Getting the garden ready for winter is often enlightening. As you are out cleaning up old stalks, raking leaves, or picking up wormy apples, you might also find some interesting ground beetles or other insects searching for food on a semi-dry or warm day. It’s often the first clue that there is more going on out there than it seems.
This is a good time to think about how your garden serves the creatures who stay here for the winter – birds are an example of how the more charismatic species rely on the cryptic processes at work in your soil and plants. Birds need food, shelter, water, and safe places to rest and stay warm.
They look for food on tree bark (overwintering larvae or other stages of insects tucked into crevices) or under evergreen leaves. Many birds forage on the ground, either in lawns or in undisturbed leaf litter. It’s a good idea to mulch your beds with leaves and organic matter, so the insects that eat that stuff will be there when the birds come looking for them. It’s great fun to watch the birds picking through your beds on a rainy or snowy day. Leaves and such also protect the soil from the relentless pounding of rain and subsequent leaching of nutrients from the soil.
Have you ever seen a flock of starlings (with a few robins mixed in) descend on your lawn for 20 minutes or so, rapidly working their way over your lawn in a feeding frenzy? They are often eating crane fly larvae –
big icky grubs that eat your lawn. Cranefly pupae are known as leatherjackets. I like that word. While people often worry about crane flies, you don’t need to – a healthy lawn can actually support as many as 50 or more per square foot. And, since they provide a smorgasbord for the birds, there’s one less thing you need to fret about in the yard!
Offering birds thickets of closely-planted shrubs and trees, especially evergreens, will give them a warmer place to shelter when it gets cold and windy. Mixing in as many native plants as possible will provide native insects a place to live, and in turn give our wildlife local food to keep them healthy. The Washington Dept of Fish and Wildlife has a great page all about landscaping for habitat.
Every insect or mammal has a story – and a niche in the foodweb.
Next up: moles