How Dead Plants Provide Life for Birds, Pollinators and People!

How Dead Plants Provide Life for Birds, Pollinators and People!

Do you cut your flowers back

when they’re done blooming, or trim foliage to the ground once it starts to die back? (Of course if they’re perennials, the plants are not actually dead—they are very much alive underground). The idea of a ‘neat’-looking yard is understandable from a conventional suburban perspective, but all this neatness is not so good for nature! Our tendency to manicure green spaces deprives other beings of food and shelter they need to survive.

Two composite seed heads of sunflower. Seeds are starting to set and heads are surrounded by spiky green sepals.

Sunflower seedheads starting to mature

Pruning has a place.

Deadheading (removing flowers after they’ve bloomed and before they’ve set seed) can stimulate some plants to produce more flowers (the plant wants offspring, afterall!). Sometimes you might want to thin your perennials or share them with friends and neighbors. And in highly managed systems that have lost some of Nature’s checks and balances, removing diseased foliage can help prevent the spread of plant pathogens. Overall though, heavy management of flower beds and yards to meet an aesthetic of tidiness impoverishes natural systems and doesn’t ultimately benefit humans either.

Insects, birds and mammals

that pollinate and disperse seeds have coevolved with plants and depend on them for food and shelter. Many butterflies and other insects overwinter as eggs, caterpillars, pupae or adults. Each life stage has different requirements; overwintering stages need the surfaces, cavities and insulation that dead plants and leaves provide.

Here are some tips

for creating a beneficial year-round backyard habitat (or front yard, of course!):

Allow plants to set seed, and leave seed heads in place. This will provide food for birds and enable your perennials to spread. Some birds also use seeds with downy attachments, like milkweed, thistle and cottonwood, as nesting material.

Red milkweed (Asclepias incarnata) going to seed, with white silk attached to red seeds, open whitishi-brown pods and milkweed bugs. Silks provide nesting material for birds.

Milkweed going to seed, with milkweed bugs

Leave dead plants standing. The stems provide shelter and hiding spaces for birds, small mammals and insects. Some insects attach their chrysalis to dead plant stems. Others spend the winter inside hollow stems. If you need to trim back your perennials, it’s best to wait until spring after birds have eaten the seeds and insects are done overwintering.

Brown butterfly chrysalis attached to twig. Example of habitat provided by a dead plant.

Butterfly chrysalis attached to twig.

Echinacea seedhead with brown sepals drooping below seed head. The seeds will provide food to birds and insects during fall and winter.

Echinacea seedhead.

Leave leaf litter on the ground. Leaf litter provides habitat for insects that ground-feeding birds feed on. It also helps create a healthy soil community by providing organic matter and insulation. Native plant gardeners at Mt. Cuba recommend mowing over leaves that fall on your yard and putting the chopped up leaf litter down in your flower beds as mulch – a great way to recycle leaves and save money on mulch!

Hickory and beech and other leaves on ground in autumn. Leaf litter provides habitat and insulates soils.

Leaf litter. Photo by Shelby Deeter on Unsplash

Leave small patches of bare soil. According to the Xerces Society Guide to Attracting Native Pollinators, around 70% of North American native bee species (~2,800 species) nest in small burrows in the ground, and about 1,200 species nest in tunnels in stumps and plant stems. Why care about bees? Native bees pollinate the majority of our fruit and vegetable crops, flowers, many fiber crops, and oilseed crops. They pollinate flowering plants including trees and shrubs, and thus are a critical part of ecosystems. The insects themselves are also an important part of the food web. Bare, unmulched areas should be located in well-drained soils that receive plenty of sun. You can build the soil up into a mound, or just leave it as it is, flat or sloped. Keep these areas free of dense vegetation, and avoid digging and raking into them.

Patch of bare sandy soil with small rocks and sticks. Areas like this are important habitat for ground-nesting bees and other invertebrates.

Patches of bare soil provide important habitat for ground-nesting bees and other pollinators.

