Looking after the birds
This is probably the month during which birds benefit most from a little human intervention.
Natural food sources like fallen apples and hawthorn berries have been used up by the population of local birds and competition from visitors from the arctic north. Insects are in hibernation, the ground is frozen solid and water sources are iced over. It is therefore vital to feed birds regularly, putting out food every day. Early morning is the best time although you can put out a second feed in the early afternoon.
Fresh water is important too, even if there is a pond – many birds will drink from the bird table and wash their feathers in the pond.
Put out a range of food. On the ground and on the table. Include hanging feeders with nuts for tits, sparrows and siskins. Apples on the ground for the blackbirds and thrushes and seeds, nuts and fat on the table for robins, starlings and other species. They will come to rely on this food supply, so once you’ve begun to feed, keep it up until the worst of the winter is over.
Recommended Bird food
Peanuts – These should be unsalted, although the salt can be washed off and the nuts dried thoroughly. Commercially produced nuts should bear the Birdfood Standards Association’s seal of approval. This guarantees the nuts are free from contamination by aflatoxin, a toxin produced in nuts which have not been harvested and packed correctly, which sometimes results in death to birds who eat them.
Sunflower seeds – Wild bird food mixtures containing sunflower and other seeds are available from suppliers advertising in bird magazines and increasingly in hardware and pet shops.
Half a coconut – Drill a hole in the top and use string to hang the shell downwards so that it stays dry. Don’t use desiccated coconut as it swells up inside the bird.
Kitchen scraps – Not all food scraps are suitable. Try bacon rind, dry porridge oats, suet, cheese, raisins. Stale bread or cake is acceptable but it should be soaked in water to make it easier to swallow.
Keep Ice free
It is important to keep at least some part of the pond, free of ice throughout any cold spells. This not only allows birds and other visitors like foxes to drink but also stops a build up of gases under the ice. As organic water decomposes, gases are released, which if trapped by a layer of ice will build up and poison existing pond life. A simple and cheap method of allowing the pond to breathe is to float a block of wood on the surface of the water. Then when the pond freezes, remove the wood, leaving a gap. A child’s plastic or foam ball will also prevent ice forming over all the surface, but avoid lurid colours which can scare away potential users.
Continue feeding the birds.
February is a good month for putting up nesting boxes that will be used during the spring.
Strictly speaking buddleia does not need pruning, but if a plant produced a poor show of flowers, it will benefit from pruning, producing strong new stems and more importantly large clusters of flowers for the butterflies.
Cut back all last year’s shoots to within 5 or 8 cm (2 or 3”) of the old wood.
Note that in mild winters, new rosettes of leaves may already have started to form at the junction of the old and new wood and these should be left undamaged.
Moving trees and shrubs
This is the last month for lifting and replanting shrubs or trees which may be in the wrong position. By spring, nest building will be underway and moving established plants can be very disruptive. If the ground is too hard or the weather bad, leave until autumn.
Pruning Cotoneaster and Berberis
Barberry (Berberis) and cotoneaster shrubs, both of value for their berries, can be cut back to prevent them becoming too overgrown and woody. The thicker, tougher, three year old stems (or older) are cut out at ground level, opening up the plant to allow more light and air to the centre.
Use sharp secateurs and prune the old wood back to within a few inches of the ground.
Lifting and dividing perennials
Hardy perennials which have been in place for three years or more, can be lifted and divided now to make new plants. All the species lifted are good for wildlife and this is the simplest method of propagation. Note: Division can also be done in autumn.
Prepare the ground where the new plants are going to be put, by digging over and adding some garden compost. Using a fork, gently work the clump out of the ground, taking care not to break the toots. For large clumps, insert two forks, back to back and prise the roots apart. Small clumps can be pulled apart by hand. Select small healthy pieces from the outside of the plant, with at least three or four young shoots for replanting. The central woody portion can be discarded. The new sections can be planted immediately, allowing enough room between plants for development to their full size.
