root of fallen tree

Life After Death

Image of moss on stump

It’s not easy to accept that all things must eventually come to an end. We often go into denial in the face of the inevitable and airbrush away the aftermath when it does occur.

So it probably shouldn’t have surprised me to read about a gardener who glossed over the demise of an entire tree with spray-paint, covering every crevice as if it were a rusty old chair. Just days before a public tour, he explained in a magazine article, the tree had lost its leaves, and in his panicked state he coated it in cobalt blue.

In the 15 years since I first saw the photo spread showcasing this spectacle, not much has changed in our approach toward death in the garden. Even the imagery of everyday language reinforces a lack of respect for plants past their prime: No one wants to become “dead wood” in his career or run into a “snag” in his plans. Nor is it desirable to have “debris” or “litter” lying around our homes.

Image of jelly fungus on fallen pine tree
Fungi are unsung heroes of the forest, working alongside countless other organisms – from bacteria to beetles – to recycle fallen leaves, logs and branches into soil nutrients. Some fungi are wood and leaf decomposers, some are parasites, and some transmit food among trees. This jelly fungus is thriving on a fallen tree in our backyard. (Photo by Nancy Lawson)
Image of mole mounds
We can’t see him, but we know he’s there: A mole has helped aerate our soil this fall while he feasts on grubs and earthworms. (Photo by Nancy Lawson)

But the elements we all too often chop down, rake away, chase with leaf blowers, bag up to be hauled off like trash—and, inexplicably, spray-paint—are homes for other species, not to mention restaurants, kitchens and nurseries. For so many animals, life begins in the decay. Some are nature’s homebuilders: Where beetles have tunneled into dead trees, wood-nesting native bees raise their young; where wood-peckers carve out holes for nests, bluebirds, squirrels and owls move in after the original family moves on. A diverse array of other animals—fly larvae, moles and prairie dogs, to name a few—recycle and till the soil, enriching it as they eat near the surface or build chambers underground.

Image of Life in the Soil bookIn death, plants and animals return more to the earth than they ever take, writes University of Illinois research scientist James Nardi in his book Life in the Soil: A Guide for Naturalists and Gardeners. Recently I asked him, somewhat rhetorically, if it’s safe to say that statement no longer applies to our own species, which sends millions of tons of organic material to landfills each year. “Yes, we’ve really broken the cycle,” he said, adding that there’s no need to fertilize soils artificially. “It’s a natural process, but we humans have interrupted it by removing leaves from our yards and planting lawns.”

Here’s how—and why—we should welcome nature back into our gardens.

Let Fallen Leaves Lie

redbanded hairstreak butterfly
Rich natural layers shelter the young of this redbanded hairstreak butterfly, who lays her eggs on fallen sumac leaves. (Photo by Nancy Lawson)
Image of snowberry clearwing moth caterpillar
This caterpillar of the snowberry clearwing moth – one of the beauties who reminds many people of a tiny hummingbird – needs the live leaves of coral honeysuckle and his other host plants to survive to the chrysalis stage. But to get through the winter, he needs the dead leaves under the plant, where he pupates while waiting for spring. (Photo by Molly McElwee)

As we sit by the fire in the colder parts of the continent, queen bumblebees and gray tree frogs are spending winter under blankets of leaves and loose soil. Pupae of hummingbird clearwing moths are cocooned beneath coral honeysuckle vines and other host plants, and red-banded hairstreak butterfly babies await spring in fallen sumac leaves.

Image of jack in the pulpit
Leaves also nourish new growth of plants like jack-in-the-pulpit, whose fruit may create offspring if not eaten first by birds and other animals. (Photo by Nancy Lawson)

Leaves also provide structure to the soil and food for countless creatures. A square meter of soil can contain more than a trillion microbes working hard to decompose organic remains and make essential nutrients available to plant roots. Alongside them is a diverse community of larger predators and recyclers—including springtails, millipedes, snails, earwigs, crickets and worms—who together make a rich banquet for toads, birds and other foragers.

Image of American toad
This American toad, not much larger than my thumb, has likely burrowed deep into the soil for winter. But some frogs cannot dig as easily and instead take shelter among thick leaf layers. (Photo by Nancy Lawson)

Recognizing their essential role, Nardi rescues leaves from neighbors before they’re sent to the landfill. He also avoids tilling and chemicals to protect his microscropic helpers. “The birds
and the mammals—they’re dependent on these creatures,” he says. “I have a lot of shrews in my backyard. They’re wonderful little guys, and they feed on these insects in the soil, and if the soil’s poisoned, there’s nothing for them to feed upon.”

Without the humid leaf layer, we wouldn’t have fireflies to light up our nights; their larvae feed on earthworms and other invertebrates within. “They’re never going to live in an area that gets sunbaked and completely dried out,” says University of Delaware entomology professor Doug Tallamy, author of Bringing Nature Home. “It’s our propensity to clean up and make sure there’s nothing on the ground, but bare soil is instant death to these guys.”

Image of white throated sparrow
White-throated sparrows kick up leaf litter with both feet to dislodge seeds. Many birds find sustenance among the leaves, and some, like ovenbirds, require them for nesting. (Photo by Nancy Lawson)

Leaving the leaves where they fall or piling them under shrubs may also invite ovenbirds, one of 54 bird species that breed in Tallamy’s Pennsylvania yard, once a barren hayfield he’s let bud into a forest. They make their oven-shaped nests on the ground out of leaves, says Tallamy, so “they will only nest where you’ve got good leaf litter.”

Give Trees an Afterlife

Tallamy’s 10-acre property attracts rare salamanders, but you don’t need that much space to entice these unique visitors. Paula Goldberg assumed the salamanders she’d seen at her urban Maryland home 30 years ago had long since vanished in the face of increasing development. To her delight, she found a red-backed salamander and a dusky salamander under some logs last spring. Left there temporarily “because I was too lazy to haul them out,” the logs will now be permanent fixtures of the garden, says Goldberg, the executive director of City Wildlife in Washington, D.C.

