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!

How to use pea sticks to grow peas

Early pea flowers

It’s pea-growing season! Peas are avid climbers, and if you want to make supports for your climbing peas from pea sticks, then I’ve put together a handy guide. It’s quite easy really – but there are a few tricks that I’ve learned that help. I purchased my locally-grown hazel pea sticks from Wasseldine in Bedfordshire. They’re grown and expertly coppiced within a few miles of my home, and I went to pick them up pre-bundled. So a relatively fuss-free start! The pea sticks were cut at an angle at the bottom, making them easy to push into the ground.

I recently laid a new no-dig bed, and decided to grow peas there as it’s a great spot with lots of sun, and the pea plants will help fix nitrogen into the new veg bed too.

How to Use Pea Sticks as Plant Supports

Here’s my quick how-to on how to use pea sticks as plant supports:

1. Firstly, you need to make sure your ground is level, and you’ve marked out roughly where your two shallow furrows/drill trenches for your pre-soaked peas – or pea plants – will go in. 

2. Next, separate your pea sticks. If you’ve bought them in bundles like I did, they should have been coppiced roughly to the same height. If not, don’t worry – there will be plenty of opportunity to trim them up later, and lots of twiggy-ness is good! Stick each pea stick in the ground at an angle, leaning in towards your second drill trench, placing them roughly a foot apart. Don’t worry if there are a few bare patches between the main stems of the pea sticks at this stage.

pea sticks

3. Repeat alongside the next drill trench, once again pushing the pea sticks into the ground at an angle so that the tops of the pea sticks are woven into each other like a long ‘X’ shape, but with a little more room at the bottom. The twiggy parts of the sticks should mostly hold the opposing and adjoining pea sticks firmly together. Weave, weave, weave. But if there’s some wiggle room, and you have surplus pea sticks to hand, you could always weave in some horizontal hazel sticks in too, or alternatively bind some of the tops together with twine or string.

4. Trim out any twigs or branches on the outer sides that stick out too far, too high or too horizontally. You’re aiming for a vague arch ‘X’ shape overall. Don’t discard your prunings though!

5. Your next task is to fill any gaps at the bottom of the pea sticks (where the stems are thicker and the branches more sparse) with smaller leftover twiggy pieces that you just pruned, or have to hand. The peas will really appreciate having the extra support for scrambling as they establish and grow. 

6. Finally, it’s time to plant in your peas or pea plants around a foot apart. Line the drill trenches with compost and water well… but don’t plant yet! Plant more on the inside of the pea trellis base – the plants will grow upwards and towards the light, and being placed in this way will give them a little extra cover from being munched by birds!

7. Give your peas a final watering in. Established plants that have been planted in might sulk for a week or so, but should eventually establish themselves and start clinging onto your magnificent natural framework that you’ve created! 

I still have another bundle of pea sticks that I’ll be using for sweet peas, mina lobata, and some other annual climbers this year (I haven’t decided whether I want to try thunbergia, morning glory, or both… or more!), as well as thicker, sturdier hazel bean poles from my climbing french beans as well. 

The naturally-sourced sticks should last a couple of seasons at least, especially if they’re packed away and stored over winter once the plants have died back.