by Sarah Gardner
PR/Marketing Manager at Texas Discovery Gardens
Fall and winter gardening includes three simple steps for sustainable gardeners. Put fallen leaves to work for you. Think twice before pruning back dead growth and feed wildlife with your garden’s bounty instead of buying birdseed. Choose perennials that give natural winter color over annuals that you buy each year.
Leave the Leaves
As leaves fall, mulch them with a lawnmower directly over your yard. It may take a few passes, but the leaves will almost disappear beneath the blades of grass and eventually add nutrients back into the soil. Chopped up leaves also work well mulched around garden beds. If you compost, add extra leaves into the pile. Add water to the pile if leaves are dry to speed up decomposition.
Gardeners who retain leaves reduce yard waste, which fills up landfills. They also save money on buying compost and mulch. Composted leaves improve soil’s health. Organic matter breaks up clumps, allows for deeper roots and improved seed germination, and improves water absorption and drainage.
Buffet for Birds
Before cutting back grasses and shrubs for the winter, consider leaving some or all of the plant material as both a shelter and as a food source for wildlife. Doves, mockingbirds, sparrows, and other birds will feed on seed heads through winter. At Texas Discovery Gardens, we do most of our pruning late winter to early spring, before new growth starts, to benefit local wildlife.
Finally, save money and water every year on winter annuals. Incorporate perennials into your landscape that provide color and form through the winter. Native grasses that add beauty and food for wildlife include inland sea oats (Chasmanthium latifolium), side oats grama (Bouteloua curtipendula) and Lindheimer muhly (Muhlenbergia lindheimeri).
Colorful small trees or shrubs include possumhaw (Ilex decidua), Carolina buckthorn (Frangula caroliniana), and beautyberry (Callicarpa Americana). Possumhaw is a deciduous shrub, but its bright red berries add nice winter color. Carolina buckthorn’s berries change from red to black over winter, and beautyberry produces bright purple berries that birds love.
Even plants that die back to the ground can provide interest in the winter. Frostweed (Verbesina virginica) exudes liquid from its stalk in freezing temperatures and forms interesting shapes. The native plant is important in Texas because it’s a fall blooming nectar source for migrating monarchs and other pollinators.