Your March wildlife gardening jobs
Want to make your garden a magnet for wildlife? We share the plants to grow and species to look out for now
March is a time of anticipation and excitement, as the garden begins to stir from its winter slumbers. Robins and blackbirds are already breeding, and blue tits could still be checking out bird boxes, searching for the perfect nest site. Butterflies that overwinter as adults, such as brimstones and commas, are on the wing on warmer days, and hibernating mammals like hedgehogs and bats will be out and about in the next few weeks, on the hunt for all the nourishment our gardens can provide.
More wildlife advice:
Plants for wildlife
Many hungry queen bumblebees, like white-tailed and tree bumblebees, are emerging from hibernation this month. Spring-flowering perennials such as hellebores and pulmonaria provide much needed food, and wildflowers growing in lawns, paths and under hedges also offer valuable sources of pollen and nectar.
Lawns and meadows are dotted with the delicate white and yellow ‘day’s eyes’ of daisies (Bellis perennis), their tiny composite flowers attracting butterflies, bees and hoverflies. White dead-nettle (Lamium album) starts to bloom in dappled shade. Its hooded flowers provide nectar for long-tongued insects like the garden bumblebee and common carder bee. Garden tiger and setaceous Hebrew character moth caterpillars feed on the leaves, and house sparrows and dunnocks feast on the seeds.
One of the best sources of food for pollinators at this time of year is the cheerful, but much underrated, dandelion (Taraxacum officinale). Flowering from March to October, its nectar-rich flowers attract bees, pollen beetles, butterflies and many other insects. Dandelion leaves are one of the food plants of Jersey tiger and white ermine moth caterpillars, and the seeds are loved by goldfinches and sparrows.
As well as growing plants that bloom in early spring, wildlife-friendly annual flowers can be sown now to provide pollen and nectar later in the year. Borage (Borago officinalis) flowers from June until the first frosts in our garden and is always thronged with bees. It can be sown undercover this month or in-situ from April.
Another member of the borage family, viper’s bugloss (Echium vulgare), is one of the best biennials for pollinators. The annual variety ‘Blue Bedder’ has brilliant violet-blue flowers full of nectar and can be sown direct over the next few weeks. It self-seeds readily and flowers through summer and into autumn in a sunny spot.
Annual toadflax (Linaria maroccana) has delicate snapdragon-like flowers that attract pollinating insects. The flower spikes of ‘Fairy Bouquet’ range from vivid shades of blues, purples and reds to softer pastel colours, while the ‘Licilia’ series includes violet, azure, red and peach blooms with striking yellow or white throats. Toadflax should begin to flower around June from an outdoor sowing in early spring.
March is a good time to sow common toadflax (Linaria vulgaris) and purple toadflax (Linaria purpurea) too. These attractive perennials provide pollen and nectar for long-tongued bumblebees. Short-tongued bees can’t reach the nectar by conventional means, so they indulge in daylight robbery by biting a hole in the side of the flower to get a feed. Common and purple toadflax are also food plants of the dramatic black- and yellow-patterned toadflax brocade moth caterpillar, which I was delighted to spot for the first time last summer, feeding on a friend’s toadflax.
Hedgehogs usually emerge from hibernation this month or early next month, depending on the temperature. Their diet includes worms, beetles and earwigs, so gardens with healthy ecosystems offer good sources of natural food. Supplementary feeding is also helpful to support hungry hogs, especially just after hibernation. Good quality meaty hedgehog food or meat-based cat or dog food are best, along with clean water. Don’t leave out milk, bread or mealworms as these foods can make them ill.
Most berries have already been eaten by March, and caterpillars and other insects can be in short supply too, so it’s helpful to provide birds with extra food. Fill feeders with sunflower seeds and good quality seed mixes. Avoid putting out large pieces of bread, fat or loose peanuts at this time of year as they can be harmful to chicks. Clean bird baths and feeders regularly, and move feeding stations each month to avoid spreading diseases like trichomonosis, which is having a devastating effect on greenfinch and chaffinch populations. Always maintain personal hygiene by cleaning feeders outdoors, wearing gloves, washing hands thoroughly afterwards and ensuring that buckets and cleaning utensils are not used for other purposes.