Perennials to divide
- Globe thistle (Echinops ritro) Bee plant, Butterfly nectar plant
- Golden rod (Solidago canadensis) Bee plant, Butterfly nectar plant
- Greater knapweed (Centaurea scabiosa) Bee plant, Butterfly nectar plant, Native
- Michaelmas daisy (Aster novi belgii) Butterfly nectar plant
- Sedum: Butterfly nectar plant
- Yarrow (Achillea millefolium and Achillea filipendulina) Bee plant, Butterfly nectar plant, Native
Planting lily of the valley
Lily of the valley (convallaria majalis) best known for the delicious fragrance of its white bell shaped flowers is so widely planted in gardens that it is sometimes forgotten that it is a native of our woodlands, although not so widespread in the wild as it used to be. It spreads rapidly if given the right conditions and makes an excellent woodland floor plant. Existing clumps can be divided now or individual crowns can be bought from nurseries.
Choose a shady spot with moist soil into which some leaf mould has been added.
Plant the crowns point upwards, 8-10 cm (3-4”) apart. They should lie just beneath the surface of the soil. Clumps of crowns can be placed 15 cm (6”) apart. Water in well.
One of the reasons lily of the valley often fails, in that it is planted in dry, open, sunny beds, when it really needs a moist soil and the cover of deciduous trees.
Unless the weather is particularly harsh, reduce feeding as nesting begins. Hard bread and peanuts are harmful to newly hatched birds, so restrict food supplies to soft fat or grated cheese. Reducing the amount of food supplied will encourage the adults to start feeding on the emerging insects. However, if the ground is frozen, keep up the feeding until the bad weather passes.
Dividing marginal pond and wetland plants
In established ponds, marginal species can outgrow their space in the shallow water around the edge and need to be renewed by division. Spring is the best time to do this, just as the plants are starting their growth.
Dividing clump forming plants – This method applies to marsh marigold (Caltha palustris) and most other moisture loving perennials. Marginal plants that grow in clumps or mounds can be broken up simply with a hand fork. Lift the plant out of the soil or water and using the fork, prise away small clumps from the outside of the main clump. Choose young, healthy looking parts of the plant and discard the interior which may have become exhausted. Replant the new pieces immediately into other parts of the pond. If not needed immediately, they can be grown on in pots of wet compost.
Divide creeping plants – This method applies to flowering rush (Butomus umbellatus), bog bean (Menyanthes trifoliata), bog arum (Calla palustris), water mint (mentha aquatica) and lesser celandine (ranunculus ficaria). The roots of these plants have a scrambling habit and can be increased by dividing the horizontal rootstock into sections. Remove the plant from the water and cut the rootstock into short sections. Each should have a healthy bud or young shoot and preferably a trace of roots attached. On flowering rush, look for a small bulb like formation (the bulbil) at the point where the leaves meet the hard, woody rootstock. Make sure each section includes a bulbil. Plant these sections in trays of wet compost until they root and form healthy young plants.
Clipping flowering heather and lavender
The dead flowerheads of the summer flowering heather (calluna vulgaris) and scented lavender (lavendula) can be clipped now to make way for new growth. Use a pair of garden shears and trim off the straggly dry stems, taking care not to cut into the woody parts. Both plants are valuable for bees, while heather also attracts a range of other insects and provides good cover for birds, insects and reptiles.
Cutting the new flowering meadow
New wildflower lawns or meadows, sown the previous autumn, should have their first cut when the grass reaches a height of 10 cm (4”). This is only applicable to lawns sown with a standard grass and perennial flower mixture and not those containing annual flowers which are cut in late summer.
Before mowing, roll the lawn lightly to make sure the seedlings are securely bedded in the soil. Use a heavy duty rotary mower or motor scythe and cut at a height of 5-8 cm (2-3”). (These machines can be hired by the day). A sharp hand scythe also cuts the grass efficiently but should only be handled by people trained in its use. Leave the cuttings in place for a day or two to allow any creatures to crawl back into the meadow, then rake off and add to the compost heap.
Introducing frogs and toads
If the pond has no amphibians, it is possible to import frog, toad or newt spawn from other ponds. This is the only way to increase the population as it is inadvisable to move tadpoles and quite cruel to move adults from their home pond. Take a bucketful of water, pond weed and spawn from a neighbouring pond. It is best to take more than you need as some batches of spawn will not survive the change of water temperature.
Bird tables/Feeding stations
The bird tables and feeding stations can be put away now and stored for next winter. Wash down the surfaces with a mild disinfectant and water to remove all traces of food and droppings.
