Grow Your Own Birdseed

Keep your backyard birds fed and happy with home-grown birdseed.

Q: Over the winter I started feeding the birds for the first time and found I really enjoyed seeing them at the feeder. What can I do to make my yard more attractive to the birds? Can I grow my own seed to feed them?

A: Let’s start with the second question, and as a point of reference, my daughter calls me “The Bird Nerd.” I spend countless hours in late winter and early spring sitting on the back porch enjoying the show put on by the birds. When I see something special, the family knows about it as I try to drag them to the window, binoculars in hand.
Much of the country saw a 50 percent increase in the price of black oil sunflower seeds this year due to tough growing conditions for sunflowers. I’ve heard from lots of bird lovers who are wondering what it takes to grow their own.

Sunflowers are easy to grow from seed and will produce lots of seed for the birds, but unless you’ve got lots of room, it’s going to be hard to grow enough to feed them year round. But every little bit helps and what’s more beautiful than a bed of sunflowers? The plants also are great for Honey bees who visit the hundreds of tiny flowers that make up the head.

Seeds should be direct sowed in the soil after chance of frost has passed in good garden soil and in full sun. The sprouts are attractive to rabbits who will chew them to the ground, so if bunnies are on the prowl in your garden, protect the seedlings.

The plants need one inch of water a week when rain is scarce; don’t skimp, they will be happier if properly irrigated. A layer of organic mulch at the base will help too. At the end of the season, nature will alert you to the right time to harvest. As the head dries out and starts to look down, the back of the head will turn yellow and the birds will start to enjoy the fruits of your labor. I like to remove the whole head and dry them in my tool shed. The seeds are easy to get out after the head has dried for a few weeks. I also hang a couple heads right on the feeder and watch as the birds enjoy them.

Sunflowers are wonderful massed in the back of a border, along a fence line, or filling a bed in the vegetable garden. There are myriad varieties to choose from, some are only a couple feet tall while others tower over the garden. For a big sunflower that sets lots of seed, try ‘Mammoth Grey’. This giant can reach 10 feet or higher with a huge 12- inch head. ‘Titan’ produces lots of big seeds in its massive 2-foot head. ‘Short Stuff’ is my favorite compact variety with 8-inch heads on 3-foot stalks; it’s a good seed producer too. I have a soft spot for this variety as it was selected by the late Merlyn Niedens, a plantsman extraordinaire whom I had the pleasure of interviewing for The Organic Gardener Radio Show years ago. Be sure that anything Merlyn chose will be a winner.



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