Preparing Your Wildlife Garden for Spring

February is a month full of the promise of spring – the shoots of bulbs pushing through the soil, song thrushes singing from treetops and even great tits checking out nest boxes.  If you are fortunate snowdrops, winter aconites and crocuses will be blooming in your garden.  But weather-wise February certainly does not feel much like spring.  It may bring the coldest conditions of the winter, and there have been times over the last few years when this most fickle month has fooled us with mild temperatures. The odd brimstone or peacock butterfly or queen bumblebee can be tempted out of hibernation by these untimely milder temperatures, which then plummet to below zero again.  All this makes February a difficult month in the wildlife garden, somewhere between winter and spring when we really are at the mercy of the weather.  Most of us have that gardener’s urge to get out there and start preparing for spring but we may have to hold back and strike a balance between winter maintenance and the ‘real’ gardening we crave.  However there are plenty of small tasks we can be carrying out to put our gardens in order as spring approaches, to ensure that any creatures that may be hibernating are not unduly disturbed and late frost does not damage tender new shoots.

Perhaps the most important job in the wildlife garden this month is to ensure that our wild birds are well catered for.  The very end of the winter is the time when many species are at their most vulnerable, yet this is when they must find the energy to sing and stake out their territories to prepare for breeding.  It is a tough time of year for any animal and even more so if food is in short supply.  Wild berries will be depleted by now and insects are few and far between.  Those small invertebrates that spend the winter months in crevices in bark or hidden in a log pile, will mostly have been found and devoured by now, and the frozen soil may keep potential food locked away from small beaks.  Supplementary feeding with mixed seeds, peanuts and mealworms is vital to bird survival now.   You may even attract reed buntings, siskins and redpolls as well as resident tits, blackbirds and robins, so spend a little time every morning checking your seed feeders, topping them up and making sure fresh, unfrozen water is available.  You can look ahead to spring and help your local birds further this month by putting up new nest boxes if you have any suitable spaces. 
Many birds will have been checking out potential nest sites since the winter solstice, but there will still be plenty searching for that perfect home.  If any of your bird boxes require repair, try to complete that task this month, or replace old broken boxes with the new woodcrete types, which will have the birds queuing up.
Ponds at this time need a vigilant eye kept on them but try to keep activity around the pond to a minimum at this time of year.  In some milder areas frogs may already be spawning, although for the majority of us keeping an area of the pond surface free of ice is the most we will need to do around this habitat.  Some male frogs spend the colder months in the bottom of the pond so too much disturbance now could cause them problems.  A frog can live for 10 years or more but late winter is a natural time for older frogs to die.  Don’t be too surprised to see the odd dead one in the pond this month. 
If winter really seems to be receding, work in the nectar borders can begin towards the end of this month unless you live in an exposed position.  If you have left all herbaceous vegetation uncut over the winter, you may wish to start the ‘tidying–up’ process now.  If this is done now it should be with great care – it is very easy to disturb a hibernating hedgehog in a dense patch of foliage and leaves, a group of ladybirds inside a seedpod, or the larvae of moths just below the soil surface.  If the new season’s leaves of herbaceous plants really are struggling to find their way through last year’s vegetation, cut back the dead stalks late this month, and place them on the compost heap where the insects are safe from frost and ice until the weather warms up.  Don’t be tempted to expose too much new foliage, as plummeting temperatures could put paid to fresh new leaves overnight.  Mulch with organic compost between plants to keep the soil surface well covered.  This will protect soil invertebrates as well as nourish the soil. If you can, leave this task until next month if the garden is still frosty.
Most wildlife gardens have at least one Buddleia and its annual maintenance is due now.  At the end of the month, cut back last year’s shoots really hard – down to within 15 cms of the soil surface.  These useful shrubs flower on the current year’s wood, so the vigorous new shoots that will appear in the spring will bear large panicles of nectar rich flowers for butterflies and bees.  If you have more than one Buddleia, stagger this pruning technique over March and into April.  This will mean a succession of flowers well into September.
Early spring is of course a good time to plan ahead, and whether you are relatively new to wildlife gardening or an old hand, you will want to make a real impact this summer.  Make a list of annuals with a good supply of nectar – the seeds of these easy-going plants may be scattered around existing borders or sown in rows between vegetables to attract beneficial insects.  If the weather is miserable this month, a little time spent inside in the warm, planning a colourful annual nectar border, can make up for the frustration of not being able to get outside.  Choose a selection of simple open flowers such as Californian poppies, nasturtiums and baby blue eyes and combine them with Echium and borage for bees, and coloured cornflowers for butterflies to give a bright, long lasting display.  A few seeds of night scented stock will please the moths as well as your senses.  Annual wildflowers can also be added to mixed perennial borders – corn poppies will bring hoverflies and bees to their pollen and corn marigold attracts a range of insects.  Planning and dreaming can be almost as exciting as actual gardening!
Wildlife gardens look fantastic whatever the time of year.  If flowers are few and far between there is always the wildlife to appreciate and this month should see a wide range of birds in our gardens as well as foxes and the earliest insects.  So even if the weather is cold and frosty (or even if there is a covering of snow) and your early spring gardening is delayed, you should still have plenty to enjoy.

© Text and photographs Jenny Steel 2017