No doubt bird feeders and baths will be filled by many of us in the run-up to the annual Big Garden Birdwatch, the world’s largest garden wildlife survey, which this year takes place from January 28-30.
Yet there are other ways to attract birds to your garden in the long term if you plant species which will provide them with both food and shelter.
Blackbirds and thrushes love the fruits and berries of plants including rowan, berberis and pyracantha, while ivy berries, which ripen later, are invaluable to hungry birds in late winter and early spring when food can be scarce.
If you have room, consider planting an apple tree – birds love both cooking and dessert apples and crab apples, whose windfalls can provide them with food in the leaner months. Early varieties of eating apples such as ‘Beauty of Bath’ and ‘Discovery’ don’t keep well, so pick and eat what you need and leave the rest for your blackbirds, song and mistle thrushes, chaffinches, redwings and fieldfares.
Of course, you don’t want the birds stripping your garden of all its colour, so consider planting some shrubs whose fruits they don’t particularly like, including skimmia, aucuba and the guilder rose (Viburnum opulus).
Hedging can also provide a great nesting site for birds, shelter during frosty nights and food. Bare root hedging is widely available from nurseries and garden centres from November to mid-April.
Holly is slow-growing, but is among the most effective hedges for birds. It ensures windproof shelter on frosty nights, nesting opportunities in spring and berries that attract blackbirds, thrushes and other birds. In spring, insects will be attracted to its flowers.
The hawthorn is another great hedging plant if you want to attract birds. The dark red haws are a magnet for redwings and fieldfares in the winter, and its prickly stems ensure good nesting places for finches, dunnocks, robins and blackbirds.
The black berries of the dogwood, a British native, will attract birds including finches, robins, pigeons, thrushes and starlings.
A range of relatively simple measures can be recommended which could help reduce the risk of cats catching garden birds, especially where food is being put out for birds, according to the RSPB.
Place spiny plants (such as holly) or an uncomfortable surface around the base of the feeding station to prevent cats sitting underneath it.
Plant wildlife-friendly vegetation, such as prickly bushes and thick climbers in the garden to provide secure cover for birds. These should be close enough to where birds feed to provide cover, but not so close that cats can use it to stalk birds. This kind of planting may also provide food and nesting sites.
If you can bear to have an area of brambles in a quiet corner of the garden, birds should gravitate towards it. Blackbirds, thrushes, chaffinches, starlings, robins, pheasants, foxes, mice and other small mammals eat the fruits, while robins, wrens, thrushes, blackbirds, warblers and finches will nest in bramble and small mammals use it for protection from predators.
So, what are we likely to see during Big Garden Birdwatch?
Sightings of well-known species such as starlings and song thrushes experienced another drop during the event last year, although we spotted more than 8.5 million birds in total. The house sparrow remained top of the Big Garden Birdwatch rankings, with starling and blue tit rounding off the top three.
Daniel Hayhow, RSPB conservation scientist, says: “With over half a million people now regularly taking part, coupled with over 30 years worth of data, Big Garden Birdwatch allows us to monitor trends and helps us understand how birds are doing.
“With results from so many gardens, we are able to create a ‘snapshot’ of the birds visiting at this time of year across the UK. Even if you see nothing during your Big Garden Birdwatch hour, that’s important information too, so please let us know.”
Big Garden Birdwatch takes place from January 28-30. For more information, visit www.rspb.org.uk/birdwatch
Best of the bunch – Garrya (silk-tassel bush)
This pollution-tolerant shrub can often be seen covering fences and walls with a cloak of evergreen foliage, but comes into its own in winter when it is festooned with long silvery male catkins up to 20cm long. It will flourish in poor soil, coastal areas and shade. The variety G. elliptica will grow up to 3.16m (12ft), producing catkins which are grey-green at first and then dull cream. Look out for ‘James Roof’, as its tassels are thicker and longer than others. If you want something more unusual, check out G issaquahensis ‘Pat Ballard’, which produces purplish tassels.
Good enough to eat – Growing tomatoes from seed
If you have a warm greenhouse, you can make a head start with tomatoes, sowing them from seed now for planting in late winter. Sow two seeds to a pot in small pots, putting them in a heated propagator at 16-18C (60-65F), for growing on in a heated greenhouse. Plant on to larger pots as necessary and when they have reached around 20-25cm, plant them into the greenhouse soil borders, spacing them 60cm apart, or two to a growing bag. Keep them well watered, but don’t overdo it until the flowers first open, then increasing the watering as the fruits begin to swell. Start feeding them with liquid tomato feed when they reach around 15cm tall. After planting, feed once a week and increase that to twice a week once the fruit have set. Pinch out the sideshoots as they grow, but leave bush varieties to do their own thing. Ventilate the greenhouse well as the temperature outside rises and support cordon types on canes or strings fixed to overhead supports. In a heated greenhouse, you can expect to be harvesting from late spring, while in an unheated greenhouse it will be early summer.
WHAT TO DO THIS WEEK
Continue to lift rhubarb roots and leave them exposed to frost before bringing in and forcing.
Take cuttings from conifers.
Where privet hedges have got out of hand, cut them back to encourage new strong basal growths.
Buy seed potatoes as soon as possible. Set them off by chitting so they are ready for planting in late March or April.
For an early crop of salad onions, buy White Lisbon which can be sown in a glasshouse border towards the end of the month.
Dress perennial vegetables such as asparagus, artichoke and sea kale with fertiliser. This will have time to wash down to their roots, ready for the growing season.
Wrap sacking or bubble wrap around terracotta pots to prevent them from freezing.
Clip wall-trained ivy, pulling it back from windows and gutters.
Continue to cover buds on fruit trees with netting for protection.
Continue to dig over and cultivate new ground for planting, if weather permits, but don’t do it if the ground is frozen or waterlogged.
Put cloches over alpines before they become waterlogged.