Winter can be a quiet time outdoors, with little colour or activity to fill gardens. The cold weather can prevent us going outside, but winter can add a magical quality to our borders, especially if you have plants that catch the frost and snow.
These plants can also bring colour to our outside spaces in a different way, by attracting native birds that are drawn to gardens in search of food in the colder months.
Keep scrolling to see our list of the best winter plants, the seed-eating birds to look out for and the seedheads to chop down before winter.
These plants will provide food for seed and/or insect-eating birds throughout winter and also look wonderful in your garden.
Asters provide a bright splash of late summer colour to our borders, but once the flowers fade it’s tempting to cut them back to neaten the appearance of the plant. However, if they’re left they form small, fluffy pompoms containing small seeds that are ideal for seed-eating birds. The tangled stems also make a great habitat for spiders and other insects, which provide food for foraging insect-eating birds, such as wrens and blue tits.
Beloved by bees during the summer, the huge thistle-like flowers of cardoon (Cynara cardunculus) turn into large seed heads full of soft fibres. Just like asters, they don’t just provide seeds for birds but are also a great place for small birds to forage for insects in the colder months. Cardoon seedheads stand up to winter well but will need removing when the wet spring weather causes them to sag and look untidy.
Pennisetum are the ultimate plant for winter structure, as the soft seedheads sparkle throughout the colder months when covered with frost and spiders’ webs. They only need cutting down just before the fresh growth emerges in February. There is a huge range to choose from and, as well as looking fantastic in your border, they provide a wonderful foraging ground for small birds, such as blue tits. If you choose an ornamental millet (P. glaucum), you should find sparrows flocking to your garden for the seeds.
Turkish sage (Phlomis russeliana) is a handsome shrub that holds very interesting sculptural spikes of seedheads that catch the frost and snow, making a beautiful addition to the garden. The seedheads are preceded by rings of sunny-yellow flowers that are attractive to bees. They hold up very well over winter, not affected by wind or rain, and the seeds provide food for small birds, such as goldfinches and siskins.
Most of us will have a sedum or two in our borders, as this attractive garden staple is so popular with bees and butterflies during the summer. But it also has attractive seedheads, which can add an element of interest to your garden throughout the winter. The broad seedheads catch the snow and frost and, although they won’t attract seed-eating birds, insect-eating birds will enjoy the spiders and overwintering bugs they shelter.
These tall wildflowers can provide some height at the back of a border and are a wonderful addition for attracting bees and butterflies during the summer. The spiny seedheads will last all winter, looking striking against a grey sky, or covered in frost or snow. Seed-eating birds will appreciate the seedheads, especially the brightly coloured goldfinch, which has a beak adapted for finding seeds in the spiny head.
These seedheads don’t make a good winter display and should be chopped down.
Although is often suggested as a plant with attractive seedheads that are great for wildlife, we found that they didn’t stand up well to winter weather. The rain swiftly made the heads soggy and the stems broke, leaving the border looking cluttered and messy. They’re great flowers for summer insects, but not the best later in the year.
We assumed that the statuesque seedheads of fennel would make a lovely addition to a winter border, while also providing some seeds to help garden birds to stock up on their provisions. However, we found that the seeds were stripped very quickly and then the stems collapsed, which resulted in a tangled mess left behind in the border.
The seedheads of poppies are seed-rich and ornamental, but we found they didn’t stand up to autumn weather well, quickly being knocked over or going mouldy. While dunnocks and sparrows will enjoy the seeds, we think the heads are better cut and left in an inconspicuous part of the garden to be enjoyed. They may even make seedlings for next year.
Often a favourite choice for feeding the birds, sunflower seedheads are not the best for being left in your border. Due to the rich seeds, the heads will be stripped and nibbled by mice as well as birds as soon as the flowers fade. We suggest you cut the heads and leave them on a bird table so the birds can enjoy the seeds and your borders still look tidy.
Shy bullfinches aren’t often seen at feeders, but they can be attracted with sunflowers and other seeds. Their diet is mainly seeds and they favour wild plants and trees for their food.
Bullfinches have distinct black caps, and the male has a bright pinky-red breast that’s a much stronger colour than a chaffinch’s. The female is a duller blush colour.
Tricky to spot in the garden, greenfinches live up to their name and blend in perfectly with foliage. However, the males have bright flashes of yellow on their wing and, as they sometimes form small flocks, it makes them easier to spot.
Tiny goldfinches love seeds and will visit feeders full of sunflower or nyjer seeds. They also love teasels and lavender left in the border. They often form small flocks, flitting around, and are easily identifiable by their red faces and yellow patches on their wings.
If you’re in Scotland or Wales you might have a better chance of spotting one of these charming birds. These small finches have a forked tail and a long narrow bill, quite distinct from other finches. The male has a yellow-green body and a black crown and bib, while the female is striped brown and cream, just tinged with yellow.
Not as common as they were, these cheeky little garden birds will eat almost anything. They particularly love seeds. They prefer to feed on the ground but will happily forage among your border. They are normally in small flocks. The males are brown with black bibs, and the females have less-striking markings.