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.

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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.

 

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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.

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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.

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

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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.)

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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.

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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.

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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.

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

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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