How to help birds in your garden survive winter

  • As the wild, natural sources of food dwindle in autumn, and temperatures plummet, birds struggle to survive and our gardens can become a haven
  • Check out these simple guidelines on how to help your local bird population to survive the rapidly approaching colder months.

THE RSPB says:

Autumn is here. But the colder nights and bitter winds mean garden birds will struggle for food and shelter – and the RSPB is appealing to people to help our garden birds survive the winter.

Nature looks beautiful in autumn as summer leaves fade to a sunset palette of gold, red and orange. But as we start digging out our cosy scarves and gloves the countryside is being stripped of the food sources birds rely upon. At the same time, birds need more energy to stay warm and have less daylight time to find food.

Wildlife charity RSPB wants people to become stewards of their gardens this autumn and help protect their feathered guests. The RSPB says the key things birds will need this winter are food, water and shelter.

RSPB Wildlife Advisor, Charlotte Ambrose said: “Up until now birds have been able to feed on insects and seeds, but the cold weather means they move into our gardens to find refuge. You can make a real difference and improve their chances of survival, as well as being rewarded by great views of wildlife in your garden or outside space.”

Take it easy– kitchen scraps like mild grated cheese, bruised fruit (not mouldy), cooked rice, unsalted bits of hard fat, roast potatoes and dry porridge go down a treat with garden birds. You can provide an excellent full-fat winter food by making your own bird cakes or fat balls. The RSPB also suggests calorie-rich foods like mixed seed, sunflower seed, nyjer seed and good quality peanuts.

No thank you! There are some foods you should avoid as they can be dangerous for birds. Cooking fat from the roast mixes with meat juices during cooking to make a runny, greasy mixture. This sticks to feathers and stop them from being waterproof. Other foods to avoid are dried coconut, cooked porridge oats, milk, and mouldy or salted food.

Keep it fresh: Another essential is fresh water for drinking and bathing. Finding sources of water can be hard with freezing temperatures, but a simple trick will help keep a patch of water ice-free. Float a small ball, such as a ping-pong ball, on the surface of the water and even a light breeze will stop it from freezing over.

Plan your planting: Providing shelter from the harsh weather is extremely important. Plant dense hedges such as privet or hawthorn, or let ivy or holly to grow and you’ll be providing a great place to roost in and shelter from the elements.

Warm and cosy: Nestboxes are not just used over the summer egg-laying season – many birds will use them on a cold winter’s night. These boxes are frequently communal with many residents packing in together for extra warmth. The record number of birds found in one box is 63 wrens!

Here at the Smallest Smallholding, we will be providing supplementary feeds of hearty nut bird food mix from Copdock Mill, suet pellets and calci worms.

Let’s talk about flat bottomed onions

It’s already August and the days and weeks are flying by at an alarming rate. We survived the almost-39C heatwave last month, and by early August the onions and shallots were ready for harvest.

This year I opted to grow Stuttgarter Giant. I usually go for Hercules, as the flavour is just out of this world, but having had some pretty miserable crops for the last couple of years, I just wanted to try something a little different.

I planted the onions around April time, and despite not feeding them as often as I should have, the bulbs swelled and grew at a good rate. By late July the stems were starting to flop over – a sign that they’re approaching harvest time – and by early August the stems were yellowing and the bulbs were clearly ready to be pulled up.

I waited for a clear, cloudless day to pull the bulbs and lay them out under the hot summer sun to dry out. I gleefully selected the first bulbous beauty to lift out of the soil, the top half a whopping globe, but what I unearthed wasn’t a naval-orange sized specimen… in fact, there was barely much more onion lurking under the surface of the soil at all. And this is when I learned of the existence of flat bottomed onions.

Not All Onions Are Round

I’ve been growing my own fruit and veg as a hobby for a good twelve or thirtreen years. I feel like I (pardon the pun) know my onions. Turns out, I still have a lot to learn. At first, I thought my Stuttgarter Giant onions must have been stunted in growth by my no-dig approach to gardening. Perhaps the soil was too firm, or I hadn’t watered them enough to allow them to swell and grow as normal? I couldn’t work out why I kept pulling up flat bottomed onion after flat bottomed onion.

Some quick Googling quickly provided an answer; it turns out that Stuttgarter Giant onions are, indeed, just flat-bottomed, and some varieties are like this – flat onions. I’ve been growing Hercules for so many years that I just assumed all onions were globe-shaped, sometimes a bit oval, sometimes a bit wonky, but essentially round.

Flat Onions

Turns out they’re not. Dome shaped with a flat bottom is a thing. Taste-wise, the Stuttgarter Giant is just like any other onion, ie delicious. Other well-known (well, not to me) flat onions are Cipollini onions, an Italian variety, which are generally smaller than your average round onion but with a much sweeter flavour. Vidalia are also smaller, mild and sweet onions. It’s said that the smaller the flat onion, the sweeter it will be.

It’s also suggested that when buying sets, you can tell whether you’re buying flat onions or round onions. Apparently the longer and more elongated the onion set (the mini bulb you buy to plant in the ground), it’s likely to grow into a flat bottomed onion. Squat, round sets will grow into round onions, like the Spanish onions and red onions that we regularly see in the supermarket.

After lifting my onions I let them dry in our greenhouse for around 4-5 days, by which time the papery skins had hardened off a little and I was able to clean them up. I found a reusable hessian onion bag in Dunelm for about £4.50, so that will store my onions for as long as they last this year. We only managed a small crop of around 75 onions plus about ten groups of shallots – so around 50-60 super-flavoursome bulbs.

