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

Wednesday, November 23, 2022

Wildflower Wednesday: Wildlife and Wildflower Friendly Garden Guidelines

Verbesina virginica's frost flower

Winter is here for middle Tennessee is a big, cold way! As I write this it's 21F and this November is quite different than it has been in past years. At this time of year it would not be unusual to see a fleabane and wood aster or two hidden under the leaves. Also, the Hamamelis virginiana would be in bloom and trees would still have colorful leaves. In this kind of cold it could be tempting to say that nothing is going on in the garden 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!


Welcome to Wildflower Wednesday and Clay and Limestone garden. I'm sharing my personal guidelines for wildlife and wildflower gardening. I hope you find them helpful, especially if you're thinking of gardening for wildlife. 

I started sharing these posts more than a dozen years ago and I still love introducing wildflowers to you. Our native wildflowers are treasures. Many are underappreciated and underplanted beauties and that's a shame. Most grow with ease if planted in the right conditions and right spot. They are even happy in containers. The bonus is that they attract crawling, flying, nesting, digging and feeding critters to our gardens. With a little research you can find just the right ones for your garden conditions.


There's beauty in a winter garden

Let me tell you a little about my garden. I garden in middle Tennessee in what's known as the Central Basin. The garden soil is shallow clay that is wet in the winter and dry in the summer. The native plants I've chosen are adapted to the environment and conditions at here and provide food, nesting and/or shelter for mammals, reptiles, birds and insects. Humans seem to appreciate it, too.

Hypericum frondosum in early winter color

The sunniest bed is along the driveway where the soil is especially shallow! One visitor commented on all the containers with a kind of "What the heck!" tone. Yes, there are a lot, but it's the only way I can plant my wildflower beauties that need either deeper soil or winter drainage. There would be no Agastaches and Salvias in my garden without containers, nor could I grow native Iris. The rough and tumble native plants like the ex-asters, goldenrod, Verbesinas, Fleabanes, River Oats, Bottle brush grass and cup plant battle it out for garden dominance among the containers.

There are even more containers than this!

The guidelines I use are simple. There's no shaming. Guidelines encourage me to plant for critters not just plant pretty flower faces.  My guidelines can be applied (with appropriate modifications) no matter where you garden for wildlife.

Cardamine diphylla autumn and winter groundcover

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.

 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?

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.


When you let native wildflowers like Echinaceas, Rudbeckias, cup plant and the Symphyotrichum  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 in my garden, we wouldn't be able to get up the driveway,  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 from the stone paths and driveway by gently raking to wooded areas in the garden where they decompose and provide a habitat for beetles and caterpillars. Bees over winter in leaf litter so I try to minimize leaf raking.

 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.

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. Concrete baths 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 and so will all the critters that visit or live in your garden year round. 

6. Take time to sit in your garden and enjoy what you have created

  • Revel in the beauty
  • Appreciate your hard work
  • Enjoy the critters
  • Celebrate your successes, don't focus on defeats
  • There's always a list and there's always a project, just be in the now





I invite you to join WW and share your wildflowers and other native plants no matter where you garden~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. It doesn't matter if we sometimes share the same plants; how they grow and thrive in your garden is what matters most.

Don't forget our Wildflower Wednesday monthly challenge!  The first part of this challenge is to do something every month during 2022 that supports native wildflowers, pollinators, and the critters that visit and rely on our gardens. The second part of the challenge is to post about it somewhere: Your blog, Instagram, Facebook, Twitter or even your neighborhood listserve. 

Why post it?  Because positive publicity is needed to educate our friends, neighbors and communities about how important even the smallest changes we make as gardeners can be for pollinators, birds, insects and mammals that live all around us. 

An incomplete list of things you might consider doing or changing in your garden

Shrink your lawn and make your planting beds larger.

Plant your favorite native perennials and shrubs. Leave them standing after they've gone to seed to continue to provide for wildlife. What you plant in your yard makes a difference to wildlife. I garden for wildlife so every tree, shrub and plant is chosen with wildlife in mind.

Plant more natives and then consider planting even more. "A typical suburban landscape contains only 20-30% native plant species. Try reversing that trend in your own landscape by using 70-80% native species." (source

Commit to never, ever, ever, ever using pesticides in the garden.

Stay away from native plant hybrids and cultivars that are double flowered. They are sterile and have no pollen or nectar for insects and no seeds for the birds. If possible plant “true open-pollinated native wildflowers”

If you want to garden for wildlife and pollinators, don't let lack of space stop you! Plant your favorite wildflowers in large containers. You just might have the prairie or woodland garden you've always wanted...in a pot!
Create a water feature. Provide water year round that is accessible to birds, bees and other critters.

Show some soil! Our native ground nesting bees nest in bare soil, so don't mulch every square inch of your garden. 

Invite bugs into your garden. Plant annuals that attract beneficial bugs.

Learn to tolerate damaged plants. Imperfection is the new perfect.

Don't be in a rush to clean up the fall garden. Leave plant stalks and seed heads standing all winter. Leave those fallen leaves or as many as you can tolerate! Insects over winter in the fallen and decaying leaves.

Leave a layer of leaves as a soft landing material under trees for moths and butterflies to over winter. Many caterpillars drop to the ground from the trees in the fall.

Make a brush pile. Stack fallen brush, cut tree limbs, broken pots for ground beetles. Ground beetles are excellent at eating "bad bugs'. They're also good bird, toad and small critter food. 

Rethink what you consider a pest. Lots of good bugs eat aphids. Spiders are important predators and bird food!

Add nesting boxes for birds.

Plant shrubs and small trees that provide berries and nuts.

Keep a nature journal: Observe visitors to the water feature, make note of when they visit. Notice which flowers attract the most pollinators and which ones are just pretty faces. 

Volunteer to remove invasives in a local part or natural area.

Join your state native plant society.

Join WildOnes even if there's no local group.

Take an online course on tree, fungi and wildflower id.

Take a walk in your neighborhood and observe nature. To quote Joanna Brichetto in Sidewalk Nature "Look Around. Nature is here, is us, our driveways, our baseboards, parks, and parking lots."

Buy the best wildflower, butterfly and bird id books for your state.

Read nature books to your children and grandchildren. 

Read! There are hundreds of books on gardening for wildlife, the environment, and rewilding our world. There are delightful blogs with wonderful and informative articles.

Turn off your porch lights, eave lights and uplights to help mammals,  birds, critters that live in the dark survive.

If you live in Nashville join the Facebook ReWild Nashville Group and the Middle Tennessee WildOnes




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. What a wonderful post Gail. So encouraging. You've been my mentor to garden better for our wild friends.~~Dee

  2. A great post! Thank you for sharing this - excellent guidance and pointers, beautifully made.

  3. Hear Hear, I second what Lisa and Dee said--AND what Janet said on Facebook.

  4. Wild is so very beautiful. Great tips, Gail.

  5. So true: Winter gardens are teaming with life and activity, even when we don't see it. So many great tips here, too!


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