, do so early in the morning before bees and other pollinators are present, and use a product with little to no residual effect, like insecticidal soap.
Harvest … or Not
There are two schools of thought here.
You can leave your birdseed plants standing in the fall and winter and allow birds to come and harvest the seeds themselves. That’s the easy peasy method.
But maybe you want to bring birds nearer to your living room window by putting the seed in a feeder of some sort. If so, harvest the seed heads when they start to turn brown and plop them into a paper bag to finish maturing. After a few weeks, shake or crumble the seeds free. Or pick them out individually (some seed heads release their seeds more reluctantly than others).
All you have to do next is to store harvested seed in glass or plastic containers and shovel it into your bird feeders as needed.
You can’t always sow seeds from a commercial birdseed mixture and expect plants to come up. Often it was heat treated to prevent germination, which rather defeats your purpose. You’ll likely have to buy seed packs to get started. However, once you have your birdseed garden going, you can harvest and store your own seed for sowing in spring. Or let the plants self-sow (many will).
Seeds to Sow
There are many, many seeds you can sow as birdseed. Often these are annuals, giving you a full crop the first year. Perennials are slower off the mark, usually not blooming until the second year, but then, come back year after year, making your seed growing easier.
(There are also berries you can grow to attract seed-eating birds, but that’s a different subject, covered here: Berries that Attract Birds.)
Here are some popular varieties:
Anise hyssop (Agastache foeniculum): This is just one of many agastaches that have beautiful summer flowers, deliciously scented (and edible!) foliage and seeds birds like to nibble on. Perennial.
Aster (Symphyotrichum spp., Eurybia spp. and others): Clusters of small daisylike flowers in a wide range of colors. Perennial.
Basket flower or gaillardia (Gaillardia spp.): Stunning yellow and red daisies. There are annual and perennial varieties.
Black-eyed susan (Rudbeckia hirta): A popular and attractive garden flower with yellow or red daisylike flowers and a dark brown central dome. Just let it stand so birds can do their own harvesting. There are annual, biennial and (short-lived) perennial varieties.
Canary seed (Phalaris canariensis): This grass is originally from the Canary Islands, whence the name, although canaries do eat it, as do other seed-eating birds. Annual.
Corn (Zea mays): Smaller seeded types, like popcorn and Indian corn are best. Annual.
Cornflower or bachelor’s buttons (Centaurea cyanus): Buttonlike flowers in blue, red, pink or white. Curious-looking seeds that birds love. Annual.
Cosmos (Cosmos bipinnatus and C. sulfureus.): They come in all sorts of colors and are easy to grow. Annual.
Cup plant (Silphium spp.): Giant plant with huge leaves and daisylike yellow flowers. Perennial.
Dame’s rocket (Hesperis matronalis): Bright pink or white flowers, highly scented at night. Biennial.
Foxtail millet (Setaria italica): A grass with nodding seed heads. Widely grown as a cereal crop. Annual.
Globe thistle (Echinops spp.): Attractive spiky balls of blue to white flowers. Spiny foliage, but nothing too deadly. Perennial.
Goldenrod (Solidago spp.): Feathery yellow flowers. Some species, like Canada goldenrod (S. canadensis) are invasive, but others stay where you sow them. Perennial.
Korean feather reed grass (Calamagrostis brachytricha): Attractive ornamental grass. Perennial.
Liatris or gayfeather (Liatris spp.): Spikes of purple or white flowers over lilylike leaves. Perennial.
Love-lies-bleeding (Amaranthus caudatus): A multipurpose plant, with attractive dripping ropelike flowers, edible seeds and leaves and fodder for birds. Other amaranths are just as useful. Annual.
Niger or nyjer (Guizotia abyssinica): Although often called “thistle” in birdseed mixes, this is no thistle plant and has no prickles, but is rather the seed of a fast-growing African daisy looking much like coreopsis. Make sure the seed hasn’t been heat-treated! Annual.
Pearl millet (Pennisetum glaucum): A fast-growing grass broad, cornlike leaves and abundant seeds. There are several ornamental varieties, too, like ‘Purple Majesty’, with purple leaves. Annual.
Poppy (Papaver somniferum, P. rhoeas and others): Brightly colored flowers, salt-shaker shaped seed pods. There are perennial species, but usually annuals are used for birdseed.
Purple coneflower or echinacea (Echinacea purpurea): Sturdy-stemmed daisies with a spiky center dome in a wide range of colors. Popular garden plant. Perennial.
Russian Sage (Perovskia atriplicifolia): Ornamental garden plant with gray green, deeply cut leaves and attractive spikes of lavender flowers. Perennial.
Safflower (Carthamus tinctorius): Attractive flower with thistlelike leaves usually grown for oil production. Annual.
Sorghum or broom corn (Sorghum spp.): Huge grasses with ornamental seed heads in many colors. Annual.
Sunflower (Helianthus annuus): Tall plants with huge sunny flowers and ever so easy to grow. Birds will eat any kind of sunflower seed, but many bird specialists recommend “black oil sunflowers”, with smaller, black seeds originally developed for producing sunflower oil. There are specific cultivars, like ‘Peredovik’, or it may just be sold as black oil sunflower seeds (BOSS). Avoid heat-treated seed. Annual.
Switchgrass (Panicum virgatum): Ornamental grass native to North America. Perennial.
Teasel (Dipsacus sativus and others): Very prickly plant with ornamental flowers and seed heads. Biennial.
Tickseed or coreopsis (Coreopsis spp.): Usually small yellow daisies, although there are now red, pink and bicolor varieties as well. There are both annual and perennial varieties.
Zinnia (Zinnia spp.): Popular garden flower that also attracts butterflies. Huge range of colors. Annual.
The seed of some of these plants may be hard to locate, as not all of these plants are offered in the average seed catalog. If so, here’s a simple tip. Just enter the plant’s name in a search engine like Google and add “seed packet.” For example, “switchgrass seed packet”. That should do it!
The above plants are only examples: there are many other plants whose seeds birds relish including—let’s be fully honest!—many weeds! But you may not have to plant those: they tend to show up all on their own!
Enjoy planting your own birdseed garden!