Keep your distance
Don’t be tempted to get too close to nesting birds this month in an attempt to see when the young are hatched. Keep disturbance to a minimum by observing the parent’s movements from a safe distance, using binoculars to get a better view of the nest or box.
Planting water and wetland plants
Spring is a good time to put in container grown pond plants, although they can be planted at any time between now and late autumn. Select a place in the pond with the right depth of water, according to the growing preferences of the plant. Gently insert the roots into the soil or growing medium in the pond. Place a small stone on top of the root ball to secure the plant until the roots start to anchor themselves. At this time of year growth is rapid and new plants should establish easily.
Sow hardy annual seeds
As the weather improves, many annual wildflowers can be sown outdoors. This is one of the cheapest and easiest ways to provide flowering nectar plants for the insects and is ideal for anyone starting from scratch. By choosing hardy species that won’t be harmed by any unexpectedly cold weather, the seeds can be sown directly into the ground where they are intended to grow and do not need to be nursed in greenhouses or coldframes.
Prepare the soil by lightly forking over, removing any large stones or clods of earth. Water thoroughly. Sprinkle the seeds by hand over the whole area. Rake in the seeds to make sure they are just buried. If there is no rain for a day or two after sowing, water the ground with a fine rose watering can, making sure the water soaks deeply into the soil.
Aftercare: Remove any competing weed seedlings as they come up between the flowers. When they only have two or three pairs of leaves it is difficult to tell the difference, so wait until the plants are easily recognisable. Thin out any groups of plants that are overcrowded by removing some of the seedlings. Continue to water annual beds throughout the summer, particularly in hot dry summers.
Recommended hardy annuals
- Candytuft (Iberis umbellata) Butterfly nectar plant
- Clarkia (Clarkia elegans) Bee plant, Caterpillar food plant
- California poppy (Eschscholzia californica) Butterfly nectar plant, Bee plant, Attractive to hoverflies
- Corncockle (Agrostemma githago) Native, Butterfly nectar plant, poisonous
- Corn chamomile (Anthemis arvensis) Native, Butterfly nectar plant
- Cornflower (Centaurea cyanus) Native, Butterfly nectar plant, Bee plant
- Larkspur (Delphinium consolida) Native, Bee plant, poisonous
- Love in a mist (Nigella damascena) Butterfly nectar plant, Bee plant
- Mignonette (Reseda odorata) Butterfly nectar plant
- Nasturtium (Tropaeolum majus) Caterpillar food plant, attractive to hoverflies
- Night scented stock (Matthiola bicornis) Butterfly nectar plant, Moths
- Poached egg plant (Limnanthes douglasii) Bee plant, Attractive to hoverflies, Butterfly nectar plant
- Pot marigold (Calendula officinalis) Bee plant, attractive to hoverflies, Butterfly nectar plant
- Sunflower (Helianthus annuus) Butterfly nectar plant, Bee plant, seeds for birds
- Virginia stock (Malcolmia maritime) Butterfly nectar plant
Spring is a good time to put in new climbers, giving them a chance of making enough growth to cover a wall or fence by the end of the season. For wildlife, the main consideration is to ensure that there is a gap between the flat surface and the climber itself, making a secluded enclave for nesting or roosting.
The usual framework for non-clinging plants (ie everything except ivy and creepers) is a wooden trellis or horizontal wires. Instead of nailing the trellis flat against the wall, small wooden battens are screwed to the wall first to hold the trellis several centimetres or a few inches away. Similarly the eyes which hold the wires can be attached to the battens rather than being put straight into the wall.
Planting container grown climbers – Water the plant well in its pot. Carefully detach the top growth from its support, removing wires, ties or canes. Dig a hole 30cm (12”) away from the wall. It should be as deep and slightly wider than the container. The plant should sit in the hole so that the surface of the compost is level with the surrounding soil. Mix a little garden compost or well rotted manure with the soil taken from the hole and add a spadeful to the bottom of the hole. Remove the plant from its container and place in the hole. Fill around the roots with the soil mixture, treading down firmly. Water thoroughly, making sure the water soaks right down around the roots.
