Winter Composting for Insect Conservation

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Compost piles can provide a safe place for creatures in the winter

The insect world is in upheaval, with many populations declining along with the birds that eat them. In his bestselling book, Bringing Nature Home, American ecologist Doug Tallamy argues that diverse home landscapes enriched with native plants may be the last, best hope for many species. Today I’m using Tallamy’s lens to look at the winter composting practices that can make a life-and-death difference for creatures that need safe places to stay when cold winds blow.

Set Up Cricket Condos

A loose pile of cornstalks and weeds attracts seed-eating crickets

In The Welcome Sounds of Crickets Chirping, I mentioned that field crickets can eat more than 200 weed seeds a day, all the while excreting soil-enriching manure. They do their best work on the soil’s surface under the protection of weeds and grasses, but adapt quite readily to a loose pile of garden debris stacked over a garden bed. I like to make a cricket condo from my expired sweet corn and its attendant weeds, which are often holding way too many seeds. As the pulled plants dry, they shed seeds that fall through the crevices to the crickets and other seed scavengers waiting below. Pieces of hollow sunflower stalk are great for a cricket condo refuse pile, too, because critters can hide inside them. Should you want to make sure your local crickets get the message that their condo is ready, place some old bread at the bottom of the pile along with torn pieces of cardboard. They will love their new digs.

Safety Stations for Ground Beetles

As the garden loses its cover of green plants, ground beetles lose their summer homes. These secretive allies eat lots of slugs and small earth-bound bugs, and have the odd talent of being very fast runners. Ground beetles look for places under rocks or boards to burrow down for winter, or they will settle in beneath a pile of garden debris.

Weeds, mulches and leaves collected in wire bins provide winter protection for ground beetles

I like to set up wire collection bins for weeds and pulled plants in several places around the garden, which save me footsteps and create habitat for ground beetles, crickets, pillbugs and other surface-dwellers, plus food for tunneling earthworms. The bins are also handy for collecting old mulches and fallen leaves, which I pile to knee deep and leave in place through the winter. In spring when I prepare the soil for planting, the spots under the bins are loose, friable and riddled with worm holes and beetle burrows.

The Compost Pile in Winter

Eventually all my little piles are moved to the main composting area, which is a biological world of its own within the garden. A constant stream of kitchen waste feeds the enclosed composter, while the open heap gobbles down dead plants sprinkled with chicken manure. Most of the time, a bale of rotting mulch hay stands ready for use.

It’s a rich, lively world, and this chart from Cornell University lists more than a dozen different invertebrates likely to inhabit a compost pile in a temperate climate. Cold winter weather slows their activity to a halt, but what happens to them then? Wingless life forms don’t have the means to wander far, so they snug down into the soil or find shelter under rocks, logs, or composters.

A stationary composter, open compost pile and mulch hay in Barbara’s composting area

Preserving insect habitat in the composting area means not digging or moving things about too much during the coldest months, when most composting creatures alter their internal chemistry by producing natural antifreeze chemicals to keep them safe in the cold. Some species even empty their guts before going into diapause (hibernation) to further limit damage from ice crystals. When the soil warms in spring, they magically come back to life, eager to get to work.

In his books and speeches, Dr. Tallamy often notes the importance of compost as part of the same natural food web that supports insects and birds. Raise the bar for your landscape, he advises, saying that instead of simply looking pretty, home landscapes can support life, sequester carbon, feed pollinators and people, and safeguard fresh water. On the most fundamental level, the entire process starts with compost, and there is no time to waste. Now more than ever, the words of Edward O. Wilson have the ring of truth: “Conservation biology is a discipline with a deadline.”

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