What to Plant Now to Benefit Wildlife in Spring

Trees and Shrubs

Once woody plants start to lose their leaves, it’s prime planting season. Oaks (Quercus spp.) are some of the most beneficial trees for various wildlife. Oak leaves serve as food for an incredible number of insect young, and their acorns help many animals through winter. Bur oak (Q. macrocarpa), an eastern and central North American native, is highly adaptable to slightly moist to dry conditions — even on windswept slopes out in the open — in fact, that open space is its most iconic setting. Depending on where you live, there will be at least a few native oaks to choose from for your specific site conditions. If you’re looking for a smaller tree, consider serviceberry (Amelanchier spp.), hackberry (Celtis spp.), buckeye (Aesculus spp.) and redbud (Cercis spp.).

Shrubs provide habitat for native bees and nesting birds, and can give us a bit of privacy as they diversify a landscape’s ecosystem. Many provide larval food for insect young, and the berries, of course, are a high-energy food source for birds. Look to viburnums, like nannyberry (Viburnum lentago) and American cranberrybush (V. opulus var. americanum), as well as redtwig dogwood (Cornus sericea), elderberry (Sambucus spp.) and buttonbush(Cephalanthus occidentalis), whose summer blooms attract an array of pollinators.

Perennial Flowers

You can’t go wrong planting perennials now for next spring, summer and fall. Living in Nebraska, I have planted young perennialswell into late October and had good fortune with most of the native flowers I selected. For gardeners throughout North America, primarily in the middle and eastern portions, consider planting the following perennials for seasonal color.

Find perennial plants native to your region


The later into autumn and the further north you are, the less able many native grasses are to establish before the worst of winter hits. There are dozens of sedges for areas where you want a grass-like look, and you want the plants to be generally 3 feet tall or less. Sedges, just like grasses, provide valuable cover and refuge for toads, frogs, birds, spiders, butterflies and so many more creatures.

One of their benefits is they green up early in spring — some even stay a little evergreen — and regreen in autumn. Basically, cool and moist weather recharges them. Plains shortbeak sedge (Carex brevior) is a favorite that’s very adaptable. For shade gardens, Sprengel’s sedge(C. sprengelii) and bristleleaf sedge (C. eburnea) are low-maintenance choices.

Growing Tips

It’s important to water anything you plant in fall right away. After that, your local region and weather are significant factors in caring for these new plants over winter and into the following year.

Trees and shrubs. Plant after they’ve lost their leaves, which puts much less stress on the new acquisition. Also, choosing a smaller tree (a few feet in height) will save you and the plant a lot of stress. Smaller trees will adjust faster and take off sooner, often equaling, and then surpassing, the size of a larger 15-gallon or balled and burlapped tree within a few years.

If your site doesn’t receive regular amounts of moisture in the first fall and winter, giving the woody plant a quick drink is in order. If you live in an area where the ground freezes, wait for a day or two after temperatures reach above 40 degrees Fahrenheit or so to water. Pay attention to the plant the first year for signs of drought stress — if it’s unseasonably hot and dry, supplemental water may be needed.

The most important factor is always to choose the right plant for the right spot — match the soil, light, drainage and climate with the plant’s needs; otherwise you’re fighting a losing battle. Don’t stake trees unless it’s absolutely necessary; wind helps the trees root faster and produce stronger anchors as the trunk moves around.

Perennial flowers and grasses. We’re talking herbaceous forbs, grasses and sedges — plants that die back to the ground in fall and emerge from the ground in spring. If fall rains are good and the weather isn’t abnormally hot or dry, you might not need to water more than once or twice.

Watering depends highly on soil type, plant type, climate and weather — there are too many variables to accurately advise about watering here. As an example, here in the tallgrass ecoregion of eastern Nebraska, or USDA Zone 5, if I plant flowers and grasses on September 20, I will water right away at installation, then again within about four to seven days. I may water once more a week after that. Smaller potted plants and plugs may have to be watered a bit sooner than 1-gallon pots, as they dry out faster, but these smaller plants will also establish much faster. Spring watering won’t be necessary.

Fall is a great time to plant, because many trees, shrubs, sedges and even perennial flowers are going dormant. This means less transplant shock and stress, partly because the plants are not focusing on maintaining leaves or flowers. Instead, these sleeping plants are entering a period of underground growth, which will help launch them into a successful new growing season.

While there are plants that establish better with a spring installation, here are some that do just as well, if not better, when they go into the ground in fall. They’ll be ready to help pollinators and other wildlife come springtime.

This content was originally published here.

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