In The Garden

Robin red breast
Robin red breast

TIPS on how to attract specific birds through wildlife-friendly planting and a rich variety of bird food — plus, find out what else needs doing in the garden this week.

The news that hundreds of twitchers have descended on a quiet, coastal village in Hampshire to catch a glimpse of an incredibly rare Spanish sparrow may prompt some of us to dust off our binoculars to look out for unusual birds in our own gardens.

And what better time? With the RSPB’s annual Big Garden Birdwatch taking place on January 28 and 29, when people are invited to spend an hour recording the birds they see in their own gardens and surrounding area to help provide a snapshot of bird numbers and species in Britain, we may see something other than wood pigeons or magpies.

Indeed, the mild winter so far should have proved beneficial to birds in this country because there will have been more natural food available including insects and accessible berries, according to the RSPB.

However, it is crucial that gardeners still top up their feeders and birdbaths because if it does turn cold, the birds will need sustenance, the charity warns.

Last year’s Big Garden Birdwatch results showed that some of the smaller birds which decreased in numbers the previous year bounced back.

Sightings of goldcrests, the UK’s smallest birds, doubled, long-tailed tits increased by a third and coal tits increased by a quarter.

But in the last 30 years many species have been in decline. Sightings of house sparrows, robins, chaffinches and starlings have all declined since 1979, while wood pigeons and collared doves have shown big increases.

Indeed, wood pigeons have become a pest to gardeners who grow their own winter brassicas such as kale and purple sprouting broccoli, providing a veritable feast for these large birds.

Some gardeners say the pigeons can be deterred by hanging up red cloths. Others resort to covering crops using netting.

“Wood pigeons are happy in lots of different habitats, unlike other birds which aren’t so adaptable,” says Richard Bashford, of the RSPB.

“Some birds avoid gardens because they are so timid but wood pigeons and collared doves will do well in gardens. They will eat fruits, berries, grains and seeds and aren’t fussy.”

The problem is that the sheer size of the bigger birds can scare off small birds which venture into gardens. Plus, wood pigeon numbers continue to increase as they are not as susceptible to cold weather and have a longer nesting season, producing more chicks per year than other species. The young are fed on crop milk, produced by their parents.

However, there are specific foods which smaller birds love and which you might consider when re-filling your bird feeders.

Small birds such as goldfinches love nyjer seeds and sunflower seeds. Peanuts are rich in fat and are popular with tits, greenfinches, house sparrows, nuthatches, great spotted woodpeckers and siskins.

Crushed or grated nuts attract robins, dunnocks and even wrens. But never use salted or dry roasted peanuts and only buy from a reputable source.

Fat balls are great for many birds, especially in cold weather, but make sure you remove them from any nylon mesh before putting them out, as birds can catch their feet in the mesh.

Live food such as mealworms are relished by robins and blue tits, and may attract other insect-eating birds such as pied wagtails. Make sure the mealworms you buy are fresh. Any dead or discoloured ones shouldn’t be used as they can cause problems such as salmonella poisoning. Again, buy from a reputable source.

Of course, your own planting scheme can also go some way to making your garden a haven for birds.

A good hedgerow, with a mixture of deciduous trees, shrubs and climbers will provide birds with both shelter and food. Leave an area of your lawn to grow long, to encourage insects to it, and add some nectar-rich plants such as knapweed, red hot pokers, Michaelmas daisies, snapdragons, cornflowers and cosmos to your border.

Red and yellow flowers are said to be the most frequented by birds. House sparrows can often be seen attacking red and yellow flowers in spring and autumn, eating buds and petals. Berried plants including the spindle bush, the rowan, holly and hawthorn are also a magnet to birds.

When buying bird food, avoid seed mixtures that have split peas, beans, dried rice or lentils as again only the large species can eat them dry. Consider also that kitchen scraps such as cut-up fruit, cake crumbs, grated cheese and uncooked porridge oats are likely to attract bigger birds.

If you select your bird food carefully, hopefully you’ll soon have a host of winged visitors - and not only the large ones - to your garden.

