Native Mid-level Trees for a Bird-Friendly Garden

All the bird action is in the middle.

By Wendy Diaz EMGV

When we added two new bird feeders to our back yard last year during the COVID-19 lockdown, we enjoyed watching these frequent winged visitors and noticed that some birds waited their turn in a few nearby small trees and shrubs and these few plants were getting as much wildlife action as the bird feeders! 

Photographs by Wendy Diaz Birds Clockwise: Northern Flicker, Starlings, Mourning Doves, Red-bellied Woodpecker, Mourning Dove and Northern Cardinal, Brown-headed Nuthatch

We also noticed that the resident squirrel and some birds were taking a toll on the narrow branches of the closest mid-level Fringe tree (Chionanthus virginicus). I realized that after considering my backyard plants from a bird’s perspective, I had plenty of canopy trees and many near ground-level native perennials but lacked small trees and shrubs. This post will focus on native small trees that can potentially thrive in my backyard.  Native shrubs, along with the vertical element of vines, is a subject for a future blog post.

Squirrel bending branch of Fringe Tree and eating the drupes. Photo taken on May 25, 2021 by Wendy Diaz

Birds perched on Fringe Tree’s branches located near our bird feeder: Bluebird (May 30, 2021), American Goldfinch (April 27, 2019) and a Brown-headed Nuthatch (June 21, 2021). Photos taken by Wendy Diaz

Why Plant Mid-level Trees?

I have made a commitment to help native wildlife and especially birds by creating a good diverse habitat for them. After all, it is the least I can do considering there are nearly 3 billion less birds in North America than there was in 1970[1] due to threats such as habitat loss and degradation as well as cats and window collisions. Just like a garden landscape design benefits aesthetically from plants of varied height, so do birds. It is important for birds and for a diverse wildlife garden to layer tree heights and plants from the ground to the tree canopy and in between. Understory or small trees are used in the middle layer of the landscape and my backyard could do more for the birds and the environment if I planted more of these trees, both deciduous and coniferous (evergreen). 

Birds prefer trees of different heights both deciduous and evergreen for roosting and cover especially in winter. Above: Brown Thrasher on a low Magnolia branch above a small Redbud. Below: Red-winged Blackbird on Red Maple branch above the bird feeder. Photos taken by Wendy Diaz on June 4, 2021 and December 28, 2020, respectively.

Trees also need to range in size and density of leaf cover and I had limited cover for birds in my backyard landscape ever since I removed some small invasive trees, bushes and vines in addition to a Forsythia hedge.  The mid-level plain of my backyard vista, between 5 and 20 feet, is pretty bare and the recently planted replacement Fothergilla bushes are still small and slow growing.

My backyard has little small tree cover for birds especially in winter. Left photo: Bird’s-eye view of east-facing backyard in winter. Right photo: Horizontal view from the back deck. Photos taken by Wendy Diaz on February 20, 2021 and March 30, 2021, respectively.

A bird habitat should include food, water, cover and a place to raise their young. Plants are the foundation of the food web and a high value native wildlife habitat has a diversity of plants that flower and produce food throughout the seasons and cover in the winter too (evergreens) and native plants that are hosts for butterfly larvae that birds need to feed their young[2]. Tree cover is necessary to give birds a place to roost, interact socially, retreat from foul weather and escape from predators[3]

Along with providing a supplemental food like bird feeders it is also important to provide a water source (bird bath) and nesting sites (bird houses and snags) for cavity dwellers like nuthatches, woodpeckers and bluebirds. It is recommended that all bird feeders always be located within 10 feet of shrubby vegetation and especially evergreen plants[4] because this provides escape cover for small birds. In other areas of the backyard I have a brush pile and low-level perennials to provide quick escapes but not near the bird feeders. I needed more smaller trees and dense shrubs to provide nesting and escape cover along the edge our forested buffer. Native small trees can also provide additional ecological value besides protective cover by producing seeds, nuts, fruits for birds and other mammals, nectar for hummingbirds and butterflies and moths and providing hosts for caterpillars. To augment the native Fringe tree, I also wanted to plant more native small trees that would be well-adapted to our soil and climate.

