Go wild in winter
Discover the best plants to make your garden a haven for wildlife throughout winter, with Kate Bradbury
Winter is a quiet time for garden wildlife. Most species, including hedgehogs, insects and amphibians, are hibernating. A few species remain active – the most obvious are birds, which have fewer hours of daylight to find food and should therefore be taking full advantage of your feeders. Other winter-active species include field mice and bank voles, some of which may even have young in the nest if conditions are mild.
While frogs spend winter in a state of torpor, with many overwintering at the bottom of ponds and breathing through their skin, you may spot them in the pond on milder days.
More wildlife gardening advice:
Winter wildlife inspiration
Plants featured in this video
If you don’t deadhead all of your rose flowers, they will develop into hips, highly nutritious fruits loved by birds such as thrushes and blackbirds, while finches will pick them apart to reach the seeds within. Small mammals such as mice also eat rosehips – look out for chewed remains on the ground, or beneath the shelter of a log or large stone. Rosehips come in all shapes and sizes and some seem to be more popular with wildlife than others. If yours doesn’t seem popular then don’t give up, I’ve found that leaving them all winter helps – the hips remain on the plant for what seems like an age and then, suddenly, the birds start eating them.
In the wild, leaves fall to the ground and slowly break down to feed the soil for the next growing season. While they are breaking down they provide hibernacula for all sorts of species, including amphibians and hedgehogs. In gardens, while we should clear leaves from the lawn and paths, it’s a good idea to leave them where they fall in the borders. Alternatively, you can create bespoke leaf piles to make leaf mould, ensuring you provide access to overwintering species. This will replicate wild habitats and create a cosy overwintering habitat.
Gram by gram, ivy berries contain more calories than chocolate. This makes them an important source of food for birds and small mammals. For reasons we don’t know, ivy berries are always eaten at the end of winter. It could be that they don’t taste very nice and so birds leave them until last, or it could be that birds know how calorific they are and so save them until spring is near so they can use them to get into good condition for breeding. Either way, we gardeners can let our ivy plants develop flowers and berries, and then avoid cutting plants back until after the berries are eaten.
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Winter flowers are becoming increasingly important as climate change interrupts the hibernation patterns of insects. Bees may rouse from hibernation early and need to refuel before going back to sleep, while some bumblebees even establish ‘winter active’ colonies. Winter clematis is a fabulous plant that flowers from November to February. Flowers come in white to cream with red speckles. Other winter flowers loved by bees include winter honeysuckle, mahonia, daphne and winter heather.
Kate Bradbury says
Avoid cutting back berrying plants, tidying away plant material which insects will be hibernating among, and doing activities such as turning your compost heap, which could disturb overwintering wildlife. Leave as much of your garden as possible intact over winter to ensure wildlife can hibernate safely.