As the growing season winds down, people are starting to tidy their gardens and prepare them for winter. For wildlife friendly gardens and gardeners however, things are a little different, it’s far less tidy, and far better for the wildlife! Here are 10 things a wildlife gardener can do to prepare the garden for winter that benefit both the garden and the wildlife.

1. Clean feeders, feed the birds!

It’s always important to keep your bird feeders as clean as possible and this time of year is a good time to do it as it the feeders will be very busy over the next few months! Then fill the feeders with fat balls, fat blocks, coconut shells filled with fat, fat pellets, fat filled with berries, mealworms, peanuts! Lots of fat! Don’t use the plastic nets though as birds can get caught in them with tragic consequences! (Also we don’t need more plastic) Don’t forget seeds and fruit, and I was today years old when I found out you can leave out cheese and bacon bits as well (probably go sparingly so you don’t attract too many rats!) A firm favourite with my birds are sunflowers seeds, I think just about everyone likes them, I get the shelled ones, waaaay less mess! Don’t get cheap seed mixes though, they are often made with cheap grains that are too big for anything other than pigeons to eat, I learned this the hard way!

2. Keep water available!

Keep small bowls of water on the ground and/or bird baths available as it’s just as important for wildlife to access water in the winter as at any time of the year. If you have a pond and should it ice over (not super likely in London but it could happen), melt a hole in the ice so the critters can get in and out and drink, and to make sure your pond doesn’t become oxygen starved. Use a pan filled with hot water to melt a hole, do not bang on the ice to break it as this sends out painful shockwaves that can hurt wildlife. (I’m imagining being inside a ringing bell, not a pleasant thought!)

3. Watch out for Hibernating Animals!

Check bonfire material for hibernating animals such as toads, hedgehogs, and frogs before lighting! (Better yet only build the bonfire when you are ready to light it, then nothing can get into it) Be careful turning compost as it’s warm and could be full of slow worms, grass snakes, toads, frogs and other lovely things you want in your garden!

4. Make homes for the animals!

Don’t bag up all your leaves, spread them on the flower beds, it’s good for your soil and it provides shelter for frogs, and insects, and gives Blackbirds and thrushes, and Violet Ground Beetles a place to forage for food. Leave some pots and piles of bricks laying around for newts and toads ( they like the greenhouse too so watch out for them if you are tidying, I have frogs in mine!) Make or buy some bug hotels for the leaf cutter bees and other insects such as lacewings and ladybirds, or just drill some holes in a log! Place clay roof tiles in the pond for the frogs and newts that may be overwintering in the pond.

5. Leave the Soil alone!

If you can help it, avoid digging your garden beds, as many spider eggs and insect larvae (especially moths) overwinter in the soil.

6 Plant some Winter Berries!

Shrubs that feed wildlife in winter are great for gardens because they also provide beautiful flowers in the spring and summer, lovely foliage in the Autumn and striking berries and stems in the winter! I wrote another post with a list of native berries here (such as hawthorn, rowan, guelder rose etc) but other good non-native garden shrubs for wildlife are Cotoneaster, Pyracantha, Barberry (Berberis), and Virginia Creeper (Parthenocissus quinquefolia) although be careful with the last one, it can get invasive if not carefully controlled!

7. Leave it Wild!

Avoiding trimming ivy and don’t cut hedges until at least March. Both provide much needed food and shelter for overwintering wildlife. Leave all the herbaceous plants untrimmed until early spring. Leave it messy! Many insects overwinter in hollow stems, ladybirds will all snuggle up on a stem for the winter and if there is one thing you really want in your garden, it’s ladybirds! When you do finally cut the stems down in spring, set them aside in stacks until May so the insects can emerge safely.

8. Clean Ponds!

Winter (Oct through January) is the best time to clean your pond as it is the time of lowest activity. However there are still active critters in there so be careful! Always stack the weeds and debris you clear from a pond on the edge for a few days so things can crawl out and back into the water. Having a little poke around and giving some of the dragonfly and damselfly nymphs, other invertebrates, newts, frogs, and snails a helping hand back into the water is nice too.

9 . Clean out Nest Boxes!

In late winter clean out the nest boxes for the upcoming spring nesting season. Also be aware that some birds will roost communally in nest boxes in the winter to stay warm, especially wrens and house sparrows so making sure they have nest boxes or roosting pouches in you garden in winter could be very beneficial!

10. Help the Butterflies!

There are five species of butterfly in the UK that hibernate in winter as adults, the brimstone, comma, peacock, small tortoiseshell and red admiral. Two of these, the Peacock and the Small Tortoiseshell usually overwinter in a shed or garage, and if you see them there, leave them be. Sometimes though they will try to hibernate in your house, which would be fine if it didn’t get so warm. When the butterflies get warm they wake up and think it’s spring, and that is not going to be a good time for the poor butterfly when it’s still winter and there is no food in sight. So if you find an awake and confused butterfly in your house, the Scottish Wildlife Trust suggests the following:

The best thing you can do if you see a butterfly flying about in your house in the middle of winter is to help it relocate to a cooler spot. Put it in a cardboard box for a while to calm it down and then leave it in your shed, garage or another suitable location. Somewhere cool and dry is ideal. Remember to set it free when spring arrives!

Laura Preston, Scottish Wildlife Trust

So there it is, ten ways to help make your garden a safe haven for wildlife this winter! You will be rewarded come spring with an abundance of helpful creatures to keep your garden ticking along as well as the knowledge that you are also helping them to survive and thrive when so many are in shocking rates of decline across the country. Gardens make up one of the largest green spaces in the UK so we can have a huge impact on the future of wildlife, one garden at a time!