Neil Sperry

Birds are among the amazing sights seen in the garden. Here’s how to attract them

Here are eight vegetables to grow during winter

Want to garden during the winter, but unsure of what will grow? Here are eight cold-weather safe vegetables you can harvest during the winter.
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Want to garden during the winter, but unsure of what will grow? Here are eight cold-weather safe vegetables you can harvest during the winter.

One of our grandsons is with us a time or two each week, and he is especially interested in nature. I bought him a really nice book entitled Spiders of North America after he schooled me about the Hawaiian happy face spider (look it up – I did) and taught me that granddaddy longlegs aren’t really spiders (another lesson learned from a 9-year-old!). His library time used to be spent looking through nature books until the teachers suggested he needed to branch out and read other things.

In the meantime, we’ve hung new bird feeders in our wooded backyard. This summer it was hummingbird feeders and now it’s a variety of seed dispensers. And it’s in the process of all that that I’ve become more aware than ever of the fruit-producing plants at our landscaping call. I called Joseph’s mom the other day and suggested that they stop by on their way home from school so he could see the flurry of activity. It’s been amazing.

If you read my words here weekly, you know how obsessed I am with the hollies. I could make an entire landscape out of them. In fact, I guess I’ve come pretty close. We have 35 types of hollies in our gardens. And that’s where my story picks up.

Some birds prefer fleshy fruit to dried seed. We’ve had flocks of robins marauding our hollies and they’ve just about stripped them completely bare. I walked past a big Nellie R. Stevens holly that’s 15 feet tall a couple of days ago and suddenly I heard a loud rustle. Next thing I knew, a whole boatload of robins flew out from inside – 50 or more of them, fat and happy.

The next day I saw titmice and more robins cleaning up the Willowleaf hollies, and smaller birds are going after the BB-sized yaupon berries. Cedar waxwings will be blowing through before long, and I suspect they’ll harvest all the fruit off the Warren’s Red possumhaw hollies. There’s something for everyone at this cafeteria.

We got a kick out of a pileated woodpecker that decided to try a sunflower seed from one of our feeders. He wasn’t exactly sure what he was supposed to do. He held it in his beak as he hopped up the pecan trunk, stopping long enough to peck it against the bark every few hops until he finally just dropped it. We decided his mouth and his mindset aren’t made for cracking seeds.

Blue jays scolded intruders that competed on the ground for any of the seeds the smaller birds had scattered from the feeders.

We watched as goldfinches, black-capped chickadees and song sparrows took leave of the feeders and flew into the dried flower heads of our oakleaf hydrangeas to feed on their seeds.

And then we talked more about fruit. I showed Joseph our leatherleaf mahonias that are just now coming into bloom, and I told him how the fruit would follow in just a few weeks. How it would look like clusters of grapes and how the birds loved those as well. Again, they’re favorites of the waxwings.

Coming out of church this past Sunday I saw beautiful cotoneaster fruit, and pyracanthas have been grown by generations of American gardeners. I assume birds will get the cotoneasters. I know they go after pyracanthas. And, you may not be aware that both of those plants are close relatives (Rose family) to peaches, plums, blackberries and many other fruit crops, as are our old-fashioned Chinese photinias. They have some of the most beautiful of all our wintertime fruit.

Some fruiting plants, however, need asterisks by their names. Nandina berries are spectacular out in the winter landscape. Their beauty is doubled when they’re set off against the deep purples, reds and oranges of the plants’ winter foliage. However, they can be dangerous to birds that gorge on their berries and then can’t digest them. Cedar waxwings are especially vulnerable; so you might want to enjoy the berries as long as you can, then clip them off before the waxwings migrate through town.

And the least desirable of all our fruiting shrubs would have to be Japanese privet (ligustrum). There can be confusion as to the plant’s name, so let me describe it. I’m talking about the tall ligustrum that grows to 20 feet tall and 15 feet wide. Its leaves are 2 to 3 inches long and only modestly glossy (as opposed to the sterile, therefore non-invasive waxleaf ligustrum).

The one in question bears large clusters of purple berries that the birds love to eat and then carry to some other location. Before you know it you have an entire community of this highly invasive plant growing just about everywhere.

The smaller-leafed species of privet are just as bad. In fact, they have taken over undergrowth in many North Texas wooded areas, most notably the post oak forests. They’ve come up just about everywhere.

This has been pretty much a stream of consciousness from my mind to my fingers. It’s about several things, not just one.

First is to spend time with children whenever you can. It’s good for you, and it’s great for them. Volunteer at a school. Help at a nature center.

Second, stop long enough to observe and enjoy nature for what it brings to our lives. It’s pretty amazing what all goes on out there if you’ll just slow down long enough to see it all happening.

Third, tune in on birds and the foods that attract them, whether it’s seeds in your feeders or fruit on your plants. Let yourself enjoy the show they put on.

You can hear Neil Sperry on KLIF 570AM on Saturday afternoons 1-3 pm and on WBAP 820AM Sunday mornings 8-10 am. Join him at and follow him on Facebook.