Bird Feeding and Camellias

Questions about feeding birds, planting trees in overly wet soils and growing Camellias in Ontario
by Art Drysdale
by Art Drysdale


Art Drysdale, a life-long resident of Toronto and a horticulturist well known all across Canada, is now a resident of Parksville, British Columbia on Vancouver Island, just north of Nanaimo. He has reno-vated an old home and has a new garden there. His radio gardening vignettes are heard in south-western Ontario over radio station Easy 101 FM out of Tillsonburg at 2 PM weekdays.

Art also has his own website at

December 1, 2002

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Here are three shots of hardy Camellias in Mary Dragan’s garden. At top is ‘Winter’s Rose’ and directly above ‘Betty Sette’; below is ‘Survivor’ during a snowfall yet (!), and at bottom her ‘Plain Jane’ seedlings on the kitchen windowsill. Photos by Mary Dragan.

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Several questions arrived recently about bird feeding. Unfortunately, this is not the ideal time of year to write about that topic, but nevertheless, the questions deserve answers. The reason this is not a great time to write about feeding birds is that if you’ve never bothered before, the best time to start is in late summer, rather than now at the beginning or partly into the winter season.

The first question had to do with what type of feeder to use; that is, which is best. I am not sure there is one answer to that, but let me review the options.

In feeders there are platform, hopper, tube and suet types. A good platform feeder usually includes a method of drainage for rain and melted snow to prevent seeds from becoming soggy and eventually spoiling. A roof to protect the birds and seeds, and perhaps two or three sides are recommended if you are building a platform feeder.

A hopper feeder offers many advantages: easy filling, protection of seeds from the weather, and acceptance of many different types of bird food, and virtually all types of birds can use them.

Tube feeders can be made suitable for nearly all seeds, and they allow the gardener to see when the feeder is nearly empty, which the hopper type usually does not. If it’s cardinals you are trying to attract, a large seed port on a tube feeder allows the use of sunflower seeds, or even peanuts which attract the ubiquitous blue jays.

Finally, suet feeders are probably the most inexpensive and effective, and will attract woodpeckers, chickadees and nuthatches. One thing that is important with these is that they be mounted securely or they might be carried away by raccoons! A suet feeder can be made from a 30 cm (12 inch) long piece of log drilled with a series of 2 cm (3/4 inch) holes of about the same depth. Attach a screw eye to one end, fill the holes with suet and hang from a nearby tree or shrub.

As mentioned at the outset, ideally you should provide feed for birds all year ‘round, but if you have a garden with plenty of shrubs and trees that offer natural feeds for birds, you only need to start putting out feed in a feeder around the end of August, so the birds get accustomed to the feeder by the time winter sets in. Now, obviously if you haven’t started yet, there is still time, but the sooner the better.

And by the way, don’t stop feeding in early spring. Often, the months of April and May be the most difficult for some birds to find a satisfactory feed source.

A further question had to do with water for birds.

Water is an additional important need and that applies 12 months of the year. In the spring, summer and autumn, supplying water is not difficult. A bird bath need not be fancy--a plant saucer, garbage can lid, or shallow pan will do. Or one of the newer stone-like plastic bird baths will add a nice touch to your garden. Winter is an entirely different story! Many gardeners simply refill a bird bath with hot water several times a day, but a better method is a submersible water heater, designed especially for birdbaths. Remember in sub-zero temperatures, the last thing birds need is a full bath, so you should pull the plug and wait until the weather warms to say minus 8 Celsius (15 F.). By the way, don’t add any chemicals to the water--not even the non-toxic RV formulas.

As for bird feed itself, although no one actually asked that question, most veteran bird-feeding people recommend either a wild bird food of specially prepared seeds and foods, or sunflower seeds--generally a combination of black oil and striped sunflower seeds containing an oil content of forty percent or more. There are many other seeds, the next most popular is Indian niger seed, especially for American gold finches.

Another question this week is one that I’ve answered previously, but is worthwhile mentioning again because of the importance of providing trees with a reasonable chance of survival by ensuring the soil in which they’re planted suits their needs. This question involves a large (6m/18’) relatively expensive red oak (Quercus rubra) tree a year ago this past spring. To make a long story short--it was slow to leaf this spring and died during the summer, although a liquid fertilization treatment was tried. From his detailed description the reason for its demise was that it didn’t recover from the transplanting--not an unusual problem with an oak that large. One factor that the listener mentions is that the ground in which it was planted was rocky and retained water after each heavy rainfall and is very soft to walk on.

My first response has to be that oaks, as well as most other trees, do not like to have wet feet, and with the type of spring we had (do I need to remind you that in rained at least every weekend?), that may well have contributed to the demise of the oak. My suggestion would be almost any other tree for that site rather than an oak, but if an oak is what is absolutely wanted, a swamp white oak (Quercus bicolor) definitely would fare better although they are very difficult to locate in the nursery trade. One nursery that usually has them is Hortico Inc. in Waterdown (905-689-6984).

Trees that are known to a damp soil are: red maple (Acer rubrum), black-gum (Nyssa sylvatica), tamarack (Larix laricina), and virtually all willows (Salix) and poplars (Populus).

Other ideas would be to start with a smaller tree, and get in some drainage so the soil dries out faster--these would both help the cause.

On my last two radio shows (November 16 and 23) one recurring topic has been the growing of Camellias in a southern Ontario climate. Yes, Camellias! Last week, Mary Dragan, a resident of southern Mississauga, gave a good summary of how hers have done in the past ten years. Now, Mary’s location is in a very hospitable area, almost a (zone 7) micro-climate near the border of Lake Ontario, where many “considered-not-so-hardy” trees and shrubs do well. But the idea is certainly worth pursuing in other favoured zone 6 climates.

The expert on all this is Dr. William L. Ackerman, whose new book Growing Camillias in Cold Climates is Mary’s bible. The book is considered a must-have reference for camellia lovers everywhere. It is filled with over 100 colour photos and illustrations and is the only book of its kind. After 40 years of personal research, breeding, and evaluation, the Dr. Ackerman presents both the advantages and challenges encountered by northern camellia gardeners.

William Ackerman earned B.S. and M.S. degrees in horticulture from Rutgers University and a Ph.D. in Botany from the University of Maryland. Now retired, he served as a research horticulturist at the U.S. National Arboretum in Washington, D.C.

Camellia lovers will value this concisely written, beautifully illustrated resource as an essential part of their gardening library. It is published by the American Literary Press (ISBN 1-56167-716-7) and may be ordered from them by calling 1-800-873-2003. I have also verified that the book is available in Canada from Toronto’s non-profit Civic Garden Centre (CGC) at a cost of $45. If you are in Toronto and are planning to drive to the CGC to get it, do call first to verify that it is in stock (416-397-1340). The price from both sources is about the same in Canadian funds.

Mary Dragan last week told how she propagates the Camellias from seed that come from William Ackerman’s sources. It’s important that the plants’ tap roots be allowed to develop, so she grows the seedlings in recycled plastic milk bags. The seeds themselves must be stratified (placed in damp peat moss in a plastic bag which is refrigerated) for a minimum of five weeks.

Mary has already arranged to have a number of ‘Plain Jane’ seeds, as well as seeds of some of its hybrids tested at the Royal Botanical Gardens, Hamilton/Burlington, and arrangements are also pending at the Jardin botanique de Montréal. She has also been in touch with Anne Marie Van Nest at the Niagara Parks Commission Botanical Garden and School of Horticulture. I have further suggested that she get in touch with Tom Laviolette, curator of that botanical garden.

I am working on a very small list of others whom I think might be interested in testing these plants.

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