Gardening: Berried treasure

RICH PICKINGS: Rowans are heavy with berries as nature prepares for winter.
RICH PICKINGS: Rowans are heavy with berries as nature prepares for winter.
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Nature is busy producing food for the birds and a feast for the eyes. David Overend reports.

The rowans are heavy with berries and there are hips forming on the hedge roses. Nature is getting ready for winter by producing a larder for the needy.

Because berries are more than just seed containers – they are potential life-savers in the colder weather.

So that’s why gardeners should be more than happy that many colourful shrubs and trees are going to become nothing more than food for the birds.

Cotoneasters? Blackbirds are drawn to their tiny berries. Those rowans? Waxwings, redwings, fieldfares and even flocks of starlings go crazy for their fruits.

Yew, while poisonous to many animals, doesn’t seem to worry birds, and even ivy (when it’s mature and sets fruit) and holly are known to provide a nutritional meal.

Viburnum opulus ‘Sterile’, seen occasionally in gardens and more often as part of a mixed hedge, produces waxy-red, acidic-tasting fruit which is also acceptable to birds when there’s little left on the dining table.

But there should always be something available because plants don’t produce berries for fun – they produce them to propagate their species, and they rely heavily on birds to help.

Birds eat the berries which contain seeds; the seeds pass through the birds and are dispensed around the countryside. So, the plants, the birds and the countryside all benefit. And, of course, so do human beings.

Which is why gardeners should grow at least a couple of fruiting shrubs or trees to provide a valuable food source for wildlife, shelter for birds and insects – and interest in the garden at what is normally the darkest and dullest time of the year.

And if there’s room, how about that mixed hedge? It won’t be a pruned and arrow-straight barrier, but it will be an inviting and calorific place for birds, small mammals and insects.

Consider blackthorn, that viburnum, honeysuckle, spindle, wild rose with its attendant hips, a small mountain ash and hawthorn and elder with one or two hollies thrown in.

If it’s a really impenetrable barrier that’s needed, add firethorn – the thorns are vicious while the berries are brilliantly coloured and a welcome addition to the winter menu of several species of birds.

Birds are vital to the garden, so thank them for all their hard work by growing them a bite to eat. Berries are the avian equivalent of Mackeson – they look good, they obviously taste good and, by golly, they do the birds good.

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