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Create a Habitat Garden for the Birds and the Bees

My habitat garden encourages me to leave the leaves under the roses and other shrubs

In the olden days we gardeners would take a deep breath and go out to clean up the fall garden. There were dead annuals, and dead perennials gone to seed. There were dead leaves everywhere. The garden is a mess in the fall.

That view of the fall garden has changed. Last month I attended Lorri Cochran’s talk, courtesy of Greening Greenfield, about how to create a habitat garden that will support birds, and bees and during the winter. Cochran is a Master Gardener, vice-president of the Western Massachusetts Master Gardener Association, and a member of the core team of Western Mass Pollinator Networks. Listening to her I realized I had not paid enough attention to the creatures that might live in my garden through the dark winter.

I was very surprised when Cochrane said was that we should not clean up our gardens in the fall. Birds, bees and even butterflies may need protection and help in our garden through the winter. Different creatures need different habitats.

Habitat for Birds

Not all birds fly south in the winter. Our gardens can help supply shelter and food. And I mean food beyond bird feeders. Some of the berry-bearing native shrubs that can provide food are the pretty winterberries (Ilex verticillata) red or gold; hollies with red berries; elderberries (Sambucus); golden Sumac ‘Tiger Eyes”; cranberrybush (Viburnum trilobum); and the chokeberries (Aronia) small trees with red or black berries.

These are just a few of the shrubs that provide food, but you need to remember that the winterberries and other hollies need male and female plants, one male to five females. You also need to know how big certain plants will get. Chokeberries will be about six feet tall, but they will spread into large clumps. These plants also tolerate wet sites. Winterberries are actually swamp plants. As I have said before, I have learned a lot about water loving plants now that I live in Greenfield.

If your garden is big enough you might be able to have larger trees, including conifers. Blue spruce will get very tall. Its thick foliage provides good shelter for birds and the cones provide edible seeds. The attractive hawthorn trees provide lots of red berries for food. Crusader is a thornless hawthorn that will grow about 25 feet tall. Check these out at the Energy Park.

Many birds like woodpeckers, bluebirds, wrens, phoebes, chickadees and others eat insects, larvae and grubs on plants, or those that have burrowed into trees. Happily old trees mark the end of my backyard.

Brush Pile for Habitat garden

There is also a substantial brush/compost pile in my back corner. The brush pile provides protection for some birds. In addition the interior of the brush pile is where compost is being made.

Finally, many birds eat seeds of trees, grasses, and flowers like native coneflowers, asters, coreopsis, Joe Pye weed, sedums. All of these plants and many more should be left standing at the end of fall. Do not spray the garden with insect killer in any season. If we do not have insects we will not have birds and bees.

Don’t forget, if we are going to feed the birds, we should also provide them with daily water.

All Kinds of Bees

Honeybees live in a hive and spend the winter feeding on their stored nectar and pollen. When it is cold they keep the queen and her brood warm.

The bumblee bee queen with just a few other bees will hibernate underground, or even in a compost pile.

Solitary bees will spend the winter as adults, or as pupae. Garden centers sell wild bee houses with a variety of nesting holes, or they may find reeds or plant stems for winter protection. Don’t get rid of those places where solitary bees might find winter shelter.

Cold compost bin

Cold compost bin made with wire and stakes

Valuable Leaves

When we bought our Greenfield house we inherited a giant sycamore on our tree strip and a lilac tree. And yes, the lilac is a real tree in the syringa family, not an overgrown lilac bush. The spring flowers have a delicious lilac-like fragrance.  We planted two river birches, two arborvitaes, and just added a redbud. Our neighbors share their oak and maple leaves with us. We have a lot of leaves in the fall and put them to good use.

When we lived in Heath the winds blew all our leaves away. There is no way to avoid raking leaves here in the city. My son just gave our lawn paths, with leaves, a final mowing, but no raking. My husband does most of the raking in front of the house. His leaves go into tall wire bins behind our hugel to break down and make cold compost. Two black compost bins take kitchen refuse and leaves.

Our brush pile does include some dead annuals and perennials from right in front of the house, and leaves. Every couple of years that pile gets turned so we can collect compost deep in its heart. Then we start a new brush and dead plant pile.

I rake here and there but not in the planting beds. Leaves will happily live and die under shrubs and other plants turning into compost. And mulch.

There is a time to clean and weed the garden. There is also a time to remember what the habitat garden needs. ###

Between the Rows  November 9, 2019