by Karin Beuerlein

The dead of winter is actually a wonderful time in the backyard garden—a time to reflect on the bones of your plants and watch birds gather at the feeder. (Though it’s 72 degrees as I write this and chickweed is running like wild hogs through my flowerbeds, so the words “dead” and “winter” ring false.)

Over the years, I’ve come to appreciate the value of winter as a time to leave things alone. Dead plants and broken-down borders are actually life-giving to birds, whereas our cultural obsession with tidy lawns is a major reason for their decline.

In 2020, make life easier on yourself and stop doing so much. Give a gift to your backyard birds this winter by brazenly neglecting all of the following:

Dead Trees

image of woodpecker in dead tree
Woodpeckers really appreciate it if you leave them a dead tree now and then. Image by Tomasz Proszek from Pixabay.

Unless a dead tree is unstable and poses a danger to human beings or nearby buildings (ask an arborist if you aren’t sure), leave it where it is. Cavity nesters such as woodpeckers, titmice, chickadees, owls, and kestrels are in dire need of them, and they host a wealth of insect life for breeding birds.

My husband’s aunt and uncle recently had an ash tree stripped of its branches in a tornado, leaving behind a beautiful, twisted, sculptural snag, and the woodpeckers were hot for it right away. I lobbied for keeping it, even though it’s the first tree you see when you turn into their driveway. Not only is it a character piece that says, “Hey—we survived a tornado,” but it can give birds life long after it’s dead.

Dead Branches

Drag fallen branches into a pile in a corner of your yard and walk away. Brush piles and wood piles offer songbirds critical winter protection from predators and the elements.    

If you want to put in a smidge more effort, The Audubon Society Guide to Attracting Birds says the value of a brush pile is greatly increased by laying your branches on a foundation of crossed logs or drainage tiles, which offer more hiding places and travel routes.

Dead Leaves

As autumn is behind us, I may be too late to plead my case here. Do you bag up or blow away your leaves? I give you permission: from now until forever, skip that stupid chore.

image of frost-covered leaves on the ground
When you see these, walk away. Image by Inga Klas from Pixabay.

Besides the free fertilizer you’re putting in the garbage and the environmental wrecking ball that is your gas-powered leaf blower, you’re also giving your backyard birds a sucker punch by removing what they need to survive. Leaf litter is vital for many species of birds because it provides camouflage and a home for the insects they eat.

What do leaves want more than anything in the world? To be left alone to blow away. Or to be raked into a garden bed to decay as they please, or to be composted in piles if you have the room. They also appreciate being mowed over to make a fine mulch that disappears entirely into the lawn within about three weeks and drastically improves the texture of your clay soil. But leaves take a dim view of being bagged and delivered to the landfill. They’re claustrophobic.

If you’re worried about your grass, don’t. Grass generally finds a way to survive. It’s easy to replace, and if it all died, you could do even better things with your yard than put it back. But that’s a post for another day.

Dead Perennials

The decay and collapse of perennials over the course of winter is an acquired visual taste, but once you become attuned to the cycle, it’s one of the most lovely and rewarding parts of gardening. In fact, many ornamental grasses and perennials are downright stunning once they get good and dead. Take ‘Cloud Nine’ switchgrass, a native marvel that towers eight feet tall and pops right back up after a snow, or joe-pye weed, tall and eerie once its leaves wither and fall.

image of winter sun shining through joe-pye weed
The winter sun shines through joe-pye weed skeletons in my backyard. Sssshhh–insects are sleeping in there.

Many native plant gardeners leave echinacea, rudbeckia, and other perennials with seedheads standing all winter to provide cover and food for the birds. And that’s a good thing. But there’s another angle that’s easy to miss: the hollow stems of perennials such as joe-pye weed, goldenrod, and monarda are where insects overwinter and lay their eggs. If you clean all your perennials up in the fall and dispose of the debris, you’re throwing away next year’s insect life—and bird food.

Instead, wait until late winter to remove dead perennial foliage, and keep an eye out for mud cells and other signs insects have used your plants to reproduce. If you can, pile the debris from hollow-stemmed plants in a place where insects can still emerge on cue when the time is right.

image of switchgrass screen in winter
Winter bird hotspot: a woodpile, a switchgrass screen, a leaf pile, and cedar compost bins offer food and places to hide.

If you’re a tidy sort who freaks out about leaving dead things standing, my best advice is to put your tallest, craziest stuff in the backyard rather than out front, and keep the border between plants and lawn neat. The tension between manicured and wild elements makes a good look and will reassure your neighbors you haven’t gone over the edge.

(Theoretically. You’ll have to ask my super-neat neighbor what she thinks of my garden, especially after I import a dead tree as the focal point of my next flowerbed. That’s going to be a huge hit, I predict.)

In the meantime, if our collective neatness is getting in the way of bird survival, can we put it aside to give our feathered friends a way out of the mess they’re in? I hope so. That’s my wish for the new year.