Want birds? Plant food.

Karin BeuerleinFun Outdoors

Knoxville’s birds need your help! Through Nov. 15, the Knoxville Chapter of the Tennessee Ornithological Society is sponsoring a contest to encourage planting of native plants. Native plants not only provide the bird food we commonly think of — seeds, acorns, berries — but they also produce the insect life that sustains almost every species that visits your yard. You’ll be doing your part to combat declining bird populations, one productive plant at a time. Rules here.


Fall is an excellent time to plant in the Southeast because cooler temps and wetter weather give root systems time to get well established before next spring — which means you’ll water much less next year. You can get native plants at many garden centers and mail-order nurseries, but if you’re new to natives and aren’t sure what’s what, these three wonderful local sources have everything you need:

There’s no lovelier way to spend a sunny afternoon than a drive out to Overhill Gardens in Vonore – and no better time to buy plants, because they’re offering 20% off the entire nursery stock during October. Owner Avi Askey says there’s tons of bird activity out there right now, and you can actually see which plants are most popular with feathered folks. A few of his bird-friendly recommendations based on what’s currently in stock: swamp white oak, umbrella magnolia, black gum, alternate-leaf dogwood, winterberry, viburnum, chokeberry, spicebush, devil’s walking stick, giant hyssop, cup plant and Indian grass. Go visit! Info here.

Jessica Vinson and Becky Marlow at Tennessee Naturescapes in Clinton offer mail order and curbside pickup (both of which are handy if you want a no-contact plant shopping experience), or you can browse selections in person. All their plants are bird-friendly, but Jessica and Becky offered a few suggestions based on their current stock. All are larval hosts – yes, even the grass! Info here.

  • Black chokeberry – This medium-sized shrub provides black berries in winter.
  • Possumhaw holly – A large shrub/small tree that’s an important winter food source. In order for the female plants to produce the bright red berries, you need at least one male holly nearby.
  • Silky dogwood – A medium-to-large shrub with fall berries for migrators.
  • Hearts-a-burstin’ – A large shrub with great fall color; songbirds love the seeds.
  • Little bluestem ‘The Blues’ – This grass is an easy addition to provide nesting materials and seeds.

Native Plant Rescue Squad, a nonprofit dedicated to conserving and restoring East Tennessee’s native flora, offers a great selection of plants that would have been otherwise destroyed by local development. Browse their current inventory and their tree and shrub price list – note that they have some very nice oaks available. Joy Grissom and Gerry Moll will be happy to answer any questions you have. Order by emailing them directly; plant pickup is by appointment.

I planted a new tree in my yard! It’s American hornbeam ‘Firespire.’ American hornbeam hosts 68 species of butterflies and moths, including the Eastern tiger swallowtail and the striped hairstreak. It also produces seeds that songbirds love. ‘Firespire’ is a narrow selection, only 10 feet wide, that’s good for small suburban spaces and has electric fall color.

I also planted six ‘Iron Butterfly’ ironweeds, 10 ‘Peachie’s Pick’ stokesias, and nine ‘Blue Paradise’ phlox, Any questions? Need advice on what to plant? Comment below or email knoxbirds@gmail.com.

Karin Beuerlein is a writer, gardener and backyard birdwatcher in Knoxville TN. Read her blog at https://www.knoxbirds.org/blog/

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