How to Turn Your Backyard Into a Flower Garden for Birds

Here is how to prepare a flower bed.

When starting from scratch, there are a few things to consider first. Here are the questions you need to answer:

  • Where will it go?

Anywhere from a corner of the backyard to your front entryway can make a great spot for a flower bed. You can place one along a deck or porch, underneath a tree, or around a garden feature like a pond, for example.

If you plant near a driveway or curb, consider traffic safety regarding planting height. If you live where it will get icy in the winter, keep in mind salt spray, which can kill plants.

  • How much sunlight will the bed get?

Many popular bedding plants like annual flowers need full sun. It means a minimum of six hours of direct sunlight each day. You can choose a spot in part-sun or even a mostly shady area, but you’ll be a bit more limited in what flowers will grow there.

  • What’s the soil?

Most flowering annuals and perennials appreciate loamy soil with plenty of compost. Make sure to rake away rocks or debris from the site, break up any large clods of dirt, and add compost to enrich the bed and encourage healthy plant growth.

It’s also a good idea to do a soil test to determine if you should add any nutrients your plants need to look their best.

Here is how to create a flower bed in a few easy steps

Step 1: Select and mark a site

Be mindful of the amount of shade or sunlight present throughout the day. Tentatively mark the area with a hose, yarn, or string.

Create a final shape. It gets marked with a recognizable organic material (ex., salt or flour).  Be creative, using an oval, circular or linear shapes. Note to new gardeners: start small but leave space for enlargement.

Step 2: Remove all grass and weeds

Complete one of the following options before putting down a weed barrier (i.e., weighted down landscape fabric, layers of wet newspaper, or cardboard); do not disturb for several weeks.

Option 1:  Use a spade or sod cutter to clear the area; or

Option 2:  Mow the site down to approximately half-inch; or

Option 3:  Spray the area with a weed-killing pesticide, following label directions.

Note: The grass yard will require periodic weeding throughout the growing seasons.

Step 3: Add soil

Option 1:  Spread a layer of topsoil on the weed barrier approximately 12 inches deep within the area.

Option 2:  Dig up and till the indigenous soil. Removing roots, rocks, or other debris; take a soil sample and amend the soil, as needed, with organic matter (ex. recommended nutrients or compost).

Step 4: Edge the garden bed

Option 1:  Dig a trench approximately 8 inches deep. And a few inches wide around the bed to prevent soil erosion and to keep out weeds.

Option 2:  Sink an edging material around the garden border. Examples are rocks, brick, or weather-resistant landscape borders).

Step 5: Select, space, and plant shrubs and flowers

Choose plants that will thrive in the selected area. Space the shrubs and flowers around the bed. Dig holes to recommended depth and width. And loosen the roots of each plant before placing them into the ground. Note: Wait until the plants’ roots are established before applying fertilizer. It is for approximately two weeks.

Step 6: Add a layer of mulch

Spread wood chips, pine straw, or other environmental-friendly mulch to a thickness of 2-3 inches deep to control weed growth and to help retain soil moisture.

Step 7: Water generously

Thoroughly water the bed, and continue to water as needed until the plants’ roots get established and during periods of drought.

Note:  It is essential to have a water source near the garden bed. Since frequent watering of the birds will get required.

How can I make my backyard attractive to birds?

1. Find A Bird-Friendly Corner Of Your Yard

The first step toward attracting birds to your yard is picking a corner to focus your efforts. You’ll want to place feeders, bird baths, and other offerings where you can enjoy watching from your home.

But, you’ll also need to ensure sufficient greenery and cover nearby. So that birds feel safe enough to explore. Birds can also be territorial. So you’ll want to space out bird food and shelter options to maximize your yard’s bird traffic.

2. Provide A Variety Of Feeders

If you’re interested in learning how to attract birds to your yard, you’ll want to start by buying a few different types of feeders. The feeders you’ll need will depend on the types of birds you’d like to attract:

  • Tube feeders are best for finches, sparrows, and chickadees
  • Hopper feeders get enjoyed by finches, jays, sparrows, and cardinals
  • Suet feeders attract woodpeckers, nuthatches, and starlings
  • Ground feeders get preferred by cardinals, grosbeaks, and blue jays
  • Nectar feeders are a necessity for hummingbirds and orioles

Different species of birds also prefer different feeding heights. So experiment with hanging your feeders higher or lower as well. While lower feeders may attract squirrels and other animals, plenty of squirrel-proof feeders are available to keep your feeders safe for the birds.

