Remove ugly foliage now, but be sure to leave some goodies for the birds.

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BY THIS TIME of year, perennial plants are dying back, and it’s important to neaten things up to keep the garden from looking unsightly. At the same time, you don’t want to be too fastidious. The seed heads left in the garden will supply food for birds; likewise, the foliage will provide shelter and foraging for our avian friends.

Your garden will look much better if you simply remove any foliage that has turned slimy or just looks unattractive. Allow nutritious seed heads to remain on perennials such as black-eyed Susan, coneflower, Phlomis, ornamental grasses, Monarda, torch lilies, Agapanthus and many others to feed the birds and add beauty and interest to the winter garden.

Don’t be in a hurry to cut back native plants. Berries on huckleberry, salal, Oregon grape, serviceberry and wild strawberry are important food sources for birds in fall and winter. Other shrubs that provide berries for winter birds include holly, choke cherry, staghorn sumac, twig dogwood, viburnums and beauty berry. In the heart of winter, whole flocks of hungry bushtits and other birds descend onto junipers and hawthorns to strip them clean of berries. Interestingly, the birds don’t touch the attractive fruit of firethorn (Pyracantha) until the berries ferment in early winter. Then, every bird from miles around flies in to join the festivities.

At Seattle University, the birds used to get so drunk, we assigned student employees to stop traffic to allow our inebriated feathered friends to stagger across the road.

Finally, leave as much foliage as possible when you neaten up the winter garden. The stems and foliage of grasses, evergreen perennials, salvias, hardy Fuchsia and similar perennials will provide birds cover and protection from cold winds and rain, and harbor insects and spiders that provide a high-protein addition to their winter diet.

One important winterizing task you should take on soon is to mulch your garden. It’s a bit of work, but applying a layer of organic mulch on the soil surface this time of year can help protect roots from winter freezes, suppress weed growth and reduce compaction and nutrient-leaching caused by winter rain pounding bare earth.

If you’re mulching around woody trees and shrubs, the best choice is arborist’s wood chips. Wood-chip mulch has been found to greatly increase the beneficial fungi that make soil nutrients more available to woody plants. The chips also encourage beneficial microbes that help suppress soil-borne diseases. As long as they are not dug in or mixed into the soil, wood chips do not cause nutrient deficiency; nor do they change soil pH. A layer of wood chips between 4 to 6 inches thick (avoid buildups around the trunks of trees and shrubs) gives very effective weed control, and when applied on a yearly basis, the mix of wood and leaves breaks down to form rich topsoil.

Wood chips are the best choice for a mixed border containing lots of woody trees and shrubs, but keep in mind that the chips must be moved out of the way when digging or planting to prevent them from getting mixed into the soil.

When it comes to mulching an herbaceous perennial or vegetable bed, however, compost is a better choice. Compost used as mulch is loaded with microorganisms and minerals that perennials and vegetables need for healthy growth. Compost gives less weed control than wood chips, but the weeds that grow in it are easy to pull.

Earthworms are attracted to compost, improving soil structure. Unlike wood chips that will rob the soil of nutrients if they get mixed into the soil, compost will add nutrition while improving soil structure and drainage.

Speaking of nutrition, if you think spreading mulch is too much bother, keep in mind that the average person burns 576 calories per hour while mulching the garden. Think of the extra portion of Brussels sprouts casserole you’ll be able to eat guilt-free.