Feed the birds with designer Arne Maynard
PUBLISHED: 09:24 01 December 2010 | UPDATED: 16:24 20 February 2013
Arne Maynard shows how to create and conserve a wildlife-friendly winter garden.
It is always tempting to sweep away the evidence of summer borders, pruning them hard to the ground, clearing all the leaves and leaving behind a crisp and tidy but rather sterile garden. But for me, one of the nicest things is to go into the garden on a frosty morning and see the skeletons of the plants that have given us so much joy over the summer, accentuated by hoar frost, sparkling in the winter sun, from the soft grasses that still billow in the wind, to the wonderful dark seed heads with their architectural stature.
There are many plants which I incorporate in borders especially for this winter structure. In my own garden, I have planted artichokes and cardoons, which I do not harvest but allow to flower and seed, leaving stately thistle heads which stand proud against the sky. Another plant I have used is Angelica Vicars Mead which leaves behind its wonderful umbels with dark brown seeds. Even straw-coloured twiggy growth or the bare skeletons of asters, with their chocolate brown leaves hanging as though mourning the summer past, have a beauty giving structure and texture to an otherwise empty garden.
I very much believe that keeping the dried growth helps to protect the crowns of herbaceous plants from hard or wet winters. It also allows us to be able to identify in early spring where the individual plants are, enabling us to move them and fill in any gaps with new or divided plants, without the danger of slicing through the dormant crowns. I tend to do my clearing of borders just as my spring bulbs start to emerge. I cut and clear the beds of all the dead growth and there is the enormous excitement at seeing pale green young shoots pushing through the dark soil.
One of the greatest advantages to leaving the growth during the winter is attracting wildlife. When designing gardens, I always incorporate plants that encourage wildlife. We tend only to think of beneficial insects and butterflies, and love to see them fluttering through our borders in the summer, but our insatiable appetite for tidying and clearing our gardens leaves no overwintering environment for insects and small mammals. I spend a lot of time washing up a chore that has become a pleasure, because outside my kitchen window I can watch a tiny dormouse eating the fat rosehips that adorn the tangled winter structure of my rose.
By leaving the seed heads on perennials and shrubs, they become an amazing attraction for birds in the garden as they seek out seeds to eat, especially anything that resembles a thistle such as my artichokes and cardoons. These attract the goldfinches that seem to sit with ease on the spiny head and feast on the delicious fat seeds. Cirsium rivulare is another favourite of the finch family, and not only does it have beautiful flowers in the summer, but in the midst of winter it has brown dried leaves that look almost like intricate wrought ironwork, adorned with crowns of golden seeds.
One of the most enjoyable parts of gardening is being surrounded by birdlife. Their happy song adds to the spirit of the garden and creates a wonderful sense of place, but they need to be encouraged and enticed. The seed heads that we have left are only able to supply a limited amount of nourishment and, to keep the birds in the garden and encourage more, it is necessary to supplement the naturally occurring food. This can be done in many ways the easiest is to buy nuts and seeds, but also by choosing plants such as apple trees and not collecting all the fruit. At Allt-y-bela I have planted three trees especially because they hang onto their apples for most of the winter, specifically to encourage blackbirds, thrushes and other birds. It is truly magical watching them sitting in the branches, feasting on the juicy, sweet, bright red and gold apples, and it is not unknown for me to reach up on a frosty December morning and pluck a cold crisp apple, which I enjoy eating as much as the birds. Not only is there a plentiful supply of fruit for the birds, but they give colour to the winter garden.
At the front of our house I have a row of eight pleached crab apples Malus Everest which retain their fruit until about February. For some reason the birds will not touch these all winter, and then, in mid February just as they are starting to get soft and decayed, within a few days there is an absolute feeding frenzy, stripping the trees bare. During this frenzy, my chickens hover around the base of the trees, waiting for the fruit that has been knocked off by the birds, which they eat very quickly and with gratitude. The pleached crab apple trees form a perfect structure for hanging my bird feeders on.
It is hard to find feeders that look nice, and because of this I am always experimenting with alternative ways of hanging food. One of the most successful has been to take a small round log, and with a large drill, make several horizontal holes down its length. I stuff into these a mixture of fat and birdseed. It attracts many of the smaller birds, but most excitingly it is loved by the woodpecker, who sits for hours getting every last seed and nut out of the deep holes.
Whenever I have apples that become too soft for culinary use, I string them up on some thick garden twine, separating them with a twig, so that birds such as wrens and robins can perch on the twigs whilst eating the apples. This year for Christmas, from an old dead tree, I will make a bird food tree, by drilling various sized holes through its branches and truck, and stuffing these with fat, nuts and seed. This will give me hours of enjoyment, as I watch the host of birds especially my favourite the woodpecker.
Arne runs year-round courses at his home and garden near Usk, Monmouthshire, that are popular with novice and seasoned gardeners alike. To find out more or to book a place visit www.arne-maynard.com or tel: 0207 6898100.