For more information, visit

Best of the bunch - Snowdrop (Galanthus)

While other plants might fail in particularly harsh or warm winters, the humble snowdrop can be relied upon to appear whatever the weather.

These pint-sized hardy perennial bulbs bloom in late winter or early spring, bearing nodding, sweet-scented white flowers with green markings on the inner petals.

They thrive in semi shade in a moist soil rich in organic matter and, given the right circumstances, will spread a white carpet which looks fantastic under trees in light shade.

They should be planted in early autumn as soon as you’ve bought them, as the bulbs dry out easily, and you’ll need to plant a lot to achieve an eye-catching effect quickly.

Even in a small garden, 100 bulbs won’t go very far. Good varieties include G. ‘S. Arnott’, which is a tall and vigorous type, while G. nivalis, the common snowdrop, is among the best for naturalising, producing dainty white and green flowers on top of narrow green leaves.

There’s also the double snowdrop, G. nivalis ‘Flore Pleno’, a strong plant which is slightly shorter than the single variety and is great as an edging plant or at the base of a wall.

Good enough to eat - Chitting potatoes

Give seed potatoes a head start by ‘chitting’ them now. Buy seed potatoes from garden centres and lay them on trays or in egg cartons on a well-lit windowsill, but out of direct sunlight.

When the dark green shoots appear on the tubers in four to six weeks, plant them in well-prepared ground, enhanced with compost or well-rotted manure and within a few months you’ll have crops of delicious spuds to last you throughout summer and well into autumn.

Don’t let the shoots on the seed potatoes become too long before you plant them out. If they get too long, say four inches, they start to become leggy and may break off when you plant them in the ground. This will slow the crop down as the tuber has already expended so much energy producing the shoots.

Prepare your soil in winter, before planting your potatoes. They are really hungry plants so add compost or well-rotted manure to the soil in January onwards and up to early spring, but don’t overdo it. One wheelbarrow of compost for every 10 square metres is adequate. Too much compost will encourage lots of dark green foliage at the expense of the tubers underneath.

Dig organic matter into the top 30cm of soil where you haven’t grown potatoes for three or four years and plant the tubers four to six inches deep, keeping them well watered but not waterlogged.

By June or July you should be harvesting early varieties.

Three ways to... Make the most of plants in spring

1. Buy large pots of perennials as these can often be divided, making three small plants instead of one large one.

2. Watch the weather. Don’t start sowing or planting everything just because March heralds spring, no matter what it says on the seed packet. Warm up the ground with cloches but remember not much grows above ground until temperatures reach 7C and above, and days grow longer.

3. When planting containers with hardy plants in spring, water well beforehand and add slow-release fertilisers and water-retaining crystals to the compost to save you work through the year.

What to do this week

Make sure that tender and half-hardy fuchsias, remaining dormant in their pots, do not become completely dry. Spray any early growth with tepid water in the light to soften the wood, but do this sparingly.

Feed large fan-trained peach and nectarine trees with a balanced fertiliser or blood, fish and bone to encourage new shoots.

Tidy borders, clearing them of weeds and debris, and avoid compacting the soil in wet weather by using short pieces of board to walk on.

Use a heated propagator to sow half-hardy annuals and other bedding plants including antirrhinums, African marigolds, Begonia semperflorens, gazanias and lobelias.

Order new summer-flowering bulbs and tubers from a reputable supplier. Store them in shallow boxes or trays and keep in a dry, frost-free place until ready to plant.

Sow seeds of annual carnations, covering them with glass or plastic sheeting and keeping them at a constant temperature of 13-15C (55-60F).

Check and secure plant ties before the plants start to grow actively.

Cut back climbers such as Virginia creeper, ivy and climbing hydrangea growing on the house by at least 45cm (18in) from all windows and door frames.

Pick off fading flowers and foliage from winter container plants and trim back frost-damaged shoots.

When watering plants (sparingly) in the greenhouse, water them as early in the day as possible, so that surfaces are dry before nightfall.