October 24, 2014
By Karen Rose
Now why would you want to do that, when you can build a perfectly good brush pile in 6′ x 6′ sections on the side of the road and the city will come by and haul it off for you by the end of the week? Problem solved, nothing to discuss, right? Well, that’s true enough. All of the yard waste the city and county collects is taken to the Leon County Solid Waste Facility where it is shredded and composted. You can drive out and fill up a pickup truck bed with a cubic yard of ground organic matter or mulch for free at the Leon County Solid Waste Facility for free. The ground organic matter makes wonderful fertilizer. So you’re doing a service, providing fertilizer, you’re paying for a service, curbside pickup, and there’s no reason at all to keep those fallen branches and tree trimmings on your property, is there?
We are lucky to live in an area where trees and shrubs grow so quickly and easily. You may not feel this way when you are having to prune your hedge for the third time in three months, but it’s true. We are lucky. We are also lucky to have a municipality that is willing to take on the responsibility of dealing with all of this good fortune. But it comes at a cost to our community, and we should all be aware of what it is, especially since it shows up in many of our utility bills every month. It costs Leon County over one and a half million dollars a year to process yard debris at the Leon County Solid Waste Facility.
It also comes at an additional cost to you, though it’s subtle. Every plant growing in your yard grew from nutrients the roots pulled out of the soil. Those branches you just pruned off your shrubs contain nitrogen, phosphorus, potassium, and a whole host of trace minerals. When you send them to the curb, you send those nutrients to the curb as well. Allowing the branches to decompose on site will not only return those nutrients to your soil, but in the process of decomposition will feed all kinds of bacteria and microfauna (very small animals that live in the soil) that are the basis of a healthy and well-nourished soil. If you can bring yourself to keep all of your yard waste on site, the need to buy outside fertilizer can be reduced or eliminated. You may also find that your plants become healthier, and more resistant to disease.
As you know, when you rake your grass, it’s easy enough to use those fallen leaves as mulch almost anywhere, under trees, hedges, in flower beds, etc. But our sense of aesthetics makes it harder to use larger pieces in a way that we think looks good, especially in a neighborhood setting. I personally don’t mind having my brush piles front and center, so that I can watch the wrens foraging and calling, but that’s just me. The truth is that you may not have any place at all in your yard where you feel okay putting in a brush pile. In that case, just keep on site as much as you can. Consider saving only the smaller branches, as they can often be left to decompose behind a hedge. They will gradually decompose over a year or so and recycle their nutrients right back into the shrubs they were pruned from. When you purchase new plants, look for dwarf varieties that will only get to the height and spread you want.
You have to be brave to want to have a brush pile or two lying around on your property. If you build it well, you will be creating habitat for wildlife, and that means not just cardinals, towhees, thrashers, chickadees, wrens, and other songbirds, but also toads, lizards, rabbits, mice, and their predators, such as snakes, foxes, and coyotes. In fact, if you are having issues with nuisance wildlife, one of the recommendations is to get rid of any brush piles laying around. Even a rabbit may not be a welcome addition to your yard. I know of one cottontail who made pretty quick work of a lovely stand of Phlox divaricata that was growing in a flower bed. It’s also important to remember that a brush pile can be a fire hazard, and should not be located close to the house for just this reason.
An ideal place to locate a brush pile is just below your bird feeders and/or birdbath. But anyplace not too close to the house that won’t offend you or your neighbors will work. Behind the shed, to the side of the garage, behind a row of shrubs, in that back corner where no one ever goes, or under a flowering vine you planted just for the purpose of covering that unsightly brush pile, those are all good places. If you have acreage, then along a woodland edge or near a water source would be ideal. Just avoid any place that tends to stay soggy after a rain.
The best brush pile is more than just a pile of branches. It will have open space within it, and entry and exit holes all along it. A brush pile provides both food and shelter. Like any standing dead tree, a pile of branches will gradually decay over time and feed many insects as it does, and therefore a whole food chain. In addition to food, animals need cover, they need safe spaces. A brush pile provides that. Prey animals will stay near cover whenever it is available, especially if they know a predator is near. They will dive for it should the predator attack, and many times they will get there first. No barred owl, red-shouldered hawk, sparrowhawk, dog, cat, fox, coyote or bobcat is going to make it inside a well-built brush pile. Its nooks and crannies give prey animals the safe shelter they need. Birds and other animals, including bats, will also seek shelter in a brush pile on cold, windy, winter nights, and during prolonged, heavy rains. Some animals will even sleep inside a brush pile on a regular basis. As the pile begins to decompose, and insects colonize it, wildlife will search for food within it. Amphibians, reptiles, mammals and birds will all make use of a brush pile.
To build a really good brush pile that will attract wildlife, start with strong branches or logs that will last at least a few years. If you have a fallen tree or a large stump, you can use that as a base, and create a lean-to of branches against it. If not, you can make it free-standing. Any kind of long-lasting branches are ideal for the base, but you can even use cement blocks or other inorganic material for your frame. The advantage of inorganic materials for the base is that they will not rot and therefore the brush pile will never fall down upon itself. The open space inside will stay open. The advantage of organic material is that the entire pile will eventually decompose back into the soil, creating very rich soil in the area where the brush pile was. If you use organic material for your frame, simply plan on building a new pile every few years. It’s all good either way, so use what you have. You can build your frame like a log cabin, or a tic-tac-toe game, or a teepee, or a split-rail fence. Doesn’t matter. Start with your largest branches and logs. Aim for lots of space in this lowest layer, especially entry and exit spaces. The more space within the pile, the better.
It’s nice if you can include a layer of dead leaves on the ground when you begin your brush pile. As these leaves decay, they will attract insects who will then feed your birds. Once the frame is built, add on the smaller branches, leaving lots of places for birds to perch. Add on more smaller branches every time they become available. Aim for at least 2 feet high, though you can go as high as 8 feet. The most common recommendation seems to be 4-5 feet tall, and 8-10 feet long/wide.
You want animals to be able to run for cover and find safe harbor from predators, so you want air spaces and open space on the sides and in the inside of your pile. The size of your entry holes will determine which species can use your pile. Too small, and many animals will be excluded, too large, and the predators will be able to come inside too. But again, it’s your choice, because maybe you’d like to create an artificial den for a family of foxes. The general recommendation is for entrance holes to be 6-12 inches across on both ends and along the sides of the pile. Aim to make perching spots inside the pile, but keep the bottom of the pile as open and clear as possible. Birds will forage on the ground beneath the pile, and perhaps perch on its inner branches for shelter during rainy days and cold, windy nights.
I happened to have some large cedar branches on hand when I started my brush piles. Ever since I got my frames built, I’ve found that every time I generate yard waste, now I have a place to dump it. There is almost always a bird or two on them, near them, or just passing by. Whenever our pet bunnies escape the back porch, that’s where I usually find them. I know they have a tunnel that goes all the way through. I don’t really mind when they get out into the yard because I know they are safe. I don’t have to worry about a red-shouldered hawk or a coyote finding them as long as they have that brush pile to hide in.
A well-built brush pile provides a habitat for snakes, and can be unsightly. So why do it? To save the city money, to add nutrients back into your soil, and for the birds, of course.
Karen Rose is a gardener-for-hire and a master gardener volunteer with the UF/Leon County Cooperative Extension Office.. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. For gardening questions, email us at Ask-A-Mastergardener@leoncountyfl.gov