5 essential… plants for birds over winter

Winter is a hard time for garden birds.  They need to eat a lot in order to keep warm and survive the cold nights, but falling temperatures make their regular food supplies scarce.  Putting up feeders is one solution, but many garden plants double-up as life-saving food resources for garden birds and no one has to remember to fill them!  The seeds and berries of many plants provide nutrient rich snacks from late summer into winter, whilst others hide tasty insects in their stems and foliage or provide sheltered roosting spots.  Here are five of the best bird-friendly plants to include in your garden.

Ivy (Hedera helix) is one of the very best sources of both food and shelter for overwintering birds.  Its distinctive creamy white flower heads appear from October onwards and their nectar attracts insects for robins and wrens to feed on.

ivyberries-brian-ecott

 

The large black berries which follow are devoured by a whole range of birds, including blackbirds, song thrushes and starlings while the dense foliage provides roosting spots out of cold winds and shelter for hibernating insects which make more snacks for the birds!
Gardening tips: Only mature plants over one metre in height will produce flowers and berries and ivy that’s kept tightly clipped year round won’t get a chance to flower either.  Try to keep at least a section of ivy in the garden that can get a bit messy and wait until early spring to get the shears out.

Holly, ivy’s traditional companion, is also well worth considering as part of a bird friendly garden.  Birds prefer red berried varieties such as our familiar native species, Ilex aquifolium, or English Holly, with its glossy, very prickly dark green leaves and abundance of small red berries from late autumn.  As well as feeding the birds, the berries provide a long-lasting splash of colour over winter as they ripen in late autumn, but don’t tend to be eaten until later winter.

 

holly-leaf

Frost on holly leaves on a freezing day in winter

Like all hollies, Ilex aquifolium is very slow growing, but will eventually reach 10 metres and make a very elegant architectural specimen tree for a large lawn or woodland planting.  Beware if planting in a border as the leaves will make weeding very painful!  Hollies thrive in any soil as long it is not waterlogged and tolerate pollution, winds and seaside conditions.
Gardening tips: Only female plants produce berries and require a male plant for fertilisation, so, unless you know you already have a male plant nearby, it’s safest to plant both.  It isn’t necessary for the male to be the same species so go for something contrasting, like ‘Silver Queen’ with its distinctive silvery margined leaves and purple stems.

Another all-time berrying favourite with birds is Sorbus aucuparia, otherwise known as the Mountain Ash or Rowan.  Its large bunches of deep red berries are a rich source of food for numerous species.  And if you’ve ever seen them glowing against a bright blue autumn sky, you know it isn’t just the birds who enjoy them.  This is a pretty tree in all seasons, with a naturally conical shape, dainty mid green, fern-like foliage and sprays of tiny white flowers in spring.  Berrying times vary depending on variety of tree – some starting as early as August, and others not until November.

sorbus-rose-queen-firgrove-photographic
It’s tougher than it looks and can tolerate harsh conditions while its modest height of 15m x 7m makes it ideal for a smaller garden.  Rowans prefer full sun to light shade and slightly acidic soil, but will tolerate any soil type.
Gardening tips: Rowans require minimal pruning. Remove any broken, diseased or crossing branches in late autumn or winter.

The common Hawthorn or May tree, Crataegus monogyna, supports over 300 insect species and provides food and shelter for birds all year round.  Shiny clusters of deep red berries, or haws, ripen in autumn and can stay on the tree until February or March to be enjoyed by many bird species including blackbirds, chaffinches, greenfinches, redwings and fieldfares.

hawsdavid-fenwick-aphotoflora-com

It is a small, rounded, deciduous tree with spiny branches, glossy, deeply lobed leaves and flat sprays of creamy-white flowers in May.

hawthorn-in-flower

I LOVE Hawthorn blossom – a true sign that spring has arrived, and such a pretty flower.

A lovely specimen tree for an informal or wildlife garden, hawthorn also makes an excellent hedge, either on its own or as part of a mixed wildlife hedge.  It thrives on any well-drained soil in full sun to partial shade and can tolerate exposed and coastal sites. Height and spread: 4-8m.

Rosehips are also a rich source of vitamins and antioxidants for overwintering birds. Some of the largest produced are the heavy round orange or red hips of Rosa rugosa (either ‘Alba’ or ‘Rubra’), which are especially popular with blackbirds, fieldfares and mistle thrushes. (Smaller hips are produced on Rosa canina (the Dog rose) and these last into late winter.)

rose-hips
Rosa rugosa is a vigorous species rose with distinctly pleated, leathery, dark green leaves that turn a buttery gold in autumn and a constant succession of fragrant, single, yellow-centred flowers from June to September. It makes an excellent informal hedge for an open, sunny site on fertile, humus rich, well-drained soil.

rosa-rugosa-flower
Gardening tips: Rosa rugosa requires little pruning.  Remove one third of older stems every 2 or 3 years to rejuvenate the plant.
 