Birds using man-made birdbath and birdhouses. Clockwise: Finch and Northern Cardinal, Carolina Wren and Finch, White-breasted Nuthatch, Eastern Bluebird, Northern Cardinal, House Finch and Tufted Titmouse. Photos taken by Wendy Diaz in 2021.

The Search for My Mid-level Tree Wish List

This spring I decided to research a list of potential native mid-level trees for my plant wish list this fall. Planting new trees is best done in the fall after the summer heat and when the soil is still warm and the new roots can grow. It makes them more resilient to survive the next hot summer. These young trees should be watered regularly during their first season until they are established.

Matt Jones, Chatham County Extension Agent recommended some bird-friendly native trees, especially for migrating birds, for the suburban yard during a virtual New Hope Audubon Society talk[5] in March. He suggested Eastern Red cedar (Juniperus virginiana), a common conifer in the Peidmont. It is dioceous and needs both male (for pollination) and female plants which produce fruits that songbirds like to eat. Full grown it is not exactly a small tree (40 feet) and prefers full sun. The cones and seeds attract cedar waxwings and robins and provides a nice place to hide due to its dense foliage. Another evergreen small tree which will provide cover in winter is the small but very fragrant flowers of Sweet Bay Magnolia (Magnolia virginianaand provides nesting sites. It grows to 15 to 20 feet tall and attracts kingbirds, robins and thrushes. He recommended Winterberry Holly (Ilex verticillata), a deciduous holly with gold fall leaf color that only grows to about 20 feet in height and would do best in the wet area of my yard. Also dioceous (need a male and female plants), it will provide winter interest in the landscape for its bright red drupes (fruit) which attract birds in the fall and persist into the winter. The Wax Myrtle or Bayberry (Myrica cerifera) is also a dioceous small evergreen tree or shrub and its fruit attracts chickadees, meadowlarks, titmouse, thrushes and Carolina wrens and can grow to heights of 20 feet. The birds eat small grey fruit in fall and are a large part of the tree swallow’s diet. He also recommended Black Cherry (Prunus serotina)Yaupon Holly (Ilex vomitoria) and of course the Fringe tree (Chionanthus virginicus) which has drupes (fruit) that attract robins, bluebirds, thrush, mockingbirds, catbirds and even the Scarlet Tanager and not to mention squirrels.

A quick search using the North Carolina Extension Gardener Plant Toolbox[6] with my site conditions criteria: Sunlight = partial shade (2-6 hours of direct sunlight per day), Soil texture = clay soil, Soil pH = Acid < 6, Soil Drainage = good but occasionally dry, Available Space to Plant = 6-12 feet (wanted only small trees),Attracts = Songbirds and Plant type = Native Plant, listed four small trees which I could plant that would meet my landscape design criteria. These small trees were Hawthorn (Crataegus Uniflora)Yaupon Holly (Ilex vomitoria), Blackhaw Viburnum (Viburnum prunifolium) and Arrowwood Viburnum (Viburnum dentatum). This was an ideal list because on a recent scouting of my untouched natural area revealed seedlings of Yaupon Holly, Blackhaw Viburnum and Arrowwood Viburnum. The small trees produce berries in the fall for songbirds and will add to the mid-level plain in my backyard landscape especially the arching shape of the Arrowwood and the pretty white spring blossoms of the Blackhaw Viburnum and the bright red berries of the Yaupon Holly in the winter. Arrowwood will be ideal to augment my new Fothergilla hedge behind one of the bird feeders because it is tolerant of both shade and full sun and good for grouping in masses along woodland edges and produces a deep burgundy[7]to copper brown fall color. If I see Hawthorn in a nursery I will be sure to purchase it so I can add to the environmental resilience of my landscape because it is heat tolerant and in Florida grows to a larger tree size. In other parts of the garden I already have a few yaupon hollies (Ilex vomitoria) and one weeping type (Ilex vomitoria ‘Pendula’) which is a very good small tree for a native landscape due to its architecturally pleasing form and dense branches (dense branches makes it more difficult for predators to access nests) and bright winter berries for the birds. 