Image of pileated woodpecker
Casing the joint: Landscape designer Mary Sper watched this pileated woodpecker examine every cavity of a sycamore tree. (Photo by Mary Sper)

Dead wood can become a “free sculptural asset” for homeowners, says landscape designer Mary Sper of Natural Resources Design in Washington, D.C. Fascinated by tree snags, Sper sees fantastical shapes in their branching, finding representations of antelopes and other creatures the way some might imagine them in clouds. She’s also observed an abundance of real creatures finding snacks within, including one woodpecker recently chiseling away at an oak snag after systematically casing every cavity of a sycamore by a stream near her home. “That bird would not let that tree go until he checked every hole in it,” she says.

Image of oak snag
Sper found this example of woodpecker artistry on a walk in the woods. Tree snags not only support countless species but are also beautiful in gardens, she says. (Photo by Mary Sper)

The experience illustrated the tremendous value of snags. “They’re supporting as much wildlife if not more than they did when they were alive,” says Sper. When woodpeckers abandon their nests to make new ones each year, they create a condo for other cavity nesters. Raccoons, martens, porcupines, foxes, bobcats and even bears use snags and hollowed-out logs. Owls and hawks perch atop dead trees to survey their domain. Brown creepers nest inside strips of loose bark pulling away from the tree.

Image of fallen log hideaway
A matter of perspective: Fallen logs may look dead, but they feed and shelter a vast number of organisms, from microbes to raccoons to bears. This log in my backyard is about 10 feet long with holes bigger than my head at both ends. (Photo by Nancy Lawson)

Home gardeners can attract some of these animals by training a vine such as Virginia creeper up a snag and planting serviceberries, redbuds, fruiting shrubs or other understory species native to their regions, says Sper. Mimicking nature gives the feeling of shelter and safety to cautious songbirds needing quick cover from predators. As a purposeful part of the habitat garden, this technique also may satisfy skeptical human neighbors.

Image of a brush pile
Instead of hauling fallen branches to the landfill, create brush piles for wildlife. (Photo by Nancy Lawson)

Perennials and deciduous shrubs may look dead to us as well at this time of year, but seed heads feed birds and pithy stems shelter larvae of cavity-nesting bees. Wait until late spring to cut them back, and scatter the stalks under shrubs or around the garden. To provide shelter for turtles and insect meals for birds, create handmade brush piles from branches and twigs, says HSUS senior scientist John Hadidian. The piles can be neatly arranged and managed or left to develop more naturally, depending on your neighborhood and your tastes. “Let your imagination work,” Hadidian says. “There’s no limit to what you can do.”

In the meantime, enjoy watching goldfinch acrobatics and hearing brown seed heads rustle in the winter winds, advises Sper. It’s what nature intended. “No one cleared the forest before we did to move dead wood out,” she says. “Dead wood is not dead; it really has a second life.”

Learn how to give Christmas trees a second life for wild animals in your yard at

The text of this article originally appeared in my Humane Backyard column in the January/February 2016 issue of All Animals magazine.

10 thoughts on “Life After Death”

  1. Excellent article Nancy. I am always reluctant to move anything on my property like a log or rock because it disturbs someone’s home

    1. Thanks, Ellen! I know exactly how you feel. Recently a friend expressed that at least I wasn’t so extreme that I worry about where I walk, and I had to admit that he was describing me exactly. I don’t think it’s extreme, though! It’s just that when you start to understand how much life is in every little spot — and how little we know about, and how many fewer and fewer places there are to provide such refuge — you realize how much each step matters.

  2. Nothing like a great and timely column from the Humane Gardener on a dreary day. Despite the alarming title, I am in full agreement. People hate to rake leaves, but there they are cleaning every bit from around their shrubs, and then adding decorative mulch. Local govt mowing schedules need to take account of when they are destroying habitat and egg deposits for the following spring.

    Tks for some great information

    1. Hi Curt, thank you! Yes, there are so many things that could be done more thoughtfully by homeowners and municipal crews with just a little bit of planning. I really think that most people just don’t know — and if they did, they might be more inclined to change their practices at least a little bit?

  3. Great blog! Thanks for reminding us that we are all part of a complex web of life– and death. It’s sad that some should even need reminding, but nevertheless it’s good to read about it now and then. Thank you!

    1. Thank you, David! Yes, it is sad that this isn’t inherent knowledge or something that’s taught to all of us from an early age. Maybe that will change as awareness keeps growing now.

  4. WOW! well-written as usual, and very thorough. “Broken Cycles” is a critical concept in understanding an ecosystem or a food web- something most modern humans, at least in America, have forgotten about. in most countries around the world this is also happening in urban areas, but most “country folks” still practice it. Last year we had an Eastern Towhee feeding on the spilled birdseed on the ground- he obviously had run out of food in the more wooded parts of the neighborhood.

    1. Hi Keith – thank you! Yes, maybe people who are more tied to the land out of proximity or necessity just develop these things and pass them down without even having to think about. Every day I learn something new that makes me wonder: Now why didn’t I know that before? But usually it’s because I saw something and wondered about it and looked it up or asked someone. So many people don’t have the opportunity to see these things because of where they live or how it is landscaped. I love that your towhee was able to get sustenance from your spilled birdseed, even though that’s so sad that he can’t find food elsewhere — that’s a good example of why birdfeeding is helpful in this day and age.

    1. Thank you so much, Charlotte. I wish homeowners had better information in more common places, too — like the big-box garden centers and other areas they’re likely to frequent when they’re thinking about their landscapes.

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