NatureSmart Column

Photos by Stan Tekeila ©2004

Brush Piles

by Stan Tekiela
© 2003 NatureSmart
November 28, 2003

I recently read a wonderful article by fellow outdoor writer Val Cunningham. With great interest I read her comments about leaving your flower gardens standing each fall instead of "cutting and raking" like so many gardening magazines advise. Her "different approach" rings loud and clear with my wife and I. We have extensive perennial flower gardens in our front and back yards and for over 10 years we have left all the dead stalks standing until spring.

A garden left standing is like a supermarket and comfortable lodge rolled into one, for our winter birds. One Black-eyed Susan seed head can contain several hundred nutritious seeds. Multiply that by a garden full of mature seed heads and you have many pounds of seeds and a food source that can last a good part of the winter without you having to refill it.

In years with little snow fall, a standing garden helps to trap any blowing or drifting snow like a snow fence. The accumulated snow helps to insulate the ground from cold air temperatures. Gardens that were cut and cleaned up are left exposed and will freeze deeper and may kill off some of your favorite perennial flowers.

Taking Valís different approach one step further, I would advocate for another essential for backyard wildlife habitat--a brush pile. If you would like to provide habitat for small mammals and birds, establishing a brush pile is a must. My brush pile is nothing more than some branches and twigs trimmed from my trees over the past few years. (ok, itís more like the past 10 years). My brush pile also acts like a pseudo compost pile. I throw in the pumpkins after Halloween and any leaves that I rake up from the little areas that I do have planted in grass.

My brush pile is in the back of my half acre backyard so its not an eyesore to me or the neighbors. It provides shelter to many bird species during the long cold winter nights. I see flocks of Juncoís, and Goldfinch filing into the pile just before sunset and burst out the following morning at day break. In addition to sheltering the birds, my brush pile also provides a daytime resting spot for my friendly Eastern Cotton-tailed rabbit.

Since these bunnies switch to a twig diet in winter, the brush pile is like a ginger bread house to the rabbits. It also provides them enough food to help keep them from eating my shrubs and sapling trees.

The smallest squirrel is the Flying Squirrel (Glaucomys sabrinus). It is only 5-6" long. It is a one of the most abundant squirrels but since it is nocturnal (comes out at night) itís rarely seen.

No mater which way you pile it, a backyard brush pile makes sense for backyard habitat.

Until next time...