Bird-Friendly Native Plants

Five Years Later, the First Lady’s Native Plants Garden is Thriving

This Native Plants Week, get inspiration for fall planting from the bird-and-butterfly garden at the Executive Mansion.

To celebrate North Carolina Native Plants Week 2022, we caught up with First Lady Kristin Cooper and checked in on the bird-and-butterfly garden at the North Carolina Executive Mansion in downtown Raleigh.  

Audubon collaborated with the First Lady to plant the garden in 2017. Today, the garden is full of blooming coneflowers, fruiting dogwood trees, and plenty of seed heads that are feeding migrating birds. 

The net result is a bird-friendly oasis in the middle of our capital city and a model for folks looking to grow their own native plants gardens. At a small gathering on Oct. 19, the First Lady spoke about the growth of the garden over the years, and the increase in birds that has come with it. “The birds sing louder here,” she said. “You’ll be walking down the city street and all of the sudden you get hit by the bird song, especially early in the morning.” 

Speakers pose at the Executive Mansion.
North Carolina Botanical Garden Director Damon Waitt, First Lady Kristin Cooper, and Audubon North Carolina Engagement Director Kim Brand at the Executive Mansion. Photo: Ben Graham/Audubon

Kim Brand, Director of Engagement at Audubon North Carolina, spoke about the advocacy work by Audubon chapters across North Carolina to pass native plants policies in their communities, and two state-wide bills that will bring native plants to overlooked habitat along our roadways. “Together we’re building a native plants movement in North Carolina,” she said.  

The North Carolina Botanical Garden has been an important partner with the garden and Native Plants Week. At the ceremony, Director Damon Waitt spoke about his time at the Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center in Texas and the importance of people like First Lady Kristin Cooper championing the cause of native plants. Quoting Lady Bird Johnson, “Where wildflowers grow, so does hope,” he said. “Whether it’s in your garden, along a roadside, or struggling up through a crack in the sidewalk.” (Visit the NC Botanical Garden in Chapel Hill for more amazing plants and resources!)

A tour of the garden shows the hard work put in over the years is bearing fruit…and flowers and seeds to support birds and other pollinators. The formal garden beds feature 25 species native to North Carolina.  

Aromatic Aster in bloom
Aromatic Aster were popular with the pollinators during our visit. Photo: Heather Russell
Joe Pye-weed seeds.
Joe Pye-weed seeds are great bird food. Photo: Heather Russell

Right now, the Purple Coneflower and Aromatic Aster are in bloom, attracting all kinds of bees and insects. The fruit on the Flowering Dogwoods, our state flower, is turning bright red. Joe Pye-weed and Black-eyed Susan are offering up seeds for the First Lady’s favorite bird, the American Goldfinch – as well as migrating sparrows and of course our state bird, the Northern Cardinal.  

A cluster of Longleaf pines—North Carolina’s state tree—now lines the garden, a later addition by the First Lady. 

If you’re looking for inspiration this fall planting season, here are a few tips from the Executive Mansion garden: 

Plant close together. In 2017, we planted perennials like Moss Phlox and Rough Goldenrod, making sure to keep them close, just 12-18 inches apart. This helps head off weeds. Gaps larger than that will leave too much space for invasives to show up and take over. 

Leave your seeds! Skip the deadheading and leave seeds to help feed birds. Migrating species like sparrows time their journeys to match when seeds will be most plentiful, plus leftover flowers help support birds that spend the winter in the Piedmont, including American Goldfinches and our state bird, the Northern Cardinal. 

Sedges make nice edges. Plant native sedges to make sharp, formal garden edges. A good variety to try is Carex laxiculmis “Hobb Bunny Blue,” which is thriving at the Executive Mansion.  

Longleaf Pines at the Executive Mansion
Longleaf pines now stand on a plot in front of the Executive Mansion, right next to the bird-and-butterfly garden. Photo: Heather Russell

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