November is a key time for focusing on wildlife in the garden. As temperatures plummet and day light decreases, it’s good to spend some time outside ensuring the creatures who share our gardens with us have food, water and shelter to survive the long winter months ahead. Getting some “vitamin G” as well as much needed vitamin D during the daytime helps with mental and physical health and well being.
Whilst nature may look as though it is slumbering, gardens are still bustling with wildlife searching for food. During my childhood it was very much the trend to “put the garden to bed for winter”, ripping out all of the habitat nature so needs for its survival in our garden. Thankfully keen gardeners now embrace more nature friendly methods, which reap benefits for us too because increased biodiversity in our plots means healthier plants and fewer pest problems.
As much as possible, avoid cutting hedges, borders and trees where birds and other creatures will be foraging for berries, seeds and insects, and seeking shelter. If you do need to prune and cut back, for safety/visibility reasons perhaps, or because they have become too large, try to only remove what is absolutely necessary.
Similarly, avoid cutting back plants where many insects are likely to be hibernating for the winter. I often see ladybirds sunbathing on a sunny late winter day, making the most of the warmth before snuggling back down into the warmth of the shrub. This act of kindness also helps to insulate the plants, making them more resilient and protected if the weather is very harsh, and on frosty days provides a magical glittery spectacle.
Rather than burning garden waste, pile trimmings in a “dead hedge” - essentially a pile of twigs, logs and other woody materials secured in place by stakes. They will gradually break down over time, feeding the soil life beneath, and create a superb habitat for a wide range of wildlife. Birds such as wrens, robins and blackbirds can forage and hide from predators in the tangled branches, amphibians can shelter, and small mammals can nest and raise their young in the spring. It will be a magnet for insects and create a perfect environment for many kinds of fungi.
A dead hedge need not be made all at once. It is a project that can be added to throughout the year. Or alternatively make a “heap”, piling logs, brash and prunings in a corner of the garden. Mine is tucked away behind a large bush, near where our hedgehogs like to roam.
Fallen leaves can be a point of contention in the winter: to clear or not to clear? Leaves provide an incredible habitat for sure, but it is worth bearing in mind that wet leaves on lawns and paths are very slippery. It is all about finding a balance. So I rake up leaves where we walk and pile them in the wild areas and under shrubs and bushes. Here the leaves will gradually break down, feeding the plants and soil life, and creating a rich environment for wild life to forage and live in.
Piling leaves in a heap, enclosed by wire to prevent them from flying off, creates leaf mould, a wonderful soil conditioner. This usually takes two years to compost, and during this time the leaf pile can be a cosy home to many creatures. I use old stock fencing to make mine, which has holes large enough to allow access to hedgehogs.
You can mulch veg beds with fallen leaves, but do bear in mind that in our climate they can take up to two years to break down and during this time attracts slugs, so best to avoid it on beds where you’re planning to grow slug susceptible plants. Here I am meaning deeper mulches of several centimetres, a sprinkling of fallen leaves is lovely for the soil and should mostly break down over winter.
Berries such as cotoneaster, holly and ivy, windfall fruit and seeds including teasels and sunflower heads provide much needed nutrition for many creatures. Teasels are a personal favourite, attracting gold finches throughout the winter months. Once established these striking plants will self seed freely (fortunately they are easy to weed out if they start self seeding too freely!)
If you’re planning new hedging this winter, add wildlife food plants to the mix: holly, hawthorn, dog rose and crab apples are all excellent sources of food and shelter.
Supplement wild seeds and berries with homemade fat and peanut balls, bird seed and fruit. If you are planning to feed the birds it is important to be consistent, so that hungry birds don’t waste precious energy visiting empty feeders. I make fat balls in muffin tin moulds, or for a fancier look, stuff old tea cups with the mix and hang from a tree branch or bird table. Always keep bird feeding areas as clean as possible to prevent spread of disease, and supply plenty of fresh water daily.
Clean water is crucial for creatures during the winter months, for drinking and washing. Here I have a selection of homemade pools for insects - dishes filled with small stones - which are refilled daily and cleaned out often. A simple way to make a bird bath/drinking pool is to use a “dalek” composter. Once the compost bin is full, invert the lid and add some large stones as perches and to ensure creatures can safely get out of the water. This provides a source of water out of reach of most predators.
Keep ponds defrosted during very cold weather by carefully holding a pan of hot water on the surface, to melt a hole. Never smash ice, or pour boiling water on top, as this can harm the aquatic creatures.
If you’re struck with the urge to clean out the shed, try not to disturb insects such as wasps and butterflies overwintering in there. I often find toads hibernating under piles of seed trays in the greenhouse. Wildlife, like us gardeners, are resourceful creatures and happy to repurpose almost any thing!
Stephanie’s award winning book No Dig Organic Home and Garden is currently on offer on her website at only £13 plus P&P (RRP 23) whilst stocks last.
Stephanie Hafferty is an award winning garden and food writer, expert no dig gardener, homesteader, edible garden designer and inspirational public speaker. Stephanie is currently creating a no dig homestead on half an acre in West Wales, from where she runs gardening courses. Her garden was featured on BBC Gardeners’ World in 2022.
Follow her journey on her blog, Instagram and You Tube
Website and blog : www.NoDigHome.com
You Tube Channel: https://www.youtube.com/c/StephanieHaffertyNoDigHomesteading