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Saturday, November 3, 2012 - Page updated at 10:30 a.m.

The Natural Gardener
Invite the birds over for fall-winter: it's a win-win

By Valerie Easton
Special to The Seattle Times

WILD BIRDS, whether iridescent hummingbird or red-breasted robin, are as great a pleasure as the most fragrant lily or perfect tomato. In late fall and winter, bird flash and flutter animate the garden, reminding us that nature is still alive out there as the plants die down. Even the smallest garden can be turned into a sanctuary that lures birds to linger.

It's not as simple as setting up a bird feeder and calling it good. My disenchantment with bird feeders began when an exterminator explained that in his business they're known as "rat feeders."

Ellen Blackstone, writer and web editor for KPLU's popular "BirdNote" series, says that bird feeders and pet cats are the two most controversial topics among birders.

"BirdNote" was started here by Seattle Audubon and now airs on 200 public-radio stations across the country. Blackstone cautions that the first rule of bird feeding is to do no harm. You must clean feeders and birdbaths regularly. "If not, you're doing the birds a greater disservice by possibly spreading disease than by not feeding them. Remember, birds have been getting by for millennia before we came along."

And if you have a cat that goes outside, don't even think about putting up a feeder. Ditto if you're not an organic gardener.

If you plan and plant your garden to attract and nurture birds, it'll please you every bit as much as it does them. Wildness adds a little mystery to the garden, and birds need snags, brush piles and plants gone to seed. So back off on the perfection, and pile up clippings and branches at the back of a border for bird forage. Cultivate a mixed hedgerow for birds to shelter in, leave a dead tree or stump as garden sculpture. Blackstone lives in Wedgwood on a corner lot, where she provides plenty of brush piles and plants gone to seed. "I'm sure my neighbors look askance at my yard," she says cheerfully.

Because birds need water to drink and bathe in all year round, consider putting a birdbath on the south side of your house where it's most likely to keep from freezing. Just remember to keep it clean as well as thawed. "The No. 1 thing to attract birds is dripping water, so add a mister and you'll have friends for life," says Blackstone.

Winter-blooming native plants like the Oregon grape Mahonia x media 'Arthur Menzies' and flowering currant (Ribes sanguineum), have evolved along with the birds, so are ideal support for them. But ornamentals attract and nourish birds, too. Think cotoneaster, sarcococca, callicarpa, pyracantha, viburnum, hypericum, pernettya and nandina.

For more food, leave ornamental grasses and perennials alone to turn tawny and go to seed, and both you and the birds will enjoy your garden more over the coming months.

Valerie Easton is a Seattle freelance writer and author of "petal & twig." Check out her blog at www.valeaston.com.

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