Let it be

Winterizing your garden with its winter inhabitants in mind.

When I was a child in Wisconsin, we could see the snow swirling like waves over the bare surface of Harvey Prinsen’s field. It had a certain beauty but it also meant cold. Drifting snow is a common part of almost any Canadian winter.

Things are different in the Bulkley Valley of B.C. We have a long winter; this year it’s been a cold one, too (-40 C. one night). But we don’t usually experience drifting snow. In our climate, Portia would have had to say that mercy “falleth as the gentle snow from heaven.” Like these two photographs depict. And sometimes the snow-caps stay like this for weeks – no nasty winds to blow the snow into drifts.

Woody debris

Drifting snow can be hard on people. It is hard on soil: wind and snow strip fall-ploughed topsoil from agricultural fields. Any snow, but especially drifting snow, is hard on many birds and certain small mammals.

Here’s what I do to help winter birds and small mammals survive. I don’t completely “put my garden to bed” for the winter. I intentionally leave asparagus stalks, raspberry canes (I usually prune in the spring) and other debris standing in the garden. It has to be woody debris to withstand the snow and whatever wind we get.

In the perennial flower beds, I leave most of the stalks standing. When I first started growing perennials in a big way, I asked my friend and master gardener Teryl Schopfer if I should cut down all the dead stalks. “Oh, I just leave them,” she said. “In the spring, when they are dry, when the snow is gone, you can just knock them off with a rake. Besides, I love the looks of all the different types of stalks and seed heads: they texturize the snowy scene and make wonderful snow shadows.” And, I might add, if you have drifting snow, dead plant stalks trap it to form a snow mulch for your perennials.

Both perennial plant seeds and annuals provide food. Cosmos seeds are superb winter fare for seed-eaters, as are sunflowers, black-eyed susans, echinops, coreopsis, coneflowers and zinnias. The odd ear of corn provides food, too. My favourite let-stand plant is hemp. We’re talking industrial hemp here, not the stuff some folks smoke or bake with. I grow hemp for the male pollen which delights bees, domestic and wild. And I harvest some seed for chick food; it’s high in fat and protein. I also like the smell, which is not an acquired taste, you might say.

Hemp stalks are all fibre, it seems. They do not compost easily unless completely shredded or left to weather for several years. In India, I’m told, Sir Albert Howard prepared such fibrous stalks for composting by spreading them out on oxcarts for the hoofs (he probably would have spelled it hooves) to shatter.

(Photo credit: Curt Gesch)

Snow shadows

Hemp doesn’t blow over. It stands tall and proud. In autumn, song sparrows, Lincoln’s sparrows, juncos and even grouse scavenge any seeds that are on the ground. About the time I figure there can’t be any seeds left I discover that chickadees are finding some on the standing grain heads in December. And, like sunflower or corn stalks, they provide a windbreak.

A bare garden may fit your aesthetic taste or philosophic ideal of order, but I’ll take the December chickadees, song sparrows and redpolls amid the dry stalks and snow shadows.

You may have the order: I’ll take the birds, especially the chickadees.


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