GARDENING: It’s time NOT to clean your garden

By Sara Moran, Texas A&M AgriLife Extension Horticulture Agent for Midland and Ector Counties

You do not need to add ‘clean-up’ the garden to your to-do list. Some areas require attention, such as removing fallen leaves near entrance doors. As a side note, if someone else, such as a landscaper, takes care of your garden, it’s essential to communicate your intentions and expectations clearly; provide more details if there are specific tasks you do or don’t want to be done in the garden. However, for the most part, please do not worry. Enjoy the beauty of a ‘messy’ garden and know there are many benefits for your backyard ecosystem, including maintaining a natural or wild look, supporting local wildlife, or allowing certain plants to grow undisturbed.

Plants are crucial in providing shelter for animals, especially during the winter. Plants can create microclimates within their canopies or near their bases. These microclimates may have slightly higher temperatures and lower wind speeds, offering a more hospitable environment for animals seeking shelter. Trees, shrubs, and other vegetation create microhabitats that protect from harsh weather conditions such as cold winds and precipitation; the foliage and branches of shrubs and trees are excellent examples of how vegetation provides refuge from the wind and snow.

The structure of plants, such as tall grasses and sturdy stems, can help prevent excessive snow accumulation on the ground, which benefits smaller animals that may struggle to move through deep snow. Additionally, plants with dense growth patterns or thorns and prickly leaves can create natural hiding places for animals seeking protection from predators.

Many birds and small mammals use plants to build nests. Trees, shrubs, and tall grasses can be excellent locations for constructing nests that provide warmth and shelter. Some plants produce fruits, seeds, or nuts that serve as food sources during winter. These can be crucial for their survival when other food is scarce. Certain plants with dense vegetation or those that drop their leaves can provide suitable locations for animals to hibernate or enter a state of torpor during winter, helping them conserve energy. Beneficial insects, such as spiders (yes, some spiders are helpful as they eat soft-body insects), ground beetles, bees, etc., will also hibernate in hollow stems, leaf piles, or dormant buds.

Tall trees and branches also provide perches for birds of prey. These elevated positions allow them to survey their surroundings for potential prey, contributing to the overall balance of the ecosystem. On the other hand, low-growing plants and ground cover, such as short grasses and certain types of vegetation, can provide a layer of insulation against the cold ground, creating a more comfortable environment for small animals. Their roots also contribute to sustaining the soil ecosystem and improving soil structure.

Leaves are another factor that significantly contributes to soil health and provides shelter. Fallen leaves, twigs, and other plant debris create a layer of organic material on the ground. This layer can provide insulation and create habitats for insects and other invertebrates, serving as a food source for larger animals or microorganisms. Fallen leaves enhance soil aeration, drainage, and water retention, creating a more hospitable environment for plant roots. Additionally, the decomposition of leaves encourages microbial activity. The activity of beneficial microorganisms in the soil plays a crucial role in breaking down organic matter, releasing nutrients, and promoting overall soil health.

Encouraging a diverse and healthy plant ecosystem in your garden can support local wildlife and soil microorganisms and provide them with the necessary resources to endure winter conditions. When creating a winter wildlife-friendly garden, you might consider incorporating a variety of native plants with different heights and structural complexities that cater to the specific needs of your local fauna.

If you have questions or want more information, contact your Texas A&M County Extension Office in Midland (432-686-4700) and Ector (432-498-4071) counties. You can also send an email to [email protected].