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.



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.



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.

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.


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


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.)

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.

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.

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).


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

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

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.

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

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.

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.

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.


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).


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

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

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

Clean and store submersible pumps.

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

Picture credits:  Janet Bligh & Firgrove Photographic

Interesting things to do with trees …..

You may be forgiven for thinking that a tree is just a tree, but in fact it can be so much more!  These days nurseries are really getting adventurous and selling trees in many different shapes and sizes.  This is particularly useful if you want to add height to a garden but don’t have the room for something which if left to its own devices may ultimately outgrow its space.

I find standard trees particularly useful for screening purposes – especially as many standards are sold with a bare stem of about 2metres which means all the bulk sits above a fence or wall and is perfect for giving my clients privacy from their neighbours.

Standard Magnolia Grandiflora at a nursery

Standard Magnolia Grandiflora at a nursery

Popular evergreen (or semi-evergreen) varieties sold as standards include laurels (Prunus lusitanica), Privet (Ligustrum lucidum), Photinia ‘Red Robin’, Quercus Ilex and even Magnolia Grandiflora.  Costs vary hugely and are a reflection of growth rate of the trees in question.

Pleached trees are another seriously useful tool in the ‘screening out your neighbours’ battle.  They give the height but are wide rather than deep which means they sit happily next to a boundary wall or fence without hanging over it.  Used in quantity, you can completely enclose a garden with pleached trees, so it’s hardly surprising that they are being used more and more in city gardens.  Unless you’re buying mature trees, the framework which the trees are trained on will remain visible for a few years, so you need to be prepared to look at it for a few winters when deciduous trees drop their leaves.

pleached trees

Pleached trees being trained on a frame

Pleached trees are also very effective to create an avenue or vista along a path, or even to divide up a garden into different areas.

pleached copper beech

Stunning copper Beech pleached trees in the 2012 Chelsea flower show garden for Laurent Perrier (designed by Arne Maynard)

As there’s a fair bit of training involved in pleaching trees, growers have to use pliable species, and they tend to be mainly deciduous trees – Hornbeam (Carpinus betulus), Lime (Tilia), Maple (Acer campestre), Pear (Pyrus chanticleer).  I’ve also recently seen Photinia Red Robin as a pleach, so there are some evergreen trees available in this form, and I’m sure this is an ever-evolving business.

box pleaches

I love these cubes on legs – very contemporary and a real statement

Taking things a bit further, you can also find ‘Box pleaches’ – basically cubes on legs.  Hornbeam is a good candidate for this kind of treatment.  In fact Hornbeam is a pretty good candidate for most shaping.  I have used it recently as a rounded standard tree which will be allowed to get quite shaggy, making it a formal tree but not overly so.

Parasol tree

Parasol tree, RHS Chelsea Flower Show 2011

And who knew that a tree could double up as a parasol?!   This is a lovely way to create a shady area for seating or dining, especially when a group of parasol trees are grown together.  Like pleached trees, these parasols are grown on a framework of canes, and will take a while to mature.  But if you have the space and the budget, then they definitely make a great feature for a garden of any size.

Coppicing trees is another way to keep them small in a restricted space – or in some cases to ensure you have big bold foliage.  This is very effective for trees with large leaves such as Paulownia, Catalpa and Cercis.  I have a Catalpa erubescens ‘Purpurascens’ in my garden which I cut back religiously every winter and the head stays compact at a total height of about 4 metres, with beautiful bronzey, purple green leaves.

catalpa coppiced

Bold foliage on a Catalpa after pleaching every winter


Other more traditional candidates for coppicing include Hazel (Corylus), Willow (Salix) and also shrubs such as Cotinus and Sambucus.

Many trees are now grown as multi-stem specimens which means you get more bang for your buck in terms of interest from colourful bark for example.  Prime candidates for this treatment are Betula (Silver Birch and River Birch) and Prunus serrula which has gorgeous mahogany bark.

multi stemmed silver Birch

Beautiful multi-stemmed silver Birch trees growing in a nursery field

Something I’ve noticed happening a lot at the Chelsea flower show is ‘raising the canopy’ where lower branches are taken off a small tree or large shrub to give a multi-stemmed look.  It can have a very sculptural effect and make a relatively boring shrub look really special.  I remember the interest at Tom Stuart Smith’s Chelsea garden years ago when he used what is a pretty drab shrub under normal circumstances – Viburnum rhytidophyllum – to do just that.  It was the talk of the show!

raising canopy

Fruit trees of course have been manipulated into all sorts of weird and wonderful shapes for many many years.  I love to see apples and pears grown over arches to create a fruit tunnel.  Delicious in so many ways!

fruit arch

Fruit arches at West Dean Gardens, West Sussex


One of my favourite small trees is the silver-leaved weeping pear, Pyrus salicifolia ‘Pendula’, and I love how it’s used at Loseley Park near Guildford, where the canopy has been cut through just enough so that it’s possible to get through to a seat surrounding the trunk.  It makes the perfect secluded spot to sit in the shade of the canopy.

Pyrus salicifolia Pendula

As the traditional bare-root and rootball tree-planting season (November to March) comes to an end, it’s good to know that a lot of the pleached and standard trees (particularly evergreens) are often supplied in containers – which means they can be planted at other times of the year too.  Good news all round.

Picture credits:  Janet Bligh