As the RSPB’s Big Garden Birdwatch approaches this weekend, Aggie Rothon shares some tips on how we can all make our gardens nature-friendly.

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As the RSPB’s Big Garden Birdwatch approaches this weekend, Aggie Rothon shares some tips on how we can all make our gardens nature-friendly.

A few days of snow can make a marked difference to my perception of winter. Admittedly, I do live in the middle of nowhere, meaning that grit lorries do their magic a long way from my front door, but I don’t think that I am alone in feeling rather unprepared for the worst that Mother Nature can throw at us.

Everything becomes rather difficult in snow. Getting to the shops to gather essentials such as bread and milk suddenly becomes a task rather than an aside. Going for a walk is a treacherous experience as you plunge into dips and breaks in the ground covered by an even blanket of snow. As much as I love the novelty of the cold conditions, after a few days it becomes increasingly easy to dream of warmer weather to come and returning to business as usual.

With this in mind it has been a bit of a relief over these housebound snow days to receive some spring seed catalogues from the rather overburdened and weary-looking postman.

Having done an initial flick through, and wish list of, far too many packets of seeds, I had a scan through my photo library of the garden last spring and summer. It was refreshing to remember the lushness and green and the myriad of colours that growing flowers in the garden can bring.

A far cry from the icy whiteness outside the windows as I write these words.

Of course, not only can gardens bring vibrancy, fragrance and a wonderful sense of the great outdoors – they can also reap huge rewards for the wildlife in the area too. In return for your efforts with a trowel and spade you will be recompensed with butterflies, moths and birds in all their glory.

With January now well under way it’s not too early to start planning your garden for the coming seasons.

To kick start things here is my top ten list of things to make the most of your garden for both yourself and your wildlife in 2013.

1 Feed your garden wildlife – you will be amazed by the difference putting a bit of food out for the birds can have. Get a simple set up using a pole with several hooks for different feeders to hang from. Offer a variety of foods to maximise the number of different species that will visit. Peanuts and fat balls for tits, nuthatches and even woodpeckers, niger seed for finches and mealworms for robins. Sunflower seeds are a favourite among many species being high in oil content and therefore all-important energy. The RSPB shops at Minsmere or Titchwell are great places to get help with any potential purchases, or if you are online go to www.shopping.rspb.org.uk

2 Take part in the Big Garden Birdwatch – The Big Garden Birdwatch this weekend is the perfect opportunity to take stock of what’s already in your garden. Spend just one hour watching the birds in your garden and jotting down the greatest number of any one species seen that have landed in your garden. Submit your results at www.rspb.org.uk/birdwatch. Once you know what you already have, you will not only be able to recognise what you need to do to make sure these birds keep returning (maintain types and levels of feed etc) but you’ll also have a baseline on which to improve. With a bit of work, imagine what you might have in 2014!

3 Let your lawn grow. The average lawn is home to 24 plant species, with many of them being native. Leaving a patch longer when it comes to springtime provides a welcome home for many species of insect which, in turn, creates habitat suitable for birds like the ever-diminshing sparrows to visit when the plants set seed. Research has shown that long grass is one of the rarest garden habitats. Make your garden a rarity – stop cutting your lawn.

4 Dig out those seed catalogues and plan your nectar café – the perfect evocation of lazy, summer days; butterflies, but different species require noticeably different things. Grow nectar-rich flowers en masse in a sheltered, warm and sunny location for the best success. Common species such as red admiral and tortoiseshells – as well as the first species out in spring, the brimstone – will love asters and scabious. English lavender and valerian is great for meadow browns and nasturtiums for whites. Echinacea and lady’s smock will bring in the peacocks and orange tips.

5 Don’t forget the caterpillars – it’s great to provide food for passing butterflies, but what about growing your garden’s own butterflies, by providing the plants that their caterpillars need? Bird’s-foot trefoil for common blue, brassicas such as cabbages for the whites, hops for comma and, yes, stinging nettles for red admirals, tortoiseshells and peacocks.... never has there been a better excuse for leaving those painful blighters right where they are.

6 Stuck indoors? Get creative – January is a great month to get stuck in making bird, bat or bee boxes ready to go up in February. Your garden birds will start “prospecting” potential nest sites as early as February so look at www.rspb.org.uk/advice/helpingbirds/nestboxes/smallbirds/making and get going right away.

7 Water – essential for life – a birdbath provides an excellent source of moisture for birds to drink and bathe in. A pond is even better. Not only are they one of the best wildlife features possible in a garden (imagine dragonflies, damselflies, frogs, newts) but once made they can pretty much look after themselves. Pull out excess autumn leaves and clear them of weeds occasionally and you have a perfect habitat for all sorts of wildlife.

8 Quick, hide! – Shrubs can provide colourful displays of berries for birds and small mammals to eat and a flush of pollen-filled flowers for insects but they can also provide ideal nesting habitat and a secret hideaway from predators. Try pyracantha, cotoneaster, hebes and flowering currants.

9 Encourage worms – worms aerate the soil, aid drainage and give roots easy channels to penetrate. They also help break down organic matter making it available to plants and bring essential minerals to the surface in their wormcasts. A healthy population of worms is also fantastic as a food source for blackbirds, song thrushes and robins.

10 Recycle, reuse – use your vegetable peelings, old small pet bedding (woodchip, straw, hay), annual weeds and dead leaves to create a compost heap. A great place to hibernate for small mammals and amphibians, they also provide a perfect source of peat-free compost. Also, fit a water-butt to collect rainwater for hot weather watering without the environmental ask of a hosepipe.

Most importantly – enjoy your garden! Breathe the fresh air, feel the sun on your back (we hope) and listen out for the birdsong that is already starting up on the warmer days. Watch out for the return of primroses, crocuses and the chiffchaffs – then we’ll know spring really is on its way.

To learn more about gardening for wildlife and the Big Garden Birdwatch visit the RSPB and partner organisations at The Forum, Norwich, tomorrow and Sunday. With advice, games, crafts and much more this is an event for all the family. It’s free and runs from 10am-4pm on both days. www.theforumnorwich.co.uk

...if you want to take part in the Big Garden Birdwatch you can submit your list of birds via the RSPB website – or if you’d like a form to fill out, then please phone 01603 660066.

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