How to grow your own wild bird food

By Andy McIndoe

One of the students on my Gardening for Wildlife online course inspired this post. He made the point that although he wanted to encourage wild birds into his garden, they would have to eat scraps from the house, or forage. You may throw up your hands in horror, but the wild bird food market has only evolved in the past few years. Certainly when I was growing up bird food consisted of a few stale crusts from the house, bacon rind, the odd half coconut and a few peanuts in their shells, threaded onto cotton. You could buy packets of bird food, but there was only one main brand, and it was an occasional purchase. The idea of buying specialist seed blends and sacks of quality peanuts for our feathered friends was quite absurd.
3 White millet

I often joke that we have changed the feeding habits of the wild birds in our gardens. No longer are they interested in organic natural food, instead they opt for the ready meals that are served to them daily in technical and expensive feeders.  So when is the grow-your-own revolution going to change our habits? Supposedly we are growing more of our own food, in an attempt at self-sufficiency, so how about growing some wild bird food too?


2 Cotonester cornubia

This does not mean you have to go into full scale grain production. White and red millet are produced in vast quantities in warmer regions, much of the crop finding its way into bird seed blends.  If you are gardening in temperate regions you may have reasonable success with millet if started indoors and planted out when all frost has passed. The ornamental varieties, such as ‘Purple majesty’ will be appreciated by the birds when the seed dries and ripens.  Other grasses such as panicum and miscanthus will also produce edible seeds which can be left on the plants as seedheads; the birds will find them when they are ready to eat.

4 Miscanthus sinensis

Sunflowers are easy annuals to grow and they produce real bird food.  Go out and buy a pack of sunflower seeds as wild bird food and you will see just what good value it is growing your own. There are various varieties, tall and short to choose from. Choose one with big flowerheads: the centre will then be packed with nutritious seeds.  You don’t even need a bird feeder. You can harvest the seedheads after the flowers have faded. Keep them in a dry place indoors and hang them out one at a time. Birds will cling on and feed naturally, prising out the individual seeds from the plate-like seedhead.

5 Sunflower seedhead

Many perennials produce seed which will attract wild birds. It is up to you to leave those seedheads in place, rather than cutting back the plants and committing them to the bonfire.  The globe thistle, Echinops ritro is a strikingly architectural subject. Easy to grow it thrives in full sun on any well-drained soil. It is tempting to cut it back when the steely-blue flowers fade. Leave them in place and they will be enjoyed by finches in autumn and winter. The strong stems do not collapse and fall over. They remain stout enough to support feeding birds.

6 Echinops ritro (1280x853)

Black-eyed Susie, rudbeckia is a prairie daisy with shining golden-yellow flowers with black cone-shaped centres. After the petals fall the cones persist on strong stems where birds will pick over them removing seeds and any sheltering insects.

7 Rudbeckia

The common teasel, Dipsacus fullonum is one of the finest wildlife friendly subjects you can grow in your garden. It is a biennial, producing a rosette of prickly leaves in the first year, then a statuesque flower stem in the second. In summer the flowerheads are a magnet for bees. In winter finches and other small birds cling on and forage for the oil-rich seeds. It self-seeds and can be a bit enthusiastic about it, but the birds will be grateful.

8 Teasels - dipsacus (1280x853)

When it comes to berry-bearing shrubs and trees there are plenty to choose from.  Those who want a truly naturalistic subject should definitely plant the guelder rose, Viburnum opulus.  This has lacecap heads of white flowers in spring. The fertile florets in the centre of each flowerhead are a good food source for pollinators.  In autumn drooping clusters of redcurrant fruits hang from the branches. These persist in winter but are then taken by thrushes and blackbirds which enjoy their syrupy juice.

9 Viburnum opulus (1280x853)

Berberis come in all shapes and sizes. Their tiny spring flowers are a good source of nectar and most produce fruits that are good bird fodder. On my recent visit to Waterperry Gardens, Oxfordshire, UK I was taken with Berberis prattii. This is a big spreading shrub, far too large for the small garden. However if you’ve got a bit of space, then no shrub puts on a finer display of fruit. It’s certainly enough to nourish a substantial bird population for a few weeks.  The succulent fruits are pink and jewel-like encrusting the fine thorny twigs.

11 Sorbus hupehensis 'Pink Pagoda'

A berry-bearing tree is a perfect way to grow your own bird food, and none fit the bill better than the various types of mountain ash, sorbus. For the small garden Sorbus hupehensis is ideal. With its fine foliage, small leaflets and delicate frame it casts little shade. The variety ‘Pink Pagoda’ has deep pink fruits in dainty clusters.  These are smaller and less succulent than the red and orange berried varieties so are ignored by the birds until later into winter. In this case both birds and gardener gain from the deal.

10 Berberis prattii

There are lots more examples of plants you can grow which will enhance your garden and feed the birds at the same time.  If you are interested in gardening for wildlife why not join me on my next 4 week online course – it starts on the first Saturday in every month.


Andy McIndoe

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