Creating and maintaining habitats
Compost heaps are fantastic places for wildlife to shelter and hibernate during the colder months. Avoid turning or disturbing compost until April when animals such as hedgehogs, toads and slow worms will have emerged from hibernation. If you don’t have a compost bin, why not buy one or build your own using pallets? If your garden is too small for a compost heap, you could add your kitchen scraps to a wormery instead. I've tested a range of different wormeries, and the most compact was only 28cm x 38cm x 38cm, which could easily fit in a sheltered, shady corner of the garden.
Garden ponds cater for so many creatures great and small. If you have a wildlife pond in your garden or local park, look out for clumps of frogspawn this month. Toadspawn begins to appear a couple of weeks after frogspawn and can be distinguished by the double strings of black eggs wrapped around vegetation. Don’t collect frog or toadspawn from local ponds to add to your garden pond as this risks transferring disease and introducing invasive plants.
More like this
Many birds are busy breeding this month, so they will be on the hunt for materials for their nests. Grasses, green leaves, straw, lichen, feathers and moss are all popular building materials. In our garden, the house sparrows line up in spring to pull the bast (or inner fibrous bark) from the honeysuckle stems. It doesn’t damage the plant and gives us close-up views of the birds from our patio window.
Areas of wet soil at the edges of ponds provide blackbirds and song thrushes with mud for their nests. If you don’t have a pond, you could create a muddy puddle for the birds instead. Spiders’ webs provide another valuable building material. Long-tailed tits bind moss together using cobwebs as a natural glue, while blackcaps and goldfinches construct their nests in trees and shrubs, weaving them around supporting stems and strengthening the attachments with spiders’ webs.
Don’t leave pet or human hair out for birds to use in their nests as it could be contaminated with chemicals from pet treatments and hair products. Human hair could also cause problems with entanglement.
Climate change means flooding and droughts are becoming more common. Early spring is a good time to consider whether your plants have coped well with local soil and weather conditions in the last year or two. Before making changes or planting up new borders, identify the species that have been successful in your own and nearby gardens, and choose plants that favour similar conditions.
Selecting the right plant for the right place will make your garden more resilient when facing extreme weather conditions. When dividing summer-flowering perennials this spring, consider swapping spare sections of plants with neighbours to make the most of species that thrive locally.
Look out for… earthworms
This month’s full moon, known as the 'worm moon', falls on 7 March. Although earthworms can be seen all year round, they become more active as the weather warms over the next few weeks. Worms are amazing soil architects, breaking down organic matter which releases nutrients for plants, and aerating the soil which improves drainage. Earthworms also play a vital role in garden ecosystems, providing food for animals such as moles, toads, wood mice and robins.
There are three main groups of earthworms, classified by their feeding and burrowing behaviour:
- Anecic earthworms feed on leaf litter and live in vertical burrows in the soil. Some species leave casts (worm poo) around the entrance to their burrows. Common earthworms or lobworms (Lumbricus terrestris) are often found in lawns from which they emerge at night to feed on plant material. They are the UK’s largest worm, and can reach over 30cm in length.
- Endogeic earthworms, such as green worms (Allolobophora chlorotica) and grey worms (Aporrectodea caliginosa), live in the ground. They feed on soil and rarely come to the surface. Though many endogeic worms create shallow, horizontal burrows, some tunnel deep down into the soil.
- Epigenic earthworms are surface dwellers, living in leaf litter rather than burrows. They are often deep red in colour and feed on decaying plant matter. Generally small in size, these earthworms include the chestnut worm (Lumbricus castaneus) and the square-tailed worm (Eiseniella tetraedra) which lives in wet soil and mud at the edges of rivers and ponds.
- Compost worms make up a fourth group, actually a subset of the epigenic earthworms. Living in rotting vegetation, manure and compost, they include the brandling worm (Eisenia fetida), often found in compost heaps and wormeries.
Dahlias light up the borders with their sumptuous colours from summer into autumn - choose single-flowered types to benefit wildlife.
Pot up tubers at the end of the month and keep them under cover until late May once the risk of frost is over. When plants have come into growth, it is easy to create new plants for free by taking basal cuttings. Spring is also the time to sow seeds as a cost-effective way to produce an abundance of plants.