Winter Garden Plants for Wildlife

Mockingbirds eat beauty berries as well as many other fruits of winter.

The winter garden is not dead and desolate. Fruits of summer and fall still linger on stems, providing vital food to wildlife in the depths of winter. More often than not, these plants also offer seasonal interest, making them win-win additions to our landscapes.

Winter Seeds for Wildlife

It’s all about seeds and berries when it comes to forage for winter birds. For many woodland mammals—such as mice, voles, rabbits, squirrels, chipmunks, and deer—nuts, berries, and roots are essential food sources. Some of these animals may not be the most welcome creatures in your garden, but the more you feed them along the periphery of your landscape, the less likely they are to forage in more intimate garden spaces near the home. Smaller herbivores also feed important winter predators, such as foxes, hawks, and owls, to keep home ecosystems healthy.

Asters and goldenrods are great garden plants for songbirds.


The most valued seeds for birds (see the table of common North American birds and their preferred forage plants below) come from flowers in the daisy family (Asteraceae), such as seeds from thistles and annual sunflowers (learn how to grow annual sunflowers here!), which are sold by the bag as winter bird seed. (Sunflowers always make a great garden addition, but thistle is a garden weed to avoid.) But, many other daisy-family members offer exquisite garden flowers as well as nutritious seeds for birds.

Popular fall-blooming daisies include asters (Symphyotrichum spp.), goldenrod (Solidago spp.) and perennial sunflowers (Helianthus spp.). These provide superior food for seed-eating birds. Coneflowers (Echinacea spp.) and black-eyed-Susans (Rudbeckia spp.) are two more summer and fall flowers in the daisy family that will keep birds coming to your garden if you allow the seed heads to dry and remain undisturbed until late winter when their wildlife value is past.

Panicum virgatum 'Prairie Sky' JaKMPM
The winter seeds of switchgrass feed many wild animals.


The seeds of some garden grasses are also popular with birds. Highly ornamental annual millet (Pennisetum glaucum) comes in shades of purple, burnished bronze, and gold and its upright seed heads are highly sought after by birds. ‘Jade Princess’ is a particularly garden-worthy form with vibrant green blades and burnished brown heads.

Many attractive perennial grasses are good food for wildlife. A grass for partially shaded locations is northern sea oats (Chasmanthium latifolium). Its beautiful seed heads tend to shatter by early winter, but they are an important food for birds and rodents.

Little bluestem (Schizachyrium scoparium) is a very desirable small prairie grass with persistent seed heads that last into midwinter. The upright ‘Standing Ovation’, introduced by North Creek Nurseries of Landenberg, PA, has a strong upright habit and purplish-bronze winter color in addition to wildlife value.

The tall, breezy switchgrass (Panicum virgatum) is one of the most popular of all large, bunching ornamental grasses. Its fine seed heads offer winter interest and feed animals. Seek out the tall, blue-green ‘Northwind’ and ‘Dewey Blue’ for their strong, upright habits and good seed set.

Winter Fruits for Wildlife

Winterberries are beautiful winter garden shrubs, and many birds eat their bright berries.

Crabapples, berries, hips and other colorful fruits of winter are also favored by winter animals of all kinds, particularly birds. They are also some of the easiest plants to grow in the winter landscape. Just be sure you have plenty of room and lots of light—many of these plants are sun-loving and relatively large.


The ‘Winter King’ hawthorn (Crataegus viridis ‘Winter King’) is a small fruiting tree with bright red pomes that remain beautiful into midwinter and are eaten by many winter birds, such as cedar waxwings. Crabapples also fall into this category. The red-fruited ‘Prairifire’ and Red Jewel™ and golden-fruited ‘Lancelot’, offer exceptional disease resistance as well as loads of beautiful winter fruits for wildlife.

Pyracantha 'Soleil d'Or' JaKMPM
The colorful pomes of the firethorn are a favorite of many winter birds.

Winterberries (Ilex verticillata), beautyberries (Callicarpa spp.), firethorn (Pyracantha coccinea) and cranberry cotoneaster (Cotoneaster apiculatus), are three highly landscape-worthy shrubs with beautiful berries for the birds. All have cultivated variants that can be found in most garden centers. Their persistent winter fruits are also gorgeous—adding lots of bright color to the yard and garden when little can be found.


Nuts of all forms are eaten mostly by larger wildlife. Oaks (Quercus spp.), walnuts (Juglans spp.), and beechnuts (Fagus spp.) all offer exceptional value to wildlife. Nut-producing shrubs, such as the American hazelnut (Corylus americana) are also fair game for the margins of any large garden or landscape and produce edible nuts that are just as tasty to homeowners as they are to squirrels and deer.

