Spring is fast approaching and now is the time to think about new planting. Following the record low temperatures we experienced during the winter, most gardens have lost large numbers of tender and semi-hardy shrubs and plants.
Many of our nicest shrubs and climbers come from milder climates and are not fully winter hardy, and the extreme cold we experienced has sorted out the weaklings. No one knows for sure if these cold winters are part of a trend similar to the mini ice age that occurred in the mid-1800s or just a chance event that may not recur for another 20 or 30 years.
But whatever has been lost should be replaced and, when doing so, it is worth planting with wildlife in mind and choosing species that are not only attractive to look at but also provide food and shelter for birds and insects.
The following is a simple short list of a few useful species I grow around my farm and in my garden. They are all hardy, easy to establish and, as well as looking good, are much appreciated by the birds and bees.
The common Alder is quick growing, ideal for damp ground and has attractive yellow catkins in March. Its seeds provide valuable food for small finches.
Rowan or mountain ash has lovely white flowers in May, as does the common whitebeam. Both produce red berries in September, which provide food for redwings, blackbirds, thrushes and fieldfares. Birch is a very attractive tree, especially the silver variety with its peeling white bark. It produces seeds early in the year which are enjoyed by finches. Willow thrives in damp conditions and can grow at an astonishing rate. The stems are very useful for craft work and also attract large numbers of insects which provide food for willow warblers, chiffchaffs and tits.
Crab apples bring a splash of blossom to hedgerows and gardens during April and May. They also hold their fruits long into the winter when they are most needed, especially by thrushes and blackbirds.
Larch is a fast-growing, large deciduous conifer that will attract, among others, coal tits and goldcrests. Lovely colour in spring and autumn but it is now susceptible to phytophthora disease, so it is best planted sparingly in small groups of three or so.
Berberis is popular as a flowering shrub that is well berried in the autumn. There are a number of varieties and it can also be used as a hedge. It is a very useful shrub to provide food for birds and good nest cover.
Holly is slow growing but is easy to establish as an edge of woodland species or in the garden. It provides dense green protection for nesting birds and berries for food in winter, albeit if rather erratically.
Viburnum or Guelder rose is popular as a shrub or hedge species and produces copious bunches of glistening red fruits which persist into the winter.
Yew comes in several forms, providing thick dark green cover and producing red, fleshy fruits relished by many birds.
Yew hedges were widely planted in Victorian gardens and are regaining popularity, but it must be noted that the seed and foliage are poisonous.
Elder can be invasive in hedges as it tends to dominate and edge out hawthorn, but it is worth growing for its early summer blossom and abundant fruits in autumn. Some of the cultivars also make striking specimen plants in the garden.
Common buckthorn is yet another easily grown and attractive native shrub that comes laden with shiny black fruits in autumn.
Pyracantha or firethorn is an excellent wall shrub even on a shady, north-facing wall.
Its spiny stems give good protection to nesting birds and it carries large amounts of red berries, which persist until year-end when they are usually eaten by thrushes and other songbirds.
Cotoneaster is a popular shrub with large quantities of red berries that are taken by thrushes, finches and tits. It makes a nice hedge, wall plant or low-growing shrub. The blossom also attracts large numbers of bees in spring.
Honeysuckle berries are eaten by blackcaps and bullfinches. Its heavily scented blossom makes it a good climbing plant for around the garden and near windows.
Ivy is one plant that arouses a lot of controversy but it is an easy-to-grow native evergreen that looks well and provides useful nesting and roosting cover for many birds.
It is also the last source of nectar for bees in late autumn and the berries provide essential food for many bird species throughout the winter.