Mt. Cuba Center is a true treasure trove of native plants. The 1930’s estate built on over 100 acres of farmland for the Copeland family is now one of the country’s foremost examples of how to garden with native plants. Luckily for us, it’s in the middle of the Chesapeake Watershed in Hockessin, Delaware. Native plants dominate throughout the grounds. Near the main house, traditionally styled gardens are planted with natives. As you move away from the main house and fountains, the gardens become more relaxed — a walk in the woodlands and paths surrounding a large pond lead you through stands of every type of native plant you can imagine in the mid-Atlantic.
Over the years, Mt. Cuba incorporated as a non-profit, began trialing native plants and offers many classes on all things native. Due to recent closures, many classes are now on-line for the first time. I grabbed a spot earlier this week in a class titled “Native Plants for Nesting Birds.” It was phenomenal — focused on the best plants for warblers, hummingbirds, cardinal, catbirds, vireos, bluebirds, orioles and more.
Here are some top tips I learned from Derek Stoner, a self-described ‘native plant enthusiast’ and professional restoration ecologist, who taught this fascinating session.
Plant inkberries in lieu of boxwoods
Inkberry (Ilex glabra) shrubs have the same overall shape and look as the boxwood but are much more attractive to birds. In my experience, evergreen inkberries also require less maintenance than boxwoods as they tend to retain their shape. They are lighter in their look. For more information about inkberries, please click here.
Best evergreen for the birds is eastern red cedar
This tall evergreen tree is a favorite for five birds and provides far more ecological value than the commonly planted non-native arborvitae. Female trees produce blue berries and the evergreens have beautiful bark at the base. For more information, please click here.
Plant a thicket
If you have the space, create a thicket. A mass of shrubs provides great nesting habitat as birds look to hide their nests. A thicket might be viburnum, blueberry (Vaccinium corymbosum), raspberry (Rubus idaeus), black chokeberry (aronia melanocarpa) or fothergilla (fothergilla gardenii). I recently saw this fothergilla thicket (hedge) in front of a Washington D.C. apartment building. Derek notes the number of birds that nest low, under four feet from the ground, including cardinals, particularly like a thicket.
One of the best overall plants for birds — any native viburnum
Arrowwood viburnum (Viburnum dentatum), so named because Native Americans made arrows from the numerous straight branches, also makes good bird habitat as it turns out. All of those upright stems provide tight protected spaces for nests. Our native viburnums have spring flowers which morph to blue or red berries by fall. Arrowwood viburnum, American cranberry bush (Viburnum opulus), Nannyberry viburnum (Viburnum lentago) and Possumhaw viburnum (Viburnum nudum) are all large size shrubs that grow in sun or part shade and are care free. If you are looking for viburnums on the smaller side, check out Possumhaw viburnum ‘Brandywine’ and ‘Wintherhur’ which top out at 6′ or under. Green leaves emerge in spring, stay fresh all summer and turn red, yellow and green in fall. Derek noted viburnums are also vigorous, low maintenance and deer resistant. Nurseries carry tons of non-native viburnums so please make sure to double check the type you are buying or buy from one of these native plant nurseries. Direct Native plants has several native viburnums available by mail for $20.
Derek Stoner also included stunning photos in his class — an oriole nesting in a sycamore, a hummingbird nesting in a black locust. They were so cool it made me want to run out and plant something.
There are more classes to come from Mt. Cuba. At $15 each, the one and a half hour sessions are packed with the best thinking of people who do this stuff for a living. I enthusiastically encourage you to try one!
Upcoming classes include native ground covers, instant butterfly garden, wildflower garden pods, designing a cut flower garden and native ferns to know and grow, to name a few.
It’s really for the birds!