Home of the Practically Perfect Pink Phlox and other native plants for pollinators

Wednesday, November 28, 2018

Wildflower Wednesday: Clay and Limestone Gardening Guidelines

Winter is here for many and it might be tempting to say that nothing is going on in the garden right now, but, we gardeners know that even a winter garden is teeming with life and activity. Birds are visiting the feeders especially on the coldest days when the ground is frozen and its hard to find a hidden insect or fallen fruit and seed. They also appreciate water, however you decide to provide it! A few years ago my birdbath cracked from the cold and I used a handy turkey roaster with rocks for easy access to the water.

There were no complaints and lots of visitors!

It's Wildflower Wednesday and I'm sharing my garden guidelines with a special emphasis on fall and winter. Although, they're universal, I've personalized them with photos of past Wildflower Wednesday stars. If you're new to C and L, my garden is a Central Basin woodland (there are some sunny areas) with dryer, heavier, shallow and neutral clay soil. I've unearthed enough limestone rocks to build several small walls and there's still more. Not too far below my plants is a thick layer of Ordovician limestone that makes for challenging gardening experiences. The native plants I've chosen are adapted to the environment and conditions at Clay and Limestone and provide food, nesting and/or shelter for mammals, reptiles, birds and insects. Humans seem to appreciate it, too.

Evergreens provide shelter for garden critters

My guidelines can be applied (with appropriate modifications) no matter where you garden for wildlife.

1. Plan and plant for a year round garden by wisely choosing the plants.

 It's taken me a very long time, but, I finally feel as if I have found the right combination and balance of perennials, annuals, biennials, small trees and shrubs that can thrive in the shallow clay soil that is too dry during the summer and too wet during the winter. Nearly every plant at Clay and Limestone has been chosen with birds, insects and other critters in mind.

Simply said: Choose plants that have good wildlife value.

Hamamelis virginiana blooms in November in my garden and small pollinators are all over the flowers

Most of our gardens have enough food for critters in our spring and summer, but, late fall and winter are critical food times in the garden. I've chosen late blooming fall plants to provide needed food for butterfly, hummingbirds and bees that are visiting the garden in the fall. Their seeds will feed song birds and small mammals through out late fall.
 If you garden along the monarch trail I recommend planting this beauty

All our native asters are excellent nectar and pollen sources for late visiting pollinators, but,  Symphyotrichum praealtum 'Miss Bessie' is the best very, very, late blooming ex-aster in my garden. It  begins blooming in mid to late October, just as the little woodland asters and Goldenrods are starting to fade, and continues blooming throughout November. It can even survive light frosts. It was still blooming when I walked the garden yesterday. It's an extremely important food source for migrating Monarch butterflies and if you're gardening on the Monarch Migration Trail, you might want to consider planting it. Bees are also frequent visitors when the temperatures reach 50˚.

Native Lonicera bloomed until Late October feeding migrating Hummingbirds
Migrating hummingbirds need to constantly replenish their fat reserves. They feed heavily on flower nectar and where there are few flowers they will feed at the sugar water from feeders as they continue on their journey. Plant lots of nectar- rich hummingbird favorites~Salvias, Pentas, Cleome, Penstemmons, Trumpet honeysuckle, Zinnias and Monarda to keep Hummers happy and visiting. I often cover these plants if a light frost is forecast.

These are the questions I ask myself when plant shopping-at nurseries or online.
  • Does it make sense for my garden conditions?
  • Is it a source of nectar or pollen or a host plant for pollinators? 
  • Is it a food source for birds, insects or mammals?
  • Will it add to plant diversity in my critter friendly garden?
  • Is it native or garden friendly (a non invasive plant)? 
  • Have I included plants that bloom in the early spring and some that bloom until late fall to help critters getting ready for winter?
  • Have I included shrubs and evergreens? (They provide structure to the garden and cover and food.)
  • What worked this past year? Should I plant more?
Aronia arbutifolia

2. Wait until spring to clean the garden

Gardening friends it's time for us to help our neighbors understand that there's no need to clean up their gardens in late fall. Birds, bees, beetles, butterfly, beneficial insects and small mammals need our "messy gardens". They overwinter under leaves, tuck themselves in the peeling bark of trees, nestle at the base of plants and even nest/overwinter in the stalks of many wildflowers. Clearing the garden kills the insects and that means our resident birds won't have as many insects to feed their young come spring. Not only do the critters miss out, but, we don't get to see how beautiful our gardens can look when/if it snows.
The stems of decaying Silphium perfoliatum provide homes for overwintering critters
When you let native wildflowers like Echinaceas, Rudbeckias and the ex-asters stand all winter the seeds are consumed by Goldfinches and other seed eating critters. The stems of many wildflowers, like cup plant are perfect nest sites for overwintering insects~especially small bees.

Native grasses left standing are beautiful, but, also provide shelter and protection for small mammals and birds. Goldenrods support a curious little Goldenrod Gall Fly that makes it's winter home on the stem of the plant. If they aren't eaten by Chickadees during the winter the fly emerges in the spring to start this process all over.