I’d love to be able to plait them, but time and inclination made the onion bag a necessity this summer!

My Thrifty Kitchen Garden in June – 5 ways to save money

It’s almost halfway through June, which is just ridiculous. We’ve had rain, sunshine, rain, rain and more rain so far, which means that every day is a growing day. And once the hot summer sun returns, everything will explode and I’ll be out early morning and late evenings trying to retain some semblance of order.

veg plot in June

This year has been an interesting one so far, particularly since I forgot about the packets of annuals that I threw down at the end of last year’s growing season. I never usually have any luck with my slightly chaotic, slapdash method of chuck it in and see what happens. But this year has been different. The likes of larkspur, scabious and calendula have popped up, thriving alongside the usual self-sown suspects such as pink and purple toadflax, hollyhocks, lychnis, honesty and foxgloves. These are all plants that will continue to grow in number year on year, as I collect their seed and scatter them throughout my borders. Self sowing annuals are one of the thriftiest way to fill space, feed the pollinators, and delight the senses.

In recent years I’ve been looking at ways to gradually reduce costs of maintain, even growing my little kitchen garden. The self-sown annuals have been amazing; they thrive because the conditions are right, which requires very little input from me (win, win).

I’m all about saving pennies where I can. So here are five super-easy, basic ways I’ve been achieving low-cost growing at the Smallest Smallholding:

Make my own compost
I’m nowhere near 100% reliant on my own compost production, but I’m taking small steps to cut down the amount of money I spend on feeding my soil and improving soil condition. We have three large compost bins that house of all our green waste, and a lot of kitchen waste too (I’m vegan, my other half is mostly veggie and we have a lot of fruit and vegetable peelings!). The art is getting the compost mixture ratio right – dry/brown and wet/green in equal parts, and plenty of turning to aerate and give worms easier access to the good stuff.

Leafmould – a great soil conditioner – is also easily made from the ash, damson, dogwood, elder, apple, cherry, acer and sycamore leaves that fall in autumn. I pop them in reused compost bags turned inside out, leaving them for a few months to rot down into a crumbly consistency. Eventually we will create a dedicated leafmould bin as our paper birch trees grow and we have more leaves to compost!

french lavender

Softwood cuttings
Lavender, rosemary, oregano, thyme, sage and marjoram are all herbs that I can easily take softwood cuttings from. Late spring and early summer is perfect for taking the young green growth. The same can be done for any woody shrub like orange blossom or hydrangea. I’m surprised I didn’t take this approach much sooner as propagating cuttings is such an easy way to save money and nurture an incredible number of new plants to maturity.

Take cuttings earlier on when the shoots are turgid (full of water, hydrated). Make sure the cutting is taken from a lateral branch that isn’t flowering, and take around 10cm cuttings above a node (you can shorten them later). Keep the cuttings moist. Strip off the bottom leaves, leaving at least two sets of leaves on the cutting. You can also strip away a little of the softwood bark around the cut point.

Potting compost for cuttings can be a mixture of soilless mix (eg equal parts sand, coir, perlite/vermiculite), and after dipping and coating the cutting wound in rooting hormone, place it in a pot and wait for the magic to happen. Some plants can also be steeped in water to allow cuttings to root (like tomato shoots or geraniums) – just make sure you change the water every couple of days. Once roots appear, you can pot them onto into soilless mix, eventually potting on to more fertile growing medium.


Brambles aren’t always bad news
We actually let about three or four established wild brambles grow like espaliers in our garden. I try and grow them as laterally as possible, and allow them to flower and fruit. The pollinators adore their easily accessible flowers, and we use the fruits in autumn for pies, crumbles and cakes, freezing whatever we don’t use.

They do require frequent clipping as they’re vigorous, almost thuggish growers, but other than that they’re pretty easy to handle. We also make sure to leave some berries on the plants for the wildlife – it’s only fair! You can cut them right back down to ground level in winter.

Making my own mulch
We use grass clippings to mulch the raspberries in late winter and early spring, chip the copious number of buddleia cuttings to make chunky mulch around the greenhouse and in the little wildlife area, as well as general homemade compost for mulching around our veg and flowers. Mulch is magic; it suppresses weeds where they need suppressing, helps the soil to retain water in dry spells, aids drainage in relentlessly wet conditions and also leeches some goodness back into the soil below. Mulch, mulch, mulch should be one of your gardening mantras.

Seed collection
As I’ve already mentioned, I’ve become a seed collector, squirrelling away little envelopes and packets of seeds for scattering in autumn and spring. Poppies, larkspur, nigella, hollyhock, lychnis, honesty, aquilegia, calendula and tagetes all happily grow from saved seed in my flower borders.

And providing you don’t have F1 varieties of fruit and veg, you can also seed save from many kitchen garden favourites, such as raspberries, strawberries, nasturtiums, tomatoes, chillies, peppers, beans and peas.

It’s quite straightforward to save seed from tomatoes, chillies and peppers, as the seeds are simply collected from the ripened fruits and stored. Peas just need to be left on the plant until the pods are hard and dry. Beans, brassicas and squash are a little trickier, as they can be pollinated by bees that have already pollinated plants from neighbouring gardens or allotments, so you can end up with a plant that’s a mixture of a couple of varieties of the same species. For now, I’m just sticking to the easy wins!

How do you save the pennies in your garden? Let me know!