Gardening for wildlife; autumn treats for the birds and the bees

By Andy McIndoe

We offer an online gardening course: Gardening for Wildlife, in association with the Royal Horticultural Society.

I have really enjoyed putting the course together and am delighted to have the opportunity to highlight those plants that are particularly beneficial to birds, bees and other insects in our gardens.

One of the most successful ways of attracting wildlife to any garden is to maintain a continuous supply of food. Nearly all gardens have a few plants that provide nectar for bees and butterflies and perhaps a few berries for the birds, but are those supplies maintained? If they are those creatures are more likely to be regular visitors.

I thought I would give you a round-up of some of the wildlife food sources in my garden right now. Of course autumn is a bounteous time for the birds as fruits and berries ripen offering tasty fresh snacks to our feathered friends. Pollen and nectar sources for bees are fewer but interestingly many of the plants that bloom in this season are very pollinator friendly.

One of the ways that so many of us attract wild birds is with a bird feeder, or more often a bird feeding station offering a selection of ready meals.

I’ve always fed wild birds, but today bird food is very different from what it was forty or fifty years ago. A child I remember putting out bacon rind and breadcrumbs and perhaps half a coconut in winter. We bought peanuts or groundnuts as they are sometimes called, in their shells and threaded them on a piece of cotton.

Today the array of bird food is vast and offers a great variety of different seeds and blends to attract different species. Cheaper mixes of seed contain more wheat; least favourite and often tossed to the ground by discerning feeders.

Fatballs are enormously popular with the blue tits in our garden; they hang on and peck at them with gusto outside the kitchen window. Did you know these are a good way to attract the birds to any shrub where caterpillars and insect pests are a problem? Hang fatballs in the branches and the birds will come along to feed and find the fresh juicy bugs as a bonus snack; a great method of natural pest control.

One of the most attractive berry-bearing bushes in the garden at the moment is one that also appears in British hedgerows; the guelder rose. Viburnum opulus is smothered in drooping clusters of translucent scarlet, juicy berries. These are popular with the birds as they ripen and the plant is quite a feature as its glowing fall foliage colour develops.

Viburnum opulus

Most berberis produce tiny berries in autumn and I know the evergreen Berberis julianae planted for screening along our boundary must be laden with them. The berries are hidden by the foliage but their presence is revealed each morning by masses of chattering blue tits diving in and out of the branches outside our bedroom window.

Berberis thunbergii 'Rose Glow'

Further up the garden shining scarlet berries are visible between the wine-red leaves of Berberis thunbergii ‘Rose Glow’. The arching branches of this lovely shrub provide an easy perch for feeding birds.

Some shrubs and trees seem to produce loads of fruit one year and very little the next. Sorbus, varieties of mountain ash are clearly having a berry fest this season.

I was recently in Wales and Sorbus aucuparia everywhere was laden with hanging clusters of scarlet berries. The two in our garden have countless clusters of fruit weighing down the branches. These are nowhere near ripe yet so are not yet on the birds’ menu. I’ll know as soon as they are ripe because the blackbirds will descend in a feeding frenzy.

Sorbus aucuparia

Several roses are already displaying colourful hips. As these ripen they are enjoyed by finches. Rosa rugosa is smothered with large orange-red tomato-like fruits. Rosa glauca has deep red fruits against the blue-grey leaves, already showing a purple fall tint. These hips seem to be more advanced but I don’t expect the birds to go for them for another month or two.

rosa rubrifolia

Our flowering dogwoods were a mass of bracts way back in early summer although the display was somewhat curtailed by a spell of exceptionally hot weather. This has not damaged the production of fruits however and Cornus ‘Porlock’ is smothered with ripening strawberry-like fruits. These soon become very succulent and aromatic and will definitely be a destination for the birds shortly, especially for blackbirds and crows. The latter are intent on our apple crop at present.

Cornus 'Porlock'

The recent rain has brought forth a fresh flush of flowers, albeit rather slowly with the cooler weather. Single dahlias are covered in buds but only a few flowers are opening. I’m hoping for sunshine and so are the bees; they love the golden centres of any of the Bishop Series of dahlias which are so full of pollen and nectar.

Sedum ‘Herbstfrude’ is flowering reliably and is more upright and compact than it was after the wet weeks of last summer. Although the lowers are starting to darken there is still plenty of nectar there for bees which crawl lazily over the flattened flowerheads.

Sedum Herbstfreude

Abelia x grandiflora is such a good shrub and it deserves much wider planting. Its small evergreen leaves and arching branches are attractive throughout the year. At the moment it’s sprinkled with pale pink trumpet-shaped flowers which the bees love. From the gardener’s point of view it remains attractive after the flowers have fallen because of the pinkish flower calyces that remain on the plant for many weeks.

Abelia grandiflora

The most useful plants for attracting bees at this time of the year? Undoubtedly the heathers. Varieties of Calluna vulgaris flower from midsummer well into autumn and are valuable sources on nectar and pollen.

I can grow them in the ground because I have acid soil; and they are tolerant of dry and wet conditions. We tend to forget what good plants these are for pots and containers. They are inexpensive to buy so think about them when you come to replant your pots once the summer bedding has faded.

Calluna vulgaris

If you want to know more about gardening or wildlife, particularly what to plant to make your garden more wildlife friendly, do join me on my online gardening courseGardening for Wildlife’. I look forward to seeing you in class. Happy wildlife gardening.

Recommended course

Gardening for Wildlife taught by Andy McIndoe

Gardening for wildlife teaches you how to create a garden to attract birds, bees, insects and small wild animals.

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Andy McIndoe

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