About this time last year I watched a tiny caterpillar sneak itself into a sunflower seedhead. It wriggled between the tightly packed seeds until I could no longer see it and, I presume, settled down for winter.
As overwintering habitats go, I thought a sunflower seedhead was a pretty bad choice for a caterpillar. Sure enough, just a few weeks later the plant had been decapitated – all that remained was a ragged stalk and a tell-tale pile of seed husks. While something else – a wood mouse I think – had a much-needed burst of winter fuel, the outcome for the caterpillar was unlikely to have been as good.
Leaving seedheads standing over winter is fantastic for wildlife. You don’t have to leave everything standing, but the more you leave the greater the variety of food and shelter you provide. Perhaps keep one border intact and clear another, or choose seedheads that complement the design of your garden – alliums, teasels and umbellifers look particularly beautiful with a gentle dusting of frost.
While some overwintering insects are eaten by birds and small mammals, others live to breed in spring. It’s not just the wildlife that benefits – we gardeners have a good supply of predators on hand to make short work of aphids and caterpillars, and we may also get to witness large flocks of hungry birds feasting on what we’ve left behind.
Thanks to the appalling spring weather, my attempts at growing sunflowers failed this year. But the spent flowers of teasel, fennel, hollyhock and honesty are already providing food and overwintering habitats for wildlife. Just last week I watched a goldfinch extract seeds from a teasel seedhead – much more fun than popping everything on the compost heap.