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

5 essential … plants for winter seedheads

Even in death plants with interesting seed heads that stand well over autumn and winter manage to look strikingly beautiful especially on those rare but magical early mornings when they are coated in hoare frost and sparkle in the sun.  Not only do they look good, but their seeds provide a valuable source of food for birds, especially in cold winters when other foods may be scarce. With all this in mind, it’s important to stop and think whether you might be depriving your garden of some winter wonder before wielding the secateurs in the autumn tidy up.

Teasel (Dipsacus fullonum) is a native British wildflower which makes a strong architectural statement in a sunny relaxed planting scheme.  In summer, spiny pale green, thistle-like flower heads rise on strong stems from prickly rosettes of leaves and from mid to late summer are covered in tiny pale lilac or white flowers.  The flowers act as a magnet for bees and the seed heads have the same effect on goldfinches whilst also looking wonderful right through the autumn and winter months.


These are biennials, flowering in the second season of growth and once established they will self-seed quite prolifically so will need to be controlled by weeding out unwanted seedlings.  Teasels are not fussy about soil type and are happy in full sun or part shade.  Height and spread: 150 cm x 50cm.

A dramatic perennial that is also a valuable addition to the winter border, Phlomis russeliana provides a strong focal point from late spring to early autumn owing to its long flowering period.


Whorls of pale yellow flowers are produced at intervals along tall, erect stems above large heart shaped leaves and provide striking silhouettes throughout winter.


Again, bees love the flowers so this is an ideal plant for the wildlife garden and also works well in Mediterranean or Prairie style plantings and gravel gardens.  Phlomis russeliana is a vigorous, spreading perennial that needs room to grow and will do so happily on any reasonably fertile, well-drained soil.  Height and spread: 90cm x 75cm.
Gardening tips: Shorten any frost damaged stems in mid-spring, cutting back to just above a healthy bud.  Remove any weak or diseased stems to ground level.

Fennel (Foeniculum vulgare) produces clouds of soft green, feathery foliage that smell and taste of aniseed and are delicious in salads and fish dishes.


In late summer large flat umbels of sulphur yellow flowers attract hover flies and are followed by aromatic seed heads that are eaten by birds, but whose skeleton still makes an attractive and imposing presence in autumn and winter on stems up to 2m tall.


Bronze fennel, which has the same characteristics but with beautiful bronze leaves, looks particularly striking grown with Verbena bonariensis which also maintains a fairly sturdy winter outline. Fennel likes a sunny position on fertile, loamy, well-drained soil, but will grow in partial shade where it produces ample foliage but fewer flowers.  Height and spread: 1.5-2m x 45cm (at the base).
Gardening tips: Self-seeds prolifically especially in very hot weather so weed out unwanted seedlings regularly.

The seed heads of biennial Honesty (Lunaria annua) are truly beautiful.  Rounded to oval in shape, the cases are dainty, paper thin and silvery translucent with the flat black seeds clearly visible inside.  The dried stems and seed heads of Honesty are much more fragile and delicate than those of the other perennials mentioned so far, but remain on the plant well into autumn and look wonderful especially when backlit by the sun.


White or lilac flowers in May and June precede the seed heads and are very attractive to bees and butterflies making this another good candidate for the wildlife garden.  Honesty flourishes in sun or partial shade on fertile, moist, well-drained soil where it will self-seed and naturalise happily.   Height and spread: 90cm x 30cm.
Gardening tip: Pinch out growing tips in spring to encourage bushier growth.

Many ornamental grasses provide excellent structure in autumn and winter and among these is Miscanthus sinensis ‘Yakushima Dwarf’ which makes an ideal front of border feature for winter interest.   Its short, stout tufts of green leaves with white midribs form clumps about 1m tall.  In mid to late summer fluffy pink, tassle-like flowers emerge from the centre of the clump, ageing to silver and persisting long into the winter months.  This grass makes an excellent specimen plant in a small garden and looks very effective planted in generous drifts in larger borders.  I grew it as a hedge in my last garden and it became a real feature in autumn when the low sunlight shone through the flowers.


Happiest and most free flowering on an open, sunny site it will also tolerate some shade and performs well on a wide range of soils.  Height and spread when flowering about 1.5m (but if you want less spread it’s easy to hold in the centre of the plant with supports or tie with string).
Gardening tips: Cut foliage down to the base in early spring.  Large clumps can be divided in March to April.