Recommended climbing plants
- Ceanothus (C x burjwoodii) butterfly nectar plant, evergreen, aspect – south, west
- Cotoneaster (C horizontalis) bee plant fruit/berries/nuts for birds/mammals, aspect – north, east
- Firethorn (Pyracantha) butterfly nectar plant, fruit/berries/nuts for birds/mammals evergreen, aspect – north, east
- Honeysuckle (Lonicera periclymenum) native, butterfly nectar plant, bee plant, aspect – east, west, provides bark for nests
- Ivy (Hedera helix) native, butterfly nectar plant, bee plant, caterpillar food plant, fruit/berries/nuts for birds/mammals, aspect – north, east, west
- Old man’s beard (Clematis vitalba) native, butterfly nectar plant, any aspect
- Russian vine (fallopia aubertii) any aspect
Note: All these climbers may be used as nesting sites for birds and possibly for bat roosts as well.
Lift and divide primroses
Wild primrose (Primula vulgaris) can be divided this month after flowering has finished. This is a simple way of thinning out overcrowded clumps and increasing the number of plants available.
Ease the clumps gently out of the ground with a hand fork, taking care not to tear the roots. Select pieces with a few roots attached and pull apart by hand. Pot them up into moist potting compost and place the pots in a shady corner of the garden. Keep moist through the summer and plant out into their permanent positions in early autumn.
Don’t be tempted to ‘rescue’ baby birds which appear to have been abandoned by their parents. Generally they have fallen from the nest before they are able to fly and the parents are near at hand, feeding them at regular intervals. If the babies are in danger from cars, move them out of the way, under the nearest shrub or tree and then leave them well alone. The parent birds will be waiting nearby to return to their offspring.
Lifting and dividing bulbs
When the spring bulbs have finished flowering and the leaves have begun to die back, they can be lifted to increase the number of plants. Choose clumps that have been undisturbed for at least three years; a poor show of flowers indicates that the bulbs are becoming congested underground. This method is applicable to grape hyacinths, bluebells, snakeshead fritillary, ramsons (wild garlic), daffodils, crocuses and tulips.
Insert a fork well clear of the clump and push it down deeply to come up under the bulbs. Gently ease the complete clump out of the ground. Remove the excess soil and discard any bulbs that are soft or rotten. Detach the small bulbs and bulbils for replanting.
Replant the large bulbs immediately at normal planting depth. The small bulbs should also be planted straight away at two thirds of their usual planting depth. The tiny bulbils only need to be covered with their own depth of soil. Small bulbs will not flower in their first year and bulbils may take up to four years to reach maturity so it is a good idea to put them into a separate nursery bed.
Alternatively they can be planted directly amongst the existing bulbs, where they will eventually create a denser display, but remember to allow enough room for each bulb to develop to its full size.
Cutting down the nettle patch
Cut down half of a patch of stinging nettles to provide new growth for the next generation of butterflies. Small tortoiseshells, peacocks, commas and red admirals will lay their eggs on the shoots so make sure that the emerging caterpillars are well supplied with a diet of young nettle leaves.
Many useful flowering plants can be started off now from seed for flowering next year. Biennials sown now and planted out in the autumn will flower next spring or summer for one year only.
Sowing biennials – Biennial seeds may be sown either in pots or if there is room, in nursery beds. Pots should be filled with seed compost and the soil in the bed raked to a fine texture. Both soil and compost should be moist before sowing. Choose a lightly shaded position to protect the new seedlings from the heat of the summer sun.
Sow the seeds, thinly spaced and about 1cm (½”) deep. In beds this can be done by sprinkling the seed and then raking lightly to ensure that the seed lies just beneath the surface of the soil. In pots, seeds can be pressed lightly into the compost by hand. Water well, using a watering can fitted with a fine sprinkler rose. Remember to mark the positions of the different species.
Aftercare – Six weeks after sowing, crowded seedlings should be thinned out and transplanted to additional pots or beds. Young plants must never be allowed to dry out. In midsummer, pinch out the tip of each plant to encourage bushy growth. Plant out the grown plants in mid autumn to their permanent flowering positions.
Native yellow flag (Iris pseudacorus) can be lifted and divided now if they have become over-crowded. After flowering lift the clumps out of the soil with a fork. Select healthy young pieces of rhizome and cut them away from the main clump with a knife. Discard the older parts from the centre. Cut back the leaves to 23 cm (9”) to make them more stable in the wind. Replant the new pieces so that the rhizome just shows above the soil. Ensure newly planted rhizomes have an adequate supply of water until their roots have re-established themselves.
