Whether gardeners are downsizing, leaning into the tiny house movement, or just trying to simplify life, smaller properties are becoming more popular. As land cost rises, the average lot size shrinks, and it can be challenging to fit in favorite features and activities.
One reader wonders if it’s possible to create effective bird habitat in small gardens. Happily, yes; providing functional bird habitat combines readily with other desires, notably privacy screening. Even in small spaces, layered perimeter plantings of appropriate size and scale will turn pocket gardens into havens for humans and birds alike.
Like most critters, birds need food and water, shelter and nesting opportunities. In very small spaces, native food and shelter sources like highbush cranberry, salmonberries and salal need too much space, but compact huckleberries and viburnums are both handsome and productive, while wintergreen (Gaultheria procumbens), a low-growing salal cousin, is far more mannerly. Ornamental fruit-bearing trees such as crabapples and flowering cherries also offer homes and snacks for birds, as do fuchsia shrubs and hanging baskets.
Unclipped shrubs offer safe places for birds to nest and hide from cats. Sheared hedges don’t serve either function well, since dense foliage does not allow birds access. Consider instead handsome, low-screening plants such as twiggy dogwoods (Cornus sericea and C. sanguinea) which offer flowers, fruit, and fall color as well as bird habitat. Upright vine maples like Pacific Fire and compact camellias can create bird shelter and human privacy in the smallest lot. Water features and birdbaths are most helpful if placed where birds can see marauding cats clearly and shelter is close at hand. Birds will especially delight in fountains planted with moss and water-loving ferns so they drip and trickle rather than splash.
For those who love birds, supporting these beautiful creatures can include switching our morning brew. Many native birds are migratory, and though Anna’s hummingbirds are starting to winter over, most hummers and many songbirds wing their way to Mexico, Nicaragua and Costa Rica each fall. Until recently, coffee plantations provided ample food and shelter: a traditional shade-tolerant understory crop, high-shade coffee often grows among lemons, oranges, guavas, chocolate and other food-producing trees. Sadly, sun-tolerant coffee is replacing up to 70 percent of high-shade coffee. Though initially more heavily bearing, sun-tolerant coffee is short-lived, requiring frequent replacement. It also requires far more water, fertilizer and pesticides than usual. Even so, small-scale farmers who grow most of the world’s coffee are clear-cutting their forest farms, lured by the quick-fix promise of sun-tolerant crops.
Especially sadly, high-shade coffees like arabica are of better quality than sun-tolerant coffees like robusta. More critically, sun-tolerant coffee destroys forests, increases soil erosion and resource and toxin use, changes with long-term economic effects. For songbirds, the change is devastating. Sun-tolerant coffee plantations support as few as five to 10 species of birds. Traditional shade coffee plantations host over 150 species of migratory birds, including our backyard summer songsters.
So what can we do about such a far-away problem? For starters, we can commit to drinking shade-grown coffee, including local brands like Grounds For Change, which actively supports small-scale farmers growing high-shade coffee. Buying shade-grown coffee rewards farmers willing to sacrifice quick cash gains to protect birds and other wildlife for years to come. Our own rewards can include both a fragrant, flavorful brew and a lovely, private garden, large or small, that hosts birds in delightful diversity.
By Ann Lovejoy
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