Q. My husband wants to cut back our perennial border in the fall so it will look "tidy" through the winter months, but I've heard that leaving stems and seedheads standing until spring will attract birds to our garden. Which of us is right?
A. Good news! By doing less work (in fall, at least), you can enjoy more birds in your garden during the winter. Leave medium and tall perennials such as coneflowers (Echinacea and Ratibida spp.), black-eyed Susans (Rudbeckia spp.), asters (Symphyotrichum and Eurybia spp. [formerly Aster spp.]), goldenrods (Solidago spp.), and Joe-Pye weed (Eupatorium purpureum) standing in your garden as they finish blooming at the end of the growing season. As fall arrives, finches, sparrows, and cardinals will cling to the swaying stems to harvest ripening seeds, while towhees and juncos will pick up seeds on the ground below. But the end of seeds does not mean the end of bird appeal for stalky perennials, says Bill Butts, professor emeritus of entomology, State University of New York College at Oneonta. Chickadees, titmice, nuthatches, and even small woodpeckers will glean overwintering insects, pupae, and eggs from those stems through the winter--a time when creepy-crawly treats are scarce. When spring arrives, the weathered stalks and stems will be that much easier to cut down and toss on the compost pile.
Ask Organic Gardening editor Deb Martin's latest book is Secrets of Backyard Bird-Feeding Success, available at Rodale.com.