Fall Gardening for happy wild critters

Friends, I have chosen to share in full a wonderful primer for how to support pollinators and all wildlife during the upcoming difficult winter months.

The Farmers Almanac 2021 says we are going to have a very cold Nov/Dec then move into the usual moisture and snowpack (which is becoming more reduced each year) for January and February. Our native bees, all pollinators and wildlife need all the shelter and support we can give to them. They live tenuous lives with a very thin thread connecting them to survival.

Thank you Ani of Valle Del Oro’s Albuquerque Backyard Refuge Program for their wonderful work in the community! They are the newest kid on the block in terms of a Federal wildlife refuge and they are doing marvelous things with schools, neighborhoods and communities, teaching us about how to become as friendly to our wild neighbors as possible.

Check out their habitat certifying, urban backyard refuge program!

Tips for Fall Wildlife Gardening

Fall Gardening Theme: Less is more!
by Ani Jamgyal

The over all theme for our fall gardening tips focuses on leaving the wildlife habitat garden wild. It can be tempting to tidy up the garden by cutting down spent flower stalks, raking and disposing of leaves, shearing shrubs into tight geometric shapes and generally buttoning up the garden until spring.

However, this is not the best way to nurture wildlife through their potentially most difficult season. Following are some suggestions for what to do instead, which might also help with winning the neighborhood Halloween contest for best outdoor display and with navigating the additional leisure time that comes with letting the garden grow a little wilder.

Fall blooming flowers and spent flowers spikes provide some of the most beautiful fall landscape scenes. Among the late summer to fall bloomers are sunflowers and amaranth. Penstemons and salvias also produce tall flower stalks in mid- to late summer that, when pollinated, yield seeds for winter fare. Typically, a mix of blooms and dried seed heads are in display along the stalks, feeding pollen and nectar eaters throughout the fall, as well as seed-eaters into winter. The stems also provide food and habitat for small mammals and insects at a time when food is scarce.

amarantha and sunflowers

PHOTO BY HEATHER JO FLORES – Sunflowers with amaranth. | Plants, Play houses, Garden (pinterest.com)

salvias and penstemons

A Fabulous Duo: Salvia ‘Caradonna’ and Penstemon ‘Rich Ruby’ (gardenia.net)

An additional benefit to leaving the dried seed heads uncut is that some of the seeds will drop in place and may even germinate in spring, providing the garden with a larger patch of that particular flower species!

A wonderful way to spend the time saved on not pruning your wildlife habitat garden is to walk around the neighborhood looking for flowers still in bloom and setting seed. Take a stroll through the Rio Grande Nature Center State Park, paying special attention to tall native bunch grasses such as sacaton and big bluestem, with their regal dried seed heads. Tall dried grasses provide a perfect backdrop for spooky Halloween displays.

Instead of having to buy (likely non-biodegradable) stuff to mimic this effect, let nature create its own striking Halloween display!

Fallen leaves, when left on the ground, accomplish a multitude of benefits for wildlife, whereas raking and bagging them (especially in plastic bags) basically does no one any good (including the planet as a whole). Multiple studies have been conducted showing that mulching fallen leaves into the soil feeds the soil critters; feeds the plants growing in the soil; and supports the wildlife dependent on the plants for food and shelter. Leaves can be left where they fall, raked into garden beds or composted in a pile. To speed up their decomposition, put the leaves in a large garbage bin and cut them up with a weed-whip [(1) mulching fall leaves – YouTube ]. Even if you have a patch of lawn, letting the leaves mulch in place helps the lawn ((1) Should you mulch leaves into your lawn or rake them up – YouTube ) and decreases the number of plastic bags that end up in the Great Pacific Garbage Patch [Great Pacific Garbage Patch | National Geographic Society].

For those fortunate enough to have a cottonwood tree or three, there will be a glorious abundance of leaves on the ground. An excellent fall tradition is to make a pile for the kids to play in or for the dog to enjoy [(1) Stella’s Leaf Pile Classics – YouTube].  The pile can later be used to mulch the nearest garden, protecting the roots from winter temperatures.

kids playing in a leaf pile

(1) Kids Playing In Leaf Pile (October 24, 2012) – YouTube

As always, don’t forget to leave some bare ground for the bees. Also, be sure to watch for freshly excavated holes in the dirt; in the right habitat, you may find tarantulas emerging for their mating season [(1) Hunting Wild Tarantulas in Colorado! – The Tarantula Migration – YouTube]. Talk about super spooky wildlife habitat!

Shrubs are better left more or less untended for wildlife to enjoy. In their natural form, they offer more spacious shelter to birds, mammals and lizards scurrying for cover. This also leaves seeds for food on flowering shrubs such as four-wing saltbush and Apache plume. There is some pruning that will need to be done in the winter (stay tuned for the winter newsletter!) but for now, let them be.

Spend the time saved in other pursuits. Bare trees and dead branches are excellent for hanging winter bird feeders and water-dispensers, as well as homemade sock ghosts [SOCK-ingly Spooky Ghost Craft! – How Wee Learn].

Any branches you do need to cut or gather from the ground can be added to a habitat brush pile. Kids love building brush piles. Besides being fun to construct, brush piles harbor insects for food; provide shelter for many small critters; serve as perches for small birds; and are a wonderful structure for vines to cover. Seeds tossed onto the pile stand a very good chance of germinating next spring since a pile offers shelter from the drying sun and wind, as well as from late spring cold snaps.

child with brush pile

Create brush piles for wildlife habitat | Mississippi State University Extension Service (msstate.edu)

In summary, go easy on the fall wildlife habitat garden. Less really is more!

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