Photos: Blackhaw Viburnum (Viburnum prunifolium)in bloom and closeup of bloom. Photo taken by Wendy Diaz on April 7, 2021 Arrowwood Viburnum (Viburnum dentatum) Photo taken by Wendy Diaz on October 7, 2021.

Some other small trees I have read about could also be great additions to my garden such as Witch hazel (Hamamelis virginiana), an autumn-blooming deciduous small tree with pale yellow flowers that grows 15 to 20 feet tall and birds eat the fruit in the fall but due to its drought intolerance I would have to plant it in a wetter portion of my backyard and not near the bird feeders. Swamp Bay (Persea palustris), a broadleaf evergreen small tree produces small blue drupes in the fall for birds. Serviceberry, Amelanchier also may be a good candidate for my yard as a deciduous small tree that grows to 15 feet tall and blooms as soon as the ground thaws from winter.

This spring I noticed a small seedling in the recently rehabilitated north side yard where I removed a bed of invasive Vinca major and subsequently planted native perennials. Perhaps I have a bird to thank for this Cherry Laurel (Prunus laurocerasusseedling which is an evergreen small tree that I can transplant for a hedge or use it for dense cover for birds in the winter near the bird feeder in my woodland garden. I recently identified a small tree of Possumhaw (Viburnum nudum) or Possumhaw holly (Ilex decidua) in the natural buffer area. It is a deciduous dioceous tree that grows 15 to 20 feet and produces red fruit that ripens in September that persists through winter and is eaten by songbirds. Hopefully, I will discover its seedlings in the future to transplant. Other small or mid-level trees that already grow in my yard are Redbud (Cercis candadensis)Dogwood (Cornus florida), Winged Sumac (Rhus glabra) and of course the Fringe Tree, (Chionanthus virginicus). 

Photographs of other small mid-level (understory) trees: Red bud, Dogwood, Fringe Tree and Winged Sumac. Photos taken by Wendy Diaz

Published plant lists that include small trees which may be ideal for your bird-friendly yard are as follows:

  2. Table 1 Plant species native to North Carolina (including soil moisture and light requirements, region of primary occurrence and benefit to wildlife) in Landscaping for Wildlife with Native Plants
  3. Table 1 Important fruit-producing and seed-producing native plants in North Carolina and the timing of fruit or seed availability in Managing Backyards and Other Urban Habitats for Birds
  4. Table 1 Some native host plants for North Carolina Butterflies in Butterflies in Your Backyard

Where will I Find the Native small tree seedlings?

There are several ways to obtain native small trees to help birds in North Carolina and here is a list of resources:

  1. As I already mentioned, transplant seedlings from your own yard if you have a ‘natural area’.
  2. Collect seeds from trees growing wild in your area (not allowed in State Parks and Botanical Gardens).
  3. Attend a local Native plant rescue organized by the North Carolina Native Plant Society:

4. Buy from native plant nurseries:

Native Plant Nurseries

  • or from the North Carolina Forest Service:

The Time to Plant Trees is Now!

With a list of 15 small native trees, I have plenty of small tree choices to plant this fall (or transplant) to fill in the voids in my garden landscape, support a more diverse wildlife habitat and to provide cover for birds around my bird feeders. In September, a hawk stayed about an hour in our backyard. Maybe watching for moles? It seemed happy with the bluebird house as a perch. Watching this high-level predator has given new urgency to my new landscape goal of planting more mid-level trees.

Cooper’s Hawk perched on bluebird house glancing at a Brown-headed nuthatch on the bird feeder.
Photographs taken moments a part on September 21, 2021 by Wendy Diaz.