It is likely that many already have many of these plants in their yards, but it never hurts to add a few more to further beautify outdoor spaces while also making them more palatable to the birds and other animals. Dwindling habitat and food sources make our yards and gardens that much more important for providing much-needed winter forage for our animal friends.

Table: Common North American winter birds and their favorite foods from yard and garden

Bird Millet Sunflower Seed Fruits Thistle Seed
American Goldfinch X X X X
Blue Jay X X
Cardinal X X X
Carolina Wren X
Cedar Waxwing X
Chickadee X X
Mourning Dove X X X
Mockingbird X
Nuthatch X X
Tufted Titmouse X X

Data gathered from

Quercus dentata JaKMPM
Oaks of all kinds produce acorns that are eaten by all manner of wild animals.

Effortless Garden Asters

Clouds of asters decorate the fall gardens at Chanticleer Garden in Wayne, PA.

Late-summer fields and meadows dotted with clouds of soft purple, violet, and white daisies are the surest seasonal sign that fall is here. These welcoming, cool-hued composites counter the warm oranges, yellows and burnished shades of goldenrods, perennial sunflowers, and black-eyed Susans. Garden-variety asters are even prettier, crowned in blooms that may venture into pink and magenta shades. For gardeners, there are no better flowers for the season.

Purple Dome aster (foreground) has some of the richest purple flowers for fall.
Purple Dome aster (foreground) has some of the richest purple flowers for fall.

Your garden’s pollinators and migrating songbirds would agree. Aster flowers attract bees and butterflies by the hundreds, and once pollinated, the seed heads become much-sought forage for songbirds. And, if these native flowers fare as well as they do in untended fields and byways, imagine how well they will do in your garden with little care.


Top Six Garden Asters

My top six asters for garden performance tend to be compact, tidy and heavy flowering. All have been proven to grow well in the regions of the Midwest and Mid-Atlantic where I have lived:

Wood’s Purple New York Aster (Symphyotrichum novi-belgii ‘Wood’s Purple’) —Loads of soft violet-purple flowers cover this low, shrubby aster (2-3’) in mid to late September.

October Skies Aromatic Aster (Symphyotrichum oblongifolius ‘October Skies’) —Many golden-eyed violet-blue flowers are the glory of this October bloomer. Plants reach an average of 2’.

Raydon’s Favorite Aromatic Aster (Symphyotrichum oblongifolius ‘Raydon’s Favorite’) —Blooming in late October to November with large, violet-purple flowers, this is a taller (3-4’) bushy variety that always performs well. Cut plants back by half in June for better flowering and tidier growth in fall.

Purple Dome New England Aster (Symphyotrichum novae-angliae ‘Purple Dome’) has a bushy habit (1.5-2′) and rich reddish purple flowers that really stand out in mid-fall.

Lovely Calico Aster (Symphyotrichum lateriflorum ‘Lovely) —Clouds of tiny pale lavender flowers bedeck this bushy (2.5-3’), dense aster in mid to late September.

Alma Potschke New England Aster (Symphyotrichum novae-angliae ‘Alma Potschke’)—One of the tallest of the set (3’), the deep magenta flowers sets this aster apart. These should also be trimmed back by half in June for better growth and flowering in fall.

Planting Asters

Aster novi-belgii
October Skies aster is a lovely mid-fall bloomer.

When interplanted with tidy bunch grasses and dwarf goldenrods, garden asters look naturalistic yet refined in the late-season garden. Planting can happen in fall or spring.

Start by picking a sunny, open garden spot. Naturalistic beds look most at home in gardens with soft, sinuous bed lines, so consider reshaping your garden to fit the character of your new plantings. Newly turned beds should be amended with a quality additive that encourages drainage while adding organic matter, such as Black Gold Garden Soil, though many field asters also grow well in clay soils.

Choosing good, complementary plants is essential. Your top picks should be vigorous, sun and heat loving, and have complementary habits, foliage and bloom times. When considering what asters to plant, talk with someone who knows and grows these plants in your area.

Other Perennials to Plant with Asters

Aster lateriflorus 'Lady in Black'
The small flowers of calico aster cover the stems of this October bloomer.

Floral compliments to all of these asters include Golden Fleece autumn goldenrod, Table Mountain willowleaf sunflower (Helianthus salicifolius ‘Table Mountain’), and the hybrid Happy Days sunflower (Helianthus ‘Happy Days’). All are compact and provide golden fall flowers that complement the cool colors of asters. Interplant with soft, airy grasses. The bunching, plush prairie dropseed (Sporobolus heterolepis), mounding Carousel little bluestem (Schizachyrium scoparium ‘Carousel’) and steely Elijah Blue fescue (Festuca glauca ‘Elijah Blue’) will add compact texture and provide winter interest.

The real beauty of these plantings is that they provide effortless late season charm and rare color that will light up any garden.

Monarch butterflies love aster blooms!