Goldfinches came to the garden this morning and dithered for ages in front of the window industriously gathering seed from the dead heads of meadowsweet. I was so glad I had not cut them back yet. Nature does not share our compulsion to order and tidiness, so seed-eaters such as finches, buntings and sparrows thrive in neglected gardens like mine. They really appreciate it when we are slow to tidy up and good seed-bearing plants tower gaunt and brown into the winter!
Apart from meadowsweet, I have found goldfinches to be particularly fond of the dead but still fragrant heads of wild oregano, and the copious, fluffy seeds on Hemp Agrimony. This is a tall, stately native plant with big, brush-like heads of purple flowers in late summer and autumn. It likes to grow in damp places but does well in most garden soils. The flowers are much visited by bees and butterflies, making it excellent value for wildlife gardening.
Most of the thistle family provide good birdseed once the flowers have faded. Here you will note a conflict of interests – the last thing a gardener needs is weed thistles running to seed in the hope the birds will enjoy them, because for every fattened bird there will be a hundred new thistles choking up your border next spring! However, there are several attractive, non-invasive thistles you can happily allow to run their course – the low growing Carline Thistle, the towering Scots or Cotton Thistle (Onopordon acanthium), or the variegated Milk Thistle for example. Spectacular Cardoons or Globe Artichokes have massive thistly heads which look great even when gone over and will bring in goldfinches and chaffinches. Of course, you might have eaten the globe artichokes yourself, but it’s worth leaving some to feed the birds as well as enjoy the sight of the lovely purple flowers! Globe Thistles are related, but bear spherical heads in blue or white that bees and hoverflies love, and provide substantial seeds when they ripen.
Sparrows, linnets and yellowhammers all enjoy seeds from grasses and cereals, and there are many attractive varieties, from the delicate Golden Millet to the chunky Pampas Grass, which will meet their needs. Seeds from the edible members of the goosefoot, or spinach family are always appreciated – such as Good King Henry, Red Orache and spinach beet that has bolted.
Finally, if you have ever bought wild bird seed you will know that sunflower seed is a big favourite. As the big flowers bend over and the petals fade, don’t bin them! Let the seed gradually ripen for the birds to find. I must admit that I kept banging my head on mine, though, as they keeled over at 45 degrees – a neat and tidy answer was to cut off the heads and hang them to dry from the shed roof, where I expect the Bankfoot Sparrow Gang will eventually decimate them!
© Margaret Lear, Bankfoot. Originally published in Comment, October 2009.