3. Buy The Right Bird Food

In learning how to attract birds to your yard, you’ll find that each species also has food preferences. You might prefer sweet foods over salty; different species of birds have different nutritional needs and seek out foods to fill them.

Dark oil sunflower and suet are great basics that attract a wide variety of birds. There are also plenty of mixes on the market that get designed to attract several species.

Other types of food to try include thistle, safflower, nuts, peanut butter, and even mealworms. If you’re unsure what food to buy for your particular feeder, someone at your local home and garden center should be able to help.

4. Add A Water Source

Adding a bird bath or water source is the next step in learning how to attract birds to your yard. When water is available, many bird species will bathe daily to keep their feathers clean and healthy.

Offering shallow bird baths (one to three inches deep) or even building a small pond in your yard will help birds stay clean and hydrated.

Birds listen for moving water, so adding a pump or mister that creates fresh, bubbling water will draw even more feathered friends to your yard.

If you live in a cold climate, you may also want to invest in a heater or de-icer to keep your bird bath or pond from freezing. Birds bathe year-round but often struggle to find water sources in the winter, so having fresh water will make your yard a desirable destination.

5. Plant A Bird-Friendly Garden

Planting a garden with bird-friendly plants is one of the most significant changes you can make when learning how to attract birds to your yard.

Native flowers, shrubs, and trees are great choices because they will naturally attract birds that live in your area and strengthen your local ecosystem.

Birds are also drawn to bright colors (especially the color of their species), an attraction that comes from their breeding instincts. Native species are known for their colorful flowers and berries, so they can do double duty to attract birds.

Birds like relatively dense shrubs and trees, so consider where to plant your new additions. Different species also like different heights and vantage points, so be sure to plant not only eye-level shrubs but also low ground cover, small trees (under 15’), and taller trees (over 15’).

6. Provide Plenty Of Shelters

In addition to creating shelter with greenery, some birds like a bird house because of safety, warmth, and protection. Install your shelter on a post or tree trunk to protect yourself from ground predators.

Make sure the entrance hole is only as large as the intended species. It prevents larger birds like hawks from getting inside and defeating the purpose of the types of bird shelters you’ve added to your yard.

7. Offer Opportunities For Nesting

Once you’ve learned how to attract birds to your yard, you’ll need to find ways to make them stay. One of the best ways to ensure a constant stream of birds all year long is to encourage birds to build nests in your yard.

In addition to creating a welcoming environment full of bird food and shelter options, bird-friendly plants, and reliable water sources, you can provide birds with nesting materials.

Simply fill an empty suet cage or old feeder with small, organic material pieces and hang it for birds to find. Grass clippings, dried weeds and leaves, and even pet hair are all great materials for nest building. And, since they’re all organic material, they’ll decompose naturally and won’t encourage litter in your yard.

8. Learn From Your Birds

If you’re looking to learn how to attract birds to your yard, look to the birds. Every species, every bird, and every environment is different, so keep an eye on your yard’s birds, when they visit, where they spend their time, and which foods they like best. Then you can adjust your setup over time to maximize your yard’s birding potential.

9. Make It Official

Once your yard is teeming with birds, consider certifying your backyard as a Backyard Wildlife Habitat with the National Wildlife Federation. To make it official, you’ll need to follow the Certified Wildlife Habitat requirements:

  • Three different food sources (from feeders or plants)
  • One clean water source
  • Two different shelter sources (including natural and manmade)
  • Two different nesting places (including natural and manmade)

How do you make a bird-friendly landscape?

You can help birds thrive right where you live by making your yard more bird-friendly.

  • Choose Native Plants

Focus on native plants that provide a variety of bird food throughout the year for nesting, migrating, and wintering birds. You can search our native plant’s database for listings of the best bird- and wildlife-friendly plants for your area and a list of native plant nurseries and other resources near you. As you make your selections, think about providing the following food groups:

