Now I don’t want to scare you into thinking that winter is here already but someone has certainly turned the switch marked “summer” to Off. There is however, good news from a horticultural standpoint - the rain and cooler temperatures are great for establishing new trees and shrubs. Any time between now and Christmas is fine - unless the ground freezes of course.
Autumn is also a key season for the wildlife garden. A few simple steps taken now can help a host of animals to find safe hiding places for the coming winter, and ensure birds and mammals have something to eat and a little protection when times are hard.
Most people tend to tidy their gardens in autumn, but often take this to the extreme. They blitz them, removing most of the shelter for wildlife and leaving overwintering invertebrates homeless in the process. You can help
wildlife by leaving as much tidying up as possible until the end of winter, and doing so can make your garden look more attractive, too. Natural foods for birds are their first choice – so leave some behind! Most berries are great food for birds, and leave some windfall fruit on the ground. Other natural larders include ivy berries and the seeds of plants such as docks, herbs and teasel.
Gardens don’t need to be messy to offer a variety of wildlife habitats in winter but don’t be too tidy! Log piles and other features (such as upturned flower pots) will provide cover. Try to avoid disturbing them over the
As well as providing habitats for a host of overwintering residents, a good wildlife garden will attract flocks of birds. In fact, the harsher the weather and the less food there is in the countryside, the more important gardens become for our feathered friends. Feeding birds throughout the winter is important, because it increases their breeding success the following year. So start preparing now.
As winter progresses of course, birds will become more dependent on the food you put out. This is when they use feeders most heavily, so hygiene is important: clean your feeders and tables now by soaking them in sterilizing fluid, and get into the routine of washing them at least quarterly. Feeders can be sanitized with a solution of one part bleach to nine parts hot water. Commercial birdfeeder cleaning solutions are also available,
mind you, a mild solution of unscented dish detergent is reasonably effective.
The onset of winter is also an ideal opportunity to clean out nest-boxes (scalding the box with hot water will kill parasites). Don’t forget to carry out any necessary repairs and check the boxes are still firmly attached, replacing dilapidated ones. Remember though that some birds will use them for shelter – so put them back in good time! Wrens for instance can lose up to 10 per cent of their body weight on cold nights. They conserve heat by roosting communally, often in empty nest-boxes.
Pay special attention to your flowerbeds and hedges – it’s time to single out the plants that do not contribute very much, swapping them for species that will attract more animals to your garden. Plant new hedges or replace some of your existing ornamental species with natives such as hazel, hawthorn, buckthorn and guelder rose. Doing this now gives the plants time to establish roots, and will add to the overall diversity and interest in your garden in years to come.
Other tips to help: