The value of a pile of sticks in your yard or garden

With spring coming up, many of us are already starting to get our yards and gardens ready for the growing season. Among the activities we may take on, there can be the managing of branches, sticks, and wood that may have been trimmed from trees and shrubs in the fall, over the winter, or just recently. In today’s post, I want to talk about how to integrate these resources into our green spaces, to support wildlife and the natural services they provide.

a pile of stick in a yard
Wood and stick piles can provide welcoming habitat to beneficial organisms. Photo: A. Espíndola

Increasing the diversity of our green spaces

In several of the posts that we publish on this blog, we recommend different actions that can be taken to increase biodiversity in our green spaces (see local ecotype plants, helping pollinators in small green spaces, and conserving parasitoids for some ideas). We know that increasing biodiversity improves the ability to control and restrain pests, increases wild and crop plant pollination, and in many cases leads to better soil quality. Among these practices, there is one that increases the physical complexity of our green spaces, providing nesting, shelter, and food resources to beneficial organisms. The practice I’m talking about consists of building wood and stick piles that can be established in our green spaces. The idea behind this practice is to create a space where birds, small mammals, insects, and even pest predators can find their preferred resources, and thus be attracted and present in our environments (learn more about the landscaping rationale for using dead wood).

What organisms are attracted by these piles?

Depending on the size of the pile and its composition (e.g., large logs, smaller sticks, a mix of them), different organisms will be attracted and may establish themselves in our green spaces. The presence of a mix of logs and sticks usually attracts birds, which may nest within the pile or may just spend time within the pile searching for food or finding shelter at different points during the day. These birds will certainly contribute to increasing the diversity of animals present in our green spaces and can also in some cases participate in the control of insect pests that we may not want in our gardens and yards.

Carolina wren bird with a caterpillar in its mouth
Carolina wrens are very attracted to shrubby habitats, meaning that piles of wood and brush represent a great way to provide resources to these little cute birds who in turn can help us keep herbivore populations in line. Photo: Shenandoah NP.

Other animals we can observe in these piles are a variety of insects then may be associated with the decomposition of wood or that may use wood as a nesting or overwintering resource (e.g., bees, solitary wasps). While the former can help recycle the wood material and reintegrate it into the habitat, the latter may participate in the pollination of plants and crops that we may grow in that area or predate on unwanted pests.

Similarly, ground-dwelling invertebrates like millipedes and ground beetles can also find shelter under these piles, while the brush can also contribute to the nesting of pollinators such as (ground-nesting) bees, the overwintering of some butterflies and moths, and help improve the quality of the soil in that part of our yard.

Larger organisms may also be attracted to these piles, such as small mammals, amphibians, and even reptiles. Although we may tend to dislike these groups of animals, many of them feed on unwanted soil organisms and may help with soil quality, while others can actually control vermin through their predatory abilities. This is particularly the case of snakes that may find shelter in these spaces, which, while harmless to humans (the vast majority of snakes in Maryland are non-venomous, readily feed on rats and mice that may be present around the house.

a pile of wood branches and sticks in a yard makes a habitat for beneficial organisms
A mix of thick and thin pieces of wood can provide a diverse habitat to many different organisms. Photo: A. Espíndola.

How to build these piles?

These piles can take many different shapes and sizes, which depend in part on the materials and space available. When very large spaces are available (e.g., in the woods), it is recommended for these piles to be relatively large – at least 10 to 20 feet in length, and up to 8 feet in height (read more about these larger brush piles). In smaller spaces such as in urban or suburban gardens, these piles can be much smaller, occupying areas that may not be regularly used for other purposes. In all cases, it is ideal to build these piles using a combination of different types of materials, such as twigs and branches of different thicknesses, some logs, and even some branches that may still have dead leaves attached to them…always using healthy materials.

An important consideration when putting together these piles is that they should not be built leaning on or very close to wood-based structures or the foundations of our buildings. This is because of the potential risk of termite infestations of buildings if the piles are not physically separated from them. However, it is important to stress that establishing these piles has not been shown to be associated with higher termite infestations if the pile is not in contact or very close to the built structure. (You can read a very good discussion about mulch and termites from Iowa State Extension).

So, as you work on your spring garden, I encourage you to think about plant stems, logs, and branches not as waste that needs to be cleaned up, but as beneficial resources that you can incorporate into your available space.

By Anahí Espíndola, Assistant Professor, Department of Entomology, University of Maryland, College Park. See more posts by Anahí.

