Winter Wildlife Gardening

Winter is here, and December can bring major changes to our weather. Rain, frost, wind and sometimes snow.   It is easy to forget about the creatures outside our four walls when the temperature drops.  Most of us feed the birds at this time and appreciate the enjoyment we get from these garden visitors, but we may overlook the frogs and toads, small mammals, bees, butterflies and moths and a vast array of smaller insects, because they are inconspicuous at this time of year.  But they are still out there and it is useful to know a little bit about their habits and life cycles so we can ensure that the gardening that we do now is not detrimental to them.  We need to know what we should and shouldn’t be doing in the winter garden.

Most gardeners appreciate that not cutting down herbaceous plants in autumn can be very beneficial to wildlife, and the majority of gardening magazines will tell us that leaving seeds on these plants will provide food for birds through the winter.  Unfortunately this is not entirely correct.  Anyone who has watched a greenfinch at a bird feeder, systematically picking out seeds and depositing them on the ground beneath will know that birds are very fussy about what they eat!  Many plant seeds are just too small, inaccessible or without sufficient nutrition to be eaten by birds.  All birds have their favourite seeds in gardens, including lavender, knapweed, evening primrose and of course sunflowers, so ensure that these are most definitely left alone now, but many others will not attract birds during the winter. If you are in any doubt about having the right natural seeds in the garden make sure that you have a few bird feeders or a bird table, liberally supplied with nutritious seeds such as sunflower hearts and peanuts, from a reputable bird food supplier. 

Often when we see birds foraging around seed heads they are actually searching for the small insects that shelter amongst the seed pods.  Leaving your herbaceous vegetation standing until March is important for a variety of reasons, but perhaps most crucial is the cover it provides for a huge range of creatures, including useful insects such as ladybirds and lacewings.  If these insects are catered for over the winter they will be on hand in your garden in spring to deal with the first crop of aphids.  Hollow stems are a favourite hibernation place of ladybirds, and large groups may choose to spend the winter together out of harms way in this natural habitat.  Of course many seed heads are an attractive feature in their own right, especially when sprinkled with frost and are worth retaining for that alone.

Once we have decided to leave the borders uncut, another winter task becomes obsolete.  It was traditional to dig over border spaces between plants to ‘expose pests’ and keep the herbaceous border tidy at this time, but in fact this is extremely harmful to many insects, especially moths.  Lots of species, including the beautiful hawk-moths, spend the winter in the pupal form, under the soil.  At the end of the autumn these caterpillars bury themselves beneath the vegetation they have been feeding on to emerge in late spring or summer.  This is a very energy efficient way of sitting out the cold wet weather.   Digging over bare soil now can expose moth pupae and many soil insects to harsh weather.  A good thick mulch of organic matter between the herbaceous flowers, or over exposed soil on the allotment, is a much more satisfactory means of protecting the wildlife and the soil beneath.

Where slightly wilder areas of the garden are concerned, including the bottoms of hedges or areas of long grass here and there, these too are best just left alone now.  In general wildflower meadows or rough grass will have been cut and raked a couple of months ago, but hopefully you were able to leave some small patch uncut and it should remain so until the springtime.  Long grass is vital to wildlife at all times of the year and cutting it now removes all shelter for small mammals such as field mice, shrews and voles and many species of insect.  Hedgehogs in particular need a good depth of leaves and dried vegetation to create a winter hibernation nest and will often choose a tangle of grass and other vegetation that has not been disturbed.  This could be under a hedge, beneath thick shrubs, or they may use a compost heap or log pile.  Uncut borders where the plants are dense are also sometime chosen.  Hardy geraniums are especially good for hedgehogs as they retain a dense mat of dried leaves through the winter.

December is sometimes a month when big changes are made in gardens, but any major activities should be done with care and consideration for all your garden inhabitants.  It is not a good time to remove or severely prune evergreens or shrubs with berries or hips as these provide more than just food for birds and mammals.  Many insects, including ladybirds, take cover in dense conifers, which are also used by the smaller birds such as wrens and goldcrests for roosting on cold nights.  In fact a conifer hedge can have many benefits to wildlife, as long as it is kept well trimmed and a sensible height.  Take care also when removing or repairing stone walls or relaying paving, where toads, newts or slow worms may hibernate and log stores may be protecting hibernating butterflies, including small tortoiseshell or peacock.

So does this mean that the less we do the better this month?  As far as the wildlife in our gardens is concerned the answer is definitely ‘yes’.  There are jobs that can be done, but it is worth thinking through every aspect of the work ahead, and considering the disturbance that it may create.

Amongst my gardening friends there seems to be two distinct types of winter gardener.  There are those who generally love the cold weather, and spend a lot of time in December outside, ‘tidying-up’ and preparing their gardens for the spring ahead.  And there are others who prefer to spend the colder weather inside in the warm and let the garden look after itself.  If like me you belong to the latter group, it is heartening to know that our approach is the most beneficial to the wildlife in our gardens and our more energetic friends would do well to take a leaf out of our gardening book.


© Text and photographs Jenny Steel 2017