Connecticut Audbon Society

generic banner

Homegrown Habitat answers the mail

Winterberry at a time of year when it’s hard to miss its scarlet berries. Photo courtesy of Jim Robbins.

February 27, 2023
Sarah Middeleer is happy to answer your questions about how to make your property more attractive to birds.

Write to her at

Most recently she’s gotten questions about winterberry and native shrubs.

Re: Winterberry

Hi Sarah,
I am very interested in having more native plants and pollinators in my yard. We are on the CT shoreline and have a relatively small lot that is built on ledge. I’ve tried planting things and most either get eaten by the chipmunks, ground hogs, squirrels, or bunnies, or they just don’t make it because there isn’t enough soil. Most places only have about 6 inches depth before you hit rock.

Is there anything you suggest that would still grow in my yard that is beneficial to the environment? What about planting in pots? Will the bugs, birds, and butterflies still come?

I also don’t want to be purchasing all new plants every year. I would love some help in making my yard into a place where nature can thrive without bringing in 100’s of tons of soil. We have brought in some for some beds but it’s not enough.

Sarah Johns

Sarah Middeleer’s reply:

Deer Sarah,
How wonderful to have a place on the shore (or at least nearby)! Winterberry most likely won’t do well there. Here are a few quick thoughts:

  • see what’s growing nearby or in similar conditions. These plants are clearly adapted to challenges like yours.
  • read up on plants recommended for seaside and also rock gardens (a couple of suggested resources are below.)
  • visit good nurseries in the area for their recommended plants. Native plants are best for wildlife and for creating a truly natural plant community.
  • visit public gardens such as the Connecticut College Arboretum. Besides having a native plant collection you can view, they may have staff who can help. They also have publications which might be helpful.
  • concentrate on the toughest, most drought-tolerant plants for now, such as common juniper, native grasses, sweetfern, bayberry, butterflyweed, certain asters, goldenrod, etc.
  • you may need to make temporary cages for certain plants until they get establshed. Woodchucks are true menaces, and they can dig under and climb over fences, so your best hope there is to figure out through advice or trial and error what they don’t like.
  • for shrubs and trees you can mound soil up to give them a little extra soil. Keep them well watered until they are established.
  • consider celebrating the ledge, which can be so beautiful, and plant sparingly in pockets in between outcrops.
  • yes, you can plant in containers, and yes, the birds and butterflies will come. I put out Salvia ‘Black and Blue’ each year in big containers, and the hummingbirds love it. It’s not native, but I’m not a purist when it comes to annuals like this plant. Zinnias will grow super easily from seed, and the butterflies love them. Goldfinches scarf up the seeds. Be aware that containerized plants may have to be replaced each spring, since their roots may freeze in the containers. Also, leaving soil in terra cotta or ceramic containers will result in them cracking.
Here are several resources:
  • American Plants for American Gardens by Edith Roberts and Elsa Rehmann (last chapter)
  • “Native Shrubs for Landscaping,” Connecticut College
  • coastal gardening in Connecticut
  • Natureworks, in Northford. This nursery is fabulous and they also have a landscaping service. They are highly oriented toward supporting pollinators. They certainly can advise you and may have helpful books. But if you want someone to look at your place and possibly help you with it, they do a great job. 
Good luck, and let me know how it goes!
Sarah W. Middeleer

Redosier dogwood fruit. Photo by Andrea Moro, CC BY-SA 4.0

Re: Native shrubs

Dear Sarah,
My daughter just bought a house and it has a small-ish back yard.  She has two garden beds — one on the side of the back yard that has a little room and on the side of the house that flanks the driveway.  She only wants to use native plants and lives in Delaware (another wonderful small state).  

She doesn’t have a lot of room for large-ish shrubs so I think we need smaller perennials and maybe a shrub or two.  We do not want anything that gets too big or leggy and it seems many do which I understand.

Thanks so much in advance.


Sarah Middeleer’s reply:

Dear Amy,

Thanks for sending your question to Homegrown Habitat. How exciting for you daughter to have a new home and garden!

It could actually be unhelpful for me to suggest plants based on this information, because there are so many other factors to consider – such as solar orientation, size of the beds, soil conditions, existing plants, etc.

I’d recommend that your daughter familiarize herself with perennials and shrubs native to the Mid-Atlantic, of which there are many. There seem to be several helpful websites on plants native to Delaware, including one by the Univ. of Delaware and one called

Mt. Cuba Center, in Hockessin, Del, is a renowned botanical garden and research center devoted to native plants. They don’t open to the public until April, but they have lots of resources on their website that she might find useful.  And then perhaps she can visit their gardens to see what appeals to her. The Univ. of Delaware also has a number of botanical gardens, including one devoted to native plants.

Many of these centers and websites may also have good recommendations for books on the subject. 

I wish your daughter luck on this quest – so glad to hear that she wants to create a native plant garden on her property. She will no doubt be richly rewarded with avian visitors, not to mention plenty of pollinators!
With best wishes,

Sarah W. Middeleer






Follow Us Facebook Twitter Instagram