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.

Fall Wildflowers for Pollinators

A monarch butterfly perilously drinks from a Monarda didyma flower--a plant typically pollinated by hummingbirds!
A monarch butterfly perilously drinks from a Monarda didyma flower–a plant typically pollinated by hummingbirds!

Late summer and fall are when pollinators prepare to migrate or overwinter, so it’s an essential time to ensure the garden is filled to the brim with good plants for pollinators to eat. And usually the best plants on the pollinator menu are native wildflowers. So, it helps to be privy to the prettiest and best behaved fall wildflowers for pollinators fit for the garden

The pale violet blue flowers of Aster oblongifolius 'October Skies' are loved by bees and butterflies.
The pale violet blue flowers of Aster oblongifolius ‘October Skies’ are loved by bees and butterflies.

Fall Composites

Composites, or plants in the daisy family, offer the most late-season bloom options on the menu. And their variety does not disappoint. Aromatic aster (Symphyotrichum oblongifolium), bright Fireworks goldenrods (Solidago rugosaFireworks), dwarf Low Down sunflower (Helianthus salicifolius Low Down) and reddish-purple meadow blazingstar (Liatris ligulistylis) are all top-notch garden plants enjoyed by butterflies, bees and even hummingbirds. Classic annual sunflowers are also easy, much-favored blooms. Then later in the season, when all these composites have gone to seed, they produce food for hungry seed-eating birds, like gold and purple finches.

A monarch favorite, orange butterflyweed can continue blooming into fall and also bears beautiful seedpods.
A monarch favorite, orange butterflyweed can continue blooming into fall and also bears beautiful seedpods.


Milkweeds (Asclepias spp.) of all kinds will continue to bloom into fall. And even when not in flower, their foliage provides essential forage for Monarch butterfly (Danaus plexippus) caterpillars. Those that are showiest in fall include the tangerine-orange flowered butterflyweed (A. tuberosa) and swamp milkweed (A. incarnata), both of which can offer flowers and showy seedpods in fall. (The non-native, semi-tropical Mexican bloodflower (A. curassavica) also provides good butterfly food, but be sure not to let it set seed as it can be weedy.) Gardeners are always surprised to see how quickly fluttering groups of butterflies (called ‘kaleidoscopes’) visit their gardens after planting Asclepias. Some may also be dismayed by all the monarch caterpillars eating their milkweed leaves, but let them eat!  Beautiful, essential butterflies are a small price to pay for a few chomped plants.

Glowing hot pink flowers, on a Salvia greggii hybrid, are a sure hummingbird lure.
Glowing hot pink flowers, on a Salvia greggii hybrid, are a sure hummingbird lure.

Salvias and Beebalms

Late-season salvia, hyssop (Agastache spp.) and beebalm (Monarda spp.) blossoms provide essential food for a wide array of pollinators. These fragrant mints come in many beautiful garden-worthy varieties. The annual scarlet sage (Salvia coccinea) is one of the best, offering endless bright red flowers until frost; white and pink varieties (‘Snow Nymph’ and ‘Coral Nymph’) are also available. A little deadheading will keep these annuals looking their best. Garden varieties of the Texas and Mexican native autumn sage (S. greggii) will also provide a big show of fall color, to the delight of travelling hummingbirds. Likewise, sunny colored hyssops in shades of orange (Agastache aurantiaca), pink (A. cana), and sunset hues (A. rupestris) lure many butterflies and hummingbirds eager to drink the last of the season’s nectar. The resilient horsemint (Monarda punctata) is another uniquely beautiful mint for late summer and fall that is favored by bees as is the hummingbird favorite, scarlet beebalm (M. didyma).

Swamp milkweed is a colorful long-bloomer that grows well in moist garden soils.
Swamp milkweed is a colorful long-bloomer that grows well in moist garden soils.

Night Bloomers

Gardeners seeking to lure sphinx moths and other charming evening pollinators might consider late-day bloomers like four-o-clocks (Mirabilis spp.) and ornamental angel’s trumpets (Datura spp.). Non-native ornamental tobaccos are also superb, non-invasive plants for moths. Two South American winners are the tall, white-flowered woodland tobacco (Nicotiana sylvestris) and pinkand whiteflowered jasmine tobacco (N. alata). Both provide wonderful evening fragrance and charming flowers that attract moths of all sorts.

Creating a sumptuous wildflower planting for pollinators is a snap because growing well-adapted, regional plants makes for easier gardening. All mentioned in this article thrive in full to partial sun and appreciate quality soil with good drainage (with the exception of swamp milkweed). Topdressing plantings with a little Black Gold Garden Compost Blend in fall will help maintain soil quality while deterring fall and winter weeds.

When the hard frosts hit, the pollinators will be gone, wintering away somewhere deep and protected or busying themselves somewhere lovely South of The Border. Either way, gardeners that plant wildflowers for pollinators can feel confident that they helped many of these creatures towards good health and survival, which helps us all.

Growing Western Wildflowers

Are you a failed wildflower grower? Growing California poppies (Eschscholzia californica), lupines, Coreopsis, and five-spot (Nemophila maculata) in the arid West is downright tricky. We sow them, and they refuse to sprout. It’s rare they return for a second season. So, what’s the problem?

First off, these western species are ephemeral annuals, meaning they live for just one season then go to seed before summer. Most of them need the full extent of our brief winter rains to get a head start on completing their life cycle prior to the long drought to come. Therefore they should be sown by Christmas to receive the rain that is essential for early spring bloom. Yet all too often they are sown during the planting frenzy of spring, which is far too late in much of the West. This leaves too short a season for them to become established and finish their life cycle.

Continue reading “Growing Western Wildflowers”

Naturalize with Woodland Perennials

Aquilegia canadensis, Dicentra eximia and Geranium maculatum
Aquilegia canadensis, Dicentra eximia and Geranium maculatum in a wooded garden.

Have a wooded garden and tired of hostas, vinca and English ivy? Tear out the old and replace it with North American native woodland perennials that gently self-sow and naturalize. Choose late spring to early summer knockouts, such as red columbine (Aquilegia canadensis), fern leaf bleeding heart (Dicentra eximia), spotted geranium (Geranium maculatum) and lady fern (Athyrium filix-femina), that can be planted in early spring. Many of these beautiful spring flowers also feed hungry bees, butterflies, and hummingbirds! Before planting, amend the soil with Black Gold® Garden Soil to give your new perennials a running head start.