Tempting as it might be to “clean up” the garden and your yard for winter, as far as wildlife is concerned, it’s best to leave them as is for the season. “Messy is definitely good to provide food and shelter for birds during the cold winter months,” says Tod Winston, Audubon’s Plants for Birds program manager. Just as we at the Land Alliance try to let native plants grow in our meadows until the end of the winter for the benefit of birds (and other wildlife), leaving flowers and seeds in your home garden (from the growing season just past) will appeal immensely to the inhabitants of your garden. Here are a few tips you can follow through the fall and winter to benefit your garden, lawn and wildlife:
Leave seeds and galls – Many animals forage on seeds found on wildflowers and native grasses. Seed-eating birds include a number of species that spend the winter on Long Island or stop here during their fall migration, among them blue jays, nuthatches, grosbeaks and sparrows. Studies have shown a link between availability of winter food sources such as seeds and shriveled fruits and reproductive success.
Goldenrods are examples of plant species on which flies, beetles and wasps lay eggs which are housed in galls (sores or lesions) along the stem. Birds feast on the larvae that result.
Leave leaves – Saving yourself the activity of raking the lawn will also make the local wildlife happier and healthier than a manicured lawn or garden will. Birds and insects will forage under the leaves which, as they decompose, also fortify the soil. Leaf litter provides shelter for salamanders and toads as well as a place for moth caterpillars on which birds depend. Keep in mind, too, that the chrysalis of a swallowtail or sulfur butterfly as well as countless other beneficial insect species may be overwintering under a leaf on your lawn or in your garden. If you must rake leaves from your lawn, moving them to your garden beds (rather than bagging them up and delivering them to a landfill!) will benefit the soil there and still provide foraging opportunities for fauna.
Make a brush pile – Ditto with fallen sticks and limbs. Rather than removing them from your property, use them to make a brush pile that will be very inviting to any number of overwintering bird species (including black-capped chickadees), rabbits and other wildlife for foraging and shelter.
Avoid the use of chemicals on your lawn and garden Leaving grass clippings and leaves will do a much better job of nourishing your lawn than chemicals.
And don’t forget that fall is a great time to plant the goldenrods, asters, sunflowers, coneflowers and Coreopsis that bestow seeds on your fall and winter garden, as well as countless other native plant species!