In the 24th of a series of articles charting the Wild Wanstead project, Nicola Steele explains how you can help garden wildlife in winter
It’s nippy out there! Winter is the hardest time of year for many of the creatures that rely on our gardens for food and shelter. But there are simple things that will ensure your outdoor space is a precious winter wonderland for insects, birds and our fantastic urban wildlife.
Leave the leaves
Old leaves are a vital spot for minibeasts to overwinter. Rather than removing them all, pile them up in a wild corner. Heaps of leaves or brushwood can also make the perfect nest in which animals like hedgehogs, toads and newts can hide, rest and hibernate.
Have a rest
In the old days, gardeners would clear up borders at the end of summer, cutting back vegetation and removing seed heads. It is now believed it is better to leave the task of tidying up the garden until early spring, providing shelter for insects throughout winter.
Feed the birds
Native plants, hedges and trees are a natural larder for birds, providing berries and seeds, as well as a home for insects – a critical food for many types of bird. With vegetation now swapped for paving in many gardens, putting out extra food can help. Provide a range of seeds, fresh unsalted peanuts and table scraps (cheese and fruits, such as apples and pears.) Garden birds also love dried mealworms or waxworms. Other menu specials for garden birds include:
- Fat blocks, with added peanuts for starlings, insects like mealworms for tits, and berries for finches.
- Finely chopped bacon rind and grated cheese for small birds, such as wrens.
- Sunflower seeds for sparrows, finches and nuthatches.
- Good-quality seed mixes for robins and tits
- Niger seeds for goldfinches.
- Over-ripe apples, raisins and song-bird mixes for thrushes and blackbirds (on the ground).
Make a compost heap
Compost piles are fantastic for minibeasts as well as creating soil improver for the garden. In winter, the warmth generated by decaying vegetation makes it a welcome habitat for toads, and even grass snakes and slow-worms.
Break the ice
If your garden pond freezes over, make a hole in the ice by placing a pan of hot water on the surface so that wildlife can drink and get in and out. Never hit the ice to crack it, as the shockwaves can harm creatures in the pond.
Provide a shallow dish or container of water at ground level. This will benefit other garden wildlife that needs to drink, as well as birds.
Make an insect or bug hotel and put it up in a sheltered position. Overwintering ladybirds and lacewings will find this useful.
Plant winter flowers
Pollinators that emerge early can struggle to find food in winter, and researchers think this could become a growing problem as climate change messes with long-standing weather patterns. Spring bulbs are an easy solution. Great options for pollinators include crocuses, snowdrops, alliums, grape hyacinths and snakes-head fritillary.