black-eyed Susan-like flowers in dry ground with browned grasses surrounding them, all against a pink stone side of hill in Badlands
Curing the Gardening Phobia

How to Create a Wild Space in Your Backyard

Since this COVID WFH situation for a lot of us will continue at least until January, the need is constant for us to polish our delicate work/life balance. Reports are in from the booming gardening industry proving that thousands of you are digging around in your backyards. And lots of you smart new gardeners are also looking up to watch the birds.

Now …as you wrap up the hoses and stack the rakes into the shed, you might be at a loss for how to keep kids engaged outside in the coming weeks. Besides building snowmen and snow angels, what else is there to do?

Find the Mess and Celebrate It

Start by thinking back to your grandparents’ yards that had a mysterious messy corner… Did they have a behind-the-garage happy pit of weeds, overgrown shrubs, and small trees?

When I was a kid, I secretly spent hours sitting in the neighbor’s mulberry tree. It grew inches away from our property line—behind the garage. Its messy, fruit-filled branches shaded our yard. Late on many a summer afternoon, I climbed down with purple hands and face, assuming my mom would never know where I had been. (She never asked!)

If you’ve been feeling guilty about a similar messy spot in your yard, I’m here to absolve you of that torment. In fact, it just might be the winter solution you need to keep the kids busy.

The Wild and the Tame

I like to think that the beloved Sir David Attenborough would agree with me. If you haven’t seen his documentary on Netflix yet—put it on your list! He calls it his “witness statement.” A Life on Our Planet is all you’d expect it to be–gorgeous photography, a warm connection to the wild world, and a narrator’s contagious passion.

While his global view might feel remote to us—giving us an exotic but matchless adventure– one statement he makes became a flashing, neon message for me. He shows an aerial image of a lush, wild rainforest, and butting up against it is a tropical farm with hundreds of acres of neat rows of palm trees. The narration reads: “We have replaced the wild, with the tame.”

pink, red, orange, white, blue, yellow field of wildflowers on a slope with trees and mountains in background

His point is that a healthy planet relies on biodiversity—wild, not tame. I instantly regretted cleaning up the area behind our shed. I also thought of a neighbor who has pulled out every bit of shrub. He lives on a square plot of grass with pots of plastic flowers in the front yard.

So…as the season turns and you put away your new-found gardening tools…let’s take a look at some great wild-backyard winter activities you can do with your kids.

Kill the Grass the Easiest Way Possible

Yikes! Why might you want to kill your grass?

  • If it’s more weeds than grass…
  • If you’ve tried and failed numerous times to grow things in that spot without success and want to start over…

Either of these situations is a great reason to kill the weeds/grass combination. By Spring, it will be ready to re-plant.

So how do you do it the wild way? Let piles of leaves stay on the grass. I recommend that you grind them up with your lawn mower and then just leave them. The benefits to this method are numerous:

  1. It gives your kids some free-for-all fun as they race around the crunchy dead leaves. They’ll love the noisy, scuffling, wild time of it. Be prepared for leaves in their hair, and lots of laughing.
  2. You’ll get some initial crunching of the leaves, saving you an extra pass with the mower.
  3. The bugs will love the extra ground cover as winter comes.
  4. The birds will love the bugs.
  5. You get a clean, ready to plant area in Spring. It’s a win-for-all!

Don’t Clean Out Your Beds

I’ll never forget the guy who hosted The Victory Garden on PBS.  He scolded Americans for not cleaning out their gardens to prep for winter.

But these days, leaving at least the native plants in place is a good way to feed the birds during winter. Cardinals, chickadees, and juncos love the coneflower seed heads. Joe Pye weed is another one with great seed heads.

Joe Pye Weed Seed Heads
Natural Winter Bird Seed

Any native plant can be left in place. They will provide shelter for smaller animals and food for birds. Then get prepared to help your kids watch the birds feeding throughout the winter. Keep binoculars near the window. Settle down on a Saturday morning with hot chocolate and watch the birds come and go. It’s great discovery and conversation time with your kids. You can even buy them their own binoculars for their birthdays or Christmas.

I recommend trying out the National Geographic ones.  [natgeo binoculars]  The Melissa and Doug binoculars are just toys. I would not bother with them. Nothing is more disappointing than not seeing anything when you look through your binoculars. You want to make sure your bird-watching is a happy, successful time. I have not tried the NatGeo ones, but they seem to have the most choice—with prices that are reasonable for kids. They start at $19.99.

One Catch

The only catch to this recommendation is that you will have to clean out your flower beds in the Spring. As the new growth starts to come up, the lush rotting material will cause the new growth to also rot.

But don’t take it all out entirely. Just rake it away from the new-growth stems. If you’ve got too much, you can gather up the extra and dump it into your compost pile.

Despite this, you’ll be establishing a great Saturday morning activity with your kids that will transfer nicely into Spring. They’ll love watching birds build their nests through February and March. If you’re really lucky, you’ll all get to watch baby birds hatch and fledge!

Prop Up Your Used Christmas Tree in the Backyard

If you don’t have a wild corner in your yard, this is a great way to start one. I’ve seen this recommendation for years and never tried it. But this year, I’m committed to it!

The idea is to find a spot where you can prop up the used tree—against a fence, against a shed, or against another tree. Or just lay it down anywhere.

It will provide a haven from winter storms for birds and small mammals.

You can attract birds to the spot with home-made, vegetarian “suet” cakes. Thanks to the Audubon Society for the recipe. Note: Not recommended for outdoor temps above 50 degrees.

Vegetarian “Suet”

  • 1 1/2 cups shortening (look for palm-oil-free options)
  • 3/4 cups nut butter (any kind…yes, peanut butter works fine)
  • 3 1/2 cups wild bird seed
  • 1 cup quick oats
  • 1/2 cup corn meal


  1. Mix the dry ingredients of bird seed, oats, and corn meal together and set aside.
  2. Combine the shortening and nut butter in a separate bowl and melt. Stir until completely combined.
  3. Pour the melted mixture into the dry ingredients and stir until combined.
  4. Spoon mixture into an ice cube tray.
  5. Freeze for 1-2 hours and place in a suet feeder.

Your binoculars will come in handy here. Sit with the kids, a cup of hot chocolate, and watch the birds and small mammals come and go throughout the winter. There’s no better science lesson, or warm, happy time with the kids.

brown-spotted snail clinging to a wet bronze-toned metal fence, with wildflowers in background

If you like these ideas, share this with friends!

And tell us about your great time with your kids! Which wild space did you set up?

We're in this together! Let us know what you think!