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Habitat Piles: Turning Garden Debris Into Shelter and Sculpture

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Habitat Piles: Turning Garden Debris Into Shelter and Sculpture

August 24, 2023

This is part of a series with Perfect Earth Project, a nonprofit dedicated to toxic-free, nature-based gardening, on how you can be more sustainable in your landscapes at home.  

With all the recent storms and severe weather happening across the country, many of us are besieged with debris from trees and shrubs. Instead of hauling it to the landfill, where it will just add to methane pollution, make something beautiful and beneficial out of it. In fact, keeping garden debris, or biomass (organic matter like branches, stems, and leaves), on your property is one of the principles of nature-based gardening we introduced in last month’s column with Perfect Earth Project. Brush piles offer protection to birds, like wrens, thrushes, and warblers, and other wildlife, like amphibians, reptiles, and small mammals. Leaf litter becomes homes for insects. And when biomass decomposes, it feeds your soil—for free!

There are artful ways to display biomass in your garden. Perfect Earth Project founder Edwina von Gal constructs striking sculptures out of debris gathered from her yard on Eastern Long Island. She’s woven branches through tree trunks, built walls out of logs, and knitted sticks together to create large nests. “Tailor the style of your habitat pile to the style of your garden,” she says. If your garden is tightly managed, create something more deliberate, recommends von Gal. On the other hand, if you have a meadow or loosely planted beds, like von Gal has in her garden, you can be freer in your construction.

At Chanticleer garden in Wayne, PA, assistant horticulturist Chris Fehlhaber constructs a habitat pile each year after the meadow is cut back in early spring. (He waits as long as possible to cut back the meadow with a scythe to allow for overwintering insects to emerge.) To craft the stack, Fehlhaber drives a wood stake in the ground and builds around it so that it’s sturdy and strong. “I start by creating a level base and then work around the pole in either a clockwise or counter-clockwise rotation to ensure there is plenty of overlap for strength, stability, and balance,” he says. He continues the process until all the material is used. “Then, I gather woody debris from the previous year and ‘top’ the stack with it, arranging the branches on top to create a well-balanced dome, which helps weigh the top down and sit it neatly around the pole.” 

“Songbirds, insects, toads, and snakes have all been observed utilizing the stacks for shelter,” says Fehlhaber. He’s spied goldfinches using them to feed on seedheads in the meadow during fall and winter and to hide from predators, like red-tailed hawks. “The coarse nature of the stacks means there are many niches for birds and wildlife,” he says.

Channel your inner Andy Goldsworthy or Maren Hassinger (see her inspiring exhibit at LongHouse Reserve, made from branches gathered on the property), and create art from nature. “Think of every fallen branch you find or invasive shrub you cut down, as a new opportunity,” says von Gal. “Be creative and have fun.” 

Below, some examples of how Von Gal and Fehlhaber transform yard waste into artful critter shelter.

Photography by Melissa Ozawa.

Von Gal doesn’t throw away anything from her garden. Clippings go into compost and any branches that fall or break from storms get turned into habitat piles that are embedded throughout her property on Eastern Long Island. She and her team love the process of knitting branches together to build this nest. “It’s meditative,” she says.
Above: Von Gal doesn’t throw away anything from her garden. Clippings go into compost and any branches that fall or break from storms get turned into habitat piles that are embedded throughout her property on Eastern Long Island. She and her team love the process of knitting branches together to build this nest. “It’s meditative,” she says.
Stack logs from fallen or diseased trees you removed to create walls or screens in your garden. They also provide habitat for native bees, chipmunks, and snakes. “Yes, you really do need snakes,” says von Gal. “They eat voles and other small critters, like white-footed mice, a primary vector of Lyme disease.” Here, a border of cutleaf coneflower (Rudbeckia laciniata) thrives behind the wall.
Above: Stack logs from fallen or diseased trees you removed to create walls or screens in your garden. They also provide habitat for native bees, chipmunks, and snakes. “Yes, you really do need snakes,” says von Gal. “They eat voles and other small critters, like white-footed mice, a primary vector of Lyme disease.” Here, a border of cutleaf coneflower (Rudbeckia laciniata) thrives behind the wall.
Instead of discarding the branches of non-native California privet (Ligustrum ovalifolium) she removed, von Gal wove them into the trunks of native Eastern red cedar trees (Juniperus virginiana).
Above: Instead of discarding the branches of non-native California privet (Ligustrum ovalifolium) she removed, von Gal wove them into the trunks of native Eastern red cedar trees (Juniperus virginiana).
This beautiful nest of pinecones, needles, and branches will breakdown over time, feeding the soil.
Above: This beautiful nest of pinecones, needles, and branches will breakdown over time, feeding the soil.
Several years ago when I was at Chanticleer, the dreamy garden in Wayne, PA, I fell for this simple habitat pile tucked away in the meadow. Fehlhaber builds each stack around a center post. As the stack settles, gaps form around the post. “Bumblebees use this gap to gain access to the interior of the stack, which is likely relatively well-sheltered and dry, to make their nests,” he says. 
Above: Several years ago when I was at Chanticleer, the dreamy garden in Wayne, PA, I fell for this simple habitat pile tucked away in the meadow. Fehlhaber builds each stack around a center post. As the stack settles, gaps form around the post. “Bumblebees use this gap to gain access to the interior of the stack, which is likely relatively well-sheltered and dry, to make their nests,” he says. 
 Above: At Chanticleer, this habitat pile sits among spring-bloomers. “Today, the stacks are part of what I call a carbon positive approach to maintenance as no fossil fuels are used, ever, only gardener power,” says Fehlhaber, who makes the stacks every spring. Photograph by Chris Fehelhaber.
Above: At Chanticleer, this habitat pile sits among spring-bloomers. “Today, the stacks are part of what I call a carbon positive approach to maintenance as no fossil fuels are used, ever, only gardener power,” says Fehlhaber, who makes the stacks every spring. Photograph by Chris Fehelhaber.
In winter, Chanticleer’s graphic habitat stacks become snow-covered sculpture. Photograph by Chris Fehelhaber.
Above: In winter, Chanticleer’s graphic habitat stacks become snow-covered sculpture. Photograph by Chris Fehelhaber.

