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Winter grass coverfor wildlife

Winter grass cover for wildlife

Beetles on aloe seeds

Beetles on Aloe chabaudii seeds

Garden fungus

Beautiful, useful Fungus!

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The Autumn Garden: 

How to help wildlife survive winter

By Anno Torr

April articles: Previous   Next

Leaves are falling, summer rains are on the wane, winter rains are inching closer, and the nights are longer – welcome to autumn! While we all look forward to cooler days after summer’s heat, do we ever give much thought to how our garden wildlife respond to these changes? Spring is seen as the season of renewal and the beginning of the growing season, and winter the time of death and decay – and plants and animals need to prepare for this period of hibernation or general slow- down.

The importance of autumn.

The days gradually shorten until the autumn equinox on the 21st March, when the length of day equals the length of the night. As plant growth slows, and this accelerates closer to winter, winter-dormant plants and animals make winter preparation by finding a suitable place to hibernate, store energy and nutrients in cell tissues or roots, building reserves that will enable them to begin the spring growing season as the weather warms up.

So, what preparations will animals take?

They look out for warm spots with good insulation in which to over-winter; many migrate, others will store food and build nests. Snakes, lizards, frogs, toads, ladybirds etc., all slow down their body processes, expending as little energy as possible. They hide under rocks, thick matted grass and leaves, and in compost heaps where it is warm and safe from predators. Certain species die off in winter leaving their eggs, larvae or pupae to hide away until the warm spring weather arrives when they hatch to produce a new community who begin the process all over again. This is common in the wasp and spider families. Many will take their fill of nectar, pollen, insects and berries before searching for warm, protective habitats into which they hunker down. In the plant kingdom, deciduous trees will drop their leaves to help them to conserve water in the cold, dry regions of the country.  Even in the warmer areas of the country wildlife need this rest period. Grasses, perennials and bulbs produce a dense mat of dying leaves that create warm cocoons for wasps, caterpillars and butterflies. Many frogs and toads will bury into the soils and hide under rocks and leaves.

How you can help:

  • Gardeners tend to tidy up constantly through the year, but it is especially important to keep the habitats created by nature in place during the winter months. Rather leave your tidying up until the beginning of spring.

  • Many creatures live in the tangles of creepers, so don’t trim them yet, especially those up against the walls. They absorb the heat through the autumn and winter days and radiate it out through the night into the surrounding space, creating warm areas for lizards, butterflies, spiders, etc.

  • Collect stray pieces of slasto, tiles, bricks, rocks, etc., and build a low wall of mixed materials with spaces in which myriad wildlife species can hide. Make sure this wall is stable and not too high.

  • Provide softwood trees and shrubs for hole-nesting birds.

  • Don’t prune your shrubberies and thickets yet as they will provide warm, protected areas for wildlife during winter.

  • Keep seed heads on plants – grasses, perennials, Aloes, Leonotis, etc., as they are a source of food for many creatures – so instead of providing seeds in your plastic bird feeder, offer them in the garden! Others sleep amongst the seeds through winter.

  • Keep the dying and dead leaves of perennials and bulbs and grass stalks until the end of winter. Many creatures like spiders, wasps, butterflies amongst others, will live under the leaves and amongst the grass stalks. If you cut them down now, there will be no place for next seasons’ beneficial insects to live out the cold weather.


Not all plant species are dormant during this season: It is the peak flowering season for the Aloe family offering nectar and seeds birds at this time, and their dormant season will be during the warmer months.

Compost heap

Many creatures will over-winter

in the compost heap 

Leaf fall to insulate the ground

Leaf-fall insulates the ground

Leaves and sticks provide habitat

Moist leaves and sticks provide winter habitat

Let’s look at leaves.


  • Leaves are a valuable resource for the gardener, either as a vital food-producing mulch around plants, or to add nutrients to the compost heap. But they’re also heavily utilised by a diversity of creatures as over-wintering hideaways.

  • Newly fallen leaves provide warm, safe cocoons for small insects and animals.

  • If left to cover beds, forest and woodland floors, they will help to insulate the soils, keeping the top layer warm and moist through winter, protecting the roots of many plants during winter.

  • Will provide food for fungi and micro-organisms as they break them down and mix them into the soil profile.


Who lives in the leaves?


Centipedes, spiders, caterpillars, butterflies, mites, worms, wasps, fireflies, frogs and toads, invertebrates, ladybirds – and birds will forage for all of these, in their search for winter food.


Dead Wood: Sticks, twigs/branches


Unfortunately, too many gardeners view sticks and twigs as garden detritus and so throw them away, under-estimating their value to the life-cycle process. Rather use them to attract the vital decomposers to the garden and so provide wildlife with homes and places to hunt for food, many of which will also hunt out the predators that eat the leaves of your favourite plant or scare the living daylights out of you in the dead of night.  Retain as much dead material on your property as possible to build a balanced garden eco-system.


Animals that depend on dead wood


  • Lizards, insects and snails, for example, will find warm sleeping spaces in a pile of sticks.

  • They are food for wood borers, fungi and other decomposers


Remember that it is not only humans who have a need to hunker down around the fire with woolly slippers and a warm blanket and hot chocolate drink at the ready. Understanding wildlife needs we can help them survive winter by relaxing a few our maintenance ‘rules’.  

Old logs for wildlife homes

A pile of old Strelitzia nicolai logs

Creepers as nesting sites

Nest sites between creeper& wall

Dead wood for decomposers

Decomposers feed on dead wood

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