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 … evergreen shrubs to clothe a wall or fence

Many shrubs adapt very well to growing against walls and fences and, once trained in, are usually easier to manage than climbers which can quickly outgrow their allotted space.  Here are five evergreens that lend themselves very well to being wall-trained and between them provide seasonal interest throughout the year.

Ceanothus (or ‘Californian lilac’) make excellent candidates for growing against a sunny fence or wall as they benefit from the protection provided against cold, drying winds.  One of the most strikingly beautiful is Ceanothus ‘Concha’ which produces a dazzling display or intensely dark blue flowers for several weeks in May and June, perfectly offset by the small, glossy dark green leaves.

Ceanothus © Firgrove Photographic

The bushy growth provides excellent screening for fences and walls and a perfect backdrop for a sunny border.  Ceanothus perform best on fertile, well-drained soil and benefit from a good mulch of organic matter after pruning.  To keep in shape, trim side shoots back by one third after flowering.

Ceanothus ©Firgrove Photographic

Some shrubs are definitely shown off to best advantage when wall trained and Garrya eliptica ‘James Roof’ is one of these.  Throughout the year, its glossy, wavy edged, dark green leaves make an elegant foil to other flowering shrubs when it is planted at the back of a border, but make sure it is planted where it can be fully appreciated in winter when the long, silken tassels of silvery flowers that cover it from December to February make it a really eye-catching architectural feature.  It can grow to 4m x 4m and looks best when given generous room to spread.

Garrya elliptica ©RHS

Happy in sun or shade and on any reasonably fertile soil as long as it is well-drained, it simply requires pruning after flowering to remove any dead or straggly growth.  Top tip: plant deciduous clematis nearby and allow to scramble through the Garrya branches to provide summer colour.

Itea ilicifolia is also a tassel bearer, but its striking greenish white, vanilla scented catkins appear in mid-summer to early autumn. It will tolerate shade quite well, but prefers a south or west facing aspect where its shiny, holly-like foliage looks lovely throughout the year with new growth in spring beginning in beautiful shades of red.  Young plants in particular benefit from the protection of a warm fence or wall as they may be hard hit by cold, drying winds and require protection from frost in exposed areas.

Itea ©Firgrove Photographic

Plant in any fertile, well-drained soil and mulch around young plants in autumn.  Grows to 4m x 3m in height and spread, but can be pruned to size.

Osmanthus burkwoodii performs happily when grown against a wall or fence in sun or shade where its glossy, dark green leaves make a neat backdrop, but it is particularly useful for bringing light and interest to shady spots in April and May, when the highly scented, white, jasmine like flowers appear.

osmanthus burkwoodii ©Janet Bligh

It will cover an area of roughly 3m x 3m and is a very easy going plant being fully hardy, not fussy about soil type and requiring only light pruning with shears after flowering to maintain its shape.

Gardeners have had a long and very literally painful love/hate relationship with Pyracanthas, but when properly trained and pruned they make a wonderful architectural feature against a house or garden wall.  Pyracantha ‘Orange Glow’ has dense clusters of tiny white flowers in May which are followed by bright orange berries in autumn/winter that are a favourite of blackbirds and thrushes.


It is very versatile, being fully hardy and happy on any reasonable soil and in any aspect apart from very dense shade (but the more sun, the more berries).  Height and spread: 2.5m x 2.5m.
Top tip: Prune in late summer shortening all side shoots that arise from the main framework and stopping just short of the clusters of berries (usually about two to three leaves from the base of the side shoot).  Wear thick gloves!

Top tip for all wall trained shrubs: the area next to a wall is usually very dry so plant shrubs at least 40cm from the base of the wall and make sure to prepare the soil well before planting.  Remove any rubble, incorporate plenty of well-rotted organic matter and water well to establish.

Picture credits: Janet Bligh, Firgrove Photographic, RHS

Fabulous plants for October

As the days grow shorter and things start to wind down in the garden world, there’s still a lot to enjoy before Autumn truly kicks in.  Here are some of my top planting recommendations for October.

Verbena bonariensis
If I had a pound for everyone who has told me they love Verbena bonariensis I’d be a rich woman!  Its popularity is hardly surprising really as this is a plant that goes on and on – and on! It starts flowering as early as June, and often goes on into November. Talk about good value.

Verbena bonariensis

It’s tall (at approx. 1.2m) but one of those very useful plants that adds height and hazy colour to a planting scheme without blocking out views or becoming too dominant.   It’s also a real magnet for bees and butterflies, so it’s a wonderful plant for wildlife gardens.


Verbena bonariensis

Verbena bonariensis is the sort of plant I like to sprinkle through borders, but it works equally well when grouped en masse.   Thriving in sunny sites with well-drained soil, the lavender flowers of this Verbena are a perfect companion for ornamental grasses such as the equally statuesque Stipa Gigantea, and other late flowerers such as Perovskia and Gaura lindheimeri.  I also like it mixed with orange or red Dahlias for a real splash of vibrant late summer colour.

