Gardens and community green spaces can be havens for winter wildlife. And, with the right plants, biodiversity can be boosted by providing food and shelter for all sorts of creatures – from mammals and amphibians to birds and insects.
There are thousands of plants to choose from, and many are fantastic for wildlife, so choosing nature-friendly trees, shrubs and perennials can feel a little overwhelming. Here are a few suggestions of plants that will not only help wildlife, but will keep your garden looking lovely through the winter months.
Seed heads and stems
Most of us grow plants for spring and summer flowers, but there are lots of plants that produce dramatic seed heads that look fantastic in winter – especially when dusted with frost or snow.
As well as adding interest to the winter garden, leaving the dead stems of perennials and grasses in place helps wildlife. Hollow stems provide homes for hibernating insects, such as lacewings and ladybirds, and birds feed on seeds from the seed heads of plants like sunflowers and thistles. The stems of some more tender perennials, such as penstemons, protect the plants from frost – so it’s a good idea to wait until spring before cutting stems down.
Teasels are tall wildflowers that provide height at the back of a border. In summer, they are covered with purple flowers that are loved by bumblebees. And teasels continue to perform for wildlife throughout winter, when the striking seed heads are visited by flocks of seed-feeding birds like goldfinches, and the sturdy stems offer protection to ladybirds and other insects.
There are lots of varieties of sedum – we particularly like sedum spectabile, which is a hardy perennial that’s also sometimes known as ice plant. It provides autumn nectar for pollinators, and then, in winter, the attractive seed heads harbour spiders and insects – which in turn attract insect-eating birds such as blue tits.
Snowdrops are usually the first flowers to appear in the new year. Sometimes they emerge as early as January, earning them one of their alternative names: ‘little sister of the snows’.
Snowdrops are important in a wildlife garden, as they provide nectar for bumblebees and other pollinators that may wake up from hibernation during warm spells of winter weather. As there are very few blooms about at this time of year, snowdrops can be a real lifeline for these insects.
Snowdrops are available in many different varieties, but for maximum wildlife benefit avoid the frilly varieties, and opt for the single-flowered, native Galanthus nivalis, or common snowdrop.
It’s best to plant snowdrops ‘in the green’ (when the plants are still in leaf) – look out for pots of the plants for sale in late spring. They look wonderful naturalised in lawns, and will also thrive in semi-shaded positions under trees.
Crocuses are also particularly good for attracting pollinators. They flower in late February and early March, taking over from snowdrops as an excellent food source for hungry bumblebees.
Crocuses are available in a wide range of shades – from yellow and white to pink and purple – so are fantastic for adding a splash of colour at the front of flower beds, or in patio pots.
Shrubs and trees
Mahonias produce cheerful yellow blooms in winter, and are easy to grow in all types of soils and situations, including shade. They are great bee plants, producing abundant nectar when there’s not much else about.
Dogwood Cornus sanguinea is a native shrub that’s listed as a ‘super plant’ by the Bumblebee Conservation Trust. It has red and yellow stems that are at their brightest in winter, providing welcome colour to borders and hedges. In summer it produces star-shaped, nectar-rich flowers, and is a caterpillar food plant. In autumn, birds will eat the berries.
Smaller trees that are suitable for gardens – as well as being good for wildlife – include crab apple, hazel, rowan and hawthorn. All provide wildlife with a food source of fruits, nuts or berries, as well as blossoms or catkins that are visited by bumblebees and other insects.
Hawthorn is particularly good for wildlife, providing food for more than 150 different insect species. It’s a good tree to include in a mixed, native hedge. The flowers, produced in May, offer nectar to pollinating insects – in autumn these become berries, which are loved by many birds including blackbirds, chaffinches and starlings.
Rowan trees are particularly suited to the Peak District – also called mountain ash trees, they are very hardy and cope well in exposed sites. It’s a medium-sized tree that produces berries in autumn – and this year, there have been spectacular displays of red rowan berries. These are loved by blackbirds and members of the thrush family – including redwings and fieldfares, which visit the UK in the winter months.
Moth caterpillars eat the leaves of rowan trees, and the flowers provide pollen and nectar for many species of insects.
With its bright red berries and glossy, spiky leaves, holly is a classic symbol of Christmas. It grows well in any type of soil, in full sun or shade. With its tough, impenetrable leaves it offers a safe nesting site for all kinds of birds, including dunnocks, finches and goldcrests.
Many birds enjoy the berries, too – and you may see blackbirds, fieldfares and redwings feasting on the fruits of a holly tree.
Ivy is an evergreen climber that’s fantastic for wildlife. Like holly, its berries provide a food source for birds. The flowers are important for bees and other pollinators, as they bloom in late autumn – so are a good late-season source of nectar when there aren’t many other flowers about.
Mature ivy can also provide a safe home for over-wintering butterflies. Birds, bats and small mammals may shelter in the deep, protective foliage too – so avoid cutting it back in autumn.
Another benefit of growing holly and ivy in your garden is that you’ll have plenty of festive foliage on hand for creating Christmas wreaths and decorations. Real foliage decorations such as holly, ivy and mistletoe are much better environmentally than their plastic counterparts – and by bringing fresh greenery into your house at Christmastime you will be continuing a centuries-old tradition.