I went blackberry picking on Sunday and they were the juiciest and largest fruit that I've seen for several years. This confirmed what I'd been hearing in the media-that this year is going to be a bumper one for fruit, nuts and seeds. That's not only good news for everyone who enjoys eating British fruit, it's good news for our garden wildlife too, as birds, hedgehogs and squirrelswill all be filling up happily on this lovely produce before the winter comes.
But after this glut there will be a rapid decline in the amount and variety of food available for our garden birds and animals.
Many of the insects, such as wasps, which ate their way into ripe plums and apples will hibernate or die. And that too means less food is available for insect-eating birds and bats. Blackbirds, robins and other fruit-eaters will have devoured all the tree fruits and berries.
If you want to see more birds and animals in your garden year-round, then start thinking now about what you can do to help them through the most difficult months of the year. Our suburban gardens can be a great autumn and winter larder for them – especially if we take a little bit of time and trouble. Here's some ideas to help you get started:
Include plants with autumn and winter berries in your garden
Trees such as the Rowan or Mountain Ash are really suitable for suburban gardens as many cultivars are slender, well-shaped small trees; they bear clusters of berries in the autumn, with research showing that those varieties with yellow berries last longer into the winter months. In Leeds, where I live, we occasionally see the beautiful winter visitor the waxwing enjoying the fruit. Large shrubs such as cotoneaster and pyracanthus have loads of lovely glossy berries which blackbirds and thrushes particularly love. Ivy bears black fruits in winter, and flowers in very early spring so it is a really useful food source for hungry wildlife. Yes, I know it can be a nuisance if it tears the plaster from your house. But perhaps you could let it scramble up the fence in an out of the way corner of the garden?
Now is a good time to plant shrubs. The soil is still warm from the summer sun, and they can settle in before winter comes. If you need more time to choose your new shrubs, late autumn and winter is also favourable because the plants are dormant by this stage and so can be transplanted without checking their growth. And it’s good for your pocket too as many can be bought more cheaply as bare-rooted specimens (rather than pot-grown). Want practical advice on exactly how to tackle autumn planting? Have a look at
Include winter flowering plants in your garden
These plants will provide food for insects and winter bees, and there are more to choose from than you might think. There are several lovely clematis, such as clematis cirrhoza Freckles, which will flower in mild periods. Clematis armandii flowers as early as January in sheltered gardens. Evergreen shrubs such as sarcocca and viburnum tinus flower intermittently throughout the winter. If you position these plants where you can see them from your snug sitting room or cosy kitchen, then you'll get the pleasure of seeing theflowers too. Sarcococca is a small shrub and gorgeously scented on a sunny winter day. Planting one alongside the path to your front door will really lift your spirits! You could also try the shrubby winter honeysuckle lonicera x purpusii with lemon-scented flowers, or the beautiful small tree/tall shrub daphne bohlua ‘Jacqueline Postill’ which has a gorgeous sweet scent on a sunny winter day, enticing both insects and humans outside!
Leave seed-bearing plants to overwinter
Many of us have borders planted in the popular prairie or Piet Oudolf style -lots of grasses intermingled with summer flowering plants such as echinacea and heleniums. These borders will keep flowering until the frosts. Leaving the seed heads to overwinter, instead of cutting them down, offers birds such as goldfinches a real feast later on in the autumn. It’s also worth leaving plants such as sedums, teasel and eryngium through the winter. These last two in particular, with their branching cone-shaped heads, look great with winter sun slanting through them and you will enjoy seeing finches and other birds perched on the seed heads to feed.
Provide shelter for insects
Winter shelter helps insects overwinter in their various larval stages. In turn, this means more food for birds and hedgehogs to find as winter starts to deepen. Letting flowering plants decay gently back into the soil, rather than tidying up too much, helps provide habitats for overwintering insects, as well as increasing the micro-organisms in the soil. If you must be tidy, at least designate a small area- the back of the border or behind the garage- as a morewildlife-friendly habitat. If you have trees or shrubs in your garden, think about collecting the larger prunings into a pile somewhere inconspicuous and leaving them as an informal ‘bug hotel’. Hedgehogs, toads and even grass snakes may also use these to hibernate in if the pile is left undisturbed.
Provide a water source
Birds and animals must also have access to water if they are to survive the winter. You don’t have to dig up half the garden to make a pond; what about a small barrel with a miniature pond lily in it, or even an upturned plastic dustbin lid set into the border somewhere where it will catch the rain but not be conspicuous.
Check out this great Garden Blog for more tips: http://www.uknatureblog.com/2012/02/seed-heads-feed-the-birds.html