Gardening for wildlife
December is a time when most people start to prepare for Christmas and the garden is left alone to return to in the spring when the weather is warmer and the days are longer. Due to family commitments in November, my own garden and allotment were left, but as a wildlife gardener I know this is beneficial to all the living creatures trying to survive the winter months.
November was an exceptionally dry month and mostly warmer than normal too. Many parts of the UK saw less rainfall than average, substantially so for some areas, with less than 20% the normal amount for much of southern England (Met Office). We’ve had a mix of weather since including snow, gales, and heavy outbreaks of rain. Challenging for wildlife and confusing for some plants. I have an echinacea flowering in my garden!
For people who enjoy being outside in the winter, there are still plenty of jobs that can be done in the garden:
I feel dismay when people choose to replace their lawns with plastic grass. Artificial grass creates a barrier to creatures who live in the soil. It offers nothing for insects, birds and mammals who use natural grass for shelter and food. It may appear convenient to some but with hotter summers forecast there will be days when the ‘grass’ is so hot that children and animals can’t step on it. It is also important to consider the energy and materials used in the production of artificial grass.
Not only does natural groundcover look wonderful and give you a lovely outdoor space, but it also has flood-preventing, carbon-storing, and nature-boosting properties that plastic just can’t match.
Hopefully your grass is a bit longer than you would normally leave it in winter, or you have left areas of longer grass. If, like me, you have bare patches in your lawn, try to avoid treading on them so that the soil doesn’t get compacted, which will damage its structure.
Garden borders & hedges
Soil health is so important especially in the face of climate change and intensive farming. As plants in borders have died back, there will be bare areas of soil and now is the perfect time to think of ways to improve these:
- Try not to tread on waterlogged or frosted soil
- Use a mulch on bare soil to protect it from erosion caused by heavy rain and wind. Mulch can be well rotted compost, or composted leaf mould or bark
- Use the no-dig method of gardening (see link below). This helps to keep the delicate balance of mycorrhizal fungi and other soil organisms intact
- If you have large areas of bare soil e.g. empty raised beds or a veg patch, use cardboard (any plastic tape removed) to cover the area and weigh it down with a layer of compost or stones. This will help to protect lighter soils from erosion in windy weather and will also help to keep unwanted weeds supressed in spring. The cardboard can remain on the ground and you can add compost/well-rotted manure on top when you are ready to plant.
Starting No Dig – https://charlesdowding.co.uk/start-here/
Grow a tree for wildlife
Winter is a good time to plant trees and hedges. Plants can be bought bare rooted which is generally cheaper, but they should be planted straight away. When choosing trees and hedging, consider the wildlife you can help. Native species are best but following that, plant trees for blossom and fruit and buy hedging plants that will provide nectar from blossom in the spring and berries in the autumn.
At this time of year, shrubs with vibrant berries will not only create colour and interest but will provide much needed food for wildlife. Plant through the winter months but not into ground which is frozen or waterlogged.
Some shrubs to consider:
- Callicarpa bodinieri – This shrub captures our attention with the unusual violet colour of its berries, which is perhaps why birds only turn their attention to it late in the season. 2m (6ft6in)
- Viburnum tinus – Eye-catching clusters of metallic blue fruit. 1.5m (5ft)
- Viburnum opulus – This deciduous viburnum is a spectacular form of our native guelder rose. In summer, the white lacecap flowers are set against maple-like foliage, followed in autumn by clusters of golden yellow, almost translucent berries that last well into the winter before finally feeding the birds. Grows well in damp soils in sun or a little shade. 2.5m (8ft)
- Spindle (Euonymus europaeus) – The spindle is at its loveliest in autumn when its leaves turn russet and its pink and orange fruits ripen. Wildlife loves its leaves and fruit, and aphids flock to it, bringing with them an array of their predators.
Grow a tree for wildlife
Garden Organic – what can I compost?
