A Messy Winter Garden Makes Good Wildlife Habitat

You worked hard turning some of your property into wildlife habitat. You planted nectar and host plants for butterflies and pollinators. Trees and bushes offer shelter and habitat for birds, squirrels, and other small creatures. Perhaps this summer, a box turtle took up residence in your back yard or you heard tree frogs singing in your own trees! Now, after all your hard work, why would you destroy that wonderful ecosystem by cleaning it up for winter?

This time of year, experts encourage us to clean up and cut down. That is the right way to manage a manicured golf-course landscape; but it’s the wrong way to treat the property you’ve cultivated as wildlife habitat. Think about it; does Mother Nature rake leaves and cut down dried seed heads? No. Decaying plant matter provides food and shelter for insects and animals throughout the winter, and to complete the lifecycle, decaying matter amends the soil—free fertilizer!

First, let’s talk about not raking leaves. Leaf litter is a microecosystem all its own. It’s full of eggs, larvae, pupae, and thriving insects. Bag up the leaves and they’re gone—an entire little ecosystem is gone. You invited all those beneficial insects into your yard. If you want to keep them there, don’t destroy their home and kill their offspring! Instead, allow leaves to lay where they fall. Only remove leaves from areas you must. A foot of leaves is as detrimental to that thriving community as no leaves at all. In addition, wet slippery leaves are hazardous. Find balance between being a responsible homeowner and supporting the living community underneath those leaves.

Next up is your wildflowers. They’re looking shabby this time of year, but fight the urge to cut them back. Birds and other creatures depend on seeds and dried leaves for food. Many insects overwinter in dried stems. And honestly, what looks a tad shabby right now will look spectacular surrounded by a blanket of snow. I plant river oats because those glistening seeds bowing over a blanket of bright snow are beautiful.

Experts tell us that a messy winter garden encourages disease, and they’re right. Please don’t apply this messy strategy to your vegetable garden plots or your precious cultivars such as roses. Some of your landscape will require special care. However, in those areas that you purposely turned over to nature, continue to let nature take the lead.

Butterflies, native bees and pollinators, and other beneficial insects need a safe place to hibernate over winter. Birds and other small creatures need shelter and food. Truly wild places are in decline, so your yard matters. Every yard matters. Leave your wildlife habitat messy, and let nature do what it does best in a healthy balanced system.

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Photo:  Coneflowers during a heavy frost provide a lot of winter aesthetics, while also feeding song birds.

Submitted by Susan Harkins, Capital Area Ext. Master Gardener, Franklin Co. Cooperative Extension