Reclaim Nature and Add Habitat with a Brush Pile
Updated: Nov 30, 2022
I’ve tried to maximize the edge areas of my small, semi-urban, rewilded yard by tucking away a few brush piles behind shrubs and trees to offer transitional areas for wildlife to use for safe passage, cover, and food.
The plan seems to be working because I’ve seen chipmunks, squirrels, snakes, and an amazing variety of birds including cute fledglings on, in, under and around the brush piles. I even watched a barred owl swoop down near one and scoop up a mole. Red-tailed hawks who visit my yard invariably sit on a section of the back fence looking for food in the largest brush pile! I also wonder if my brush piles are related to a fox, opossum, and bunny visiting my yard for the first time this year.
To me, fallen tree limbs, branches, and twigs, trimmings from shrubs overtaking the driveway or paths, and tree treasures I scavenge from around the neighborhood after a storm are not yard waste to be taken away to a landfill. They are an important habitat feature in my yard and sustain a healthy food web by offering wildlife a sanctuary to hide from predators, a shelter to seek refuge from weather, a buffet for birds to forage for insects for their spring babies, a resource for bits and pieces of nesting material, and even a nesting site. Overwintering butterflies and ground nesting bees can be found in brush piles and the decomposing wood gives fireflies a place to lay their eggs.
A way to screen the brush pile and increase biodiversity is to add native plants that offer a benefit to wildlife, such as fruiting shrubs and nectar plants for butterflies and other pollinators. The largest brush pile in my yard is surrounded by a climbing aster covered trellis, sweetshrub (Calycanthus), a spreading coralberry (Symphoricarpos orbiculatus) thicket, elderberry (Sambucus canadensis), chokeberry, an expanding patch of grass-leaved goldenrod (euthamia graminifolia), and a Carolina silverbell tree (Halesia Carolina).
Even more habitat for butterflies, moths, native bees and other pollinators can be added by letting native vines ramble over the brush pile including coral honeysuckle, (Lonicera sempervirens), native clematis (Clematis virginiana), virginia creeper (Parthenocissus quinquefolia), crossvine (Bignonia capreolata), passionflower vine (passiflora incarnata), or American wisteria (Wisteria frutescens). A great idea I may try next year is to let thorny Roundleaf Greenbriar (Smilax rotundifolia) grow over one of my brush piles to supply food for wildlife. It may discourage a new neighborhood cat from going after nesting birds like the Carolina wrens I’m pretty sure nest or at least spend most of their time hiding and foraging in one of my brush piles.
Adding one or more brush piles to your yard is easy. Below are a few basic ideas if you don’t have a brush pile yet.
Where to build your brush pile
Placement of your brush pile depends on the size and location of your yard. Consider building your brush pile
away from the house and any neighboring structures where it is not a fire hazard and you don’t have to worry about critters thinking your house might be an even safer shelter
where there is good drainage
in partial sun for a safe sun basking space
close to bird feeders - or not close to bird feeders! I have two brush piles near bird feeders - one behind a large shrub and one between an overstory tree and a shrub. I see birds darting in and out of them all the time so I’m in the camp of building brush piles near bird feeders.
on a hilly area to help control erosion by holding soil in place.
close to a wooded or wild area if you back up to one
near a stream if you’re lucky enough to have one on your property or next to it
where you can see the brush pile from your home (for your own enjoyment of seeing all the life in and around it!)
How to build a brush pile
Since my naturescaped yard is small and already stands out in my neighborhood of traditional monoculture lawn yards, I’ve taken a more casual approach by building multiple discreet brush piles. Mine are more in line with what might happen naturally. I would encourage looking up the many online sources with structural options for ways to build a more official or elaborate brush pile, like this one. The goal of all brush piles is to offer shelter in the center from predators but be open enough for wildlife to easily get in and escape from if needed. Below are some basic guidelines for building an informal jumbled brush pile.
A nice layer of leaves can be on the ground to add organic matter where you build your brush pile.
A way to create room at the center of the brush pile is to add a stump and build the brush pile around it
Another way to create hiding places and space in the center of the brush pile is to use rock piles as the base
The most common way to build a brush pile base is to add large branches in a Lincoln log, criss-cross pattern on the bottom of the brush pile. Oak is a great wood for the base because it takes the longest to decompose.
Place pipes in the base for tunnels for small critters. I haven’t done this and am now intrigued by the idea which sounds like the hamster mazes from my childhood, only it's for chipmunks and other small critters
Add smaller branches and twigs on top of the base
Continue to add limbs, branches and twigs as the brush pile shrinks. My largest brush pile has slowly “moved” over time as it decomposed and I started fresh sections around it. Rot and decay are a feature, not a bug in this process!
Stone piles can be placed at the edges of the brush pile offer a place to bask
If space is a big limitation, consider a modified concept of a brush pile by strategically arranging larger branches and logs in and around bushes. I’ve done this along a row of bushes above a retaining wall separating my yard from my neighbor’s tidier yard. There is always lots of great oak and other native tree branches to add to this stretch of habitat in my neighborhood the day before “yard waste” pick-up.
Caution – what not to do!
Don’t add anything toxic to a brush pile including anything made with pressure-treated or painted lumber, railroad ties, or manmade waste like tires. These materials will harm wildlife and can leach into the ground and pollute our water system.
Don’t add food scraps, waste, and small green natural matter (like from weeding). These belong in the compost bin not in a brush pile where the habitat value comes from natural materials slowly decomposing in a looser structure.
Everything you add to the brush pile needs to be left whole – shredding or chipping branches destroys life and you can’t create a brush pile with it anyway.
Leave the leaves where they fall or in leaf piles around your yard but leave them off your brush pile. Smaller boughs of pine and other evergreen twigs offer enough shelter for a brush pile without expediting the decomposition of the pile.
I didn’t have brush piles for the longest time because I got so overwhelmed by all the rules I couldn’t follow in my small yard to build a “proper” brush pile. I started one out of necessity when I didn’t want all the branches from a row of non-native shrubs we cut down to be carted off to a landfill. It attracted so much activity that I continued to add to it and build additional smaller brush piles around the yard. Adding a brush pile is one of the easiest ways to reclaim nature in a yard with little effort and without spending anything.
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