Let Your Winter Garden Go Wild

Margaret Renkl FEB. 10, 2018

CreditTatsuro Kiuchi
NASHVILLE — The snow was three inches deep, a blizzard by Nashville standards, when I got a text from a parent supervising the neighborhood sledding: “It’s a robin migration out in your front yard. Do you put food out there for them?”
I went to the window to look. There are nine bird feeders around my house, but I’ve never seen a robin at a single one of them. In winter, robins do gather in great flocks here in Middle Tennessee, and our yard is always popular with them because we have a birdbath with a heating element that keeps it from freezing. Even in winter, birds need to bathe — a seemingly counterintuitive behavior that keeps their feathers in shape for maximum insulation.
So it didn’t surprise me to find more than a hundred robins in our yard on that snowy day. What surprised me was what they were doing. A robin’s usual practice here is to pick earthworms out of the exposed soil churned up by moles in what passes for a lawn at this house, but there are no worms near the surface on freezing days. Instead, these robins were eating dried berries from the brown monkey grass bordering our front walkway. Normally one of our sons mows down the monkey grass in late fall, after the first frost, but our youngest child left for college in August, and this year neither my husband nor I ever got around to cutting it back ourselves.
I have never been a very orderly gardener. In spring I prefer planting to weeding. I like to watch birds pulling seeds from dried flowers, so I let the flowers fall to ruin in summer instead of deadheading them to force the plant to produce new blooms. In fall it has always seemed almost criminal to tidy up the golden windfall of sugar-maple leaves covering the ground like pirate’s treasure in a storybook, so we let them lie until they’re finally brown and brittle. By then there’s no good reason not to bring out the mower and reduce the leaves to shreds so they can feed the trees they fell from.
In spite of these desultory habits, I did, in years past, at least tuck the flower beds in for winter — cutting back the dried stalks of perennials, composting the remains of annuals, tugging out the weeds I’d ignored all summer, installing a deep layer of mulch to keep everything safe from the cold. I have a shed full of rakes and spades and three-pronged cultivators because sometimes the neighborhood children will descend in a pack to help me with this task. One fall a bunch of them showed up in roller skates and didn’t bother to change into shoes before they took up their tools.
I don’t tuck in my flower beds anymore. Year by year, the little creatures that share this yard have been teaching me the value of an untidy garden. This year I learned not to cut back the monkey grass, and now the robins will have plenty of dried berries on the first snow day in coming winters.
An unkempt garden offers more than just food for the birds. The late offspring of certain butterflies, like the black swallowtail, spend fall and winter sealed away in a chrysalis clinging to the dried stems in what’s left of a summer garden. Others overwinter as eggs or caterpillars buried deep in the leaf litter beneath their host plants.
Most species of native bees — or their fertilized queens, at least — hibernate underground during winter. An industrious gardener pulling up dead annuals could expose them to the cold, and one who mulches too deeply could block their escape in spring. Other beneficial insects like ladybugs, lacewings and parasitic wasps spend winter in the hollow stems of old flowers.
These days we don’t drag fallen limbs out to the street for the city chipper service to clean up, either, and we don’t haul our Christmas tree away at the end of the holidays. A good brush pile is a boon to ground-foraging birds, which eat insects from the decomposing wood, and to all manner of small animals hiding from predators or sheltering from the wind and snow.
The best lesson I ever got in the blessing of a winter mess came a few years ago in early spring, after the first time I skipped my annual fall cleanup. Rosemary often survives the winter here, and my middle son was weeding around the stalks of a battered rosemary plant that was trying to put out new greenery when he uncovered a nest of thumb-size cottontail rabbits, their eyes still closed.
The bunnies were tucked into a shallow indentation in the soil the mother rabbit had scooped out and lined with her own fur; they were covered with another layer of fur topped by leaves and dried rosemary needles and windblown pine straw. My son and I carefully replaced the top layer and studied the setup: it was impossible to distinguish the nest from the jumble of the garden, even knowing it was there. What looked like an abandoned flower bed was actually a nursery.
Several years ago, before I learned the worth of a messy yard, an alpha redbird established his territory here. Flawless in his scarlet plumage, he was strong and loud and fearless, and he fiercely guarded the safflower feeder hanging just past our back deck. Cardinals will generally defer to bigger birds, or to birds that arrive at the feeder in flocks, but this redbird would not cede the airspace around that feeder for anyone.
I don’t know how many years this yard was his territory — three, possibly four — but I have not seen another cardinal before or since who was quite so ferocious in defense of his own world. Though I can’t say for certain it was always the same bird, it always seemed so to me. And I believe it was the same bird that I saw lying beneath the pear tree at the back of the yard one cold morning when I walked outside after a nighttime snow.
Maybe it was just his time to go. But I think often of that stunning redbird lying crooked in the snow, a fallen battle flag, a bleeding wound, a Shakespearean hero come to a terrible end. And I can’t help wondering if his fate might have been different if I had known back then to drag our Christmas tree out to the yard for little birds to shelter in on pitiless winter nights. Would he have survived to reign undisputed when the days finally warmed and it was time to sing again?