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

6 simple steps to creating a wildlife garden

I’m currently working with a pre-school nursery group to create a wildlife garden for the children to enjoy and learn from.  Along with a living willow tunnel, a cosy seating area and raised beds where the children can grow flowers and herbs, I have designed in a number of features to help attract wildlife in to the garden.

Wildlife-friendly gardens have so many benefits – both aesthetic and practical.  There’s no doubt that it’s a real pleasure to spend time in a garden that’s full of bees, butterflies and birds, but the benefits are greater than that. The wildlife you attract will also be carrying out a useful function in keeping your garden healthy – whether that’s by pollinating plants or by eating slugs!

If you’d like to attract wildlife into your garden, here are a few simple ideas to get you started:

Ponds are a really valuable way to attract wildlife into any garden

Ponds are a really valuable way to attract wildlife into any garden

Have a pond – no matter what size you go for, a pond will be the most effective way you can attract wildlife to your garden.  If you have the space and can build a pond with sloping edges or routes in and out of the pond, then all the better.  Whatever size you go for, you will be able to attract a wide range of aquatic and amphibious species. Fish in small ponds are not a great idea from a wildlife perspective as they will feed on aquatic larvae and reduce levels of biodiversity.  If you don’t have space for a pond, you could add a small water feature such as a large container with oxygenating plants to keep the water clear. Or even just having a bird bath will make an impact.

An insect hotel made from wooden pallets

An insect hotel made from wooden pallets

Build an insect hotel.  This could be as simple as a bunch of hollow flower stems or bamboo canes tied together and left somewhere dry – or go the full Monty and build a bigger construction of old pallets with an array of nooks and crannies for insects to shelter in over winter.  The pallet look won’t be for everyone, and if it doesn’t appeal to you it’s easy to make (or buy) a small insect hotel.

Be messy! Leave areas of your garden to provide habitats for wildlife

Be messy! Leave areas of your garden to provide habitats for wildlife

Design in an area of the garden where you can be untidy (unless that’s your natural tendency anyway in which case you can just tell everyone you’re being wildlife-friendly!).  If you’ve got a very neat garden and the thought of being untidy appals you, maybe you can screen off a corner where you can let nature take its course a bit – a patch of nettles, leaves left on the ground, a pile of old logs, wild flowers left to grow.  Before long you’ll find all sorts of species of wildlife moving in.

Have areas of long grass. Whether you go as far as a full-on wildflower meadow, or just leave parts of your lawn to grow longer, you’ll be creating another habitat for wildlife to enjoy.

Areas of long grass can be an attractive garden feature

Areas of long grass can be an attractive garden feature

Plant species which provide a food source for birds and insects – whether that food is nectar, seeds or berries.  And have a range of plants to provide food all year round, not just through the summer.

Waxwing by Mike Jennings

A Waxwing feeding in winter

Leave seedheads through the winter rather than cutting everything down. And if you have open compost bins you’ll be providing a source of food for slowworms, hedgehogs and amphibians.

Think ahead when designing your garden so that you have safe places to hang bird feeders (and nesting boxes).  There’s such an array of bird-friendly products available these days it can be hard to know where to start, but there’s no shortage of good information on the internet. Check out the RSPB website.

Go easy on the hard landscaping and have lots of varied planting in order to attract the maximum number of wildlife species (for both food and shelter).  Include mixed hedges and climbing plants as well as a good range of perennials and grasses.  And talking of climbers, even though it’s the bane of many people’s lives, think about planting ivy.  It’s a great nesting plant for birds, and provides nectar in autumn and berries in winter, so don’t discount it!

If you’d like help designing your garden specifically to maximise its potential to attract wildlife, then please get in touch.

Cirsium rivulare / www.firgrovephotographic.co.uk

Picture credits :  Janet Bligh / www.firgrovephotography.co.uk / Mike Jennings