When it comes to starting a wildlife garden project, most gardeners tend to focus on the spring and summer months, when wildlife is very active. But the truth is that autumn and winter are the most critical times to be supporting wildlife. Some animals migrate south for the winter, but many others stay put by either remaining active or hibernating for the frosty months. In addition to providing summer-time nutrition and habitat, supporting a diverse array of wildlife on your property also means making sure there’s ample food available in the weeks before winter’s arrival, so the animals can consume and store as much nutrition as possible. Whether providing nectar, seeds, or another source of food, your garden can become a critical haven for the many small animals living there.
The importance of wildlife to a garden
Though gardeners often work hard to keep certain types of wildlife out of their gardens (hello, deer and groundhogs, we’re talking about you!), there are many wild creatures that we want to have in our gardens because they benefit it in many ways. Birds eat insect pests and feed them to their young; bees and butterflies help pollinate flowers and crops; toads eat slugs, flies, and various pests; and ladybugs, lacewings, and other predatory insects munch on many common garden pests. Wildlife plays a very valuable role in our gardens, and it’s essential that we foster that relationship and its multifaceted benefits.
One of the best ways to promote this beneficial wildlife is to provide these animals with plenty of winter habitat and as much late-season food as possible.
A wildlife garden project that focuses on fall and winter
There are two essential items needed for a successful fall and winter wildlife garden: habitat and food.
Winter habitat comes in the form of the plant stems, leaves, and debris you should leave in place for the winter. Don’t clean up flower beds and borders in the fall. Many of our native bees and butterflies overwinter on or inside their stems, and birds take shelter from harsh winter winds in the cover this debris provides. Toads nestle down in leaf debris and under loose mulch. You’ll find more on winter wildlife habitat creation here.
When it comes to fall and winter food sources for a wildlife garden, however, it’s sometimes difficult because the choices aren’t necessarily prolific. Gardeners have to make a dedicated effort to include the right kinds of plants in their wildlife garden in order to help these small animals thrive at a time when other resources are often scarce. Many North American native plants can provide for these critters, especially if you focus on including late bloomers and plants that produce seeds that birds enjoy.
To help you provide fall and winter food for this tiny but mighty garden wildlife, here are some of the best plants to include in a late-season wildlife garden project, including info on who they’ll help support over the coming months.
The best late-season plants for a fall and winter wildlife garden
Asters for the butterflies:
Our native asters (Symphyotrichum spp.) are late-blooming perennials that provide both pollen and nectar to both migrating and stationary butterfly species. For migrating species, like monarchs and painted ladies, this nutrition helps fuel their long journey. For stationary species that spend the winter in our gardens, like the Milbert’s tortoiseshell, comma, and mourning cloak, aster nectar can help build up the stores of carbohydrates their bodies need to make it through their winter hibernation period. Asters are also utilized by many different species of bees in a wildlife garden.
Related post: Butterfly gardens are not about the grown-ups
Goldenrod for the beetles:
Gardens are home to tens of thousands of species of beetles. From pest-munching species, such as soldier beetles, ladybeetles, and rove beetles, to pollinating species such as flower beetles, these beetles need both the protein found in pollen and the carbohydrates found in nectar to survive their long winter’s nap. Goldenrod is among the cream of the crop when it comes to late-season flowers to include in a wildlife garden project. It’s very nutritious, native, and it blooms at the perfect time for building up winter fat stores for these insects. Plus, it’s pretty! ‘Fireworks‘ is a lovely variety for the garden.
Related post: Building a beetle bank
Mexican bush sage for the hummingbirds:
Native to central Mexico, this amazing plant (Salvia leucantha) is adored by hummingbirds late in the season here in my Pennsylvania garden. It’s just coming into flower in late July and is an excellent pre-migration food source for these little birds. Just before they begin their early fall migration, I often see two or three hummingbirds feeding on my Mexican bush sage on sunny days, many times feeding side-by-side with multiple butterflies. Hummingbirds enjoy other types of Salvia, too, but this one is a personal favorite.
