Fall Garden Cleanup….Or Not?

Song Sparrow in native plant meadow
Photo Credit: Deborah Rivel
Putting your garden to bed for the winter can mean clipping, raking and maybe throwing things out. But if you want to maintain your property for birds and wildlife, think first before you do any of these things, as birds and wildlife depend on what you leave behind in winter for food and shelter.
NOT CLIPPING WILL FEED THE BIRDS! Before you clip back shrubs, trees or plants, make sure you are not clipping off berries, fruit or seeds.  If you have native plants, one of the great benefits for wildlife and birds is that native grasses and plants provide year-round sustenance, and in autumn and winter they provide seeds, berries and fruit.  So, cutting them back now eliminates a valuable food source that birds are really going to need once it gets cold – and isn’t this one of the main reasons you planted native plants? Many songbirds and sparrows take advantage of the protein they get from seeding plants on their way south, and catbirds, mockingbirds and other stay-at-home birds need access to fruit and berries when other sources of food become scarce in winter.

They are great for the soil as mulch, but they also provide hiding spots for insects that birds eat, and often have moth, butterfly and other insect eggs and larvae on them.  So, keeping leaves on the ground helps build a richer soil for the plants, provides protection from freezing for the roots, offers a buffet of goodies for birds rooting around during the autumn and winter and is a haven for butterflies and moths. Throwing them out may also remove the eggs for next years butterflies and moths – causing less butterfly visitors to your garden and less food for birds.
Brush Pile in the making
Photo Credit: Deborah Rivel

BRUSH PILES ARE ESSENTIAL.  If you have already created a brush pile shelter for your birds, add fallen limbs to it and keep it building throughout the year. The birds in your yard will use it to avoid inclement weatherand wind, and it will be a favorite spot to flee for safety from a predator.  If you haven’t built one yet…here’s how!

If you have a native plant meadow there is no reason to clean upanything!  Let nature take its course and leave all the seeds and stalks in place.  They will create more ground cover in the meadow for wildlife and birds, and will also enrich the soilcreate more plants, and will be a safe haven for butterfly and moth larvae for next year.  For more ideas on what you can do for birds and wildlife in your yard, check out this article from Audubon.