Autumn is one of my favourite times of year. The changing colours, the crisp air, the scent of the garden after heavy rain (the term for which is petrichor by the way, one of my personal favourite words). I find all of it invigorating and uplifting. That said we are well into Autumn now and that means Winter, the nation’s (on average) least favourite season, is well on the way. True it may be unseasonably warm at the moment but it won’t be long before we’re all huddled up in our nice warm houses waiting for the frosts to die back so we can venture out into our gardens come Spring and we’re not the only ones. Pretty soon all manner of wildlife will be desperately searching for a cosy little nook to hunker down in to wait out the Winter and that is something that is becoming harder every year. I know I go on about urban expansion and real estate development jeopardising the habitats of wildlife but it is a serious problem and one I believe we all have a responsibility to react to. Fortunately it is not a problem without a solution but as gardeners we do need to take a prime responsibility on ourselves. As more and more of the available land for wildlife is taken up by us, our gardens are becoming ever more important places for animals of all kinds to find refuge. Now they won’t cause any problems, most of them are very good tenants and unless you’re looking for them you probably won’t even see them, but that doesn’t mean we can’t set a few things up to make our gardens more welcoming. So here are a few tips to help us all act neighbourly to our fellow creatures and help them find a little winter warmth.
Leave some leaves
I know I said I love the changing colours at this time of year, but let’s be honest, it does come with a downside. What starts off as a glorious change from green to fiery reds and oranges rapidly becomes a damp, mulchy blanket covering everything. OK that looks good for a while, but not so good for our lawns. Our first instinct is of course to rake them all up and dispose of them. This is not a bad plan of course, since if you leave all the leaves where they fall you’ll be depriving your lawns of much needed sunlight not to mention the act that fallen leaves make for a wonderful mulch and the basis of very nice homemade compost for those of you with heaps. That said, before you finish up and mix the whole lot in to begin creating leaf mould, spare a thought for those animals looking for somewhere to sleep. Leaf piles are a great shelter for animals, they’re inconspicuous so predators won’t necessarily go digging around in them, they protect from rain and the many layers of leaves make for great insulation against the cold. There’s no need to leave huge mounds of the things lying about, but maybe leave a couple of small piles tucked away in the less noticeable parts of the garden and you’ll have some very grateful residents for the winter. So you will have some something to help the grass snakes and hedgehogs get through the Winter.
A bit more effort is needed for this one. It’s not vital, but if you have a bare patch in your garden and you’re wondering what to do with it, going with some wildlife friendly plants will make a huge difference. Bare root trees like buckthorn, hawthorn and pussy willow will be a beacon for moths and other herbivorous insects. Of course that means for lots of other wildlife you have set up an all you can eat buffet which will make everyone from frogs to birds to hedgehogs very happy. You can plant these as hedging (whips (small saplings) are very affordable) or just dot one or two around as individual background plants, either way they will make a difference and you will have some very fat and jolly wildlife friends once Christmas comes around.
Burn things responsibly
If there is one thing we love at this time of year it’s a good bonfire. Bonfire night itself may have been last week but that doesn’t mean we have to rein in our inner pyromaniacs, a bonfire goes well with anything from sparklers to carolling or can get rid of old diseased plants or their off cuts. Still, care must be taken and not just in the obvious ways like not setting ourselves on fire (which I can’t stress strongly enough is something we should all really try to avoid). Sadly, as fascinating and cute as many wild animals are, some of them are not terribly bright. They scurry into a garden looking for somewhere to stay and think “Oh what a conveniently placed pile of branches and twigs; that will make for a lovely, safe winter home that will remain safe and definitely won’t suddenly become very unsafe once that nice man has finished drizzling a liberal quantity of 4 star over it.” (Not that you should put petrol on a bonfire, some people do but don’t, see previous – setting oneself on fire comment). The best way to avoid your marshmallows taking on that odd smoked hedgehog taste, is very simple; move before lighting or create the bonfire the day you are going to light it. If you’re piling up branches and kindling, do so out of the way and not where you intend to have your bonfire. This actually is good advice in many respects; a) it will let you store your wood where it will stay dry b) it means when you do build your bonfire you can do so properly (google building a bonfire it makes things so much easier) and c) it will let any woodland creatures who thought to hibernate under said wood to sit and watch the fire with you, rather than the other way around.
It might not seem like much, and when we’re faced with big issues like THE ENVIRONMENT we often feel like there’s nothing much we can do, but these little things can make a huge difference for a lot of animals so give one or two of these a go and I guarantee you’ll have a garden full of happy wildlife for a long time to come.