Winter for many people is the most uninteresting season of the year, but for the keen wildlife gardener it offers endless amounts of interest and delight. Although many of the vibrant and luscious plants have fallen to slumber there is still much to see while walking around. From the frosted branches of a drooping Betula pendula (birch tree) to the many garden birds flitting from plant to ground in search of food, there is much to witness during the months of winter.
Garden birds are at their most dependant on the help of gardeners in winter months for food and water. It is a common sight to see the sapphire backed Blue Tit and the iconic red breasted Robin scurrying around looking for food. It is simple to provide for the feathered residents in your garden, through plant selection and leaving out purpose ready food for them. Plants like Ilex aquifolium (holly) or Pyracantha (more commonly known as firethorn) offer spring flowers in both cases and also winter berries which birds gorge on. The berries of the Ilex are the iconic crimson associated with Christmas whereas the berries of the Pyracantha can come in shades of orange, red and yellow. The dense prickly foliage and branching habit of the Ilex makes it an ideal home for all sorts of birds to nest and raise young in. It helps to be forgetful during autumn clean ups, leaving sunflower heads and teasel plants around will provide great amounts of seed for hungry birds. Many bird feeds can be bought in garden centres which will offer sustenance for birds. Their high fat content and abundance of seeds and nuts provide great nourishment. Leaving chopped and whole apples on bird tables provides food for birds and other winter active animals.
Plants not only provide a source of nourishment for bird during winter but also provide great visual interest for humans. One of the most striking plants that dots over many landscapes of Ireland, both rural and urban, is Cornus alba (Dogwood).During the summer, this plant is pretty bland but once the first frost of winter hits, it takes on a starring role in any border. Its branches become a deep and vibrant ruby red colour. This contrasts excellently against its generally sober surrounds and its crisp clean white berries. This brilliant quality will fade however as the branches matures, to keep it looking vibrant, the plant can be pruned back to encourage new growth and the strong colour once more. Betula pendula or birch tree is a great plant to have in a garden be it for their light airy quality in summer or for its great bark effect in winter. The bark is off-white in colour with a flaking habit. As the papery thin bark peels it give great texture to the trunk often revealing a darker bark as the trunk matures. With its drooping branch the tree can look quiet spectacular covered in frost. Its thin branches seem to sway and lean lower under its glistening coat.
Winter for some may not boast much, but with open eyes it is clear to see the main treasures mother nature leaves for us on a frosted and chilly morning. True it may not be as obvious as summers vivacious splendour but when looked upon it can offer great satisfaction to a gardener soul.