Photo credits:  Janet Bligh, Firgrove Photographic, David Fenwick, Brian Ecott

Jobs for the garden in December

As the year draws to a close you can afford to take a bit of time off from labouring in the garden, but that doesn’t mean there’s nothing to do!  Here are a few of the more important tasks you should be carrying out this month:

Finish clearing leaves and debris, particularly from borders and rock gardens where they can smother small plants.  This will also help to reduce slugs and snails who like to hide in amongst them. Burn any diseased plant material you find while clearing up.

If the ground is not too waterlogged or frozen, dig new planting areas, using boards to stand on to avoid compacting the soil.  Add bulky organic matter such as garden compost or well-rotten farmyard manure.

Well-rotted manure

Winter is also an ideal time to check soil pH and nutrient levels and put right any deficiencies.

While the evenings are dark and you’re likely to be at home more, think about where you could benefit from additional garden lighting, either from a safety point of view, or just to be able to enjoy the garden from inside the house.

TREES & HEDGES
When the leaves have fallen you can start to prune deciduous trees and some shrubs (leave the pruning of more tender shrubs until spring).

Continue planting bare-root trees and hedges when the weather allows.

Prune overgrown deciduous hedges (such as Hornbeam and Beech).

SHRUBS & CLIMBERS

Rose by Firgrove Photographic
Plant bare root roses (shrubs and climbers) now – but not in frosty conditions.

LAWN CARE
Carry out lawn repairs if conditions permit, rake up fallen leaves. However avoid walking on the lawn when it is frosty or waterlogged.

POND CARE
Remove netting from ponds and prevent your pond from freezing over by floating a rubber ball on the pond which you can remove to leave a hole for oxygen for fish, frogs and other pond-life.

frozen pond

Alternatively stand a saucepan of hot water on the frozen surface until it melts a hole in the ice.

PESTS & DISEASES
Keep an eye on overwintering rhizomes and tubers (of plants such as Dahlias and Cannas) for signs of rot.

This is a good time to fork over vacant ground as it exposes pests to hungry birds.

Picture credits:  Janet Bligh & Firgrove Photographic

Fabulous plants for November

All is not lost!  Although there’s no denying there isn’t as much colour and interest to enjoy in the garden at this time of year, there’s still a number of valuable plants worth considering planting.  Here’s a small selection:

Fagus sylvatica

Beech columns and hedges at RHS Wisley

Beech columns and hedges at RHS Wisley

Beech (Fagus sylvatica) makes a great hedge for the garden, offering interest more or less all year round.  In spring the young leaves of common Beech are soft green, gradually brightening and becoming a richer green.   Later in the year the colour changes into the yellows and russets of autumn, and the dry coppery brown leaves are usually retained throughout the winter, glowing in winter sun, and continuing to provide wind protection and screening.  So although a beech hedge is technically deciduous, it offers many of the advantages of an evergreen hedge but with additional seasonal interest.

An alternative to the common beech, is Copper beech (Fagus sylvatica ‘Atropurpurea’) which has attractive purple leaves in spring, gradually darkening as the season progresses.

Beech is native to the UK and tolerant of a wide range of soil conditions, including well-drained chalk, although on heavy clay, or very cold, exposed sites and in frost pockets, Hornbeam (Carpinus betulus) is a better choice (and to be honest, it’s quite hard to tell the difference with hedging unless you look very closely at the leaves).

Beech is best planted in full sun or partial shade, and if you’re planning on planting a hedge or tree, November is the best time to be doing it as bare-root plants are now available and the soil is still fairly warm. These plants are not only cheaper to buy than container plants, but quick to establish.

Miscanthus sinensis ‘Malepartus’  (Japanese Silver Grass)

Miscanthus sinensis 'Malepartus'

‘Malepartus’ is a vigorous, free-flowering deciduous grass growing to 2m tall, with broad arching leaves and prolific pink-tinged flower heads in summer (somewhat earlier than many other grasses). In autumn the flowers start to turn silvery white for the winter.  This is a bushy grass spreading to about 1.5m and is tolerant of most soils if well drained but not too dry. It is happy in either exposed or more sheltered situations, it can take a little shade but prefers full sun.

Graceful and stately, Miscanthus ‘Malepartus’ can be used in borders, screen plantings and backgrounds and it works beautifully as an accent or specimen plant – but give it plenty of room to really do its thing.  It is generally pest free and very easy to grow, only needing the dead foliage and old flowered stems removing in spring as new growth appears from the base.