Related post: How to attract hummingbirds to your garden
Monkshood for bumble bees:
Did you know that mated bumble bee queens are the only bumbles who survive the winter? The remaining bumble bees perish as soon as the weather cools. Providing nutrition for these mated queens is essential for giving them the energy to hibernate through the winter and then emerge in the spring to start a new colony. Many of North America’s 21 species of bumble bees are suffering population declines due to habitat loss, food scarcity, and pesticide exposure. These fuzzy native bees need our help big time and planting monkshood (Aconitum spp.) is one way to do it. The complex, hooded flowers of monkshood are pollinated primarily by bumble bees whose hefty weight is needed to pop open the flowers. And they bloom super late in the season – exactly when mated bumble bee queens really need the nutrition they provide. Our native monkshood (Aconitum columbianum) is one of the most excellent late-season flowers to include in your wildlife garden project, or you can go with the non-native A. napellus or A. henryi.
Related post: Supporting native bees
Echinacea and black-eyed Susans for the songbirds:
When it comes to supporting birds in a fall and winter wildlife garden, don’t think of flowers for their blooms. Instead, think of them for their seeds. Many species of birds are seed eaters, and though you may think feeding them from a feeder gives birds all the winter nourishment they need, it just isn’t so. Much like humans, the more diverse a bird’s diet is, the more balanced they’ll be nutritionally. While feasting on black oil sunflower seeds and millet from a feeder will certainly provide for them, giving birds other natural food sources is a boon to their health. The seeds of echinacea and black-eyed Susans are favorite food sources for many different birds, from the goldfinches, chickadees, sparrows, and pine siskins who pluck out the ripe seeds to the juncos who eat the ones that fall to the ground. Simply leave the stems stand in the garden at the end of the growing season and the birds will feed on the seeds as desired. Having all those birds around is good for your wildlife garden in other ways, too. In the spring, when their broods arrive, birds need lots of insects to feed their growing babies and many common garden pests are some of their very favorite meals.
Related post: Berries for the birds
Perennial sunflowers for the tiny native bees:
A personal favorite flower for any wildlife garden project are perennial sunflowers in the genus Helianthus. These beauties are fully winter hardy, North American natives that bloom their heads off for many weeks at the end of the growing season. Maximilian sunflower (H. maximiliani), swamp sunflower (H. angustifolius), and willow-leaved sunflower (H. salicifolius) are a must when creating a fall and winter wildlife garden, especially one that supports the many tiny species of native bees on this continent. Green metallic sweat bees, leaf-cutter bees, small carpenter bees, and many other native bee species love nectaring on late-season perennial sunflowers. And, these plants are as breathtaking as they are big. Some species reach up to ten feet in height with an equal spread, a beacon for pollinators everywhere. Their pithy stems are also excellent overwintering and nesting habitat for these tiny, docile native bees. Oh, and the birds enjoy eating their seeds, too.
Related post: The best bee plants for a pollinator garden
As you can see, creating a wildlife garden project that benefits these tiny, valuable animals through all seasons is a worthwhile task. Plant the right plants and leave the garden stand for the winter, and you’ll see a diverse array of bees, butterflies, beetles, birds, and many other creatures calling your wildlife-friendly garden home.
For more information on creating a wildlife garden project like this one, we recommend the following books:
The Wildlife-Friendly Vegetable Gardener
The Humane Gardener
Bringing Nature Home
What do you do to welcome wildlife into your garden? Tell us all about it in the comment section below.
Great article. We all need to aid in the task of getting more pollinators back to aid our crops.
Constance Pepin says
This article is helpful! I’m disappointed, however, that you included the non-native Mexican bush sage for the hummingbirds. It’s so important to recommend true native species rather than plants from outside people’s regions–which continues to encourage people to buy non-natives. So many native plants feed hummingbirds, including liatris and jewelweed, so it’s unnecessary to promote non-native species.
Jessica Walliser says
Thanks for your thoughts, Constance. We recommend North American native plants often here on the site. However, we have readers from all over the world. What’s native for me here in Pennsylvania is probably not native to Niki in Nova Scotia or to a reader in Australia, France, or India. We feel that gardener’s who are passionate about using native plants should always take the time to research what’s native in their own region before making buying decisions.