[2] Easy Ways to Provide Wildlife Cover Triangle Gardener January-February 2018

[3] Landscaping for Wildlife with Native Plants NC State Extension:

[4] Managing Backyards and Other Urban Habitats for Birds

[5] NHAS Monthly Meeting – March 4, 2021 Matt Jones, Tree Indentification-How birds use trees (especially during migration) and what trees would be good for our yards.”

[6] Plant Toolbox

[7] The American Woodland Garden, Capturing the Spirit of the Deciduous Forest. Text and photography by Rick Darke, Timber Press Copywright 2002.

October: To Do in the Garden

By Gary Crispell, EMGV

Holy Hemerocallis!!  When did September happen?  I think I missed it!  I remember Labor Day and now it is October and that calendar doesn’t look any better than September’s.  I need to go back to work.  I don’t have time for retirement.

The Accidental Cottage Garden is preparing to go to bed (pun intended) for the winter.  There are several things still blooming, but not prolifically.  Well, the stonecrop (Hylotelephium “Herbstsfreude” ‘Autumn Joy’) (Somebody went way out of their way on that one.) is prolific, but all the rest are winding down.  Ther are Chinese chives (Allium tuberosum) which the bees totally obsess over, the crazy unidentified spreading chrysanthemum (Chrysanthemum whoknowsium),  gallardia (Gallardia pulchella), hardy ageratum (Eupatorium coelestinum), wand flower (Guarda lindheimeri) and an indominable balloon flower (Platycodon grandiflorus) which has bloomed on and off since May.  Oh, and I almost forgot the three ghosts (Spiritus hauntimaria cv plywood) that have sprouted with the able assistance of 6- and 7-year-old boys.

Calendar?  Oh, you came here for the calendar?  Well, if you insist, I’ll just have to include one.


You can still reseed/overseed/start from scratch tall fescue and bluegrass (not associated with IBMA) this month.  Keep the new seeds well hydrated util they become established.

Keep leaves from building up on newly (and oldly) seeded lawns.


October is essentially a fertilizer-free month unless you are setting out spring flowering bulbs (tulips, daffodils, crocus, etc.).  If that be the case then by all means add a little 10-10-10 or equivalent to the planting soil.  Put away any left-over fertilizer in a moisture free container.


Spring flowering bulbs and pansies can be planted this month.  Plant pansies as soon as possible to give them the best opportunity to get well established before it gets cold.  One caveat, however, members of the Odocoileus virginianus species will seek out and devour pansies whenever they can.  (That’s white-tailed deer for all of you non-zoology majors.)  Pansies (Viola tricolor) are favored nearly as much as hostas and azaleas.

Perhaps you have heard or read the Green Industry’s slogan, “Fall is for Planting”.  It is more than just a marketing gimmick.  Fall is the best time to plant nearly all landscape plants.  Planting in the fall gives the plant time to establish a healthy root system before the increasingly hot and dry NC summer arrives.

Peonies can be planted/transplanted now.

If you are not planting a fall vegetable garden (The psychiatrist will see you now.) consider planting a nitrogen-fixing cover crop.  Red clover (Trifolium pratense) or winter rye grass (Lolium perenne) will work nicely.  Just ill them back into the soil come Spring to increase the nutritional and organic matter content of the soil.

Cold frame owners can plant their winter veggie garden in the frame for salad all season long.


Maybe.  If it frosts (Hey, anything is meteorologically possible in October in NC.) then you can finish cutting back your perennials that are done for the season. 

Leave the shrubs and trees alone until after a hard freeze.


This boat should have sailed last month unless you have a lace bug problem.  These persistent critters will be active (read—feeding) all winter long whenever the leaf temperature in sufficient as in when the sun is shining.  A horticultural oil will usually put a stop to their voraciousness as it will kill the adults and the eggs.


Be sure to keep moist any cuttings that you have started in the cold frame.


