Traditional gardening wisdom has it that gardens go to sleep in the winter. While some of our favourite species do hibernate or migrate during the colder seasons, our gardens can come alive during the frozen months if we plan for the needs of winter wildlife. Without the obstructions created by leaves, a well-planned winter wildlife garden can give us some of the best wildlife viewing of the year. Even the animals that remain invisible under the cover of snow and ice will reward your consideration when they emerge from dormancy in the spring and begin pollinating your plants and consuming pest organisms.
1. Don’t cut down your plants
We often think of fall as a time to tidy our gardens. Once the blooms fade and the leaves start to yellow, it can seem intuitive to cut it all down. Don’t. Aside from providing winter interest—the stems and seed pods of native plants look great covered in snow—this leftover plant material provides valuable cover for beneficial insects. Still, others overwinter as chrysalises, which may be attached to foliage. And the eggs of other species are tucked beneath leaves and in the crooks of stems. If you must cut down the dead plants in your garden, be sure to loosely pile them so that any insects living inside will be able to emerge in the spring.
2. Create a brush pile
Every gardener ends up with more sticks than they know what to do with. Instead of chucking them, create a brush pile. Brush piles can be enormous or tiny, depending on the size of your property. Even a small brush pile provides shelter for insects, arachnids, rodents, and even birds. As the material breaks down, it can be shifted over to the compost pile and later used to add nutrients to your beds. Compost piles can also provide unlikely but useful overwintering spots for amphibians that prefer to wait out the cold in terrestrial habitats.
3. Make houses for bugs and amphibians
While discussions of pollinators often focus on honeybees, native bees are far more important to Canadian flora. Brush piles and dead vegetation provide some of the same resources, but you can also make or purchase bee boxes, which consist of hollow stems and other tube-like structures stacked on top of each other. Bees can seal their larvae within and the next generation will emerge in the spring. Frogs and toads may also benefit from layers of stones and pot shards that they can burrow beneath in the fall.
4. Plant dense hedges
Most gardens will benefit from some evergreens. In addition to adding structure and colour during the winter, they also provide crucial shelter to birds and other animals. The close-knit needles of evergreen plants are even better than the spare branches of deciduous plants for weathering the frosty nights. Brush and hedges also provide cover for winter songbirds to protect them from predators.
5. Use plants that produce berries and seeds
There are a wealth of native Canadian plants that produce food for wildlife. From trees and shrubs such as mountain ash, serviceberry, chokecherry, winterberry, and dogwood to plants such as coneflowers, sunflowers, milkweeds, and grasses, each offers sustenance to varying groups of organisms. Many are suitable for landscape plantings both large and small. Birds in particular will be grateful for these additions to your garden, but rodents, raccoons, skunks, deer and coyotes will benefit as well.
6. Feed the birds
It was long debated whether or not putting out bird feeders was actually beneficial. Some scientists argued that these artificial food sources created an unhealthy dependency and interfered with natural foraging habits. However, recent research has indicated that well-chosen food sources can have a positive impact on bird populations, especially in winters where natural foods are scarce. As long as feeders are regularly sanitized and stocked with nutritious foods such as sunflower seeds and suet (rather than filler seed like barley or millet), they can augment the natural sources of food in your garden.
7. Leave your bird houses up
At the end of the growing season, it’s a good idea to sanitize your bird houses and then put them back up. In addition to providing some visual interest these structures can provide additional sources of shelter. Some small birds will actually use them as roosting places at night during the winter. Just make sure to clean off any feeders soon after a snowfall.