Casual Gardener: Remember to enjoy the berries and birds in your garden this winter

Caroline Marshall of the RSPB sings the praises of holly and ivy...

A Blackbird foraging. Picture by Ray Kennedy
Caroline Marshall

CHRISTMAS 2019 may have been and gone and the berried holly and ivy brought in from the garden may have lost their lustre and become a tad crisp round the edges – but in the garden, both plants are still giving much pleasure.

Whether you're working off the excesses of Christmas by pottering in the garden or looking out from the warmth of your festively decorated home, there is still lots in the garden that can provide both visual interest for you and sustenance for wildlife.

At this time of year, holly is a garden stalwart. Its glossy leaves, whether all green or variegated, decorated with beads of rain or frost fringed brings light and lustre in the low winter sun. Its presence in a mixed hedge or as a focal point provides shelter for nesting and wintering species and its berries provide much needed food when nature's larder is not so well stocked. Blackbirds, thrushes and waxwings home in on bright red holly and cotoneaster berries. Waxwings stripping plants of their nutritious bounty is a whimsical winter spectacle.

Some gardeners can get a bit hung up about ivy. For certain, ivy adds interest to our gardens. It can clothe an unattractive fence in a short time and also provide shelter and food for wildlife during late autumn and winter. Late flowering ivy provides a much-needed source of nectar and pollen for our insects. Honey bees evolve to be in tune with the flora and climate of their region and in Ireland they can be seen foraging on a sunny winter day if the temperature is above 10 degrees. The late flowering ivy provides much-needed pollen and nectar to nourish bee colonies during the cold months of January and February.

If the weather is too bad to get out into your garden, you could always plan to take part in the world's largest wildlife study. The RSPB's Big Garden Birdwatch takes place from Saturday January 25 to Monday January 27. You can get more information from

Why not encourage even more birds into your garden through supplementary feeding? Blackbirds mostly feed on the ground and will eat many things from fatty nibbles to mealworms. Tits, including blue tits and great tits, prefer to use a feeder, eating seeds as well as suet and peanuts. Finches, including chaffinches and greenfinches, will use both a feeder and a bird table. They love sunflower hearts.

The reflective qualities of a formal or wildlife pond in the garden provide much all year visual interest as well as supporting our native and visiting wildlife. The sight of a frozen pond with its frost covered marginal plants sparks joy. But remember to keep some open water for birds by placing a tennis ball in your pond. The movement of the ball will slow the formation of ice on the surface. If the pond freezes over, remove the ball and you have an instant oxygenation hole.

Take time over the holidays to look out at or take in the cold crisp air during a wander round your garden. Enjoy the shrubs and trees that are providing interest at this time of year, spot the gaps in your garden's winter skeleton and ponder what evergreen or nature interest plant could add to your winter structure and attract wildlife for the years to come.

In the words of David Domoney, chartered horticulturist and TV gardener, "Just watch the way the birds interact and play and feed – it uplifts your heart, it nourishes the soul."

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