By Laurie Casey
We are blessed with an abundance of mature trees on the Greater West Side of Chicago. And that means birds are flying above us all the time. What makes them want to stop and linger in a particular garden? Jim Gill and Elaine Petkovsek are making that discovery. For the past year, they have been working on creating a “bird garden” in their backyard. They are putting the finishing touches on a project that’s taken some muscle, a little research. . . and becoming a bit of a bird-brain.
“If you think like a bird, it starts making a lot of sense: Birds are looking for food, water and shelter,” says Jim, a former green energy consultant and teacher. So Jim and Elaine’s goals are to diversify the food on offer, provide a source of water and places to perch in their garden.
The bird garden took shape last fall in a neglected 10 x 15 foot spot that was close to the house and in view of their window. It also had good proximity to a beautiful mature hackberry tree, which attracts birds year-round, and especially late fall into winter. “Hackberry seeds stay on the tree well into winter, so birds come for them when they are desperate and hungry,” says Jim.
To build out their bird garden, last year, the couple planted an American hazelnut from the annual Native Tree and Shrub Sale presented by Green Community Connections and West Cook Wild Ones. The hazelnut has almost tripled in size since then. Growing to a mature size of up to 10 feet high and wide, the dense branching structure and large leaves will eventually provide protective cover and hazelnuts, which are relished by birds. The tree will provide human delights too: orange-red fall foliage and yellow spring blooms.
Fall is the best time to plant native trees and shrubs. Jim and Elaine are planning other upgrades this season, including an elderberry bush from this year’s Native Tree and Shrub Sale. (Editor’s note: This plant is in short supply, but there are 28 other beautiful trees and shrubs that attract birds and beneficial insects and other wildlife.)
“I researched all the plants available that attract birds, and we decided to plant an elderberry,” says Jim. “Growing up, we had elderberries in our yard, and we thought we’d give it a try here.”
Elderberry, which bursts into large, lacy white flowers in June, produces fragrant berries that ripen in August and September. Birds will gobble up the berries, but if you are quick enough, you can make them into jam, jelly, pie or wine. The shrub turns a lovely yellow in autumn.
This summer, Jim has been expanding the bird garden across a path to absorb another area. He will plant the elderberry there, and install a birdbath, which he is building using a $10 sink basin purchased from Reuse Depot that’s “perfectly round and exactly the characteristics of a bird bath. I’ll put it right in the center of the new garden,” says Jim.
When he’s finished, the bird garden will also be home to starry campion, sky blue aster, wild geranium, and prairie sundrops, among other native perennial plants. He will also transplant one of his favorites, little blue stem, from his sunny front yard garden.
The couple enjoys seeing sparrows and cardinals visit. Occasionally, a black-capped chickadee, American goldfinch and mourning dove will pop in. As his garden matures, he looks forward to seeing more and different types of birds.
But there’s another reason he has created this garden: it’s a way to countervail some of the negative impacts that humans exert on the planet. As part of this ethic, the couple also installed photovoltaic panels and a solar thermal system to help power their home and heat hot water. They drive a Chevy Volt after retiring their Jetta, which drove on used vegetable oil.
“We are veteran greenies from way back,” says Jim.
Check out all the bird-friendly trees and shrubs offered in the Fall 2019 Native Tree & Shrub Sale. The order deadline is Wednesday, Sept. 25. Tree & shrub pickup day is Saturday, Oct. 5, at Euclid Ave. United Methodist Church parking lot, 405 S. Euclid Ave., in Oak Park.
The sale is a fundraiser for Green Community Connections and is presented in partnership with Interfaith Green Network, Cook County Forest Preserve District and University of Illinois Extension, which administers the Conservation@Home program. All plants come in 5-gallon containers and sell for $30 or less.
To volunteer for the Native Tree & Shrub Sale preparation and pickup days, Friday, Oct. 4 or Saturday, Oct. 5, GO HERE.