There are a lot of articles and lists around this time of year outlining what you need to do to make a healthy garden. A whole heap of chores. So much raking and pulling and hauling and tidying. Tidying for who? Your backyard winter parties? Santa?
I’m going to tell you to stop tidying up your yard and garden in the fall/winter. All that tidying is destroying habitat and making it more difficult for backyard wildlife.
All summer long, through your diligence in selecting native plants, careful use of only natural and organic fertilizers or pest deterrents, bird baths, mason bee homes and oodles of nectaring flowers you built up a healthy population of native bees, bugs, birds and maybe amphibians and reptiles. Why destroy all that hard work with ‘tidying’.
So many fall garden “must dos” are really “must don’ts” if you want to help wildlife survive through the winter. So to counteract those lists I’ve made my own. A fall garden checklist for wildlife and pollinators. You can find the quick version of the list here, but below I go into more detail for each line item. And trust me, much like my ‘Fall Veggie Garden List‘, which focuses on building the soil for next year’s abundance, this list doesn’t involve nearly as much work as those more ‘conventional’ ones.
- Divide perrenials
Fall is a great time of year to divide perrenials. The classic rule of thumb is to divide in the fall plants that are spring bloomers and in the spring divide the fall bloomers. I don’t listen to any of that. I divide most all of them in the fall. Mainly because in the spring, as everything is barely up and showing I don’t always rememebr who is who. Once perrenials get more than 2-3 feet across they can suffer, with their middles dying out. Give some to friends- better even still if this can convert them to a native plant lover. Or make a new bed of your own, like I did last month, turining my dead front yard into a meadow. Alternatively, head to the garden store if you need to stock up. Perrenials are often sad and scraggly looking- and sold for deep discount this time of year. But you and I know that they’ll be just fine and come back next year looking fresh.
Get out that shovel and divide those perennials!
2. Assess the compost pile. Turn/sift and topdress around the yard.
Fall is a great time to feed your beds with a sprinkle of compost. Some folks are wary of giving plants a nitrogen source in the waning days of fall- thinking it will cause extra shoot growth and energy expenditure to only be smacked back by frost. Sure- conventional potent nitrogen might do this. But compost is slow release. It will slow breakdown and seep into the soil in fall, throughout the winter and in early spring. The weak light and cooling temps are cues enough to your plant to stop investing in shoots. Don’t add too much though, a sprinkle will do. Bugs will also feed off of some of the not entirely rotted stuff, giving them a boost before winter. Squirrels might find some forage in there too. Compost feeds your soil and all the critters that run around in your soil.
3. Sew seeds that need cold stratifying
Some seeds need a blast of cold before they germinate. True, you can replicate this in your fridge. I sure do- especially when I have a very specific notion of where I want something to be. I stratify in my fridge, pot it under grow lights in March and come May I put it in the ground. But for some areas, you just want something to fill in. For that, fall is your time. Lots of native plants need this cold time to properly germinate. Milkweeds come to mind, as do native alliums, columbines, goldenrod, boneset… lots. Sometimes I’ll sprinkle a seed pack. Other times I’ll cut a few seed heads off of plants I already have and sprinkle them. Sure, I’ll save seeds and try it indoors. But nature knows how to propagate itself. You don’t always have to do much to nudge it along.
4. Mulch with leaves.
Leaves are an excellent and abundant source of nutrients for your entire yard. One that you can probably snag from the curb on yard waste pickup day for free. Some folks swear by making leaf mold, a compost made of leaves- but you can get benefit and help wildlife and pollinator habitat by just raking some whole or cut up leaves into your flower beds. Your beds will get the nutrients and ground nesting bees and bugs will get cover and warmth.
5. Stick pile
When those leaves come down, sometimes sticks do too. Fall always seems windier. I have a small yard, so most of it is ‘used’ and intentionally planted. But I do keep one corner as the stick corner. Brambly wild piles of sticks, bark and other yard rubbish are excellent bug and animal hidey places. Larger animals can visit these piles for items to fortify their nests and burrows and bugs and crawly things will happily live in the protected stick pile. If you live near the woods, that whole area is basically a stick pile. But if you garden in an suburbabn or urban place like I do, creating a messy stick corner can give a nice habitat space without taking up too much of your tiny precious yard.
6. Leave seed heads & ornamental grasses standing.
This is where this list really veers off from traditional fall garden lists. I’m going to tell you. Don’t. Clean. Up. Your. Plants. Especially not the seed heads and the ornamental grasses. Sure, remove diseased things. If you want to remove something because you don’t like it or it didn’t perform- go for it. I cut away my morning glory because my god I don’t need those things self seeding anymore than they do. And the same goes for garlic chives- once those things stop blooming I cut them back because I don’t want a whole yard of garlic chives. But I leave EVERYTHING else. Every last rotting and falling apart hosta. Every last droopy aster. Every black headed Rudbeckia.
These sunflowers still have lots of seeds for birds to forage on. Leave them up!
I know that you know that flower seed heads are excellent forage for song birds. My goldfinches are constantly feasting on the sunflower… the coneflower… the Helianthus… the Rudbeckia. Why deny them that? Sure, I fill a feeder. But dried out seed heads are choice. And boy is it an excellent show in the dead of winter.
As for the rotty hosta and droopy aster? Bee homes… bug homes…toad homes. Many native bees and most bugs overwinter underground and in leaf litter. Disturbing that disturbs their homes. ‘Nuff said. Plus, through winter and into the spring thaw some of that material will decompose and feed your soil. It will also protect tender buds and shoots next spring from errant frosts and chilly nights.
Once the danger of frost is gone, then you can clean stuff up. Yeah, it’ll look a little gross. And I’d be a liar if I said I never cleaned anything up. But leave the lions share of it down until practically your frost date. The bees will thank you.
Look at all those dead stems and leaf matter under this columbine! Past me would have scooped it up! Current me sees this as a bee house, a bug house, compost, and bird bedding material. It is staying!
7. Clean out birdbaths, pollinator puddlers, bird feeders and garden art.
With a change in season it’s a good chance to clean these things up and store as needed. I put my pollinator puddler away in the fall, mainly because I don’t go to that part of the yard as much, so it’s often out of mind. The birdbath I’ll keep out until December. Now will be the time to more consistently fill the birdfeeders. And I’ll clean and sterilize the hummingbird feeder. Birdfeeders are of course an excellent way to ensure that some of the birds that called your yard and neighborhood home during the summer are happy to stay all winter. Birdfeeders do not ‘spoil’ birds and make them forget how to forage for themselves, so don’t feel like you’re doing them an ultimate disservice. If you have toad homes you can remove them once you are sure the inhabitants have burrowed underground for winter. Some are made of terracotta and might take a beating under a lot of snow, but some might be fine. Use your judgement.
8. Finally, look back at the year. How was it and what are next year’s goals.
Fall is a great time to begin planning next year, when things are more fresh in your mind. Come February, when I typically haul out my (half completed) garden journal and all the seed catalogs I tend to bite off more than I can chew! Fall, you remember better what worked and what didn’t as you can walk around the yard and still see those plants that you may need to take note of. And fall and winter is when we have more time. There were so many ideas I had, articles I read that I didn’t have the time to read, absorb and plan it out. I was busy getting dirt under my fingernails! But now I can indulge in garden books and blogs and make a great game plan for next year!
So that is my fall checklist for a garden that is friendly for pollinators and wildlife.