Cyclamen hederifolium

The ivy-leaved Cyclamen is a beautiful tiny perennial that provides very valuable low-growing autumn colour for the garden.  Each flower lasts for weeks and the display is lengthened by the succession of flowers.

cyclamen hederifolium

Both the pink and white varieties grow to about 12cm in height, and make a stunning carpeting effect when planted en masse.  The silvery-green patterned leaves are usually produced after the flowers.

Planted as tubers and spreading over time, these hardy Cyclamen enjoy sun or partial shade, and are very drought tolerant in shade.  They particularly thrive in soils with added leaf litter so are fantastic to grow under trees and shrubs.

Clematis cirrhosa ‘Freckles’
This lovely Clematis is a wonderful climbing plant for the winter garden.  Not only is it evergreen, but also flowers between November and February when most gardens are crying out for some colour.  ‘Freckles’ needs a warm, sheltered and preferably sunny position and thrives in any fertile, well-drained soil.

Clematis cirrhosa Freckles

It is seen to best advantage scrambling over an arch where you can walk underneath and look up into the dainty nodding creamy yellow flowers all speckled with red inside. You could also allow it to grow through shrubs, or a hedge, which need brightening up over winter. After the flowers attractive silky seedheads are produced.

Clematis Freckles seedheads

There is no need to prune Clematis cirrhosa unless it is getting too big, and hard pruning is not recommended. ‘Freckles’ will usually reach about 3.5m in height.

Euonymus fortunei ‘Emerald Gaiety’
Euonymus fortunei ‘Emerald Gaiety’ is a tough, popular evergreen shrub. The bright green variegated foliage has white leaf margins, which on some, but not all, leaves flush to a deep rose pink in cold winters.

It could never be called exciting, but it is a hugely valuable shrub for difficult areas (such as dry shade where it is also useful for brightening things up) and it is a truly low maintenance plant, just needing a light clip if it is getting out of shape.

Euonymus fortunei 'Emerald Gaiety'

If planted next to a wall or fence it will spread upwards to about 2m, otherwise it forms a low, spreading bush about 60cm high by 1m wide (in time).

Click on the links below to read about more great autumn plants

Acer Palmatum
Hydrangea quercifolia
Vitis ‘Brandt’
Dahlia ‘David Howard’
Sedum
Schizostylis
Liriope muscari

Trees for autumn colour

Photo credits:  Janet Bligh & Firgrove Photographic

Jobs for the garden in November

At this time of year gardening is largely about clearing up and protecting your garden for the winter, but November also marks the start of the tree and hedge planting season.  Here’s a quick rundown on what you could be doing this month:

Prepare for winter by checking anything that is at risk of cold, wind or water loggingRaise pots on bricks or feet so they can drain freely.  Insulate terracotta, glazed and stoneware pots.

Lag outdoor taps and insulate glasshouses.  Move worm bins to a frost-free place or insulate them.  Put away or protect garden furniture – in particular wooden furniture should not be left in contact with the soil, as this can lead to rotting.

Remove dead leaves from the tops of plants and netting on a regular basis.  If you have snow, make sure to remove it before any damage is done to plants or structures such as fruit cages.

Robin in Garden by Firgrove Photographic

Keep a regular supply of food & water for the birds.

TREES, HEDGES & ROSES
Plant bare-rooted trees, shrubs, roses and hedging plants.  Make sure you stake any large plants, including root-ball hedging.  If you’d like more information before you start, take a look at my blogs on planting hedging and choosing the right trees for your garden.

SHRUBS & CLIMBERS
Now is a good time to move plants that you have been meaning to shift.  Large deciduous shrubs are easier to move than you think if you have the manpower.  Leave evergreens until the spring.

PERENNIALS

Dahlia by Firgrove Photographic

If you don’t want to risk your Dahlias by leaving them in the ground over winter, dig up tubers after the first frost (when the foliage has blackened), dry them and store them either wrapped in newspaper or in dry compost. Don’t forget to label them!

Take root cuttings from perennials with thick fleshy roots (such as Echinops and Oriental poppies).

Agapanthus

Apply a layer of compost mulch to borderline hardy plants such as Agapanthus, Salvia patens and Melianthus Major to protect them over winter.

BULBS
Plant Tulip and Hyacinth bulbs, and finish planting any other spring bulbs providing the ground is not water logged or frozen.

LAWN CARE
Continue to cut the grass if it continues to grow but raise the blades.  Stay off the grass if you can.

POND CARE
Clean and store submersible pumps.

PESTS & DISEASES
Check for pests and diseases before bringing outdoor plants in the glasshouse

Picture credits:  Janet Bligh & Firgrove Photographic