Cutting the spring flowering meadow
Established wildflower lawns or meadows which have been managed specifically for spring flowering plants like cowslips and fritillaries, can be cut once they have finished. This is at the expense of summer flowering species but enables the grass to be used as a conventional meadow for the rest of the season.
Use a sturdy rotary mower, hand or motor scythe and cut back to 10cm (4”) high. Leave the cuttings on the grass for a day or so to allow insects and seeds time to find their way back to ground. Take off and add the clippings (sparingly) to the compost heap or use as a mulch around shrubs and perennials to suppress weeds and conserve moisture.
Providing extra food for hedgehogs
In dry spells when slugs, snails and worms may not be so easy to come by, hedgehogs can be given an artificial diet boost. This is particularly important now, when the babies are being born and the females are suckling and unable to travel far for food. Put out a saucer of tinned pet food and one of water each night in a regular spot. Don’t feed bread and milk which upsets the hedgehog’s digestive system.
It is vital to keep bird baths and water bowls topped up during the summer months.
Planting autumn flowering bulbs
The meadow saffron (Colchicum autumnale) sometimes called autumn crocus – and the true autumn flowering crocus (Crocus speciosus) can be planted now. Both species look best grown in bold groups, in well drained soil and in an open position or under a deciduous tree. Use a trowel or specially designed bulb planter and set the bulbs 10cm (4”) deep and 20cm (8”) apart for colchicums, 10cm (4”) deep and 10cm (4” apart) for crocuses. Cover completely with earth and firm in place.
It is not too late to sow seeds of biennial plants for flowering next spring and summer. Wallflowers, foxgloves, forget me not and sweet rocket may be sown outdoors now and put into their flowering positions in the autumn.
Broom (Cytisus scoparius) should be pruned occasionally after it has finished flowering. Careful pruning will prevent the shrub becoming bare stemmed and leggy. Using sharp secateurs, cut back all, or most of the stems which have just flowered. Make the cut just above the point where the stem joins the old wood and where new shoots are developing. Take care not to cut into the old wood as it does not respond well to pruning and may fail to produce any new growth. Mature plants do tend to become hard wooded after several years and if pruning has no effect, it is best to discard them.
Note: Broom are short lived shrubs and should be discarded after six or seven years when they become too woody and cease to flower.
Tying in climbers
New growths of climbing plants, such as honeysuckle or clematis, should be trained towards their wires or trellis. If they are not tied in the shoots become tangled and may not grow in the desired direction.
Cutting the summer flowering meadow
Established meadows – this is the traditional hay making time of year and a good time to give the established summer flowering lawn or meadow its annual cut. When the best of the summer flowers are over, cut down the grass to 10cm (4”) using a hand or motor scythe (Both should be handled by an experienced user for safety purposes). Leave the cuttings to dry in place for a day or so as this allows the insects time to crawl back into the meadow and any seeds to fall back to ground. Then rake the cuttings and add (sparingly) to the compost heap, or use as a mulch around trees and shrubs.
New meadows: Meadows sown last autumn with a mixture of meadow and annual cornfield flower seeds should also be given their annual cut this month. If the cornfield annuals are still in flower, the cut can be left for a few weeks until they have finished. New lawns and meadows sown without the cornfield annuals, should only be cut if particularly long and untidy.
Use the buddleia to carry out a butterfly species count. It is remarkable how many will visit the flower spikes on a warm summer day. Peacocks, tortoiseshells and red admirals are likely candidates but painted ladies, wall browns and other less common species may well appear.
Native butterflies and the normal source of nectar
- Brimstone Greater knapweed, thistles
- Comma Michaelmas daisies, buddleia, sedum
- Common blue Field scabious, greater knapweed, red campion, ragged robin
- Holly blue Cotoneaster, ivy, holly
- Peacock Buddleia, Michaelmas daisies, sedum
- Red Admiral Buddleia, Michaelmas daisies, sedum
- Small tortoiseshell Buddleia, Michaelmas daisies, sedum
- Speckled wood Bramble
Birds and water
Birds too can suffer in particularly dry summers. Check the pond level and top up if possible. Rainwater is preferable if available from a barrel or waterbutt, as tapwater can lead to the growth of algae in the pond. If there is no pond, then it is vital to provide alternative wildlife drinking and washing places. An upturned dustbin lid balanced on two piles of bricks is one solution or a washing up bowl set into the soil so it is level with the ground. Even a large terracotta saucer or dish will suffice. Check the levels daily and fill up as necessary.
