The Coastal Gardener: Invite a couple to share your garden

You will usually hear them before you see them. House wrens are small birds, but they are a great addition to almost any garden.

I'm standing in my garden watching a tiny brownish bird streak from the orange tree to the fence top. Once there it pauses, looks around for a moment, then begins singing. The song is melodious and wonderful, the way a songbird is supposed to sound, not chirpy, but musical.

After a brief recital the tiny bird flits over to the vegetables, broccoli leaves quiver and off comes a small caterpillar. He takes it to another fence row and devours it.

Every garden needs a couple of house wrens. They're the perfect backyard bird: tame, highly energetic, insect eating, neat and fastidious, and they give the garden a voice.

Wrens shouldn't be confused with sparrows or finches, which differ in many important ways. Sparrows and finches are seed eaters, are almost twice a wren's size, arrive in groups, have little if any song and often leave a mess for the gardener to clean up. In addition to their beautiful voice, wrens however appear in pairs, don't need birdseed, are courteous gardeners and are delightfully entertaining. A garden seems to do better with wrens in it.

Now is the time to attract a pair of wrens to your garden — and it couldn't be easier; just add a wren house. I repeat, if you want wrens, don't add a "birdhouse," add a wren house. Generic birdhouses will soon be filled with ever-present house sparrows, house finches or even starlings.

Get a wren house, one specially made for the requirements of these little birds. Wren houses are a little smaller and have an entrance hole of between 1-inch and 1.25 inches; any larger and sparrows, finches and starlings will fill it instead.

The first wren to arrive in your garden will be a male. After thoroughly exploring your whole garden, the male wren will investigate its potential new home. I hang my wren house off the patio cover with a chain, but wrens aren't too choosy about location. You can hang your wren house from a tree, mount it on a wall or place it just about anywhere and since wrens are quite approachable little birds you can place the house near a window or in a lace where you will enjoy their antics. Once the male wren finds the wren house he will stand on top of it, swell his chest, and sing at the top of his beautiful voice.

Soon, with boundless energy he will start bringing twigs to the house and stuff them inside. He may have trouble with the long ones. You'll watch him try repeatedly to push one broadside through the small round opening. Eventually he'll turn the stick lengthwise, and it will go right through. After the wren gets the stick-and-hole puzzle figured out, his work will go faster.

The stick-adding process will go on for a while. The little fellow will be proud of his craftsmanship and each time he exits, he will stand atop the birdhouse and sing proudly.

Perhaps he is correct, for after a few days, a female house wren will visit. The male wren will do his best to show her around the garden, his short tail pointing straight up. He will fly to the door to his treasure of a nest, puff his chest again and belt out his best melody, looking over his shoulder at her the whole time.

Being a bit particular and not falling for any guy she meets, the female wren will inspect the nest and its craftsmanship. This inspection period may go on for days and require several appointments.

Eventually, if sufficiently impressed, she will redecorate, starting by pushing sticks out through the opening. After she throws out enough sticks, making a small pile on the ground below, she will bring softer materials to the new home, dried grass, rootlets, soft strips of bark, bits of hair, pieces of yarn, etc.

When the lady wren is away, the male may replace one of his rejected sticks. But when his mate returns, she'll likely throw the stick out again and the two wrens often squabble about the final décor. Finally, the female wren makes a soft nest cup on top of the male's pile of sticks and lays six to eight tiny eggs.

After the eggs hatch, almost non-stop feeding begins; the male and female wrens will take turns with almost non-stop hunting trips through the garden. Aphids, caterpillars, scale insects, whitefly and almost any other six legged delicacy are on the menu.

As they grow, the nestlings make more and more noise. Eventually, they will poke their yellow-flanged bills out the entrance hole, opening them wide to receive whatever their parents bring.

About two weeks after hatching, the fluffy fledgling wrens will take their first flight, but will remain in the garden for several more days. After the young wrens strike out on their own, the male wren will often start the entire process anew, with fresh sticks and more singing and prancing around the garden in an effort to attract a second mate.

At this time it is important to clean out the wren house and, if so, there is a very good chance you'll have the privilege of watching the entire courtship, nesting and fledging process again.

Yes, every garden needs a pair of house wrens. They're great companions and their musical melodies will become the voice of your garden. All you need is a wren house; they will come.

RON VANDERHOFF is the nursery manager at Roger's Gardens, Corona del Mar

Ask Ron

Question: When I bought my pincushion plant I was told to be careful with my fertilizer and to use a special version, but I forgot. Can you remind me?

Gwen, Costa Mesa

Answer: Pincushions (Leucospermums) are in the Protea family. Most members of this family of plants can be seriously harmed by most common fertilizers. Although light feeders, when you do give them a little nutrition it is best to use organic cottonseed meal. It is a mild fertilizer and has the additional benefit of acidifying the soil, which pincushions prefer.

ASK RON your toughest gardening questions, and the expert nursery staff at Roger's Gardens will come up with an answer. Please include your name, phone number and city, and limit queries to 30 words or fewer. E-mail, or write to Plant Talk at Roger's Gardens, 2301 San Joaquin Hills Road, Corona del Mar, CA 92625.

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