As November blows in, the bright colors of summer are a distant memory and the reds and golds of fall have dimmed. Plant life has faded to a grayish brown. An annual rite begins as gardeners start clearing out their dried plant matter in preparation for winter. But maybe it is time to reconsider.
The flower petals may have dropped, but they have left behind something precious. Recall those sticky pads emerging from the center of the flower, the stigma? When pollen lands on the stigma it travels down the style into the ovary, connects with an egg, begins fertilization and produces seeds for the next generation. The flower parts have been replaced by seedheads.
The seeds inside are an invaluable food source for myriad creatures trying their darndest to survive the deprivations of winter. Take for example the black capped chickadee. These little marvels, whose cheery “chick-a-dee-dee-dee” trills are our yearly soundtrack, are so small, you could mail two of them for the price of a first class stamp. The chickadees’ primary method of staying warm through winter is shivering. Shivering their chest muscles surges heat through their little bodies. Shivering is expensive, however, from a calorie standpoint. To stay alive on a winter day, chickadees must eat the calorie equivalent of about 150 sunflower seeds–250 if temperatures drop below zero degrees! In warmer months the chickadees feed on insects, but in winter, bugs are dormant, the birds’ caloric requirements are higher, and daylight hours for foraging are fewer. For the chickadees and many other birds, finding enough seeds to eat is the difference between life and death.
Many of our beloved perennials offer up plentiful seeds for birds. The coneflower (Echinacea), for example, is a popular garden staple. It is a powerhouse for nurturing wildlife. Bees and butterflies flock to it in summer. But its usefulness is not limited to summer. Goldfinches and other birds need its seeds to get through winter.
Not only can birds find nutritious seeds in dead flowerheads, but they can find insects too. Many beneficial insects such as caterpillars, moths, and ladybugs overwinter in the stalks of dead plants. They provide a calorie rich meal to the birds who find them, and those that are not eaten have important pollinating work to do in the spring.
Many gardeners plant Joe Pye Weed, pictured below, because of the abundant pollinators it attracts in the warmer months. But cutting it down in winter removes an important food source when it is desperately needed. As a bonus, the tall browned stalks lend an austere beauty to winter gardens.
Milkweed, the primary food source for our beloved Monarch butterflies, releases its seeds on long silky parachute threads. Leaving the stalk standing in winter provides a haven for insect larva and a food supply for birds.
This fall consider holding off on the conventional wisdom of deadheading and removing spent flower stalks. Seed-eating birds such as juncos, goldfinches and others will thank you. The pollinators and other beneficial insects wintering in the dried plants will reward you in the spring. And there’s something to be said for the stark sculptural beauty of the seed head in winter.