A ‘Messy’ Winter Garden Sustains Wildlife

Winter Bluewood Aster in Snow
Bluewood Aster

Wintertime is a dormant time and fall is the time to prepare. But what if preparing meant this was the time to do nothing?

Besides cleaning the gutters, putting the rain barrels up, the fall garden requires little to no work and leaving the garden be is the best thing that can be done.

Gardens are still alive in the winter, it just isn’t as noticeable. Insects- including our pollinators don’t disappear in winter, they simply hibernate. Otherwise we wouldn’t have any insects the following spring!


We know fall as harvest time- pumpkins and winter squashes are ready, we pick the last of the beans and tomatoes. We begin saving seeds for sprouting next spring. Fall is also harvest season for birds. Goldfinches practically stay on coneflowers eating their seeds.

Leaving our perennials standing provides food for birds through fall and winter.

A garden left to be as a ‘rest stop’ attracts finches, sparrows, chickadees, buntings, jays, and nuthatches. Seeds from flowers and nuts from trees have formed and are ready to be eaten by the birds. If you keep birdfeeders, you know birdseed is costly. Leaving the flower seeds up is free bird food!

How much food birds have during fall and winter affects their spring breeding. Winter habitats are essential to bird populations. Cleaning up those nuts and seeds takes away food for overwintering birds and small mammals.

In the spring, the garden provides nesting material for parents to build baby bird nests. In the winter, the garden provides nesting material for roosts.

House Finches

We can also help populations by providing additional food during winter. Suet cakes are great because of their fat content. Buying quality seed is worth the cost. Look for food that doesn’t have any fillers like millet. Birds don’t eat it, and it’s very messy on the ground. Read this past article on Feeding Birds in Winter.

You can also easily make your own suet cakes. Save an old suet container and fill it with beef or pork fat from cooking. (just the plain fat, nothing with spices or salt). Add a layer of chopped nuts and dried fruit. You can keep it in the freezer and add a layer each time you cook to create the suet cake over time.


Bees utilize our gardens as winter hibernation spots too. Many nest inside old perennials stems, like mason and leaf cutter bees.

Leaving our perennials standing provides nesting spots for bees.

Other bees will nest under piles of leaves or plants, under bark or decaying logs, and in the ground.


Once cold temperatures arrive, we probably don’t think at all about butterflies, but they’re still here! There are some butterflies that may migrate to more southern regions to hibernate (like the Monarch), but most hang out in our gardens! They’ll find spots in protected nooks and crannies. Different butterfly species will hibernate in different forms: egg, caterpillar, chrysalis, or butterfly.

When the garden is left standing, any hibernating butterflies are saved, like chrysalids hanging onto leaves or stems, which would be taken away if it was all cleaned up.

Some butterflies wrap themselves up in the leaves of their host plant- like the red spotted purple, the viceroy, and the fritillary.

It’s recommended to clean up perennials and leaves in spring once temperatures reach at least 50 degrees consistently as a low temp. Or as perennials begin to green out in spring.


As if leaving your garden rest over winter for the birds, bees, and butterflies wasn’t enough, other good insects benefit as well. Ladybugs, spiders, beetles, and praying mantis. Keeping these insects around keeps the bad bugs gone.

An Interesting Winter Garden

Last but not least, the winter garden provides something for us too! Try looking past the old flowers and leaves that are now dried, shriveled, and brown. They can look really neat when they have a layer of frost or are encased in a bubble of ice. When there’s deep snow, the dry stalks still show above, creating neat patterns in the landscape. In certain gardens, leaving the perennials stand can create a wind break around the home (and for those overwintering birds).

Little Bluestem
Little Bluestem turned to its golden color of fall

Other Options

Leaving a garden stand does so much good for our wildlife, but if the garden just can’t be left during winter, there are some options. Cut down the perennials and stand them up in plastic pots and set them elsewhere in the garden where they aren’t as noticeable. This will still provide some habitat for insects, and maybe the birds can still find food.

Providing habitat in winter can be taken to another level. Save sticks, and branches and make a pile where it can all hang out over winter.

It is recommended to still clean up vegetables in the garden. If crops had any disease or pest issues, this should be cleaned up and disposed of to prevent it sticking around. Annual flowers can be left however.