Trimming deciduous hedges
Native deciduous hedges (single species or mixed) can be clipped now. Overgrown hawthorn, beech, field maple or hornbeam will benefit from a trim, once the danger of disturbing nesting birds is past. Use sharp hedging shears and keep the blades flat against the face of the hedge. Cut the top of the hedge with the shears held horizontally. Electric hedge trimmers are noisy and can cause accidents. Unless the length of the hedge is great, hand shears give a less severe cut.
Note: native hedges do not need clipping every year and should only be clipped to retain shape and control over-exuberant growth.
Last minute planting
This is the last chance to plant meadow saffron and autumn crocus.
Taking semi hardwood cuttings
Mid to late summer is the time to take semi-hardwood cuttings of shrubs like lavender and ceanothus which do not root well from the more usual autumn hardwood cuttings. A semi-hardwood cutting is taken from the current year’s growth which has begun to get woody towards the base but is still green and soft at the top. They take a little more care than hardwood cuttings but the trouble is worthwhile for any shrubs that prove difficult to propagate.
Choose this year’s growth (easily identifiable as the shoots with leaves grown on them) and select a side shoot about 15-20 cm (6-8”) long. Using secateurs cut the shoot near to the point where it meets the main stem. Using a sharp knife take off the lower leaves and trim the cutting just below the leaf joint. Take off the soft tip just above a leaf joint so that the finished cutting is 5-10cm (2-4”) long. Insert the cutting, one third of its length, is a small pot of seed or cuttings compost. Water well with a fine sprayer and cover the pot with a polythene bag secured with a rubber band. A plastic drinks bottle cut in half and placed over the pot also works well. Place the pot in a warm place (16-18°C/61-64°F) but out of direct sunlight. The cuttings should root in two or three weeks. Harden off the cuttings by gradually lifting the polythene to allow more air to circulate over the next three to four weeks. Transfer the cuttings individually into larger pots. Place the pots in a cool greenhouse or coldframe if possible and keep well watered. Plant outside in the spring.
Shrubs to take semi hardwood cuttings from
- Barberry (Berberis thunbergii) fruit/berries/nuts for birds/mammals
- Ceanothus (Ceanothus x burkwoodii) butterfly nectar plant
- Firethorn (Pyracantha) fruit/berries/nuts for birds/mammals
- Guelder rose (Viburnum opuius) fruit/berries/nuts for birds/mammals
- Honeysuckle (Lonicera pericylmenum) butterfly nectar plant
- Japanese quince (Chaenomeles speciosa) fruit/berries/nuts for birds/mammals
- Lavender (Lavendula) bee plant butterfly plant
- Rosemary (Rosemarinus officinalis) bee plant butterfly nectar plant
- Shrubby cinquefoil (Potentilla fruticosa) bee plant butterfly nectar plant
Snip of the faded flowers of buddleia bushes now to encourage them to keep flowering. Many butterfly species will visit the bush well into the autumn.
Using evergreen shrubs and trees
The ubiquitous conifer has been so over-used that they tend to be treated with disdain. Yet a carefully chosen selection of evergreen trees and shrubs can provide some unexpected benefits for wildlife, not to mention an important structural component to the area.
The yew, Scots Pine and holly are all native evergreens, well worth including if space allows, while ornamental shrubs like viburnums, mahonia and the evergreen cotoneasters carry useful flowers and berries which add to the food stock available to wildlife.
Planting evergreen shrubs
Dig a hole as deep as and slightly wider than the shrub’s container. Loosen the soil at the bottom of the hole with a fork and add a handful of compost. Place the shrub in the hole, checking that the soil will cover it to the same depth as it did in the container (bare root plants should have a soil mark on the stem). Fill the hole with loose soil, tread down firmly and add more soil if necessary. Tread the soil down again. Water the soil around the shrub thoroughly so that it soaks right down to the roots.
