The Winter Wildlife Garden
by Ann McKean
Here in Montana most of us withdraw from the garden for the winter and dream impatiently about the return of summer, but there is a whole season of beauty and benefit that you can tap into by adding some wildlife friendly plants to provide late season food and cover. However, before you even plant a thing, think about changing your gardening habits.
First, switch your garden cleanup season to spring instead of autumn. Nature doesn’t do fall cleanup so why do we?! Besides returning some lost nutrients back to the soil and adding winter interest with structure and texture, the plants you don’t cut down and the leaves you don’t rake up provide critical winter shelter for birds, small mammals and even hibernating insects. They also help protect the crowns and roots of your plants. If you have a specific concern about disease and need to rake under or cut down certain plants in the fall, try creating a winter brush pile in another area to preserve hollow stems and create a place to hibernate and hide. Remember to wait to compost or toss what’s left until critters have had a chance to wake up.
Second, try not to use pesticides. Reducing or eliminating pesticide use not only spares the caterpillars birds need to raise their young, but also preserves the beneficial predatory insects which help keep things in balance. If you practice good cultural maintenance with proper plant selection, spacing, pruning, watering and judicious feeding, nature will usually be able to keep pest populations below the threshold of chemical intervention. As Master Gardeners, we must lead the way to a paradigm shift about how we view our gardens and the wildlife they support.
There are many plants we can include in a winter garden to benefit wildlife and add beauty. Native plants are always a good choice because they have evolved with the insects, animals and conditions in our region. Some of these plants offer vital late season nectar and pollen, including rabbitbrush, asters, coneflowers, goldenrod and perennial sunflowers. Many also provide nutrient and calorie packed seeds through the winter. There are also a host of native and non-native shrubs and trees which offer a bounty of nuts, berries and sometimes even twigs to nibble. Chokeberries and chokecherries, snowberries, sumacs, viburnum, red-twig dogwood, roses, mountain ash, crabapples, oaks and cone bearing evergreens are a few examples. I’ve even watched in amazement as wild turkeys deftly strip grass seeds from their stalks. All of these plants also add rich texture, structure and subtle color to our winter landscapes.
As you plan next season’s garden additions and head out to the nurseries this spring, think about how fortunate we are to enjoy such a wide variety of wildlife so close to home, and remember to include some plants for your winter garden to support those treasures. You, your garden and your community will be enriched.
Source: https://www.nwf.org/Magazines/National- Wildlife/2012/DecJan/Gardening/Winter- Table-for-Wildlife