Don't Tidy Up Your Winter Landscape

Adapted from the original article in the Virginia Native Plant Society's Bulletin (Fall 2008) and reprinted with permission from the Virginia Native Plant Society in Conservation Currents, Northern Virginia Soil and Water Conservation District, Fall 2009-Winter 2010.

As the growing season comes to an end, it’s time for you to relax. Don’t feel compelled to “tidy up” for the winter. All those standing stems, leaves and seedheads provide food, shelter and nesting materials for wildlife. “Cleaning” the flower beds removes important food and cover sources for migrating birds and over-wintering wildlife.

Here are just a few benefits that leftover plant debris can provide and ideas for creating a beautiful, wildlife-friendly winter garden.

Stands of dead perennials and grasses help the soil retain moisture and stabilize ground temperature. During the growing season, the roots aerated the soil; now the stems, leaves and spent flower heads break the force of rain helping prevent the soil from compacting. Small birds scratch on the soft, open soil feeding on worms, grubs and insect egg cases. Debris from these plants also provides cover and seeds for a variety of wildlife. Native wildflowers and grasses are particularly important sources of habitat and food for birds and small mammals, as are winter cover crops like clover, rye or timothy.

Red Chokeberry image
Shrubs like red chokeberry (Photinia pyrifolia) bear fruit that lasts into winter and feeds overwintering wildlife.

Frost and snow on standing plants is beautiful – one of the most important things to cultivate in your garden is your eye. Perennials like sedum remain upright over the winter and offer visual dimension to the winter garden. Nature has no off-season! Early-blooming witchhazel and highbush blueberry shrubs will raise dull winter spirits.

Fruit and nut-bearing trees like oaks, walnut, sourwood and beech provide important winter food for resident birds and their natural cavities are used for nesting and shelter. Trees and shrubs like holly, winterberry and cedar, with fruits that persist into winter, are especially valuable to wildlife. Shrubs like beautyberry, bayberry and hearts a-bustin’ also remain attractive to wintering wildlife all season. Tree and shrub fruit that lingers into winter becomes sweeter during freeze and thaw and is available during the lean times of winter and early spring to provide resident wildlife species and returning migratory birds with food.

If space is a limitation in your yard, consider winter food plants first. They are the most important because natural foods are scarce during this season. If you can, place wildlife food sources next to cover to minimize the exposure of feeding wildlife to harsh weather conditions and predation. These two factors account for more than 90 percent of winter mortality.

Vines like poison ivy and greenbrier may be unfriendly to humans, but birds and small mammals love the berries – they are not allergic to the oils or bothered by the thorns! Virginia creeper, another native fruit bearing vine, is an important food source to over 35 species of birds.

Evergreens should occupy a significant portion of a wildlife habitat garden; dense evergreen tree and shrub plantings provide valuable escape and roosting areas and shelter in rain, heat and harsh winter weather. The sap, needles, twigs, buds and seeds of these plants, and the insects that make their homes in evergreens, are food for wildlife. In summer, cavities in evergreen trees are often used for nesting.

Birds can play an important part in planting a natural habitat if you choose to let the plants grow! During digestion, deterioration of the outer coat of seeds or scarification, occurs. When birds pass the seeds, they grow where they land to produce the next generation of fruit and nectar plants. American holly trees with evergreen leaves are particularly attractive to winter birds who may plant a varied garden beneath its branches.

A “snag” is a dead or dying tree. Snags are like gold in the wildlife world, used as nesting and perching sites, as food sources and to establish territory. Brush piles provide nesting and den sites, and are a place to hide for many species of wildlife including small mammals, bird, amphibians and reptiles.

And where are the butterflies and moths during the winter? Most have formed their cocoons high in native trees – the oaks, willows, hackberry and maples. When pruning these woody species in February, put the branches in a brush pile in a secluded corner so butterflies and moths can develop into their adult forms. Burning or hauling dead woody plant material is a loss to native wildlife. Don’t burn brush piles! It’s likely that praying mantis egg cases are overwintering there.

Our natural tendency is to “tidy” our gardens and settle everything for the winter, but nature prefers a little more “wildness” if we can stand it. When new growth begins and old plant debris begins to seem passé, that’s the time to harvest the old stems, flower heads and seed pods and look ahead to a new growing season.

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