Annual seed can also be collected now for sowing next year. Snip off entire seedheads and place them upside down in a paper bag. If the seeds are ripe, a few shakes of the bag should dislodge them. Spread the contents of the bag onto a tray and separate out the seeds. Pour into airtight containers (glass herb jars work well) and don’t forget to label them before storing in a cool dark place until spring. Seed may also be collected from perennials to increase your stock of wildlife plants for borders, meadow and wetland. Ragged robin, greater knapweed, lady’s bedstraw and field scabious can all be propagated from seed.
Testing seeds for ripeness – Seeds are ripe when they come away from the flowerhead. If the seeds do not shake free easily, put the heads into a paper bag and hang up in a dry place for up to two weeks until the seeds fall naturally into the bottom of the bag.
Flowers for seed collection
- Corncockle (Agrostemma githago)
- Evening primrose (Oenothera biennis)
- Larkspur (Delphinium consolida)
- Night scented stock (Matthiola bicornis)
- Poppy (Papaver rhoeas)
- Teasel (Dipsacus fullonum)
- Sunflower (Helianthus annuus)
Final mowing of the wildflower meadow
Meadows that have been left uncut to allow later flowering species to develop can be mown now. Use a rotary mower, heavy duty strimmer or a hand scythe and cut the grass to leave 8cm (3”) of stubble. Leave the cuttings on the ground for a day or two or allow insects to find their way back to ground, then rake them off and add to the compost heap.
The majority of spring flowering bulbs can be planted now, although one or two are better left until next month.
Bulbs are one of the easiest ways to ensure a good supply of late winter and spring flowers, providing early nectar for insects, bees and butterflies.
The bulbs chosen may be a mixture of native and exotic varieties and according to type, may be planted in lawns and grassy banks, in flower beds and containers, or under hedgerows and trees. Bulbs look best growing in natural drifts and this effect can be achieved by throwing a handful of bulbs onto the ground and planting them where they fall. If planting in grass, use a specially designed bulb planter (in earth, a trowel works better) to remove a plug of soil. The hole should be approximately twice as deep as the bulb itself. Insert the bulb in the hole, point upwards. Replace the plug of earth and firm in.
Newly planted bulbs, particularly wild varieties, may take two or three years to get established and flower freely.
- Bluebell (Scilla non-scripta) native, bee plant, butterfly nectar plant, hedgerows, woodland: planting depth 5 cm (2”)
- Crocus (purple) (Crocus tomasinianus) butterfly nectar plant, lawns, borders, under deciduous trees: planting depth 8 cm (3”)
- Crocus (yellow) (Crocus chrysanthus) butterfly nectar plant lawns, borders, under deciduous trees: planting depth 8 cm (3”)
- Grape hyacinth (Muscari neglectum) native bee plant, butterfly nectar plant, lawns, borders: planting depth 8 cm (3”)
- Ramson Garlic (Allium ursinum) native, butterfly nectar plant, hedgerows, woodland: planting depth 8 cm (3”)
- Snowdrop (Galanthus nivalis) native, under deciduous trees, shady borders: planting depth 5 cm (2”)
- Wild daffodil (Narciss pseudonarcissus) native bee plant, lawns, banks: planting depth 8 cm (3”)
- Winter aconite (Eranthus hyemalis) native, under deciduous trees, shady borders: planting depth 5 cm (2”)
Planting depth = depth of soil above the bulb
Planting out biennials and perennials
This is a good month to put in some of next year’s flowers, particularly any that have been grown from seed in spring.
Biennial wallflower, sweet william and foxgloves are tried and trusted flowers that will make a big contribution to the reservoir of nectar, pollen and seed in the coming spring and summer. Container grown perennials such as globe thistle, sedum, Michaelmas daisies and hellebores are also good for wildlife and may be planted now. These plants can be left until spring if you prefer but an autumn planting will give the roots a good chance of establishing before the cold weather comes.
Planting steps: Choose the site according to each plant’s soil and light requirements. Ensure the soil is in a workable condition – turn over with a fork or add compost to improve fertility if necessary. Tap the plants out of their pots. Make a hole with a trowel or spade slightly bigger than the root ball. Place the plant in the hole, making sure the bottom of the stem is level with the soil in the bed. Fill around the roots with loose soil and firm in.
Note: Bear in mind that these
plants may be only a fraction of their full grown size. Check the size of each
species and allow enough room for plants to grow – plants put in too close
together will compete for air, sunlight and nutrients and may develop poorly as
A few leaves will just decompose and add to the material in the pond, but large quantities from overhanging trees should be removed.