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Frequently asked questions

What is the Perfect Earth Project?

The Perfect Earth Project is a nonprofit organization founded by landscape designer Edwina von Gal. Its mission is to promote toxin-free landscapes and educate people on how to create and maintain healthy lawns and gardens without the use of harmful chemicals.

Who is Edwina von Gal?

Edwina von Gal is a renowned landscape designer and the founder of the Perfect Earth Project. She has over 30 years of experience in landscape design, working on prestigious projects around the world. Von Gal is a proponent of sustainable gardening practices and aims to eliminate the use of synthetic pesticides and fertilizers in landscaping.

What are habitat piles?

Habitat piles, also known as brush piles or wildlife stacks, are intentionally created mounds of organic materials like fallen branches, twigs, leaves, and logs. They serve as shelter and food sources for various wildlife species, including birds, insects, reptiles, and small mammals. Habitat piles are an important component of creating a biodiverse and eco-friendly landscape.

Why are habitat piles beneficial?

Habitat piles have several benefits for the ecosystem. They provide shelter and nesting sites for birds and other small animals, especially during harsh weather conditions. Habitat piles attract beneficial insects like pollinators and predators that control garden pests naturally. Additionally, the decomposing organic matter in the piles enriches the soil and contributes to a healthier garden ecosystem.

How to create habitat piles?

To create a habitat pile, start by collecting fallen branches, twigs, leaves, and logs from your yard. Arrange them in a loose pile or stack them horizontally in a hidden corner of your garden. Make sure to leave gaps and openings to allow wildlife to access the pile easily. For a more natural look, you can also incorporate rocks and stones. Avoid using chemically treated wood in habitat piles as it can be harmful to wildlife.

Are there any tips for maintaining habitat piles?

Habitat piles require minimal maintenance. However, you can periodically check the pile to ensure it hasn't collapsed or become too compacted. If necessary, add more organic materials to replenish the pile and maintain its structure. Avoid removing or disturbing the habitat pile too often, as it may disrupt the wildlife using it for shelter.

Can habitat piles be used in any garden size?

Yes, habitat piles can be created in gardens of any size. Even small urban gardens or balcony spaces can benefit from a miniature habitat pile made with twigs, leaves, and pots. The key is to provide a safe and accessible shelter for wildlife, regardless of the garden's scale.

Are there alternatives to habitat piles for attracting wildlife?

While habitat piles are highly effective, there are other ways to attract wildlife to your garden. Planting a variety of native flowers, shrubs, and trees can provide food and habitat for different species. Installing bird feeders, birdbaths, and insect hotels can also encourage wildlife to visit and establish a presence in your garden.

Where can I learn more about the Perfect Earth Project and sustainable landscaping?

To learn more about the Perfect Earth Project and sustainable landscaping practices, you can visit their official website at www.perfectearthproject.org. The website provides a wealth of information, resources, and tips for creating a toxin-free and environmentally friendly landscape.

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