by Esther Stokes, Stokes Landscape Design and Atlanta Audubon Board Chair
Winter is a favorite time for me in wildlife sanctuaries and natural areas. Instead of a riot of flowers and bees, it is the evergreens that stand out. The berries stand out on winterberry hollies and American hollies. The grasses have lengthened to their full height, and they sway in the cooler winter breeze. There can be a lot of winter bird activity because they feed on all the seeds left from the growing season, some still on the plants and others resting on the ground, just waiting to be discovered by hungry birds. It is a quieter time, but it has its own special charm.
Whether the wildlife sanctuary is a residential garden or a 250-acre nature preserve, most of us bring to it a tendency to want to neaten it up. The growing season is past, we think it looks messy, the seedheads are ratty, some of the grass starts to lay over, and we wish it looked better. And so, before you know it, the gardener is out in the garden with pruners to neaten up. And the maintenance crew for the nature preserve seizes the moment to cut back, mow, prune, etc. We do want to control these spaces.
If you can resist the tendency to whack it all back, just think of the benefits: The birds have more to eat, the mammals have some cover and can find food in the overgrowth, the pollinators have laid eggs on (or in) the leaves or on the stalks, and keeping these things on the property will benefit next year’s populations. Leaving a bit of ground litter in your yard is a simple way to help the yard’s ecosystem remain balanced and keep native birds coming back for future visits.
The trick is to pick just the right time to cut things back or to mow if you have a meadow. We do have to mow (or cut back in the garden) at least once a year, because almost all the land in the Piedmont has a will to return to forest. If we don’t mow, volunteer trees spring up: first the pines and poplars, and then other species. Of course, the opportunistic weeds and plants will germinate as well, so “letting things go” is not an option. We have maintenance responsibilities; we just don’t have to be obsessive about it.
But by the time spring comes, we don’t want to have last year’s growth intermingled with new growth; we want to have things cleaned up by then. And so we must decide how neat we want things to be, how much chaos we can tolerate, and just when to get ready for spring. If you just can’t take the overgrowth, cut things back in most of your area and leave a portion standing for the birds. Do your best to keep leaves on your property for the benefit of the plants and the pollinators. And enjoy the slower time of winter.