Winter Food: Teasels & Goldfinches
I recently shared the motivation behind my new ‘A Garden for Wildlife’ project and now I wanted to tell you about the inspiration behind the specific designs. The ‘A Garden for Wildlife’ range is all about the plants, flowers and habits that help wildlife to thrive in gardens. The first one, Winter Food, features a charm of goldfinches feasting on teasels. Winter can often seem like a lifeless time in gardens. There’s no new life – no green shoots, little in the way of bright colours – but beyond the muted colours and hard frosts there’s a vital struggle for survival going on.
We have one big tree in our garden. It’s a mock orange and it loses it’s leaves dramatically mid autumn. It is just outside my studio window. In the summer the tree harbours mysteries. I see birds flitting in and out but the leaves protect their activities from sight. But in the winter, the bare branches reveal secrets. The tree is full of movement and activity. Sparrows gathering and chattering, great tits shouting at the neighbour’s cats. Our garden robin stops there to prune his feathers when it rains. The blue tits and coal tits flit in and out between visits to the bird feeder. It’s made me realise that in winter, the inhabitants of our garden are involved in a frantic hustle for survival. There is constant movement, searching, communicating, competing.
Just like us, all the creatures need shelter, food and water to survive. Dead stems, flower-heads and leaf litter provide shelter for insects over the winter. Ladybirds hibernate under bark and in piles of dead leaves (as do toads and hedgehogs). By leaving herbaceous hollow-stemmed plants un-pruned until early spring we can provide a winter home for hundreds of little beings. Basically, there’s no need to tidy. That seems like very good news to me. Tidy gardens are the opposite of a thriving ecosystem. When I look at our garden, wild and ranging, with brown stems sticking up in all directions and bronze seed heads nodding in the wind, I used to be embarrassed. Now, though, I see an amber field of potential life.
Seed heads also provide food for birds and mammals. Long, cold nights are perilous for robins, starlings, sparrows, wagtails and finches. They need rich, high-fat food to keep them warm all night. One of the richest food sources are the dead seed heads of teasels. Goldfinches especially love teasels. You often see them balancing deftly on the lightly swaying conical spiky seed heads. The brown prickly stems of the teasels can reach the height of a person and beyond, providing a dramatic and architectural element to a garden design. Goldfinches have beaks that are specially shaped to be able to extract the seeds from between the spikes. Males have slightly longer beaks than females so can reach the seeds without having the bend the spikes out of the way. In Anglo-Saxon times, goldfinches were known as Thistletuige or ‘thistle-tweaker’ due to their fondness of thistles, teasels and knapweeds. Gardens with these plants will be treated to the pleasant tinkling call and regal colours of the goldfinches. They are gem-coloured with a bright red face and yellow wing patch, framed by a black crown and nape.
Goldfinches are famous for being sociable birds. Their collective noun is a ‘charm’. This is from the Latin ‘carmen’ meaning a magic song or spell. Surely this refers to their liquid twittering song and the joy that a glimpse of them brings. Other great plants for goldfinches in the garden include lavender and dandelions.
Gardens are places we like to try to control. We only want them to be a certain amount of wild. If we embrace a little bit of chaos – such as leaving the pruning until March – we can let a little more wildness in and help insects and birds to survive the winter.