Wildlife Gardening - the Winter Border
Created | Updated Jan 25, 2019
Introduction | Mammals and Birds | Woodland Habitat
Insects, Amphibians and Reptiles | Wildflower Meadow | Water Habitat
Natural Slug Control | Natural Weed Control | The Winter Border
While many gardeners like to see a nice tidy garden, with plants deadheaded1 and pruned, and weeds cleared away, it can be beneficial for both garden and wildlife if you leave 'dead' borders untended and natural.
Clearing all the dead plants away allows the rain to pound onto the bare soil. This reduces fertility, stops the soil structure from improving and kills helpful organisms. If you leave it to die down for the winter, the border might look lifeless, but it's actually teeming with all sorts of things.
Healthy soil is a home to many beneficial creatures. Microscopic fungi and bacteria, for example, nourish plants.
The soil is also a useful living space for privet hawk moth larvae. Hawk moths have a wingspan of ten centimetres, and come in a wide variety of colours. During winter, the larvae wait six inches underground, or under leaf litter, until June, when they emerge; many other moths also spend the winter like this.
Moths are important in the garden because they are a source of food for many other animals. Caterpillars are eaten by native birds and night-flying species of moths are prey to bats. They are also important pollinators.
Then there are young hunting spiders also lurking in the soil waiting for spring, such as the wolf spider. Most stay dormant in the soil, but spiders have glycol in their blood to prevent them from freezing to death, just as a person might use ethylene glycol (antifreeze) in their car, so they can continue hunting all winter.
Leaving the dead parts of plants to decay on the ground over winter will help to return organic matter to the soil, and to protect dormant plants from frost damage.
The dead parts of plants might look a mess, but they slow wind speed and quickly drain rain, which leaves vital shelter for hibernating insects. Ladybirds, earwigs and lacewings are all beneficial insects, and they need somewhere safe to spend the winter, finding homes in tiny crevices in the plants. Caterpillars will glue their chrysalides to stems.
Ivy makes a great plant for wildlife, although many gardeners do not like it. Mature ivy makes a very dry home for a number of insects, including butterfly pupae. In summer it provides homes for adult butterflies, and birds can nest in it.
Seed heads can feed hungry birds all winter. Teasel seeds will still be eaten by finches in March. Mice will also eat fallen seeds; they do not hibernate but they do go into torpor, thus saving energy. Further up the food chain, mice make good meals for owls, foxes, weasels and stoats.
Ground beetles tend to colonise woodpiles, but they will make use of any woody stems that have been left lying around after pruning. They kill slugs and vine weevils. They will overwinter2 as both grubs and adults. Newts and toads will also find them useful larder-fodder. If the pile is big enough, slow-worms and hedgehogs will hibernate there, too.
Thick layers of leaf mould and other debris keep the rain from compacting the soil, and allow the mini-beasts to make humus-rich soil even in the winter.
Small mammals and insects will use it as shelter while foraging for food.
They might not look like much, but does it really hurt to leave a few weeds in the border over winter? They provide shelter and food and, as long as you catch them just before they burst into growth in spring, they don't really cause your plants a problem.
Don't forget to start clearing the beds in early spring. The sun needs to get to the new growth on your plants, and most hibernating creatures will have woken up by the time your plants have.
It's not just the wildlife that will benefit from this - you, the gardener, will too. In a season when there is not much to look at in gardens, this winter border gives structure to the garden, and looks good in frost and snow.