Other jobs to do around the garden
- Prune hedges and leave the trimmings tucked under the hedge, where they will provide the perfect hibernation site for a whole range of wildlife including hedgehogs and frogs. When pruning try to avoid destroying berries and seeds.
- Don’t be tempted to tidy the borders too much as seed heads can provide food for birds and fallen stems can create shelter for small mammals and insects.
- Continue to collect leaves to compost. Fallen autumn leaves are one of nature’s free gifts. If you have masses of leaves it’s simplest to pile them up in a cage and let fungi do their thing. Keep them damp and within a year or two you will have beautiful leaf mould compost for mulching and potting up.
- Embrace your garden spiders! Spider nests are everywhere now, filled with eggs ready to hatch next May. The baby spiders appear just as their prey does, and hungry spiders will consume vast quantities of insects, so nurture these predators-to-be.
- When picking holly and ivy for Christmas decorations, spare a thought for the Holly Blue butterfly, (Britain’s only butterfly which is blue on both sides). It relies on both plants for survival – the caterpillars feed on ivy flowers, and the females lay eggs on holly buds. By December it’s larvae will have crawled in amongst the fallen dead holly leaves, waiting for spring before hatching.
- Top up and turn your compost heap, ensuring that you don’t disturb any hibernating hedgehogs. Compost bins can get quite wet at this time of year so balance this out by adding dry waste such as bits of cardboard, shredded egg boxes, scrunched up Xmas card envelopes…
- Most pests are inactive in winter but check for snails in empty flowerpots and the greenhouse.
- Pick all fruit off trees as it can be a source of brown rot infection.
- Deadhead winter pansy flowers and remove diseased leaves.
- Cut off diseased hellebore leaves to prevent fungal spores spreading to emerging foliage. Avoid putting any diseased leaves into your compost.
- Wash greenhouse glass and remove dead/dying foliage regularly from over-wintering plants to prevent mildews and moulds taking hold.
- Bulbs can still be planted in December. See the September/October article to read more about bulb planting.
- Ponds are best left alone at this time of year as frogs and other creatures are hibernating and should not be disturbed.
- Gently skim off any dead leaves and duckweed. Even in winter invasive plants can multiply.
Hedgehogs are one of the few mammals that are true hibernators. During hibernation hedgehogs are not fully asleep. Instead, they drop their body temperature to match their surroundings and enter a state of torpor. This allows them to save a lot of energy but slows down all other bodily functions making normal activity impossible.
Hedgehogs usually hibernate from October/November through to March/April depending on the weather. Research has shown that each individual is likely to move nesting sites at least once during this period and so can sometimes be seen out and about. During mild winters hedgehogs can remain active well into November and December.
While in hibernation the hedgehog’s fuel supply comes from the fat stores it has built up over the summer. Eating enough before hibernation is vital, and this is when supplementary feeding can be important for hedgehogs.
Any disturbance during this period can be extremely dangerous, as hedgehogs use up their precious energy reserves to become active again.
Should food be left out over winter for hedgehogs?
“The answer is YES… as long as it’s being eaten. It’s difficult to tell exactly when hedgehogs will begin hibernation, so when you start to see that food is not being taken, you can stop putting so much out and perhaps just offer a few dry cat biscuits. A shallow dish of clean, fresh water is always a good idea as well, just be careful in case it freezes.
Hedgehogs do sometimes wake up from hibernation, especially in response to milder weather. If you notice any particularly mild periods over winter, or spot a hog out and about after dark, you could put more food back out to help them along.”
Source – Hedgehog Street
Hedgehog friendly garden features:
Birds & hedgehogs
Birds have a difficult time in winter; short days and cold nights mean they must eat a lot of food in a short amount of time to have the energy to survive until morning.
Food is also more difficult to find in winter. Insects are hibernating and grubs are buried deep in the ground.
Ground feeding birds will hunt through the leaf litter and under bushes, where the soil is sheltered from frosts. In the mornings I often see a wren close to our house picking its way through leaves that I’ve left on the ground.
