The Buzz

The Nature Photography Garden in Winter - guest post by Deb Foehring


All is still…or is it?

Walk through the Nature Photography Garden in winter and you might not think there is much going on, but a closer look will reveal that, in fact, a great deal is happening. The birds know this, as do a myriad of small mammals.

As you enter the garden, the grasses and sedges along the path are golden and rusty brown, their green, photosynthetic pigments decomposed and their matter and energy stored in roots until next spring. Weakened stems and leaf litter form a loose mat over the surface of the soil and act as a natural mulch, protecting life in the soil beneath and helping to prevent erosion. In fact, this mat of dead material is essential to the health of the soil, which in turn, will nourish next year’s garden. Because our soil does not freeze deep except in the coldest of winters, life goes on in and beneath the leaf litter, just at a slower pace. Nutrients locked up in the leaf litter are made available again by the decomposition activities of soil fungi and bacteria, the fungi feeding on plant cellulose, and the bacteria recycling waste materials into nutrients for next spring’s burst of new growth.

These microorganisms are not alone. Thousands of tiny arthropods are hard at work, consuming the remains of fungi, bacteria, and other microorganisms, and fertilizing the soil in the process. Although earthworms hibernate deep in the soil, in winter, some may stay active under insulating materials such as decaying logs, and leaf litter. Their habit of eating through the soil further decomposes complex organic material, and their tunneling aerates the soil and improves moisture retention.

As you venture further into the garden you will see tall ghostly stands of ‘Summer Past.' These are the seed heads of numerous grasses, asters and other perennials. They are left standing because their seeds provide energy rich food for our resident birds. The remaining stems, leaves and leaf litter are home to overwintering insects (adults, larvae and eggs). Within the garden and around the periphery are a variety of shrubs, many still with frost-sweetened berries clinging to them. They are a lifesaver for foraging birds as the winter wears on, and other foods become scarce. Scattered around the edges of the garden you have probably noticed piles of brush. These are not waiting for the cleanup crew, but are fulfilling an important role as cover for winter active birds and mammals as well as insects and other arthropods.  

So what will you see on a walk through the Nature Photography Garden at this time of year? What may at first seem lifeless you now know is teeming with hidden life. Look carefully among the tall grasses, and you may see the egg case of our beautiful golden garden spider. It is easy to miss as its pale color camouflages it in the winter garden. Also be on the lookout for the cocoons of native moths, dangling from now bare branches. Many birds depend on the leaf litter banquet to survive the winter months. Watch for the beautiful black headed, rust sided, Rufous-sided Towhee scratching in the leaf litter for fallen seeds, berries and insects. You might see Goldfinches swaying on the stems of Purple Coneflower, as they empty the seed heads of one of their favorite foods. A mockingbird, perched high may be searching for insects made active by a bit of winter sun. Just a few weeks ago, Chris Cosby saw an American Woodcock roaming under the magnolias in the northwest corner of the garden. This elusive bird depends on protected bare patches of soil to probe with its comically long bill for worms and other invertebrates. Remember to look skyward as well, and you may see one of our local hawks checking out the Nature Photography Garden for dinner. Next year’s buds are already formed on trees and shrubs, and although gardeners may consider January a time for rest, the residents of the Nature Photography Garden know better.

Posted by Bonnie Grosshans at 1:44 PM


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Central Daylight Time Hours:
9 a.m.-6 p.m.

Central Standard Time (Winter) Hours:
9 a.m.-4:30 p.m.

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Children (2-12) $5.00
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750 Cherry Road
Memphis, TN 38117
(Between Park & Southern)

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