Yesterday, the dog and I went out into the garden to fill up the bird feeders. This is a moment of frenzied delight for Marnie. She is opening up the GARAGE! – that forbidden place where dogs are not even allowed to sniff. Then the GATE! – freedom to enter the main garden, a glorious opportunity to race along the paths, snuffle around the back of shrubs, follow the trails of intruding cats, perhaps the chance to slip through the hedge when her back is turned. Marnie’s excitement can not be contained. I trek back and forth with my peanuts and fatballs, leaping over the manic golden retriever every time she tears past.
Last winter, we watched as a huge thrush, driven by freezing temperatures, squeezed its rather large behind on to the bird table to enjoy its lunch. There is something rather special in letting others share your garden with you. Counting the different varieties of butterfly on the dancing clusters of lavender-pink Verbena bonariensis. The low buzz as you pass the lavender border.
So, since the fog lurking outside is not enticing me outdoors, I thought I’d dream of warmer times and list some of my favourite plants to encourage wildlife into the garden.
1.All trees are great for wildlife, attracting birds and bats, as well as pollinating insects and beneficial fungi. The elegant Silver Birch is ideal for small gardens. We have a Betula pendula ‘Fastigiata’, which is more upright, so takes up even less space. We’ve planted it in a tiny woodland area at the top of the garden, underplanted with ferns and spring bulbs.
2. Rosa rugosa is a vigorous wild rose, with wrinkled leaves and fragrant red, pink or white flowers. The flowers, with their contrasting yellow stamens, are produced in summer and autumn, followed by a magnificent display of glistening cherry tomato-like hips, which are coveted by birds, particularly finches. When grown as a hedge, it provides hiding places throughout the year for small creatures.
3. I love Knautia macedonica, which grows in a border outside my sitting room window. A profusion of deep crimson, pincushion-like flowerheads bob above narrow, branching stems all summer long – a magnet for bees and butterflies. I think it’s one of those plants which looks just as great in contemporary borders as in old-fashioned cottage gardens. Though it’s supposed to be fully hardy, I thought I’d lost it after last winter and mourned it for a while, until I noticed a seedling pop up again in the same border.
4. I can’t be without lavender though I’m not very good at remembering to prune it at the right time. Fortunately, it’s easy to take cuttings so when my bushes get too leggy, I can start again. Lavender is rich in nectar and is well-loved by bees, as well as other friendly insects. Any seedheads left on the plant are attractive to finches.
5. Miscanthus sinensis was the first ornamental grass I planted. I raved about it so much that my original Miscanthus sinensis ‘Nippon’ has been regularly divided and now resides in the gardens of most of my relatives. It’s one of those plants that gives so much for so little effort. Chop it back to the ground in spring, then it’s off! It has linear, mid-green leaves which take on russet tones in autumn, before fading to buff. Late summer, and the feathery, reddish flowerheads appear, becoming silvery-beige as they fade to plumy seedheads. These persist through the winter, providing a late season feast for birds.
6. An architectural beauty, Echinops bannaticus ‘Taplow Blue’ carries spherical steel-blue flowerheads on tall, woolly stems. The flowers gradually open to reveal bright blue starry flowers, beloved by bees. As the flowers go over, you can rub away the faded florets, leaving globes of seedheads to provide food for birds and an attractive winter feature.