Which plants are the best bird feeders?

Alys Fowler
Photograph: Kay Roxby/Alamy Stock Photo

I was admiring the glorious orange limbs of my strawberry tree, Arbutus unedo, meandering elegantly and covered in bright red baubles of fruit among glossy green leaves, when I spotted a blackbird, its beak crammed full of a single fruit. I was contemplating preserving this year’s bounty of fruit, but the sight of that happy blackbird was enough to make me realise I didn’t need any more jam in my life. This tree is far more giving to all of us in the garden than I could have conceived when I planted it to obscure my neighbour’s shed.

Fruit on the strawberry tree. Photograph: Alamy

Although I feed the song birds with meal worms, suet and seeds, I’ve come to realise that the best bird feeders are plants themselves. Fruits – from apples left on the highest branches to grapes that have dried in the autumn sun or those that hang on a strawberry tree – are all gobbled up over the winter. Swaying seed heads on teasels, Verbena bonariensis, fennel, angelica and other umbels are all devoured by only the lightest of song birds, meaning the bullish pigeons get the leftover scatterings.

The blackbirds are plucky enough to peck at the fruit, opening it for others to have a go at, and it’s all available when the birds want it rather than when I remember to fill the feeders.

Still, there comes a point when the garden’s larder is empty and then it is all about the feeders. I am being ruthlessly selfish here; I love to see birds from my kitchen window. The flutter of life on a cold, sunless day is a nature cure for winter blues. It is also essential for the summer garden. If you can ensure there is food year-round you’ll become part of the birds’ territory and they’ll stay around to root for sawfly grubs under your gooseberries, or pick off aphids from your apples in spring. It’s a lesson in reciprocity: show willing now and they’ll return the gesture over and over again.

Related: How to kill winter aphids and mealybugs | Alys Fowler

Bird feeders are not the prettiest things; if you have squirrels you’ll have to invest in caged ones, and if you have neighbourhood cats you’ll need to site them somewhere the pets can’t sit menacingly below and on a metal pole that’s impossible to climb. If you can’t be doing with all that metal and plastic, make your own from pine cones filled with unsalted peanut butter and then rolled in seed mixes and hung wherever you can. I even have a few on the washing line.