Continue bulb planting
The second phase of bulb planting can take place this month. Snakeshead fritillary (Fritillaria meleagris) should be given a place in short grass or on damp soil where it will flower in mid to late spring. Tulips can also be planted now and will thrive in pots, beds or rockeries. The highly bred garden variety are not as good for insects as the wild tulip (Tulipa sylvestris) which grows naturally under hedges and in woodlands and flowers in mid spring. Summer flowering lilies can be planted in an open position with good drainage. There are hundreds of exotic varieties available but two naturalised species are the tall pink martagon lily (Lilium martagon) and the yellow Pyrennean lily (Lilium pyrenaicum). Both are easy to establish and rich in nectar.
- Fritillaria meleagris – PD 10 cm (4”), DA 10 cm (4”)
- Lilium martagon – PD 10 cm (4”, DA 23 cm (9”)
- Lilium pyreneaicum – PD 13 cm (5”), DA 23 cm (9”)
- Tulipa sylvestris – PD 15 cm (6”), DA 10 cm (4”)
PD = planting depth; DA = distance apart
Dealing with autumn leaves
A layer of fallen leaves in a woodland area will break down into an ideal growing medium for trees and should not be removed. However it is sensible to rake or sweep up leaves from paths and grassy areas. There are two useful ways of using the collected leaves. The simplest method is just to pile them under hedges or in a spare corner, where they will provide cover for spiders and a host of insects which in turn will provide food for robins and wrens. Piles of leaves are also useful for hibernating hedgehogs.
Alternatively large quantities of leaves can be converted into leaf mould to use as a mulch or to dig into the soil to improve its condition.
Making Leaf mould – Collect leaves with a spring tined rake or broom – oak and beech make very good leaf mould but any deciduous leaves will do. Pile the leaves into an unused corner of the garden or into a wire netting container. A simple container can be made by driving a single 90 cm post into the ground and attaching netting in a cylinder shape around it. Firm the leaves down as they accumulate – if they are particularly dry, water the pile with a watering can. Leave the pile undisturbed for a year, when it will have produced good crumbly leaf mould.
Cutting back ivy
Mature ivy plants, trained against a building or wall can become overgrown and start to block gutters and downpipes. If this is the case it can be cut back towards the end of this month, once flowering has finished. Cut all stems to a level 90cm (3’) below the gutters and gently pull away excess growth.
As far as wildlife is concerned, bonfires are bad news. Every year thousands of hedgehogs and small mammals meet their death by climbing into inviting looking piles of wood, hoping for an undisturbed hibernation. The tradition of burning prunings and clippings is a great waste of potential sites for overwintering insects, like harvestmen, who actually help by eating smaller flying insects. The whole concept of ‘rubbish’ needs to undergo a re-think. Decaying plant material is vital to the natural cycle of growth and we should resist the temptation to tidy or clean up too meticulously. Starting a compost heap or simply piling unwanted wood and vegetation in a corner is a far better use of resources.
Making winter habitats
Apart from the habitats created by the untidy flower border or hedge bottom, it is possible to create additional overwintering sites specifically to attract wildlife. Choose an area which is rarely used, or some fairly inaccessible spot which can remain undisturbed for years if necessary. This rough corner should be well away from public areas, so that disturbance is kept to a minimum. A pile of logs or old timber will soon be covered in fungi and offer shelter to hedgehogs, wood mice, wrens and possibly foxes.
A pile of rocks, stones or old paving slabs will harbour insects, possibly slow worms and offer shelter to hibernating frogs and toads.
Loosely piled grass clippings or straw will house insects and ground feeding birds. They may also attract field mice and shrews.
A sheet of corrugated iron is an
ideal habitat for many types of reptiles and small mammals who will use the
tunnels as convenient hiding places.
Start to put out food for the birds this month. There should still be some natural food available in the form of berries but flower seeds and windfall fruits are finished. Regular feeding encourages birds to get into the habit of visiting the bird table which means they are more likely to survive the winter. Unsalted nuts, seeds, dried fruit, grated cheese and apples are all acceptable food.
Keeping pond ice free
The weather this month is often not as harsh as expected. However, if a freeze does come, it is important to keep ponds and water sources free of ice and easily available to wildlife.
Reproduced with permission of North West Parks Friends Forum