Take SOIL SAMPLES.  They are still FREE this month.  NCDOA charges for the analysis November through April.

Put all those leaves into the compost pile or till them into the garden.  They will breakdown faster if they are first shredded.

Give the bird feeders a thorough cleaning.  Then put them back out for the birds (and squirrels).

Dig and store (cool, dry) tender summer flowering bulbs (E.g.  gladioli, caladium, dahlia, etc.) before frost.

Do whatever it takes to get outside and enjoy what a great many people consider to be the best month of the year.  (Personally, I prefer July, but that’s just me.)  Play with your kids or grandkids or dog(s).  Go for a bicycle ride, hike a trail, paddle a stream or lake or just sit on the patio/deck and enjoy.  It can also be prime fire pit weather (meaning S’MORES).

Stay safe, y’all.  Get vaccinated.  Wear a mask.  It’s all a part of the “Do unto others” thing.

*Resources and Further Reading

Organic Lawn Care Guide

North Carolina Extension Gardener Handbook – Propagation

How to Prune Specific Plants

NC Extension Gardener Plant Toolbox (find your perfect plant or figure out what that unknown weed is!)

A Beautiful Spot for Art in the Park

By Deborah Pilkington, EMGV

Located in Orchard Park near downtown Durham, (1000 S. Duke Street), our newest garden is a collaborative effort between Durham Parks and Recreation Mature Adults program and the Master Gardener program of Durham County.

DPR approached the program for help with designing and planting a garden that would be a visually appealing place for artists to sketch, paint or photograph. The garden design would also serve as inspiration for gardeners to re-create at home, and the steps in making the garden would be posted on the DPR blog. And of course it would attract and support pollinators.

Installing the Garden

First, the shape of the garden was determined using garden house, and cardboard was laid down to suppress weeds. The cardboard was wet down, then covered with mulch for the winter. Because DPR wished a garden that would change over time, most plants chosen were annuals, and to save money, many were started from seed.

Annuals include Gomphrena globosa of two varieties, ’Nana’ and ‘Fireworks’, Pelargonium ‘Vancouver Centennial’, Plectranthus scutellarioidesBasella rubra (Red Malabar spinach), grown on the trellis, Amaranthus tricolor splendens ‘Perfecta’, Zinnia elegans, and  and Cosmos bipinnatus Sonata™ mixture. Perennial plantings include Echinacea purpurea ‘Cheyenne Spirit’, Oenothera fructicosa, pink Muhlenbergia capillaris.

On a beautiful April day, edging was installed, soil brought in to elevate the garden, and a trellis and boulder installed. The majority of plants were installed after the last frost date had passed.

The Art Class

The garden was dedicated on Earth Day, April 22, 2021. The first art class, arranged by DPR, was an acrylic painting class for mature adults from Durham’s Walltown community, held on June 17.

Master Gardener volunteers in Durham County were on hand to answer questions the participants might have about the plants, and the participants did a beautiful job; some having never painted before. One poignant comment from a participant to another was, “We survived the pandemic, and look where we are today. Painting flowers.”

Keep an eye out for future updates on the art garden and to see how we transition the garden for the cool season to keep the inspiration flowing year round!

All photos by Deborah Pilkington

September: To Do in the Garden

By Gary Crispell, EMGV

Hey, look!  It’s September and for the moment it has cooled off and the relentless humidity has dropped below 185%.  How sweet is that?  Another drop or two of rain here in Durham would be nice, but this time of the year one must be careful what one wishes for. 

