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How to prepare your wildlife garden for winter

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One day, sat on my banana bench beside my pond, it became clear that I would be expecting a lot from the fish, frogs – and maybe even the birds – I encouraged into my wildlife garden.  With the winds, rains, frost and snow of winter to come, I felt a degree of responsibility to the creatures that please me throughout the year.  With some research, I found all the steps I should take when preparing a garden for winter.

What wildlife?

Even though you might think winter is a lifeless time for your wildlife garden, it doesn’t have to be this way.  Your garden can become a habitat for lots of overwintering species.  The best wildlife garden will attract flocks of birds – and your yard might actually offer more food than the countryside at this time of year.

As the winter progresses, to keep the visitors coming, you will need to put out food to help them through.  You should also put up bird boxes or repair others.  However, it is not just birds that you can nurture.  You should also expect:

  • Peacock butterflies and small tortoiseshells, which like to hide in the corners of your shed. Your best care for these is to leave them alone.  Put up a Do Not Disturb sign and leave them to it.
  • Toads and newts also like to spend winter with you – but will likely move into your greenhouse or shelter under pots and piles of bricks. Frogs tend to be more exposed in winter, so hide at the bottom of the pond.  You could always offer places where your toads, newts and frogs can hide – to keep them safe in your garden.
  • Violet ground beetles are one of the few insects that will stick around – you will see them hunting worms in your leaf letter.
  • Ladybirds are a surprising winter resident – however – they will cluster together on dead plant stems in sheltered areas of the garden.
  • Wrens stick around but lose about 10% of their body weight in the winter. They keep warm by sleeping in a community – and they would love you to provide bird boxes.
  • Patchwork leaf-cutter bees use holes in wood to act as nest chambers – you could help them by drilling holes in a log or a large block of wood. You might become a favourite with other insects that enjoy wintering in the same way.
  • The dragonfly stays active through winter – so keep your pond clean – and spiders overwinter as eggs, so try to avoid digging your beds unless necessary.

Start in Autumn

You should start your preparation as autumn arrives.  It is the few months before the harshness of frost and snow that will define the safety of the copious varieties of wildlife that you could attract.  You need to be sure that the animals have plenty of food and many safe hiding places for the winter period.

The biggest mistake gardeners make is tidying the garden to an extreme.  You do not need an untidy garden to be friendly to wildlife – but do not blitz the space.  You need to leave homes for invertebrates – as well as patches of leaves etc. to act as hiding places.  It might be best to leave the tidying up of your garden until spring to give wildlife the best chance.

You could also use autumn to plant some hedges – such as hazel, hawthorn, buckthorn and guelder rose.  Planting now allows time for the roots to establish and will become a place where birds can hide and keep warm in winter.

Other winter gardening tips

If you want to be proactive in your support of wildlife, you could:

  • Spread the leaves that have fallen over your flowerbeds, which will mulch down and provide habitat for insects and a place for thrushes and blackbirds to forage. Your frogs will also thank you – as they will overwinter among your damp leaves.
  • Leave your dry plant stems standing so that insects can crawl inside. They will also provide a frame for spiderwebs – which will offer a fair bit of beauty when the frosts arrive.  Wait until April or May until you cut them back, which is when the insects will emerge.
  • Trim your hedges at the end of winter, so birds have somewhere to shelter – the same with ivy – allow it to grow until the spring. Some species of ivy can provide berries for the birds, as well as foraging space for other animals.
Anna Sharples

Anna is the marketing and office manager for Garden Benches - a premium supplier of high-quality wooden benches and other outdoor furniture.

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