Monday, April 6, 2009

Build a brush pile for wildlife

Building a brush pile is a really fun project that will benefit many species of wildlife. Spring is a great time of the year to build a brush pile, since most of us will be pruning, trimming, cutting and otherwise preparing our yard for the growing season. It is a fun time to tidy up the yard and a brush pile is a great use for of all the garden “waste” that is hard to compost and might otherwise be destined for the landfill or burn pile.

Brush piles are important habitat for a variety of species, for a variety of needs, throughout the year. Brush piles provide shelter and protection from predators and inclement weather; they offer a source of nesting materials, nesting places, and feeding places.

What sort of animals will use a brush pile?
Realistically, in our yard, we will not get rabbits, quail, and turkeys, but if these are animals in your area you might be able to attract them. In our yard, brush piles are used by a variety of small animals for nesting, feeding and for nesting material.

Warblers, spotted towhees, dark eyed juncos, gray catbirds, white crowned sparrows, house wrens and many other birds will use the brush pile- investigating its nooks and crannies almost immediately. But birds are just some of the wildlife that will use brush piles. This sort of “wild” structure is usually the first element to be removed from managed-landscapes yet it is the most familiar to many species of wildlife.

Brush piles are wonderful places for butterflies. These landscape elements are often forgotten in butterfly gardens, but butterflies use brush piles for protection for their critical chrysalis stage, and even as a hibernacula for butterflies that over-winter as adults. Around Missoula, two common butterflies, the mourning cloak and the tiger swallowtail both use brush piles to over-winter. The morning cloak over-winters as an adult, whereas the tiger swallowtail over-winters as a chrysalis. Beyond just offering a place for over-wintering, brush piles over great protection for butterflies to spend the night or to escape cold, or unfavorable weather.

Ants will also make use of the protection and shelter the brush piles provide. Thatching ants, for example, use the shelter from the elements under which they build their large hills.
Brush piles are a great way to keep a lot of stuff in your yard that might be valuable to birds but might be messy to look at. For example, last year’s stems, stalks, and foliage make great nesting material for American robins, and house wrens.

Mice, chipmunks and other small rodents will use the brush piles. This may be a good or bad thing, so consider the location of the brush pile before you build it. You might not want it right next to your house if you are concerned about mice.

Start with a good location
To build a brush pile, first select a location- this is important- by placing a brush pile where animals naturally congregate or along natural travel corridors, it is more likely it will get used. For example, don’t locate it in the middle of a lawn, but rather off to the edge of your yard, along a fence, near shrubs, trees, or birdbath or feeders.
Build the foundation
Use large rock or logs to build a base, and then add progressively smaller materials to the top. It is kind of like building a campfire; you want to create some spaces in the bottom or middle for animals to have room. Make it large enoug; the bigger the better, but this will probably be dictated by the size of the garden and the aesthetic.

Integrate he brush pile into the landscape
Locate the brush pile in, around, or on top of shrubs or plants that might grow through the pile. For example, I pruned several Wood’s rose (Rosa woodsii) all the way back to the ground and placed the brush pile on top f it. This way the rose will grow up through the pile adding color and visual interest and making the pile become part of the landscape. This also works well with climbing or vining plants like clematis. The flowers of the clematis will offer color and interest to an otherwise dead brush pile. We use virgin’s bower (Clematis occidentalis) and white clematis (Clematis ligusticifolia) on or underneath our piles. Plus, this provides another opportunity for using vines in the garden.


  1. Wow! Thank you so much for this post! While I recognized the brushpile's usefulness in protecting and providing nesting materials for birds, I had no idea that they could be good butterflies too!

  2. This is brilliant, haha. But seriously, what a great and understated idea! This is very inspiring and I definitely want to build one of these to provide some habitat for birds and butterflies, especially since we're more often taking it away. Thank you so much for sharing this wonderful idea!

  3. I thought I knew all about brush piles--until I read this excellent post. Butterflies, base with space, climbers planted to romp on it--all new to me. Thanks!

  4. This was a fascinating post to read. I've always had a brush pile out of laziness. So sometimes, laziness is a good thing. I used to think it was the pond that attracted so many birds and butterflies, but perhaps it is the brush pile that brings them in.

  5. HI! I found this by doing a search on brush piles for butterflies so I could print something out to show my next door neighbor that mine here and at my garden across the street are for them, and not the garter snakes I posted on awhile back. She is upset with me for encouraging snakes because she has had them in her house before. The garter snakes have been in our neighborhood for a long long time.

  6. WOW! What an amazing blog! I am not normally a fan of blogs, but my inadvertent discovery of this blog may change that. It is (unfortunately) quite rare to encounter people with your mindset.

    THANK YOU for your efforts in creating and maintaining this blog.