This month, birds will need high energy food to help them survive. This includes fat balls, suet pellets, sunflower seeds, peanuts, and mealworms. Feed birds at the same time each day so they don’t waste energy looking for food.
The following is advice from the RSPB about feeding birds in winter from your leftovers:
- Fat: fat from cuts of meat (only unsalted varieties) can be put out in large pieces, from which birds such as tits can remove morsels. Make sure that these are well anchored to prevent large birds flying away with the whole piece. Please remember cooked turkey fat from roasting tins is NOT suitable for birds.
- Roast potatoes: cold and opened up, these will be eaten by most garden birds.
- Vegetables: cold Brussels, parsnips or carrots will be eaten by starlings and other birds but remember not to put out more than will be eaten in one day, otherwise you run the risk of attracting rats.
- Fruit: excess or bruised apples, pears and other fruit are very popular with all thrushes, tits and starlings. Cut them up and leave them on the bird table or on the ground.
- Pastry: cooked or uncooked is excellent, especially if it has been made with real fats.
- Cheese: hard pieces of cheese are a favourite with robins, dunnocks, blackbirds and song thrushes. This will also help wrens if placed under hedgerows and other areas in your garden where you have noticed them feeding. Avoid feeding them very strong or blue cheeses.
- Dried fruits: raisins, sultanas and currants are particularly enjoyed by blackbirds, song thrushes and robins.
- Biscuits and cake: stale cake and broken pieces of biscuits from the bottom of the tin are high in fat and ideal for birds in the winter.
Golden rules for feeding birds:
- Don’t put out salty foods. Birds can’t digest salt and it will damage their nervous systems.
- Only leave enough that can be eaten in one day – otherwise you may attract unwanted visitors, such as mice and rats.
- Always follow sensible hygiene measures, including washing hands thoroughly after filling and washing feeders.
- If you don’t have a pond, ensure that there is a clean water supply for birds to drink.
Free advice about creating a wildlife sanctuary in your garden
I am a volunteer Wildlife Gardening Champion for the Hampshire and Isle of Wight Wildlife Trust. We are a friendly bunch of volunteers who care passionately about creating wild spaces in gardens. We are not experts but between us we have a fair amount of knowledge to give advice about what you can do, either on a grand scale or in a small space, to help wildlife.
The service is free, and we are currently doing phone consultations, though this may change once Covid rules are relaxed more, and we can visit people in their gardens.
All you need to do is complete an online form, answering a few questions about your space. Some photos are useful while we cannot physically visit gardens.
If interested, you can book here:
Children’s wildlife project for December
“Climate change is at the front of our minds, and kids are feeling empowered to make a real impact on the future of our planet. Young people are naturally curious so this is a great time to get the whole family involved, to build good habits to save the nature we love.” The Woodland Trust
Environment and nature conservation projects for children:
Christmas present ideas for December
These days I feel that people put more thought into giving presents at Christmas. We are still struggling with the Covid pandemic but one of the positive things that has come out of it is that more people have tried gardening for the first time, wandered into the countryside and taken a bit more time to notice nature.
There are many meaningful gifts but why not choose to buy membership to a conservation charity? Many charities rely on membership fees to boost their funds for the valuable work they do. Most people gifted with a membership will receive a welcome pack, updates in the form of a magazine or online newsletter, as well as free or reduced entry to gardens and reserves etc. I went a bit crazy joining various charities during the pandemic but all of them have provided me with the above as well as plenty of very useful information.
There are too many to list but here are a few suggestions:
The Hampshire and Isle of Wight Wildlife Trust https://www.hiwwt.org.uk/
Garden Organic https://www.gardenorganic.org.uk/
Bumblebee Conservation Trust https://www.bumblebeeconservation.org/
Butterfly Conservation https://butterfly-conservation.org/
The Woodland Trust https://www.woodlandtrust.org.uk/