Make a brush pile. As small branches and twigs accumulate in your yard, or as you thin out perennials in spring, pile them up in an out-of-the-way spot in your yard. Brush piles are used by all kinds of creatures, from insects to birds and mammals. We often have a Cooper’s Hawk hunting by our brush pile.

Brushpile made of sticks, twigs and hollow plant stems and leaves. Brush piles provide important habitat for birds, small mammals and other creatures.

One of our backyard brush pile habitats.

Avoid using pesticides and herbicides. The widespread availability of pesticides and herbicides at garden shops and hardware stores could fool a person into thinking that these chemicals are safe to use around the yard. This is not the case. These products are destroying pollinator populations and are toxic to humans as well. While pesticides kill pollinators directly, herbicides such as Roundup (glyphosate) reduce the availability of flowers that provide them with nectar and pollen. A healthy garden with a diversity of plants and undisturbed soils can support a community of micro- and macroscopic life forms that keep pests in check. Weeding by hand is also a good way to soak up some time outside.

Enjoy the beauty of your all-season garden! Colorful leaves… snow-capped flower heads… dewey spiderwebs… birds in winter… If you take a little time to learn about and make room for the creatures that inhabit our shared spaces, in spring, the pollinators will be there to make sure your gardens once again come to life with flowers, birds and butterflies.

Red oak leaf and spider web covered in dew in yellow-gold evening light.

If you enjoyed this post, check out our other posts on Everyday Ecology!

Share this

8 Comments

  • Nancy Posted September 25, 2017 9:44 am

    GOOD INFORMATION TO HAVE AS OUR GARDENS ARE MOVING INTO FALL. THANK YOU.

    • annealtor Posted September 26, 2017 11:16 pm

      Thank you!

  • Charles Cladel Posted September 25, 2017 9:25 pm

    Informative – Thanks. I also enjoyed the tour of Mt. Cuba! – Looks familiar and a nice refresher course. Excellent blog Anne!

    • annealtor Posted September 26, 2017 11:16 pm

      Thank you! 🙂

  • Patricia A. Coolsen, Penn State Master Gardener Posted November 23, 2019 12:29 pm

    I would like permission to use parts of your article for an information sheet for gardeners.

    • annealtor Posted November 25, 2019 11:04 am

      Hi Patricia,
      Thank you for your interest in our article. You are welcome to use parts of it. Please credit the excepts as from “Anne Altor, One Earth Body Care Everyday Ecology Blog” and please link to this original article. Thank you!
      Anne

  • Michelle Posted March 14, 2022 9:48 am

    Hi Anna- I have been doing all these things for many years in my yard and gardens. My question is how do I know when I can clean up in spring? This article just says “after insects are done overwintering. How do I know when they are done?

    I generally leave the leaves, but I want to clear out some tall stems at some point. Can I just put them in my thicket/brush pile at the back end, or do they need to be left where they were growing?

    • Anne Altor Posted March 15, 2022 6:51 pm

      Hi Michelle! Thank you for your comments and questions.
      Jessica Walliser of SavvyGardening.com has some helpful advice in her column on Spring Garden Cleanup Done Right. She recommends waiting until daytime temperatures are consistently above 50°F for at least 7 consecutive days. Then, when you cut back tall stems, consider tying them into loose bundles and propping them upright against a tree, fence or shed. This gives overwintering insects that are still in the stems a chance to emerge. The stems can also be placed loosely on your brush pile – insects are more likely to make it out if they aren’t buried deep under leaves or mulch. You don’t need to leave the stems where they were growing.

      Walliser also recommends waiting to mulch until the soil is dry and temperatures are warm to ensure insects overwintering in the soil can emerge. The Xerces Society has a variety of helpful suggestions in their free download Nesting & Overwintering Habitat for Pollinators & Other Beneficial Insects. Their suggestions include pruning perennial stems down to a variety of heights to create more structure and habitat.

      Also check out our post on how to mow better for wildlife for more ideas.
      I hope these suggestions help – we’d love to hear what’s working for you as you get into your Spring gardening!

Add Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *