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Building the Birdhouse Village

“If I ever try to create another garden, I would hope someone would lock me up or try to stop me…” 

These may sound like famous last words from someone who is always looking towards what’s next, but Bunny insists that the latest addition to her gardens is also the final frontier. (But really: If she did try, who in their right mind would stop her?) When we recently traveled up to Bunny’s house in the country for a photoshoot, we found ourselves enjoying her latest sanctuary: The Birdhouse Village.

Photo by Tim Street Porter

Accessible through a lattice arbor on the far end of the Sunken Garden, the birdhouse village is home to Bunny’s collection of antique birdhouses and is a garden room four years in the making. 

A mowed grass path opens up into a larger clearing with an oversized antique olive jar at its center.

Under the shade of towering pine trees and two old apple trees, sparse seating offers a place to sit and enjoy a cup of coffee to a birdsong soundtrack that by default is always on shuffle. 

“The pine trees and apple trees have always been on the property. It’s a beautiful spot, but it wasn’t a place I ever spent a lot of time. I started this garden because I needed a reason to come here.”

The seating is made of wood, in some cases constructed from thin branches, that makes it look as if it sprung straight out of the surrounding woods.

A curved bench, generously covered in lichens, blends seamlessly into its leafy surroundings. 

“The trees in this area are very large and very old, so you always have to think about what you can introduce in case you lose one. Most of the trees are existing but we planted shrubs and started a Yellowwood and PawPaw grove.”

Bunny has collected birdhouses for years, enchanted by the craftsmanship and handmade nature of them. “Part of it is my passion for architecture,” she says, “Some are cottage-like, others Greek Revival. But I also love to imagine the people who built them. You can almost see someone sitting in their garage, assembling it and adding all the details.”

The collection–currently a community of 8–lived on a shelf in her barn before finding a home here.  Elevated on wooden poles, each is positioned around the perimeter of the open-air space. 

When asked about the approach to planting, Bunny’s Head Gardener Robert Reimer starts to rattle off a list that reads (to the non-horticulturist) a bit like a grocery list for an appetizing avant-garde granola: “Winterberry, River oats, strictly native seeds….”

As we race to write down each plant’s Latin nomenclature, we also learn about some of the garden’s most recent avian visitors.

A Carolina Wren momentarily perching on a twig. Photo from Salt Magazine.

The bird houses don’t currently have many tenants, he told us, but he did recently catch the distinctly crisp, clear song of a Carolina Wren. Upon further research we learned this bird has a piercing call that sounds like its exclaiming: Teakettle-Teakettle! (Not that we’re giving awards for most-charming chirp, but we’re partial to a bird with cinnamon plumage that shares Bunny’s love of china).

Song sparrows have also been congregating in the grasses that grow around the edge of the garden. One variety is River Oats grass (aka Northern Sea Oats, or Chasmanthium latifolium), an ornamental grass easily identified from its drooping inflorescences and compressed spikelets. The grass seed was purchased from Prairie Moon Nursery in Minnesota, which has an extensive repository of native plants. In fact, the entire space consists of native plants (Robert’s specialty) many of which were grown from seed within the last 2-4 years.

Winterberry holly (Ilex verticillata) , plum leaf viburnum (Viburnum prunifolium), and umbrella magnolia (Magnolia tripetola) shrubs were also planted. All bear berries and attract insects that birds love to feast on.

Mostly, the birds like to nest up in the trees and then come down to feed. “I think they’re opposed to suburbia. Or look at it as a new housing development,” Bunny teases. 

The next addition will be a large bird bath, sourced from RT Facts, which will hopefully lead to even more sightings. 

Reflecting on the endnote of her gardens, Bunny is quick to acknowledge what it has taught her. “Gardening has taught me patience. The biggest lesson is releasing your ability to have complete control.” And after more than 35 years of planting, nurturing, and waiting for them to spring to life, it’s a lesson well learned.

All photos by Kindra Clineff unless otherwise noted.

Posted to Garden on November 4, 2021

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