Home & Garden

Backyard Wildlife: Leave winter habitats for animals

To provide food and camouflage for wildlife in her Raleigh garden, Helen Yoest lets it transition through the seasons without making it too tidy. Though the untrimmed effect may not always be considered attractive, it has benefits for wildlife, she says.
To provide food and camouflage for wildlife in her Raleigh garden, Helen Yoest lets it transition through the seasons without making it too tidy. Though the untrimmed effect may not always be considered attractive, it has benefits for wildlife, she says. jleonard@newsobserver.com

Many gardeners experience what is sometimes described as a “downward energy” come fall.

The excitement of spring and the lush landscapes of midsummer are behind us, and many of our favorite wildlife species are heading south or burrowing in for a long winter’s nap.

While plenty of worthwhile activities remain on a gardener’s to-do list this time of year – raking leaves, cutting back stalks, brush clearing among them – autumn also tends to prompt a reflective look back over the recent growing season.

Inevitably, there are losses we can count. The butterfly bush that didn’t take off. The discovery of a baby bird that failed to make it to adulthood.

But for me, there was the heartwarming sight of a chickadee nestling safely in the ceramic birdhouse near my porch one wet, windy September day. And a pair of lizards who often welcomed me home from their perch in a thicket of hellebores near the driveway.

As summer waned, I anticipated a fallow period of sitting tight in anticipation of more hospitable weather for wildlife gardening. But I was re-energized recently after discovering an article on the National Wildlife Federation website titled “ Wildlife Brush Shelters,” written by Kevin Munroe of Reston, Va.

Rather than winding down garden activities, Munroe proposes embracing the season by, among other things, venturing into the backyard to create a wildlife brush shelter that will welcome different types of wildlife throughout the winter.

Learning about brush shelters made me curious about other ways a wildlife gardener can be more active in winter. So I decided to call Helen Yoest, a longtime Raleigh gardener and author of the inspiring how-to book “Gardening With Confidence.”

Yoest’s autumn advice is simple: “Do not be too hasty about cutting back in the fall and early winter.”

Seed heads of certain plants will still be enjoyed by birds, and stalks of plants such as Rudbeckia can serve as windbreaks and provide camouflage against predators for birds and other small animals, she added. While the untrimmed effect may not always be considered attractive, the benefit to wildlife has great value, Yoest said.

She suggests fall is a perfect time to add missing attributes to your wildlife garden, since almost every type of plant – with the exception of annuals – can still be planted successfully as long as the ground isn’t frozen.

Top to bottom

Creating various “layers” in the landscape can be especially important for wildlife, Yoest said. She recommends an upper plane of vegetation with small trees and large shrubs; an intermediate level with smaller shrubs, perennials and annuals; a lower plane with sedums, hellebores and other petite plants; and finally, ground covers.

“While towhees might love a brush pile, a robin will want to go higher into a tree to hang out and roost or find a safe place to hide,” she said. She also reminds gardeners that water is an important element for creating a wildlife habitat even in, or perhaps especially, in winter.

“People often overlook the need for fresh water in the winter,” Yoest said, adding that birds are much more likely to die from dehydration in cold weather than lack of food.

If you are feeling particularly ambitious this month, think about creating a small pond or other water source in your wildlife garden.

“Not only do animals need water to drink, birds use it to fluff up their feathers to create better insulation for withstanding the cold,” Yoest said.

While I am not ready to enter backyard pond territory, I will make a point to keep my birdbath full and ice-free. I’m excited about plans for a brush shelter to protect some animals who want a denser and more secure space to occupy than the standing remnants of my plants and shrubs.

In his concept, Munroe envisions a brush shelter as a “topography of nooks and crannies, a fortress of crevices and interlocking branches to provide hiding places for dozens of animal species.”

And building a brush shelter also sounds like fun, so I’m all in!

The instructions are simple:

• Find a half-dozen or so logs or branches that are 6 to 10 feet long and 4 to 6 inches in diameter to build a base. Stack them in a crisscross pattern that is stable yet provides room for animals to scamper in between. On top of those, place several smaller branches in a somewhat tighter pattern. Continue to add smaller and smaller branches in an increasingly tighter formation to create a compact “weave” along the roof.

• Build your brush shelter 20 feet wide and 8 feet high – or, for smaller yards, half or even a third that size – to attract a variety of creatures, from salamanders and toads at the base, to rabbits, sparrows and turtles slightly higher in the branches, to butterflies and salamanders on the perimeter.

• Use stone piles to create animal resting places at the bottom of the pile. Also include a few large rocks along the edges to give lizards and other reptiles a flat surface for basking in the warm winter sun.

• Other tips from Munroe include locating the shelter half in sun and half in shade to attract a larger diversity of animals. Plant native vines to attract more birds and insects with berries and flowers. And find some evergreen branches to insert along the top in the harshest months, giving extra protection from ice and snow.

Elder: wildlifechatter@gmail.com