Look into native plants that are attractive to wildlife such as birds, butterflies, bees, etc. You can find more information at the Minnesota Native Plant Society website.
In Garden Gatherings (PDF) from the University of Minnesota Extension, there is some information on page 6 that relates to your location:
Attracting Birds to Your Yard
by Jane Aalderks, Renville County Master Gardener
If you’d like to attract birds to your yard, plant some easy to grow, inexpensive annuals!
Remember to plant the annuals densely, because
birds feel more at home in thick growth. Just scratch
the soil surface, scatter the seeds, and crumble
handfuls of soil over them. Keep the seedbed moist
until the seedlings are established and remember to
mulch your annuals before they start to flower.
It also has a list of annuals/berries/perennials that you can plant to attract birds. Some suggestions from the article are:
- Annuals: Bachelor's Button, Garden Balsam, Cosmos, etc.
- Flowers (hummingbirds): Bee Balm, Butterfly Weed, Cardinal Flower, etc.
- Berries: American Cranberry Bush, Arrowwood, Barberries, Black Currant, etc.
- Perennials: Coral Bells, Coneflowers, Coreopsis, etc.
- Vines: Sweet Autumn Clematis, American Bittersweet (plant a male and female plant for fruit set), Grapes, etc.
- Trees: Cornelian Cherry, White Fringe Tree, Hawthorn, etc.
In addition, the trees provide all kinds of food for birds, from acorns to seed pods to berries, plus countless insects.
While researching another question, I came across the below articles that I believe contain some helpful/useful information on attracting birds into your landscape and what to feed them (if you wish to-do-so):
Personally, I don't use annuals in my garden. Why?
- I'm cheap when it comes to plants (my wife is just as cheap).
- I'm lazy i.e. planting every year, looking after every year, tiding-up every year is too much of a hassle.
I only use perennials in my garden and generally try to stick with Missouri natives, or plants that are known to do well in Missouri e.g. see Plants of Merit.
Perennials (especially native plants) once established basically look after themselves, and generally speaking can be divided every few years i.e. free plants for your garden and friends...
Earlier this year, I put in a Missouri native garden, and without a doubt it's bringing in wildlife. For example:
- American Goldfinches (which I never saw in our garden the 4 previous years) visit daily to feed on the seeds of the Coneflowers.
- Hummingbirds come in regularly and feed on the 3 different varieties of Heliopsis, which I don't quite understand, seeing as the flowers (shape) aren't really suitable for them.
In bstpierre's answer, he makes an excellent point about not using, or at least limiting the use of chemicals in your landscape. Taking a more organic approach will definitely make your garden a more natural, alive environment.
Personally, I take the organic approach because I don't like using chemicals; plus I have two young children and I want them to enjoy the garden without worrying about them coming into contact with toxic substances. So yes, my garden isn't a perfectly "sterile" environment, it's alive will all kinds of things, both "good" and "bad". I just try to strike a happy balance and let things take care of themselves, and only step in if I really have to.
I notice the above referenced PDF "Garden Gatherings" doesn't recommend native and/or ornamental grasses. Personally, I think that is a major oversight and I'm a huge fan of such plants, because:
- Once established they pretty much look after themselves.
- They generally don't suffer from insect or disease problems.
- Can be divided every few years ie Free plants.
- Add great Winter time interest into the garden.
- Seed-heads can be a food source for birds during the Autumn (Fall) and Winter.
Below are native/ornamental grasses I have in my garden:
If you have a shady area in your garden, Hostas are a great plant for such areas, and when they flower, hummingbirds are attracted to those flowers.
As you've already noted, having a constant source of water is beneficial and helps attract birds (and other wildlife) in. I'm not sure if mosquitoes are a problem where you are, but if they are, you will want to keep an eye on any standing water as such areas can become breeding grounds for them.
I noticed in my native garden, which is at least a couple of years from fully establishing itself (i.e. plenty of bare spots on the ground), that the birds seemed to enjoy coming in and giving themselves a dust bath in the heat of summer.
Below are a couple of photos I took at the weekend:
Common Buckeye Butterfly resting on a Purple Coneflower (click image to enlarge)
Monarch resting on a Purple Coneflower (click image to enlarge)
While I realise the following is UK based, I believe it contains good "general" information that anyone can incorporate into their garden, if they wish to encourage wildlife in...
Listen to Gardeners’ Question Time podcast "2 Sep 11: Suffolk", start at 16mins:10secs in. Dawn Isaacs (garden writer and blogger) visits a new RSPB garden to discuss how to create a bird-friendly garden.
Below is a list of (native) plants and lawn ideas mentioned in the "2 Sep 11: Suffolk" podcast, that are used in the "Flatford Wildlife Garden":
- Allow grass to grow a little taller.
- Plant Springtime bulbs in the lawn.
Side note: IMHO putting out one or two strategically placed bird-feeders isn't the worst crime you can commit against nature, especially if they are only put out during the Winter months, when food is scarce for your non-migrating native birds.
Additionally, keep in mind there are sometimes when natural food shortages occur, Spring and Summer feeding is now thought to be a good idea, provided foods that could choke the chicks (loose whole peanuts and fat, for instance) are withheld -- refer to the following from the RSPB:
Credit goes to "Mancuniensis" for the additional "Side note" info above.