  • Bugs: Native trees such as oaks, willows, birches, and maples, and native herbaceous plants such as goldenrod, milkweed, and sunflowers host many caterpillar species that are vital sources of protein for birds, especially during the breeding season.
  • Fruit: Many shrubs and small trees provide berries that ripen at different times, so include seasonal variety: serviceberry and cherry for birds during the breeding season and summer; dogwood and spicebush for songbirds flying south; cedar and holly trees to sustain birds through cold winter days and nights.
  • Nuts and seeds: Trees such as oaks, hickories, and walnuts provide fat and protein-rich food that birds hide, or “cache,” to provide food through the cold winter. Native sunflowers, asters, and coneflowers produce loads of tiny seeds that are finch and sparrow favorites.
  • Nectar: Red tubular flowers such as native columbine, penstemon, and honeysuckle serve up nectar for hummingbirds. (Learn more about creating a habitat specifically for hummingbirds.) Flowers in the aster family, such as coneflowers, asters, and Joe-Pye Weed, are very attractive to insect pollinators like butterflies, moths, and bees, in addition to providing seeds for birds.
  • Plan Your Bird Habitat

Think of your garden as a habitat that you are creating to provide birds with food, shelter, and nesting sites throughout the year.

  • Take stock of the plants you’ve already got:

Your yard may already include native plants that birds love. If you need help, check the native plants’ database Local Resource tab: Your local Audubon or native plant society may provide advice.

  • Know the basics about your space:

Sun or shade? How much of the planting area gets covered in shade? Plants usually get labeled as growing best in full sun, partial shade, or full shade, so knowing this will help you choose plants that will do well.

Wet or dry? How damp is the soil? What is your soil type?

  • Map it out:

Measure your planting space and draw it out on paper or walk your garden bed to figure out which plants will fit best.

  • Create “habitat layers”:

If you have room, try to provide the plant layers you might find in a natural habitat.

  • Think about height:

Place taller plants towards the back of your borders, with lower-growing species at the edges of paths or lawns.

  • Remember the water:

Water is an often overlooked resource that birds need year-round. Include hollowed boulders that catch rainwater or a man-made bird bath for birds to drink and bathe.

Consider a dripping bath or fountain feature; the sound of running water attracts birds and may make them flock during migration. 

  • Preparing your garden

Prepare your garden well to save headaches later. If your site has turf grass or invasive plants, you will need to remove these.

If you plan, an easy method is to lay down newspaper at least six sheets deep, with plenty of overlap; wet it down; cover it with 4 to 6 inches of mulch, and let it sit until you are ready to plant.

Though native plants generally don’t require additional fertilizer,  you may want to check with your local native plant retailer to see if enriching your soil with organic compost is a good idea.

Use deep edging, putting some sort of barrier (steel or plastic edging) into the ground to separate the native plant area from the lawn area to keep out lawn grass.

  • Planting

Plant in spring or fall and on cooler days. Follow planting instructions carefully and get tips on mulching around plants from the plant nursery or gardening center.

Water as needed after planting: Native plants are adapted to local climate conditions and generally require less added water than non-native species in the long run. However, almost all plants need watering and extra care until they’ve become well established.

  • Caring for Your Garden

Steward your native plant habitat with tender loving care.

  • Weed:

Remove non-native and invasive weeds. Weeding often gets maligned as a “chore,”… but it’s also a great excuse to spend time in your garden and get to know its wildlife.

  • Don’t rake:

Fallen leaves and woody debris are an important habitat layer and serve as a natural mulch. They will reduce unwanted weed growth, keep your plants’ roots cool and moist—and provide habitat for insects and the pupae of moth caterpillars, a favorite of baby birds.

  • Leave the seeds:

Don’t “dead-head” all your flowering plants after they bloom, as those seedheads can be an important food source during the fall and winter.

  • Spare your back:

In forested areas, leave dead trees and branches. Fallen trunks and branches support the entire forest food web as they decay into rich soil.

Standing tree trunks may provide homes for many cavity-nesting species: Woodpeckers often create or enlarge the cavities, but many species will nest in them, including chickadees, titmice, nuthatches, bluebirds, Tree Swallows, Great-crested Flycatchers, Wood Ducks, and American Kestrels.

  • Build a brush pile:

Enhance your garden area by creating a brush pile to shelter birds and other wildlife.

  • Lay off the pesticides:

A bird-friendly garden is a bug-friendly garden. A diversity of native plants will also attract wildlife that will keep your plant-eating bugs in check: Not only birds but also frogs, toads, bats, and insect predators such as dragonflies, praying mantises, and ladybugs will help keep your garden a healthy balance.

Whether you have a rooftop garden, a suburban backyard, or a forested acreage, you can attract birds to your landscape with bird-friendly landscaping.