Wondering what to do in your Wild Space this month? Guest blogger, The Secret Gardener, shares their jobs for January.
In the first days of January, I keep gardening jobs to the shed, where I might clean my tools or sort out pots and trays that I’ll use for sowing seeds later. But the time for seeds is still well off, and it’ll be early March before I even think of sowing anything.
Winter is a good time to consider what you’d like to change about your Wild Space. When plants have died back and we can see the bare bones of the space, it becomes easier to notice things that were hidden when the leaves were out. I can once again see the remains of a gravel path that is covered in wild strawberry and marjoram in the summer (I am happy about this – I’d much rather look at flowers and insects on them than boring gravel!). I can also see patches where the lawn is not happy – it’s now muddy and the grass hardly grows, so I’ve made a note to just let that area grow wild this year, and to add some tough wildflowers like Field Cranesbill, Yarrow and Knapweed to turn it into a new mini-meadow.
I can also see that the leaves have been piled into corners and around the flower beds – not by me, but by the wind! Again, I’m happy about this as I know that most butterflies and moths spend the winter as caterpillars among dead plants or in the ground, so the piles of leaves are doing a good job of providing that space for them. This is a really important element of our Wild Spaces initiative – the ‘Shelter’ part of the life cycle. Really, sheltering can be required for a very long time, both through the winter while the caterpillars are not feeding, and when the chrysalis is formed (this can be almost any time of year, depending on the species). It reminds me of something I often tell people when delivering talks: we must remember that even when we can’t see butterflies and moths, they are still there and we must behave accordingly by not disturbing them (or worse, killing them by burning leaves and chipping woody stems!).
Some of the most important moths in Wild Spaces take their name from the winter months. ‘Winter Moth’, ‘Northern Winter Moth’, ‘November Moth’, ‘Autumnal Moth’ and several others are known from the fact that the adults fly in winter. But they don’t just fly – they mate, and lay their eggs. The lack of green leaves would be a problem for their caterpillars, so their eggs remain attached to trees and shrubs through the winter, and only hatch in April and May when the fresh buds burst on the trees. It’s no coincidence then that many birds time their breeding with bud burst – not because they want to eat leaf buds, but because their chicks rely almost entirely upon the caterpillars eating the leaves! Great Tits and similar birds are most reliant on this bounty. While I and millions of others feed garden birds on nuts and seeds through the winter, much fewer people realise that if we want to sustain breeding birds in our Wild Spaces, we need to have food for their young. Fortunately, a wide variety of trees and shrubs can be food for winter moth caterpillars, including Apple (even cultivated types), Hazel, Birch, Hawthorn Oaks and Willows. They’re really not very fussy!
So, if you go out to your Wild Space this month, use the opportunity of a clear view to look for a spot to plant at least one new native tree this year that will boost moth numbers and the birds that rely on them too. If you have a smaller space like a balcony, you can grow small trees in pots. Apples grafted onto dwarf rootstocks will remain small and demand less water, and our native Silver Birch is also surprisingly drought tolerant so will be fine in a pot.