The only downside to Verbena bonariensis is that it’s not totally hardy (so it may need protecting in winter with mulch, and not cutting back till spring to avoid dieback).  It does seed around quite freely though, so even if you lose the original plant, chances are there’s another one popping up nearby to take its place.  If you’re looking for something shorter, then the newly introduced Verbena bonariensis ‘Lollipop’ may be of interest, standing just 60cm high.  I think the flowers are a touch more pink than the original, but to be honest it’s virtually identical – only at half the height.


Ageratina altissima ‘Chocolate’ AGM
This is a versatile plant that loves moist alkaline soil in partial shade, although it will tolerate full sun and a reasonable garden soil.  Commonly known as ‘White Snakeroot’, it is often still sold under its former name of Eupatorium rugosum ‘Chocolate’. Whatever you call it, it is an easy to grow herbaceous perennial with lovely chocolate-brown tinged leaves topped with fuzzy white flower heads that are very attractive to bees and butterflies.

Ageratina 'Chocolate'

‘Chocolate’ has a bushy upright habit (only starting to flop a bit right at the end of the season) and it grows to about 1m tall, with a spread of 60-80cm.  You will find information saying it flowers from July to September, but in my garden it definitely only starts to flower in late September and early October.  But to be honest the flowers are almost incidental – this is a plant to grow for its coloured foliage and good upright shape all summer long.

Ageratina by Firgrove Photographic

Looks great with Knautia macedonica and ornamental grasses, such as Miscanthus sinensis ‘Gracillimus’.

Ceratostigma willmottianum
Few flowers have the ability to linger late into the year. But as autumn progresses the gentian-blue heads of Ceratostigma willmottianum attract butterflies in search of the last nectar before hibernation, and the foliage turns a rich russet-red.  This presents opportunities for zazzy combinations with orange-reds, such as Crocosmias like ‘Star of the East’, or more muted schemes with Aster novae-angliae ‘Violetta’, and Penstemon ‘Raven’.

Ceratostigma willmottianum by Firgrove Photographic

Ceratostigma (commonly known as ‘hardy plumbago’) is a small deciduous shrub growing to about 1m high with a similar spread, and grows best in a sheltered sunny situation, in free draining soil. If a hard winter kills the top growth it can be cut hard back and should shoot again from the base.   You can also find a spreading ground cover version of this plant in the form of the herbaceous Ceratostigma plumbaginoides which should be cut back over winter when all the flowering action is over.

Euonymus europaeus
Euonymus europaeus, commonly known as the spindle tree, starts to go psychedelic this month, with its fruits deepening to hot pink before splitting open to reveal red-orange berries which are very attractive to birds. As the fruits begin to split open, the foliage tries to keep up by turning its own shades of purple, hot pink, and deep red.

Euonymus europaeus 'Brilliant' by Firgrove Photographic

It is an easy spreading shrub (or hedging plant), tolerating a wide range of soil conditions and will flourish as long as it has at least part sun, although the show of berries and foliage will be best in full sun. Euonymus europaeus ‘Brilliant’ is a very narrow, upright selection, reaching a height of 2 – 4 metres.

Hakonechloa macra Aureola AGM
Hakonechloa macra ‘Aureola’ is one of the most gorgeous ornamental grasses, and also one of the few that prefers shade.


This deciduous perennial grass forms a neat clump of arching stems with cascading layers of narrow leaves striped with bright yellow and green that are reddish-tinged in autumn and early winter.

Hakonechloa macra Aureola

Easy to grow in moist, well drained soil, reaching about 50cm in height and spread. Looks good with Geranium such as ‘Rozanne’ and works well as ground cover.  I like to grow it in pots in shady areas where it really brightens things up and contrasts beautifully with the red foliage of Japanese Maples.

Hydrangea quercifolia
The oak leaf Hydrangea is a statement shrub for a partially shady area, but it can get quite large so it needs sufficient room to spread (1.5m +).  At this time of year the large leathery leaves start to turn deep purple and its long-lasting creamy white flowers gradually change through shades of faded pink as they die.

Hydrangea quercifolia

The leaves hang on quite late into the winter and the cinnamon-coloured stems are attractive in their own right too. This is a Hydrangea that copes well in slightly drier conditions than most other Hydrangeas so all in all I find it a very worthwhile shrub to grow.

To find out about other fabulous plants for this time of year, click on the links below:

Top plants for autumn colour featuring
Acer palmatum
Vitis ‘Brandt’
Miscanthus sinensis ‘Malepartus’
Schizostylis coccinea

Autumn Glow featuring
Liquidambar styraciflua ‘Worplesdon’
Betula jacquemontii

Picture credits:  Janet Bligh & Firgrove Photographic