Winter Garden Checklist

Restless growers, rejoice: Here’s how to keep busy during winter and prepare your garden for a full year of wildlife ahead

  • By Amy McCullough
  • Garden for Wildlife
  • Dec 30, 2023

A garden in winter (above) appears devoid of life, but a wealth of wildlife may shelter there, including native bees in the stems of perennials such as sunflowers, whose seed heads nurture tufted titmice (below) and other songbirds.

FOR WELL-MEANING GARDENERS, sometimes the hardest thing to do is not much at all. But inaction is what the winter wildlife garden demands—at least for the most part. Thankfully, there are some tasks you can tackle during those cooler, off-season months.

Let’s assume you’ve wisely subscribed to the “leave the leaves” mantra—the recommendation to avoid excessive raking, pruning and tidying in fall and winter gardens. Leslie Uppinghouse, a lead horticulturist at the Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center in Austin, Texas, says blowing or hauling away leaves and other good organic material—then buying mulch and compost the following spring—makes little sense. “Wildlife and soil need these materials and nutrients for winter food, shelter and nesting materials,” she notes.

If you’re cringing at the thought of a messy off-season landscape, think again. Planting design director Claudia West of Virginia-based Phyto Studio believes there is much to be gained from embracing—and getting creative with—organic materials during the winter months. “Most gardens are way too sterile,” she says. West, whose work informs the National Wildlife Federation’s How to Design a Better Wildlife Garden guide, challenges the winter gardener to see beauty in “artfully designed brush piles” that can be used to frame pathways or create hedgelike borders.

Be ready to commit. “Leave brush as long as you can and keep adding to it,” West says. Desirable insects that enhance soil health and feed birds, lizards and other critters very likely will lay eggs in the debris provided. “It will be occupied,” she says confidently, “like a little hotel.” Similarly, fallen logs drilled with holes can be placed strategically to add form and create even more habitat for insects that nurture native wildlife.

Indeed, it’s a mistake to think your garden is unoccupied in winter. “A good wildlife garden is a permanent home rather than a stopover space,” says Uppinghouse. Once you appreciate the function behind the form, it’s clear that leaving the leaves is not laziness at all. It’s good ecological design, the core of a healthy wildlife garden.

An image of a tufted titmouse.

Ponder, plan—and shop

So what’s there to do once you’ve left all the leaves, stalks, seed heads and logs to do their thing? Mary Phillips, head of Garden for Wildlife™ at NWF, says winter is an excellent time for assessment. Swap work boots for slippers and review the Federation’s Certified Wildlife Habitat® Checklist. What steps can you take now to achieve certification in the coming year? Are you meeting the holy trinity of food, water and shelter for the bees, birds, butterflies and other wildlife you’d like to nurture? What sustainable practices can you commit to?

It’s also time for shopping! During this downtime, consider what you’d like to add, from hardscape elements that benefit people (benches, paths) and wildlife (nesting boxes, rock piles, birdbaths) to the plants themselves. For plants, “think about three-season design,” says Phillips, meaning plan to have something in bloom over as much time as possible. And she strongly encourages preorders: “Local growers need to know what the demand is going to be,” Phillips notes, and the power to drive that demand lies with gardeners.

West sees winter as an ideal time to look at garden design and layout, when “you can see your garden naked and strategize.” Identify where you might have room for a wildlife-supporting tree such as a native oak or serviceberry. “Think about leaving a legacy,” she says, making the keen observation that “high-performing native trees will provide wildlife habitat, even if the people who buy [your house] next aren’t gardeners.”

Uppinghouse, an arborist, champions fruit or nut trees that provide food as well as shelter. Research some favorites, preferably native to your area, and make plans to plant the following fall. “Trees come in all shapes and sizes,” she notes for those discouraged by lack of space. “There are many understory trees that are easy adds to even the smallest spaces.”

What about those who aren’t landowners at all? Phillips says the same elements for supporting wildlife apply, just at a smaller scale. While a tree might not be realistic, “you can implement a layered or vertical approach even in a small space—a balcony or a patio—with container gardens and trellises or small shrubs in a pot,” she says.

If you need inspiration for either small or large spaces, has native plant combination kits to simplify decision making. Phillips advises prioritizing keystone plants for your particular ecoregion. Species of plants that scientists have determined support the greatest amount of biodiversity, keystone plants work together to create sustainable, productive landscapes that nurture the most native wildlife.

When selecting plants, it’s key to keep variety in mind, Phillips adds, including a mix of shrubs, perennials and ground cover. Uppinghouse also stresses the importance of leaning into plant diversity as well as learning the life cycles of wildlife you hope to attract and nurture. In order to support butterflies, for instance, “understand you need larval host plants and not just nectar plants,” she says. Winter can be a good time to study up on which host plants feed which caterpillar species.

For more inspiration, attend flower shows or visit natural areas during winter. What do you see that you like? What is thriving in terrain and exposure similar to what you can offer?

Whatever strikes your fancy, don’t hold back. “Most gardens are undervegetated,” asserts West, who enthusiastically advocates for “heavy layering” and filling in gaps. “There’s always space for a couple more plants,” she says, “even in my garden.”

Amy McCullough is a writer, editor and native plant enthusiast based in Austin, Texas.

More from National Wildlife magazine and the National Wildlife Federation:

This Winter: Think Spring! »
Forget Fall Cleanup! Autumn Gardening Tips to Help Pollinators »
Blog: Snowfall, Wildlife and Gardens »

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