Let it be
Updated: Jan 5
Autumn is usually the time when gardeners get stuck in to the seasonal tidy, cutting perennials back, removing seed-heads and raking up and burning leaves. For many of us, seeing a lot of dead material in a border is difficult to resist removing, but resist we must if we are to help overwintering wildlife. Good news for those of us who need a break after the rigours of the summer garden.
Leaving dead and dying plant stems standing allows birds to pick out seeds and provides withered foliage that insects love to shelter in. All sorts can be found there, including beetles, ladybirds, lacewings, solitary bees, solitary wasps, parasitic wasps, hibernating caterpillars, fly larvae, flies and small moths.
Loose organic material, such as piles of leaves or mulch (especially under evergreen trees and shrubs) is great for queen wasps and bumblebees to overwinter in, and a large enough pile of leaves can also provide a ‘des res’ for hibernating hedgehogs. Making leaf mould by stacking leaves in chicken wire enclosures is incredibly useful in the garden but will also be colonised too, forming a habitat for a range of insects while the leaves rot down. Leave them there for a year and then bag up ready for use, so you can add next year’s leaves in a fresh pile.
If possible, leave pruning hedges and climbers until late winter, as flowering and fruiting hedges are important sources of food for wildlife. Ivy is invaluable for its late nectar and berries. Likewise, rosehips are a useful food source for some birds, including mistle thrushes and fieldfares so if you can, leave the rose pruning until these have been stripped.
Cutting the tops off hollow stemmed plants, such as delphiniums, angelicas, fennel and ornamental thistles allows beetles to shelter in the stems. The best way to help wildlife is to leave the stems in situ, but if you feel you really can’t wait to cut back until spring leave some of the cut stems in bundles in out of the way places for insects to find there.
Dead wood is extremely valuable to wildlife at any time of year – it supports a huge range of specialist insects – but is particularly useful for sheltering frogs, toads, shrews and voles. You can stack any woody prunings or make a log pile out of sight at the back of a border or behind the shed.
Although most frogs hibernate in ditches and leaf or log piles, some frogs (particularly males) hibernate at the bottom of ponds, breathing through their skin. In severe winters thick ice on ponds can trap noxious gases in the water, poisoning the frogs below. If your pond freezes over, remove any snow and melt a hole in the ice using a pan of hot water so the gases can escape.
So, having done nothing in the garden all day, you can for once pull the curtains guilt-free, safe in the knowledge that all sorts of creatures are enjoying the fruits of your idleness.