As the winter weather becomes cold and wet, many of us are retreating indoors with a good book, a hot cuppa and a crackling fire, but what about the birds, pollinators and other wildlife that visit our gardens? If you enjoy hosting a variety of living things in your garden, providing shelter is an important key that many gardeners forget to address. By making a few minor adjustments to our gardening style, we can provide safe spots for wildlife during the most challenging time of year for them. Here's how.
Space trees and large shrubs closely
I offer this tip cautiously, because overplanting can ruin the form of trees and shrubs over time. However, the fact remains that a solitary tree in the landscape is buffeted by wind and rain to the point where no bird in its right mind would choose to roost there. If you want to attract wildlife, instead of selecting individual focal points, provide an interwoven canopy of multiple trees, with larger shrubs in the foreground. This does a much better job of protecting any birds who may wish to take shelter there. Conifers, with their naturally congested branching structure, are a particularly good choice to shelter birds in winter.
Allow dead trees to stand
While this isn't a practical tip for smaller landscapes, if you have a larger property where a dead tree won't pose any danger to people or property, consider leaving it. In North America, 55 different bird species nest in the cavities of dead trees. Even living trees that are beginning to decompose can host nesting birds, lizards and snakes (remember that we don't have any poisonous snakes right here on the coast), and helpful garden insects like native bees, beetles and worms. If the tree is shaded, you may even find salamanders hiding among moist, decomposing logs around the base.
Provide some packed, bare dirt
Our native bees are solitary, nonaggressive pollinators who do more good for the garden and our world than you'd expect. In most cases they are so small that their stinger couldn't hurt us even if they tried, so there is absolutely no excuse not to invite these beautiful, shiny-bodied creatures into your garden. Many of them have a simple need that is being ignored: an open area of packed, bare dirt. Some of our bees create tiny holes in the ground where they take shelter by themselves, and they prefer uncultivated soil that does not have any mulch. That said, it's perfectly all right to scatter a few California poppy seeds on the ground, as the bees will be delighted to find food nearby.
Put up a bee box
Other types of native bee overwinter in tiny holes or tubes such as those found in hollow stems around the landscape, and they are fabulous pollinators for people with fruit trees, because they emerge at about the same time your early fruit trees are blooming. If you want to attract them, you can start by planting our native checkers, a wildflower with hollow stems of the perfect size, and you can put up a bee box.
You can DIY an inexpensive bee box by drilling a variety of holes (5/16 of an inch works best) in a block of untreated wood, and build a roof over it so the holes don't get soggy in winter. Alternately, there are beautifully designed boxes available at the nursery. For success, place the bee house on the south side of buildings, fence posts or trees, and don't move them after they are in place until at least November. If you see the holes covered up with a splotch of mud, you'll know you are hosting these peaceful little pollinators.
Create a brush pile
A wide variety of songbirds love to peck, scratch and hide among open brush piles. The key to success here is to pile up crisscrossing limbs of varying sizes so that there are plenty of open holes and areas to take cover. If you want to also attract salamanders, pack some fallen leaves around one side of the pile to create a moist, decomposing home for them to huddle in.
While many people think of brush piles as unattractive, they can be built in an orderly way with roughly textured limbs, colored stems, and conifer boughs to create something more akin to an art installation than a trash heap. Also keep in mind that if you create a small brush pile in fall near a window so you can watch the movements of songbirds, you can move that pile in early spring to a less visible location as long as you are careful not to hurt any salamanders which may be hiding in the rotted leaves. However, huge, long-established brush piles should not be moved in spring, as this is nesting time.
A rock pile for reptiles
Though reptiles are an unpopular sell to most people, our nonpoisonous snakes and lizards are an excellent addition to the garden, and they eat many garden pests such as snails. By creating a small rock pile using loose stones of varying sizes, you can provide them with a place to escape from nasty weather and predators, and a spot to sun themselves in summer. If you want to create a larger rock pile, you can use broken parts or chunks of concrete as the base, as long as there are enough open spaces to hide. Then, use more attractive rocks in the more visible areas so the rock pile becomes a thoughtfully designed part of your landscape. Alternately, consider a woodpile, which due to the added moisture may attract amphibians like frogs and salamanders, small mammals, or the native insects which provide food for baby birds in spring.
Leave the leaf litter and don't be too tidy
Though I am a fan of a beautifully maintained garden, some artfully-managed disarray can go a long way toward helping wildlife. Try to adjust your eyes to the beauty found in the sculptural seed heads and brown or beige foliage of dormant perennials and ornamental grasses, and leave them in the landscape until the end of January to provide food and shelter to birds and native insects.
Leaf litter can be a double-edged sword, but is mostly beneficial. On the negative side it can provide a hiding place for snails and slugs, and can overwinter harmful diseases underneath susceptible plants like roses, fruit trees, rhododendrons and camellias. On the positive side, fallen leaves shelter salamanders, helpful garden spiders which keep plant pests in check, and the native insects which feed the baby birds in spring. To strike a balance in your landscape, consider not raking under most trees and shrubs, and just clean up in the foreground to give the landscape a cared-for look that is still beneficial to wildlife.
The January gardening to-do list:
Don't prune frost-damaged plants until the weather warms up.
Prune the old foliage off hellebores as bloom stalks emerge.
Prune hybrid tea, climbing and other roses.
Prune dormant fruit trees including apples, pears, peaches, figs, cherries and plums.
Cut back dormant grasses late in the month.
Shop for bare root fruit trees now.
Rake up fallen camellia leaves and petals to prevent petal blight.
Prune red- and yellow-twig dogwoods.
Pile up some loose, rounded rocks
For a more detailed to-do list, visit www.northcoastjournal.com/GardenTodo.
Genevieve Schmidt is a landscape designer and owns a fine landscape maintenance company in Arcata. Visit her on the web at www.GenevieveSchmidtDesign.com.