Every year after the first frost, I purposely leave my garden to dry out and turn brown. I don’t clean out any perennials or rake leaves. This is on purpose. While humans, like I, love the look of a tidy garden during the winter in the Northwest, it’s actually more beneficial to leave plant stalks as they are. Dried flowers and grasses provide seeds and cover for birds.
In my yard, black-capped chickadees, Townsend warblers, crows, robins, and blue jays swoop into the large perennial bed that I call the BBH Garden (Butterflies, Bees & Hummingbird Garden). They flit around and sing their little songs. They feast on the dried Coneflowers, Black-eyed Susans, Coreopsis, Bee-balm, Jerusalem Sage, and Verbena (bonariensis). With their ample flower heads, these plants in particular dry into accessible food sources. Together they make a little smorgasbord. The birds come every morning, not long after I’ve woken up and not long after daylight. I always make sure to keep my dogs inside while they’re having breakfast.
This winter we had some long stretches of icy cold nights, very unusual in the Pacific Northwest, and it cheered me that I could provide sustenance for the birdies during these harsh times. I sometimes worried they were shivering at night in their little nests but then in the frost-coated morning, they seemed to be cheery, hopping from brown stalk to brown stalk, then jumping down and flicking leaves over to look for bugs.
Now as spring approaches, it’s time to clean up. The seed heads have long been picked clean. The green of new growth on some perennials is emerging. It’s a little sad to chop it all down and rake it up, but at least I have the satisfaction of knowing I kept the birds alive over winter.
For me, this experience is more fun than buying a bag of bird seed and filling a feeder. The bag eventually empties and you have to replenish. The seed can attract rats, squirrels, and raccoons. By planting plants birds can forage through, you give them a gift that grows and expands, and provides more food every year.