Gardening for Wildlife Part I-How to Grow Your Own Birdseed

bird_sunflowerAs the old saying goes, you get more bees with honey than vinegar. While this saying refers to being nice to people, it can also be said about wildlife.  If you want to attract birds, you need to provide good, quality feed.   This type of feed can be expensive and a little confusing because certain birds like only certain foods.  A good general rule to follow if you want to attract songbirds is to provide sunflower seeds.

While songbirds will consume any sunflower seed, the black oilseed variety is the best.  This variety has a thin hull and a small kernel, which makes it easy to crack and carry away.

Before deciding to grow your own birdseed, one must consider the growing requirements of the sunflower.  This plant likes to be in direct sunlight and takes up quite of bit of room.  Sunflowers can create the backdrop to any flowerbed but will require staking.  They can also be planted in a block formation to create a maze or even a shady fort for kids.

To start planting sunflowers, you must first enhance the soil.  If you are starting a new bed, simply till up the first six inches of soil and incorporate compost or aged manure into this soil.  If planting sunflowers in an established bed, incorporate the amendments into the area where you plan to plant the seeds only.

Once the soil has been prepared, it is time to begin the planting process.  To start this procedure, first dig a furrow that is three inches deep.  If you are planting more than one row, then space the rows 20 inches apart.

After the planting area has been dug, measure every six inches and mark with powdered milk.  Place a seed in the furrow where it has been marked and cover with one and half to two inches of soil.  Continue with this process until all seeds have been planted.  Once the planting is complete, thoroughly water the area.

After the seeds have germinated and they have reached a height of six inches, thin the seedlings so that they are spaced one and a half feet apart.  Once this is done, cover the remaining seedlings with another inch of soil.  This will encourage more root development, which will help feed and support the plant.

Periodically, apply a 5-10-10 fertilizer through a side dressing and stake the plants as needed.

It will take approximately 90 days from the time the seeds were planted until the seeds can be harvested.  Around the 80-day mark, begin to observe your sunflower heads.  If the heads are drooping, the petals are shriveling up and the back of the flower head is greenish-yellow, it is time to harvest the head.

To harvest the heads, simply cut the stalk about a foot down from the head.  Place the head in a paper bag or cover with cheesecloth and hang in a well-ventilated area until dry.  When hanging, make sure that the heads are hung in a location that will keep them away from mice and other rodents.

Once dry, the seeds will begin to fall in the bag or cheesecloth.  To remove the remaining seeds, rake your hand over the head so that the seeds are loosened and then shake.  After all the seeds have been removed from the head, store in an airtight container or leave in the paper bag if the seeds are going to be stored in a rodent free environment.

When ready to use, simply pour the seeds into your birdfeeders and watch them flock.

Another approach to use when preparing the seeds for the birds is to leave the seeds and head intact.  This presentation requires that the head be hung so that the birds can harvest the seeds.  A simple way of doing this is to tie the heads off and hang in a tree, or you can make a sunflower wreath.

To create a sunflower wreath, start out by removing the head from the paper bag and cutting the center away.  To do this, simply cut out the center of the flower head through the back and push the cut part through the front.  This will remove the center of the flower and the stem.

Once this is done, the creative process can begin.  First gather all your materials together.  This includes ribbon, plastic ties or wire, decorations such as wheat or millet stalks, berries and/or nuts, and scissors or knife.

After the materials have been gathered, take a look at your sunflower head and decide which will be the top and which will be the bottom.  Once this is decided, run one end of the ribbon through the middle and tie off with a bow.  This bow will not be used to hang the sunflower head, but instead is used solely as a decoration.  After the ribbon has been attached, flip the head over and create a hanger with plastic ties or wire.

As soon as the hanger has been attached, flip the head back over and begin to decorate.  Keep in mind that this wreath is for the birds, so do not use anything that could be toxic or harmful to the wildlife.

Once completed, hang your wreath on a fence, shed door, or on even on the trunk of a tree.  After all the seeds have been removed do not forget to take the wreath down and replace with another source of seed.

Regardless of how you decide to display your own hyper-local sunflower seeds, you will still need one more thing to make your wildlife experience complete and that is a bird identification book.  This will not only provide a source of educational opportunities for everyone in the family, but will also help build long lasting relationships between wildlife and man.

Mindy McIntosh-Shetter has been an Agricultural Science educator, and is a horticulture and/or environmental blogger who earned a degree from Purdue University in Agriculture Education with a minor in biology, and natural resources. Presently she is finishing up her Masters in Environmental Education and Urban Planning for the University of Louisville while working on her own agriculture/environmental blog.

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