February is such a promising time in the garden. The days are starting to get longer and the earliest bulbs starting to emerge from their winter’s sleep.
Winter aconites, snowdrops, crocuses and hellebores provide a carpet of colour in our gardens, but for wildlife, February is typically a month of bitter cold and food is starting to get very thin on the ground.
We’ve got some top tips on how to make sure your garden is a haven for wildlife at this time of year.
The single easiest way to add wildlife value to a garden is to install a pond, however tiny – a large pot or even an inverted dustbin lid in an out-of-the-way spot will do.
If you have the space, now is the time to plan and dig your wildlife pond before the spring arrives, and the garden gets busier. Make sure your pond has at least one sloping side to allow creatures an easy way out.
Native pond plants for wildlife include Caltha palustris (Marsh marigold), Iris pseudacorus (Yellow flag iris), Mentha aquatica (Water mint) and Myosotis scorpioides (water forget-me-not).
Leave some long grass
You may wish to identify a suitable part of the garden to leave untouched as a wildlife area. Leaving a small section of lawn uncut to form a mini meadow will provide a home for grasshoppers, beetles and insects, and food for caterpillars and butterflies. A small patch behind a shed is perfectly fine if you’re worried about it looking untidy.
Log piles make great wildlife habitats
Log and twig piles made from old prunings and felled trees provide valuable shelter for wildlife, and can be made into attractive features by planting up with ferns, primroses, or other suitable plants. Similarly, piles of slabs or rockery stones can act as a suitable wildlife habitat.
Even corrugated iron or plastic laid on the soil can provide ‘tunnel’ hiding places for small reptiles and mammals looking for shelter and warmth.
Make a compost heap
Now is also a great time to build your compost heap or a leafmould pen, if you do not have these in your garden already. They will be ready for all the debris produced by the new growing season. Compost heaps are the ideal home for worms, beetles, and other insects that will also help rot down garden waste into beautiful compost to put back on the garden. Larger creatures such as toads, frogs and newts will also enjoy the dark, moist conditions.
Feed the birds
Natural food supplies may be in short supply, especially when deep frosts persist. Leave out mild grated cheese; sultanas, raisins and currants (best soaked overnight), apples, pears and other soft fresh fruit. Invited birds will also return the favour by feeding on garden pests such as aphids too. Hanging bird feeders attract species such as tits, finches and sparrows, whilst bird tables attract robins, house and tree sparrows, doves, pigeons, bullfinches, greenfinches, chaffinches and bramblings. Finally, food scattered on the ground attracts blackbirds, thrushes, dunnocks and wrens.
Remember that bird tables are best sited from trees and tall shrubs to stop cats and other predators from leaping upon feeding birds.
Move your hanging feeders from time to time to prevent a build up of old food and bird droppings on the ground below.
And British bat species are garden-friendly, eating midges and tiny insects that cause annoyance on summer evenings, so why not get a batbox too.
Look after hibernating animals
In milder weather, frogs, toads and hedgehogs may emerge from hibernation early. Hedgehogs are especially vulnerable at this time of year if they leave hibernation early. It is not a good idea to feed hedgehogs with bread and milk, as this is not their natural diet. Dog food is a safer alternative. Click here for more information on how to care for hedgehogs you find in your garden at this time of year.
A resident garden hedgehog is an essential ally to your garden and will eat snails, slugs and other pests that can cause damage to plants. Although hedgehogs are very resourceful creatures and will make nest sites under sheds, amongst piles of wood and under mounds of old leaves and twigs, enthusiasts have reported greater success in encouraging them into the garden with specially constructed hedgehog boxes. Click here for information about how to make your own hedgehog box ready for next winter.
Plant a ‘Nectar Bar’ for pollinating insects.
Our wild bees and other pollinators are in decline. By planting a ‘Nectar Bar’ full of nectar and pollen rich flowers over a long season, you can help reduce this trend. In return, an abundance of pollinators will ensure garden plants continue to reproduce through seed and that many fruit and vegetable crops such as apples, strawberries and tomatoes successfully set fruit. forward to the summer. You will be rewarded with a colourful display.
Plant in groups because, en masse, colour and scent is easier for insects to detect. For the best effect, plant your flower borders in a sunny, sheltered spot and choose a range of plants that flower at different times throughout the year ensuring a continuous supply of nectar. And don’t be too quick to cut back plants once they’ve finished flowering as berries and seed are an important food source for birds. The RHS has a fantastic list of plants perfect for pollinators here.
Some of our favourites nectar rich plants are:
Allium species, Trifloium (clover), Centaurea cyanus (cornflower), Geranium sp. (Cranesbill), Crocus, Scaboisa sp (Scaboius), Epilobium augustifolium (Rosebay willowherb), Rosa sp., Aster sp (Michaelmas daisies), Buddleja davidii and B. globosa (Butterfly bush), Lavandula (lavender), Nepeta x faassenii (Catmint), Salvia officinalis (sage), Verbena bonariensis.
Avoid using chemicals
Last but not least, avoid using chemicals where possible. Pesticides and herbicides intended to control a pest species can have damaging effects on those beneficial insects you want to encourage, instead try using alternative, organic pest control. Gardening organically will increase overall insect numbers, and so encourage that wildlife which feeds upon these insects.