Our Yards and Gardens in Late Fall and Winter

December 8, 2019

I’m a big fan of the scientific approach as it involves letting go of preconceived ideas and becoming fully aware of our surroundings or subject of study through unbiased observation. A scientific mind is less likely to say, “I love this and hate that.”

Society has taught us the so-called good and bad. Ultimately, there is no such thing. It’s all a matter of perspective. Commercials show outrage at an ant crawling around in a yard and show us as conquerors with a handy can of lethal poison. A beautiful dandelion shrivels away from a “pristine” lawn with no chance against our “superior powers”. Then there are the good bees and the bad bees, good birds and bad birds…we can go on and on…to good people and bad people.

We start life with no judgements, with keen interest in our surroundings. From a young age, we’ve been conditioned by those in authority, by media and by our peers to view our surroundings and fellow creatures with bias. The sooner we collectively let go of judgement in exchange for openness and compassion, the more likely we will see social, economic and environmental crises dissipate.

Our yards are excellent places for unbiased, scientific observation.

Wings and tracks.

With the onset of winter, much of life has gone into dormancy but there is still a lot of activity in our yards. Each snowfall is like a blank sheet of paper. It starts to tell a story as soon as the first animal walks across it. With time, the story develops into one that includes all the elements of a good tale, revealing the many comings and goings of wildlife and their interactions.

It is surprising how many animals live close to human habitation, especially when we are constantly reminded that we are the environmental “bad guys”.

When I was an outdoor educator, I took a group of older students on a long interpretive hike which promised to take us to the more remote areas of the outdoor education centre. It had been a day or two since a fresh snowfall and should, therefore, have revealed lots of tracks and other signs of wildlife. Very few people hike on this rugged trail.

Deer and Coyote tracks in the yard.

I expected to show the students how animals preferred to live away from humans. However, the further we got from home base, the less activity we saw and heard. There were tracks, but they were few and far between. As we continued on the loop and approached home base, wildlife activity increased dramatically. I think I learned more that day than the students did. I had assumed human impact as only negative and avoided by most of our fellow creatures. To the contrary, wildlife clearly sees us as an important part of the natural community. They are cautious around us, but they expect and take advantage of our presence.

Pumpkins left in the field, a feast for wildlife.

As I mentioned in an earlier post, we don’t plow or till in the fall in preparation for spring planting. I always expect, on average, about 60% of the fruits and vegetable to make it to the table. That leaves approximately 40% for wildlife and compost. So, the gardens are full of seeds and leftover produce that provides nourishment to many animals over the cold months. Judging by the numbers of birds that spend a good amount of time in the gardens foraging for seed, I’m sure most of the seeds are eaten before Spring. This makes our feathered friends invaluable as weed control.

Often people feel threatened by wildlife inhabiting their yards. I suggest using the comings and goings of wildlife as an opportunity to become the observer of the many checks and balances that can develop in even a small yard. In Nature, there is no long-term runaway population of a species if predators are around.

Snow is an excellent cover for the small mammals. You are more likely to see evidence of tunnels under the snow than mouse, vole or shrew tracks on the surface. Mice will scavenge for seeds, voles will primarily feed on roots and underground stems. Shrews feed on insects and other hibernating invertebrates under the snow. A visiting fox listens for movement of these small mammals under the snow and pounces. An owl has incredible hearing and depth perception and can easily zero in on this small prey. Ermine tunnel under the snow after small rodents. This small agile hunter is an important resident in any yard and will make its home in small places like rock walls, hollow logs or rodent burrows. 

The healthier the yard, the more wildlife and the associated drama. We can intentionally create habitats, shelters and provide food sources. Rather than dead heading flowers and grasses, let the seed heads develop for foraging birds and small mammals. A bird feeder makes our yards so much more interesting in the winter and helps out these beautiful creatures through the roughest weather.

Our yards can be homes for many different animals. We set the stage and they provide the action. Binoculars and cameras come in really handy as we become the unbiased observers. Full awareness of the beauty and diversity in our environment helps us understand our own place and purpose within the universe.

Full awareness of the beauty and diversity in our environment helps us understand our own place and purpose within the universe.

Published by Natural Themes Farms

A small scale farm located in Frankford, Ontario specializing in working with nature to grow and sell: * North American trees, shrubs, wildflowers, vines and ferns. * fruits and vegetables, grown without the use of chemical fertilizers or pesticides.

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