Dear Master Gardener: I would like to feed birds this winter. How should I proceed?

Answer: Feeding and watching birds is an enjoyable and rewarding hobby. To help birds survive our harsh winters and increase your viewing enjoyment during our cold, snowy months, the arrangement of your feeders and the food you offer should be modified for winter. You may want to place a group of feeders close to your house so they are easy to access when the snow gets deep. If they are too close and you are experiencing bird-window collisions, try stick-on window feeders or place the feeders 1-2 feet from the window. Cluster a group of three to four feeders and have a ground feeding site. The most effective bird feeders are platform or tray, hopper-style and cylindrical. A very important component to taking care of birds during the winter is to provide them with water in a heated bird bath.

According to the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources, chickadees and cardinals are dependable every year; however, some winter visitors are birds from other regions. Their feeding patterns are unpredictable and tend to be cyclic. If some seeds are in short supply, some species, such as red-breasted nuthatches, common and hoary redpolls, pine siskins, red and white-winged crossbills, and pine grosbeaks, may wander far from their normal ranges in search of food.

Related: Ask the Master Gardener: There are good reasons to not cut down hardy plants for winter

The birds you want to attract to your feeders will determine which type of bird food to buy. Black-oil sunflower seeds and cardinal mixes appeal to the largest variety of winter birds and contain high energy content. According to the DNR the birds that favor sunflower seeds are: northern cardinals, blue jays, black-capped and chestnut-backed chickadees, house and purple finches, American goldfinches, evening and pine grosbeaks, gray and Steller’s jays, nuthatches, crossbills, titmice, and many more.

Newsletter signup for email alerts

Peanuts provide a nutritious diet for birds, including black-capped chickadees, nuthatches, woodpeckers, blue jays, and even northern cardinals. Nyger seed (thistle) is an excellent all-winter staple for American and lesser goldfinches, common and hoary redpolls, house and purple finches, and pine siskins. If you would like to feed dark-eyed juncos, mourning doves, and sparrows, scatter a small amount of millet on the ground or on tray feeders.

Suet, suet mixes, and peanut butter provide high energy, nutritional benefits to many wintering birds. Suet can be placed in wire mesh feeders, onion sacks, or wooden dowel (cage) feeders. Pileated woodpeckers seem to prefer suet on solid platforms instead of suspended feeders. To prevent starlings from taking over your suet feeder and driving away the songbirds, you can get a “starling-proof” feeder that forces birds to feed upside down, which is not a problem for chickadees, woodpeckers, and nuthatches. Peanut butter smeared into pine cones or filled in a log-style feeder is another excellent and nutritious way to feed birds.

Related: Ask the Master Gardener: Timing is critical for dormant seeding of a lawn

Dear Master Gardener: Last winter something ate my yews almost to skeletons. They made a modest comeback this summer and I would like to protect them this winter. What do you recommend?

Answer: Both rabbits and deer are fond of yews and are likely the culprits. A combination of repellants and restrictions is probably your best course of action. Any commercial deer and rabbit repellent can be used, but be sure the product is labeled for those critters and is used according to instructions. Applications throughout the winter will be necessary. Restriction can be accomplished by making circular cages of hardware cloth or other fencing material with no larger than 1-inch mesh openings. The cages should be 4 feet tall and wide enough to allow for use in the future as the plant grows. Secure cage bottoms several inches into the soil. Two or three landscape (U-shaped) staples shoved into the soil will secure them from winter winds and storms. Similar cages can be used to protect other valuable and susceptible shrubs from animals.

Related: Ask the Master Gardener: Pumpkins, gourds used for holiday decorations are generally not edible

Dear Master Gardener: Should I spray all my evergreens with Wilt Pruf to protect them this winter?

Answer: Antitranspirants (Wilt Pruf and other such products) are sometimes sprayed onto the leaves of evergreen trees and shrubs to prevent a plant from losing water through its foliage and preventing winter damage. The theory behind using it is to clog the stomata (pores) of the plant to prevent transpiration (water loss) thereby preventing winter injury. The U of M recommends watering trees and shrubs very well until the ground freezes and wrapping trees rather than using an antitranspirant.

Jeff Gillman, Ph.D., is a former University of Minnesota horticulture professor who has spent years doing research about which garden remedies work, which ones don’t, and why. He has written a fascinating book called “The Truth about Garden Remedies: What Works, What Doesn’t, and Why.” He decided to find out why it would be a good idea to block a normal plant process. Since antiperspirants are the same concept, he tested two antiperspirants (unscented Right Guard and Secret) in different concentrations on dogwoods in his lab. He used a porometer to measure how effective those products were in shrinking pore size and discovered that in less than a week neither product was able to slow water movement out of the plants’ leaves.

According to Dr. Gillman, in the winter, desiccation (water loss) is a bigger problem than cold temperatures. When the ground is frozen trees cannot pull water from the soil. With the cold, dry winds of winter whipping through their branches, plants lose a lot of water without being able to replenish it. Based on his research and others, antitranspirants don’t last long enough to curb winter desiccation. Antitranspirants can, however, be useful for keeping fresh evergreen wreaths and decorations looking their best.

Related: Ask the Master Gardener: With the right care, orchids can rebloom for decades

You may get your garden questions answered by calling the new Master Gardener Help Line at 218-824-1068 and leaving a message. A master gardener will return your call. Or, emailing me at and I will answer you in the column if space allows.
University of Minnesota Extension Master Gardeners are trained and certified volunteers for the University of Minnesota Extension. Information given in this column is based on university research.