Picture credits:  Janet Bligh, Firgrove Photographic, Anne Burgess

Fabulous plants for December

Who said winter is a boring time in the garden?!  There are lots of great plants which provide visual interest at this time of year, and here is just a small selection.

Ophiopogon planiscapus ‘Nigrescens’
Also known variously as ‘Black Dragon’, ‘Ebony Knight’, or ‘Arabicus’, this lilyturf is an extraordinary looking plant with arching purple-green leaves that turn jet black when grown in full sun and very well-drained soil.

It’s a small clump-forming, evergreen perennial growing to 20cm high. Its tiny bell-shaped, purplish-white flowers in summer are followed by round, dark blue-black fruit.

As it is so dwarf and such a dark colour, it is easily lost in the middle of a mixed border so it looks best grown against a light background such as gravel, or next to plants with contrasting foliage.  In my own garden I use it to edge a path and also next to a timber bridge and a deck where it can be seen in all its glory.  In winter a dusting of frost makes this plant look particularly attractive.

Ophiopogon planiscapus Nigrescens

Ophiopogon prefers good, slightly acid, soil in full sun or partial shade and will spread to form a sizeable colony, needing no maintenance at all other than curbing its growth when required (but as it’s not a vigorous grower that’s generally not a problem).  As an alternative to the black variety, try straight Ophiopogon planiscapus which has bright green leaves and tiny white flowers.

Pyracantha Saphyr Orange
This is a compact form of ‘Firethorn’ which is semi-evergreen.  Deep green glossy leaves will hold through winter unless it is very cold.  Spiny branches are easily trained on a wall or fence in sun or shade and moist soil.  In late spring and early summer the plants are smothered in large clusters of tiny white flowers. These are loved by bees and are followed by orange berries in autumn – a favourite with Thrushes and Blackbirds through the winter.


Ultimately this Pyracantha will reach 2.5m tall with a similar spread.  A resilient plant that is tolerant of most conditions, including both drought and pollution, although in frost-prone areas is better sheltered from cold, drying winds.

Sarcococca confusa
One of those unsung heroes of the garden, Sarcococca confusa (commonly known as ‘Sweet Box’ or ‘Christmas Box’) is an easy, neat, low, reliable evergreen shrub which doesn’t do a great deal until the depths of winter when its small white scented flowers pack a real punch.

Christmas box

Good in shade or sun and any reasonable soil, with small glossy evergreen leaves, position it near a door or pathway where you will get the benefit of its beautiful fragrance.

Mahonia x media ‘Lionel Fortescue’
Even if you’re not a great fan of yellow flowers, there is no denying that Mahonias will brighten up even the dreariest of winter gardens.  Unlike the low growing types, the Mahonia x media varieties are upright evergreen shrubs with a statuesque shape, wonderful spiny architectural foliage and scented flowers.

Mahonia 'Lionel Fortescue'

They make a great addition to the shady garden.  Mahonia are hardy, do well in most soils and need no pruning if allowed to reach their natural mature height (approx. 3 metres in the case of ‘Lionel Fortescue’).

Polystichum setiferum ‘Herrenhausen’ 
Ferns are such easy and useful plants, bringing lovely textures to shady planting schemes.  This Polystichum (or Soft Shield Fern) is also evergreen which means it’s very useful for winter interest (shown here in frosty conditions).  It can be grown in pots in the shade or in borders as underplanting for deciduous shrubs and trees.

Polystichum setiferum Herrenhausen

This is a lovely compact plant (at 60cm high max.) which is happy in most garden soils as long as it doesn’t get too dry.  It’s a great companion to plants such as Hosta, Liriope, Luzula nivea, Brunnera macrophylla and Hellebores which enjoy the same growing conditions.

Ilex aquifolium ‘Argentea Marginata’
‘Tis the season to be jolly …’ This holly will perk up shadier corners and it looks especially cheery in winter sunshine.  The spiny leaves have a creamy margin and young growth is tinged pink.  The bright red berries of the female plants are a valuable food source for birds in winter, and of course the stems are brilliant to cut to decorate the house at Christmas.