Decaying stems play a roll in the winter garden. The older foliage of a Christmas Fern collapses into the leaf litter as the year progresses toward winter. This accumulated detritus of decaying fronds helps to stabilize the soil and prevent or lessen erosion. The built up mass is also a protective habitat for ground feeding and ground nesting birds.

3. Leave some leaves! 

 I can't leave all the leaves that fall on my garden beds, but, I leave a lot. Over the years the decomposed leaf litter has improved the soil while providing a nice layer of mulch for some winter protection. I do relocate leaves to wooded areas in the garden where they decompose and provide a habitat for beetles, caterpillars, some bees to over winter.
any more than this and my plants might not survive the wet winter under the leaves

4. Create a brush pile, leave a snag or allow a fallen tree to remain in the garden

 Living trees provide food, shelter, nesting, resting places, perches for hunters and a "reproductive site" for hundreds of different kinds of insects.

Redbud snag
When a tree dies, good things continue to happen. 

Dead trees have an enormously important role in forests. Trees fall for a variety of reasons: disease, lightning, fire, animal damage, too much shade, drought, root competition, as well as old age. A big oak in my garden was struck by lightening a dozen years ago and limb by limb it's been falling down.

The snag that remains still provides shelter and nesting for a number of critters; while the limbs on the ground are a perfect shelter for small animals such as rabbits, chipmunks and squirrels and a habitat for beetles, termites and other insects.

If you haven't space for a fallen tree, you can create a brush pile for the wild critters that live in your garden. Insects, spiders, bees, reptiles, and small mammals love brush piles and birds will visit in search of insects.

5. Always provide water, it's as important in the winter as it is in the summer

Birds need water every day and if you live where there's no snow cover (yes, birds can eat snow), then, birds need your help even more. I have two heated birdbaths and I always have visitors at them. If you haven't access to an electrical outlet, you can look for a solar bird bath heater. Get frost proof bird baths. My concrete baths only crack if they are not heated. Keep the baths clean and if possible place them in a sunny spot.

The birds will thank you for it.

Blue birds flock to the bird baths when they visit the garden in late winter

I walked the garden while I was writing this post and there were still colorful leaves on the trees and blooming ex-asters, but, not for long, a cold wind is blowing in winter temperatures in the low 20s. My flowers will be gone, but, this gardener will continue to dream and plan. In the mid-south the garden and gardener rest for a shorter time than many of you experience winter. I hope this winter gardening guideline is helpful and that winter is good to you.

Happy Wildflower Wednesday.

Welcome to Clay and Limestone and Wildflower Wednesday.  This day is about sharing wildflowers and other native plants no matter where one gardens~the UK, tropical Florida, Europe, Australia, Africa, South America, India or the coldest reaches of Canada. It doesn't matter if your WW star of the month is blooming or not, after all it's winter for a lot of us. It doesn't matter if we sometimes share the same plants; how they grow and thrive in your garden is what matters most.

Gail Eichelberger is a gardener and therapist in Middle Tennessee. She loves wildflowers and native plants and thoroughly enjoys writing about the ones she grows at Clay and Limestone. She reminds all that the words and images are the property of the author and cannot be used without written permission.


  1. Ahh yes, this is the dreaming and planning time of the year. I enjoyed your post. The reminders of what we should do and look for is helpful.

  2. An excellent post! We have water down in the ravine's small creek, but I need to get a birdbath out, again, too.

    1. Thank you. I think we can't have enough educational posts! I hope others think this way, too ;)

    2. I’m in your camp! Your message is what I’m always talking about in classes, etc. — so the more posts the better.

  3. Back later to read and enjoy.
    Garden posy and Advent wreath from me.

  4. I love this post! I haven't figured out if I am going to get a post done, but the idea I had was similar to yours. I was thinking about taking photos of the yard and just talking a bit about waiting until spring to clean up, and then leaving stems. I didn't think of as much detailed information as you provided.

    1. Go ahead and do one like that, it sounds great.

  5. Your wildflower garden looks lovely at all seasons I see! I love the witch hazel, and that blue bird. :) Thank you for this valuable information!

  6. Great photos and interesting information. Love the Bluebird!
    Thanks for hosting!

  7. What a beautiful post Gail with much food for thought. I love nature in the garden and try to do as much as I can for wildlife in order to keep a good balance.

  8. I heartily agree with all your guidelines. I do find it a challenge, though, to have fruit that lasts into fall and winter. Mine usually are eaten by late summer.

  9. These are great guidelines, Gail! The ecosystem seems to be clicking along here in my backyard. The fact that we have a large number of chickadees (re: Doug Tallamy), continues to be encouraging. They are so happy here, year-round. The only thing out of balance is the plethora of rabbits, but I'm encouraged that we've had more hawk visitors recently. :)


"Insects are the little things that run the world." Dr. E O Wilson