Anahí also writes an Extension Blog in Spanish! Check it out here,, and please share and spread the word to your Spanish-speaking friends and colleagues in Maryland. ¡Bienvenidos a Extensión en Español!

17 thoughts on “The value of a pile of sticks in your yard or garden

  1. Kat Miller March 13, 2023 / 10:45 am

    …. and poisionous timber rattlers and cotton mouths… its not a organism house its an attractive place for poisionous snakes to have babies and call home

  2. NANCY K BRASHEAR March 13, 2023 / 3:44 pm

    THANK YOU for reminding me not too burn everything in the garden. I have plenty of space so I don’t need to. I did learn how to do this on the gardening show, ( which I miss very much), called Garden Rescue. It was from the UK and when Digi TV was cancelled so was the show. :(-

  3. Marika Zongor March 14, 2023 / 5:31 pm

    Has anyone EVER figured out a wildlife-friendly plan for those of us with dogs? I would like things to look nicer, purposeful but natural and not contrived. Can you suggest some hardy ground covers and any plants that are likely to hold up? I have tulip poplars and some pinetrees – others l’m not certain about, but there may even be a few chestnut trees around.

  4. Ron G March 15, 2023 / 2:37 am

    I have removed all the lids from my trash cans.
    This simple action has created a valuable resource
    for hungry wildlife and curious neighbors.
    I’m noticed the cute birds and mice love the empty boxes and cans.

  5. Jeanette Benner March 15, 2023 / 7:23 pm

    No piles of leaf or branch debris in our yard, although there are a few neighborhood homes who have such debris. We have copperhead snakes in our area that have bitten our dog and a neighbor who carelessly walked barefoot on their lawn.

  6. Zane Seligman March 16, 2023 / 3:25 am

    …and SNAKES!! I, for one, will attempt to handle any vermin pests myself before ï intentionally host a SNAKE bed. Harlmless, non-poisonous, Garder, or cow sucker – everytime I see a snake, it’s an angry king cobra looking to kill me and my family! Ok- maybe not, but i rid my yard of ANY potential SNAKE habitat as regular monthly maintenance.

  7. Michael c March 16, 2023 / 5:36 pm

    No brush piles in your yard people, burn it or hire a curbside shipping crew, or tree service, not only does it look like trash, u can get a fine from the city , besides brush piles in any yard are tacky

  8. Nancy March 16, 2023 / 8:32 pm

    I like to leave stacks of small branches and sticks in corners and edges of my backyard. Seems like a waste to put them in the trash. Thanks for validating what I’ve been doing!

  9. Mary Garza March 16, 2023 / 11:06 pm

    I have been make wood/stick piles for years. Have 5 set up in our two acre place. Did it for bird protection because we have hawks year round. Good to know that they can harbor other creatures. I did know about the snakes, but not the rest. Thank you for the info.

  10. Eric March 17, 2023 / 12:04 pm

    I have those unintentionally. When cleaning 5 acres. Then I rent a chipper after a couple years. Problem with them everywhere is you can mow with John deere rider mower and the whole property goes feral. I have chickens and llamas and don’t want preditors around. It is also a huge fire hazard if you are in the west at least.

  11. Bile March 19, 2023 / 5:18 pm


  12. Veronica Rosario March 22, 2023 / 9:43 pm

    I go every day to a little park next to my house is in the corner and I go and pick up every piece of benches and logs sticks every sizes I use it for my fire pit and keep my fire 🔥 lit especially in the cold morning and night and it’s not only free but I clean the park my dog goes to he’s the only puppy I see in the park he loves it

  13. Rebecca J. March 23, 2023 / 12:12 am

    That tall, airy pile of wood is called “ladder fuels”. They help the flames burn higher and hotter. I’m sure the neighbors will love you when the neighborhood goes up in flames. Oops!

  14. Rebecca March 23, 2023 / 2:46 am

    I love this story! Just this past summer we had a bird fall from his nest. When we looked up at the nest, we saw it was sparse and had large gaps between the twigs. I realized this was because all the yards in the neighborhood were “too” well manicured and tiny twigs would have been difficult for the birds to find to build adequate nests for their babies

  15. harvy March 28, 2023 / 7:20 am

    Excellent post! I really appreciate the examples you included to illustrate your points. They really helped me get a better understanding of the topic. Keep up the great work!

  16. Thomas Rojas March 30, 2023 / 4:45 pm

    A sensible approach to helping animals and insects trying to live in our increasingly paved and polluted urban landscape. Too bad some shortsighted people think this looks trashy. The natural world is too marginalized.

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