Ilex Argentea Marginata
Hollies are slow growing and this variety (known as ‘Arge Marge’ to those of us in the business!)  is ideal to keep as a shrub or use as a hedging plant.  Hollies can also be trained on a single stem to form a mop-headed tree.  Easy to grow, tough plants, they are happy in either sun or partial shade, and not too fussy about soil types.  Perfect!


You can also read more about plants with colourful stems to brighten up the winter garden including dogwoods, willow, bamboo and ornamental brambles by clicking here.

dogwoods in winter

Cornus alba underplanted with Carex Evergold

Photo credits:  Janet Bligh & Firgrove Photographic

Jobs for the garden in October

It’s time to start thinking about clearing your garden and preparing for winter.  Here are a number of jobs you can be doing this month:

If you have heavy or wet soil, carry out any digging now before the ground gets too waterlogged.

rake up leaves

Rake up dead leaves to make leaf mould (put damp leaves into black bags with ventilation holes and set them aside for about 18 months before using to condition your soil).

Tidy borders, clear weeds & cut back any herbaceous plants to the ground that are not needed to provide winter interest.  Leave those that will stand well into the winter as they look very attractive with frost, and will also provide a habitat for insects over winter. Leave seedheads for the birdsMulch your borders with ready-made leaf mould or garden compost.

Plant out container-grown trees, shrubs, climbers and roses now (as the soil is still warm and there should be plenty of moisture to get them established). If the weather and site conditions are favourable you can also plant out herbaceous perennials and grasses. Make sure you prepare the ground thoroughly beforehand digging well-rotted organic matter into the soil.

Remove old nests and clean out bird boxes (use soapy water and rinse well).

make an insect hotel

Make a simple insect hotel for ladybirds and other beneficial insects to survive the winter by collecting and drying out hollow stems of plants such as Delphinium, Allium and cow parsley. Cut stems into equal lengths and tie together with twine.  Hang the hotel horizontally in a sheltered tree or shrub, or under the eaves of a house.

Check that trees are tied securely to stakes to minimise damage in windy weather.

Privet hedges can have a final cut for the year.

To avoid  wind damage over autumn & winter, cut back (by about one third) tall Buddleia davidii and Lavatera.  Prune climbing roses and tie in stems and tie in any other climbers that might get blown around and damaged.

Virginia creeper

Cut back overgrown climbers such as Virginia creeper, if necessary and once leaves have fallen.

Pick off rose leaves which have blackspot or rust and dispose of any lying on the ground.

Many ornamental grasses such as Miscanthus sinensis are very attractive over winter and add movement and height to the garden, so don’t cut them down unless they look unsightly or they collapse.

Lift tender perennials (such as Salvia, half-hardy Fuchsia, Pelargoniums) and bulbs (Gladioli) and put indoors or in a frost free greenhouse.  Move citrus plants and young Olives into the conservatory or glasshouse.

Continue to lift and divide overcrowded herbaceous perennials.

Plant out biennials eg; Wallflowers and Sweet Williams. Sow sweet pea seeds in the greenhouse or on a windowsill for an early crop next year.


If you haven’t already done so, plant spring bulbs as soon as possible.  Leave Tulips until colder weather in November to reduce the risk of tulip fire (a fungal disease).

To have beautiful scented white Narcissi in the house at Christmas, pot up Paperwhite bulbs soon in multipurpose compost with the bulb tops just clear of the surface, and leave on a warm sunny windowsill or greenhouse.

Lay new turf at this time of year, and sow grass seed if the weather if favourable (moist but not frosty). Regularly clear fallen leaves from lawns to stop grass turning yellow.

Keep off grass during wet or frosty weather to reduce damage and compaction.

Lilies in pots will rot in wet compost so need moving somewhere out of the rain (or cover the pots). Plant up pots with autumn, winter and spring colour.  Add a slow release fertiliser so you won’t need to liquid feed in spring.

Clear out your pond, cutting down the dead foliage of marginal plants and remove blanket weed. If possible, net your pond to keep leaves from falling into the water.  And if you have a Gunnera in your garden, use cut leaves to protect the crowns over winter (adding straw or fleece for extra protection).

water feature

If you have a water feature in a pot and you’re not sure how frost-resistant the pot is, it might be a good idea to empty it out at this time of year to avoid any damage over winter.

Clear the garden of weeds that can act as hosts for pests and diseases.  Avoid composting any diseased material as the disease may survive the composting process.

Picture credits:  Janet Bligh & Firgrove Photographic