The Accidental Cottage Garden looks, well, pathetic.  I eschewed using city water for anything except the tomatoes and peppers and the rain barrels have been dry more than wet, so the perennials are parched.  The butterfly weed (Asclepias tuberosa) looks weird with new blooms and nearly ripe seed pods.  Looks like an “oops” late pregnancy sort of thing.  The purple coneflowers (Echinacea purpurea) are barely hanging on, but the goldfinches (Spinus tristis) are loving the seeds.  Gaillardia (Gaillardia pulchella) are really drought resistant.  They keep their spot in the garden colorful for months with absolutely no care whatsoever.  The spreading garden mum (Chrysanthemum “I-don’t-have-a-clue”) is reblooming as usual.  It, too, requires very little attention other than deadheading the first blooms.  All the other perennials have given up the ghost.  And the fescue lawn I planted in the backyard last Fall?  You can hear it crunch when you walk across it.  That does not bode well for a reemergence this Fall.

So, let’s make the totally unwarranted assumption that we will get some rain this month so that this to do list actually has some relevance.


If your fescue lawn looks like mine September is the time for rejuvenation (reseed/overseed).  Loosen the soil in bare areas (or till up the whole yard) before sowing seed.  A major key in sowing a successful lawn in the seed/soil contact—the more the better.  If your bare spots are larger than 1 square foot a light layer of wheat straw will help maintain moisture and keep the birds from finding all of your grass seed.

Apply lime and fertilizer per your SOIL TEST recommendations.  (I just know you got a FREE soil test this summer.

Resist the urge to fertilize any warm season lawns (Bermuda grass, Zoysia, centipede) now.  It will encourage too much new growth just when they should be getting ready for dormancy.

You may treat lawns for grubs up until the middle of the month.  After that the grubs will have “settled down for a long winter’s nap”.   


Still not allowed.  Wait until Thanksgiving.  Since you are going to do all your shopping online you will have time to prune on Black Friday.  You need to work off the extra slice of pumpkin pie anyway.  Otherwise, sharpen the equipment and hang up on the wall for now.


Look for the same usual suspects as you did in August (i.e.:  wooly adelgid on hemlock, spider mites on all coniferous evergreens, tea scale on euonymus and camellia and lace bugs on azaleas and pyracantha.  FYI:  azaleas grown in the sun will be more susceptible to lace bugs than those grown in shadier conditions.).

Perpetuate your perpetual rose program.

Keep an eye out for other insets and diseases.  They like Fall as much as homo sapiens do.


It is time to dig and divide spring flowering bulbs.  Daffodils in particular will be appreciative of the attention and reward you in the Spring.

It is, also, time to transplant peonies.  Oversize the new planting hole and the root ball and avoid planting too deeply.   Cut back any old stems.  Mulch well.


Go outside just to be outside.  Mulch your plant beds if your OCD/ADHD won’t let you kick back and relax.  Clean up and put up all the equipment you won’t need until next year.  Plant a fall garden.  Clean out the summer garden and dispose of the old plant material.  Take a kid or a dog or a kid and a dog to a park and enjoy their enjoyment.

Get vaccinated and wear your mask.  “The life you save may be your own.”  Think about it.

*Resources and Further Reading

Organic Lawn Care Guide

North Carolina Extension Gardener Handbook – Starting Plants from Seed (Sexual Propagation)

Learn more about insects and how to control them from the North Carolina Extension Gardener Handbook

NC Extension Gardener Plant Toolbox (find your perfect plant or figure out what that unknown weed is!)

Learn With Us, September 2021

Durham Garden Forum: Introduction to Growing Tea in North Carolina

Tuesday, September 217:00 – 8:30pm

with Christine Parks, owner Camellia Forest Tea Garden
and author of “Grow Your Own Tea”
Learn to make all types of tea – white, green, oolong, and black – with your thriving Camellia sinensis plants. Christine joins us to provide an overview of tea including history, key plant characteristics, as well as how to plant, grow and harvest tea. Via Zoom, contact for link. 

Bull City Gardener Live! classes are back at Briggs Avenue Community Garden after a short August break. Sign up today, space is limited. September’s topic is Fall Focus on Succession Planting and Pollinator Friendly Plants

As always, Sarah P. Duke Gardens, NC Botanical Gardens, and J.C. Raulston Arboretum all offer classes and lectures.

Triangle Gardener Magazine lists additional opportunities.