As autumn approaches winter, you’ll likely start to see less wildlife activity in your garden – but this is the time when we need a lot of visitors, including birds, small mammals, and some insects.
“Plants are the bedrock of a wildlife-friendly garden, and this includes throughout the winter, although many are reduced to their skeleton,” says Adrian Thomas, RSPB (rspb.org.uk) wildlife horticultural expert.
There are two main benefits plants provide: cover and food. Getting through the long, cold nights is a challenge for garden birds, so plants that provide dense, secure cover will allow them to sleep safely away from the elements, saving precious energy. Evergreens like holly and ivy are perfect.”
When it comes to plants that provide food, Thomas adds, “An easy starting point are plants that provide food that we can easily see, such as berries and winter flowers. Garden trees that often cling to their fruit in winter include different types of rowan trees, such as Sorbus vilmorinii and apples.” Ornamental crab, while ivy continues to mature sequentially through the winter and is rich in fat.
“For winter nectar and pollen for insects like bumblebees that may be on the wing in warm winter periods, winter honeysuckle, winter-flowering cherry, and mahonia are good choices,” he continues. “And you’ll be amazed at what birds will continue to find in deciduous hedges and trees, food like moth eggs, so try to delay hedge cutting and tree pruning until the end of winter.”
Wildlife friendly plants
In addition to the many plants that produce berries for birds, including cotoneaster, pyracantha, berberis, and yew, be sure to plant species whose berries should last after Christmas, such as Skimmia and guelder rose (Viburnum opulus). Fields and other birds may visit the gardens to feed on the snap apple when it’s really cold.
While ivy is still the bane of life for some gardeners, berries are an important source of bird nutrition in late winter and early spring, when food is scarce. It has been said that one packet of ivy contains roughly the same amount of calories as a bar of chocolate, gram for gram.
Adult red admiral butterflies feed on nectar-rich plants such as pyrethrum, which is still conspicuously visible in flowers in many gardens at this time of year, while caterpillars feed on nettle leaves. The RSPB suggests that native plants including crab apple, elderberry and birch also create a natural food supply for birds during the winter.
Winter shrubs including Viburnum x bodnantense, Lonicera fragrantissima, and Christmas box (Sarcococca hookeriana) provide not only food and shelter for wildlife, but also the most wonderful scent.
“Think of the value that comes from leaving the seed heads of herbaceous plants standing over the winter, everything from lavender to Verbena bonariensis, rudbeckias, and sedums. They will look great in frost and harbor insects and seeds,” says Thomas.
Leave the architectural seed heads like perches to seed-eating birds, including mosses and goldfinch, which use their delicate beaks to extract the ripened seeds from the flower heads spent for food.
There is still plenty of time to plant flowering bulbs in late winter and early spring including snowdrops and crocuses, which may be a magnet for any bees venturing outside during the late winter sunshine. Other small bulbs that lure wildlife include scilla and chionodoxa.
If you have a small garden, hungry pollinating insects will head to nectar-rich container plants in late winter and early spring. Hallibur heads, appearing at this time, not only provide an accurate color for any arrangement, but are also a good source of food for the emerging bumblebee queen.
Winter-flowering feathery plants such as Erica carnea ‘Winter Snow’ are among the hardiest of dwarf evergreen shrubs and are perfect for brightening winter containers, as well as being a magnet for early-flying bumblebees
Hedges provide great shelter and food for birds, and now is a great time to plant species like yew and hawthorn, before the ground becomes too hard. You’ll save money by choosing hedges or bare-rooted trees and shrubs, says the RSPB.
You might think they’re out of fashion, but in late fall and early winter, lawns can be invaluable to blackbirds and thrushes, who venture into the grass in search of leatherbacks (carnivorous fly larvae), earthworms, and molts. Fruit, RSPB adds. The taller grass provides shelter and egg-laying opportunities for insects that birds and other wildlife feed on.
Consider leaving dandelions in your garden, which provide nectar and pollen in late winter and early spring, when the queen bee is out of hibernation.
Think of the future
Looking to the future, shrubs such as honeysuckle, lavender and ivy can all be planted in the fall and are ideal for providing food and cover for birds, insects and other wildlife, according to specialists The Greenhouse People (greenhousepeople.co.uk).
Some species of bees can still be seen around your garden in the fall, as they prepare to enter hibernation in the winter. Plants flowering in the fall that provide a great source of pollen when food supplies are harder to come by include Japanese anemones, red kohlrabi, and crocomia, which still bloom in warm autumn.