Gardening: Winter plants will attract wildlife to your garden

Berries, hips and even lawns all do their bit for our wildlife, writes Hannah Stephenson...

Ivy berries are a good source of food for birds in winter
Ivy berries are a good source of food for birds in winter Ivy berries are a good source of food for birds in winter

AS AUTUMN creeps into winter, you’ll likely start seeing less wildlife activity in your garden – but it’s a time when many visitors, including birds, small mammals and some insects, need us most.

“Plants are the bedrock of a wildlife-friendly garden, and that includes throughout the winter, despite many being reduced to their skeleton,” says Adrian Thomas, gardening expert at the RSPB ( wildlife gardening expert.

“There are two key benefits that plants offer: cover and food. Getting through the long, cold nights is challenging for garden birds, so plants that offer dense safe cover will allow them to snooze safely out of the elements, saving valuable energy. Evergreens such as holly and ivy are ideal.”

When it comes to plants providing food, Thomas adds: “An easy starting point are the plants that offer food that we can easily see, such as berries and winter flowers. Garden trees that will often hang on to their fruits well into winter include various rowans, such as Sorbus vilmorinii and ornamental crab apples, while ivy berries continue to ripen sequentially through winter and are rich in fat.

“In terms of winter nectar and pollen for insects such as bumblebees that may be on the wing in warm winter spells, winter honeysuckle, winter-flowering cherry and mahonia are good choices,” he continues. “And you’d be amazed what titbits birds will continue to find in deciduous hedges and trees, food such as moth eggs, so try to delay hedge cutting and tree pruning until the tail end of winter.”

Wildlife-friendly plants: As well as the many plants which produce berries for birds, including cotoneaster, pyracantha, berberis and yew, make sure you plant species where the berries should last beyond Christmas, such as skimmia and guelder rose (Viburnum opulus). Fieldfares and other birds may visit gardens to feed on windfall apples when it’s really cold.

While ivy remains the bane of some gardeners’ lives, its berries are a valuable source of nutrition for birds in late winter and early spring, when food is scarce. It has been said that one bundle of ivy berries has nearly the same amount of calories as a bar of chocolate, gram for gram.

Adult red admiral butterflies feed on nectar-rich plants such as Verbena bonariensis, which is still visibly in flower in many gardens at this time of year, while the caterpillars eat leaves of the common nettle. Native plants including crab apple, elder and birch also create natural food supplies for birds over the winter, the RSPB suggests.

Shrubs: Winter shrubs including Viburnum x bodnantense, Lonicera fragrantissima and Christmas box (Sarcococca hookeriana) not only provide food and shelter for wildlife, but also give off the most amazing scent.

Seedheads: “Think about the value that comes from leaving the seedheads of herbaceous plants standing through winter, everything from lavenders to Verbena bonariensis, rudbeckias and sedums. They’ll look great in frost and will harbour insects and seeds,” says Thomas.

Leave architectural seedheads such as teasels for seed-eating birds, including chaffinches and goldfinches, which use their thin beaks to extract ripe seeds from the spent flowerheads for food.

Bulbs: There’s still time to plant late winter and early spring-flowering bulbs including snowdrops and crocuses, which may prove a magnet for any bees venturing out during late winter sunshine. Other small bulbs which are tempting for wildlife include scilla and chionodoxa.

In pots: If you have a small garden, pollinating insects will head hungrily to your nectar-rich container plants in late winter and early spring. The nodding heads of hellebores, which appear at that time, not only provide a subtle hue to any arrangement, but are also a good food source for emerging queen bumblebees.

Winter-flowering heathers such as Erica carnea ‘Winter Snow’ are among the hardiest of dwarf evergreen shrubs and are ideal for brightening up winter containers, as well as being a magnet for early-flying bumble bees

Hedging: Hedges make great shelter and provide food for birds, and now is a great time to plant species such as yew and hawthorn, before the ground gets too hard. You’ll save money by opting for bare-rooted hedging or rootballed trees and shrubs, says the RSPB.

Lawns: You may think they’ve gone out of fashion, but in late autumn and early winter, lawns can be invaluable to blackbirds and song thrushes, who venture on to your grass in search of leatherjackets (the larvae of craneflies), earth worms and fallen fruit, the RSPB adds. Longer grass provides shelter and egg-laying opportunities for the insects on which birds and other wildlife feed.

Consider leaving the dandelions in your lawn, which provide nectar and pollen in late winter and early spring, when queen bumblebees are coming out of hibernation.

Think about the future: Looking ahead, shrubs like honeysuckle, lavender and ivy can all be planted in autumn and are ideal for providing food and coverage for birds, insects and other wildlife, according to specialists The Greenhouse People (

Some bee varieties can still be seen around your garden in autumn, as they prepare to enter their hibernation phase in winter. Autumn flowering plants which provide a great source of pollen when food supplies are tougher to come by include Japanese anemones, red cauli and crocosmia, which are still blooming in a warm autumn.