The greenery is finally springing back to life around our house. This means that many of my chores will begin their shift outdoors. One such task is picking up all the branches and ephemera that our river birch has shed over the winter. Other trees have also dropped appendages, but anyone having intimate knowledge of the river birch will understand how it can resemble a long-haired animal come warmer weather in its shedding practices.
Interesting side note: One of my best friends, who is well-versed in her knowledge of all things landscaped and gardened, told me that the reason my river birch sheds so much during the winter months is due to the brittleness of the branches. While the ends are always thin and wispy, once the sap retreats during the cold they become drier and more brittle so that even the lightest winds can break them.
Anyway, along with the above mentioned litter, many of my pruned bits and other garden clippings end up in my brush pile. Generally, anything that is on the larger side or that I feel will take too long to break down in the compost goes on top of our brushy wildlife domicile.
Brush piles can become home for many critters — make it large enough and it will provide natural cover for a variety of them to nestle in. They can attract birds, especially juncos, wrens, and cardinals. Our numbers of these birds have definitely grown since we reestablished our mound a few years ago. Toads and tree frogs also take refuge in brush piles since there is an area sheltered from the drying summer sun underneath that densely layered litter. Each of these species is not only attracted to the shelter provided but also to the insects who appear to break down the woody material.
Bunnies, chipmunks, mice, and cats will also help keep the balance of your wildlife common dominion. Whether they use your brush as temporary resting place or longer term home, they can help with upkeep and stave off any over-population of those smaller than themselves.
Another animal that helps keep the numbers in check is the snake. While I’m not a keen supporter of sharing land with poisonous snakes, I adore finding others who slither around the garden. The discovery of baby ringneck snakes while I was digging my potatoes a couple of years ago delighted me to no end. That discovery also perhaps explains why my slug population has diminished. While I love most animals, I’m not very fond of those who are more pest-like in their attributes—slugs are one such animal for me.
I have heard that butterflies will over-winter in brush piles. While mine is not within sight of my usual observation spots, I will be looking more carefully as we move through the season hoping to catch sight of butterflies emerging. Whenever I notice a praying mantis egg sack while pruning the forsythia, I make sure to carefully tuck the clipping into the pile in a way that it will be well-sheltered. Finding these creatures tending around my garden always brings a smile to my face.
It’s important to put your pile somewhere that’s good for both the pile and for you (with your neighbors in mind). A successful pile will be at least 6 feet across and 4 feet in height—larger than this is better but not always possible. The larger the pile, the more diversely populated it will be. A pile that has both sun and shade is desirable in order to keep your animals happy. Some love to sun themselves for a part of the day, while others prefer the dark safety of the dense shade. Placing your brush along a fence can add to the shelter from wind and other weather elements. Make sure your choice is not in a low spot where water will pool or in a place that the rain naturally washes through.
I tend to make my piles as material presents itself, in other words building slowly and by simply adding my litter and clippings as nature or pruning provides. Some folks enjoy constructing a more orderly structure with the added strength and predictability of purposeful layering. Start with large stones, tile, or logs at the base, then add layers in a criss cross manner, getting lighter and smaller as you mound upward.
One way you can help camouflage your brush pile is to plant something to vine around it. This will help with the aesthetic appeal and can also add strength to it by weaving the pile together. The leaves and flowers of most vines will also add another layer of protection from the elements and possible predators.
As long as your mound stays stable, you can keep adding to it. Though those built more strongly can last over a decade, when they become too decayed their ground layer is not as inviting. Simply begin another pile nearby for the animals to move into and plant some lovelies to grow into the deep compost you’ve helped nature to create in the old one.
I understand that many folks don’t have space in their yard or have neighbors or communities who don’t understand the long-term benefits of brush piles. Some see an unsightly mess where I see an invitation for a variety of birds, mammals, amphibians, and reptiles to gather and survive. It also makes me happy that the slow release of carbon into the atmosphere is lowering my own carbon footprint.
If you’re truly interested in adding one of these nature condominiums to your place, do some research and present the naysayers with the positive information that you’ve collected. Check your local codes — if they aren’t brush pile-friendly, work to change them if you can. If you live in a densely populated area, undesirables (skunks, possums, raccoons) could be attracted to your pile. This can be managed with vigilance and swift appropriate action.
Photos by Blythe Pelham
Blythe Pelham is an artist that aims to enable others to find their grounding through energy work. She is in the midst of writing a cookbook and will occasionally share bits in her blogging here. She writes, gardens and cooks in Ohio. Find her online at Humings and Being Blythe, and read all of her MOTHER EARTH NEWS posts here.
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