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Photo by Timothy Schenck

Make your fall garden a bird and pollinator oasis

November 2, 2023

It’s time to let go of the conventional wisdom that a garden must be cleaned up and cut back in the fall. Trust us—birds and pollinators will thank you later.

At the High Line, our horticulturists have always taken a light touch to the gardens in the fall, which is in keeping with garden designer Piet Oudolf’s original vision for our naturalistic, four-season gardens and our ecological practices in support of biodiversity. As our director of horticulture, Richard Hayden, noted in a recent Washington Post article on the subject: “We’re champions for leaving it be.”

But even our team has looked to improve our gardening techniques to better support native pollinators and birds, including adjustments we made following a 2017 American Museum of Natural History study that found more than 30 species of native bees in the park. That exciting discovery shifted how we cut back plants in the spring—now we take extra care to leave standing certain key species of plants that provide habitat for overwintering young bees until temperatures are warm enough for them to emerge.

Read on for some simple High Line-inspired tips that will transform your garden into a wildlife oasis.

Bird with seed heads

Keep seed heads
Resist the urge to deadhead flowers and cut grasses back. Seed heads provide critical food sources for migrating and overwintering birds during the colder months of the year.

Leaves on the High Line's tracks

Leaf it be
Keeping some leaf litter on the ground amongst your plants will provide shelter to bugs like young (larval) fireflies and the cocoons of native Luna moths and Spicebush swallowtail butterflies.

Plant stems on the High Line in winter

Preserve pithy stems
Many native bees make homes in the pithy stems of plants, where the female bee will carve out a space for her young and a stockpile of pollen for the winter. The new bees will emerge in the spring.

Butterfly milkweed

Bonus points: seed native plants
The fall is a great time to sow seeds for pollinator-friendly plants for the next season. Consider native blooms like bee balm, echinacea, and one of our favorites, butterfly milkweed.

Want to dig deeper into how to prepare your garden for winter the green way? Read a recent Washington Post article, which features insights from our director of horticulture, Richard Hayden, on applying our ecologically friendly practices.

Photography: Timothy Schenck | Steven Severinghaus | Andrew Frasz


Lead support for Horticulture on the High Line is provided by Amanda M. Burden.

Additional support for Horticulture on the High Line is provided by Greenacre Foundation and ConEdison.

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