The fall garden clean-up is a tradition that has been hurting birds and other wildlife for decades. Our desire to have a clean landscape after harvest season often means removing plant material that would decompose naturally over the cold months, and provide food for overwintering birds-- and there are a lot of them.
Look at the way nature takes care of the summer leftovers. Leaves fall, seed pods hang on plants, dead branches provide perches for birds, and insect treats as they decay. If you must clean-up, pile up your garden leftovers and let them compost before you put them back in the soil next year. Taking the cornstalks away in a truck to be composted off site should be your last choice. I know some people may not realize they have room for a simple pile, but again, the longer you can leave old plants up, the better.
Increasingly, commercial agriculture is following the natural path. California rice growers used to burn their fields in the fall Now, the swampy areas are left after harvest as overwintering sites for migratory birds. Farmers have found the waterfowl eat damaging insects, and leave behind a load of organic fertilizer. That's right- a win win situation. Add another win for decreasing air pollution. Of course some areas in your garden will be planted in cover crops, and other sections will get a sheet mulch with a top layer of leaves. We've all heard that dead plant material may harvest disease-- or it may not, but most diseases reproduce through microscopic spores that are all but impossible to clean up, and are always present in the soil. But watching a set of corn stalks go from upstanding productive garden residents to bare gray brown stubs over the winter is educational for us-- and tasty if you are a bird. I'm John Fischer with KLCC's Good Gardening.