September

Our wildlife gardening tasks guide you through the year with specific advice for each month. We also highlight different creatures that you can spot throughout the seasons.

The weather in September is often still summery, but the signs of the season's end are appearing in the landscape. Many plants yield their seeds at this time of year, often buried in the flesh of berries, or in very familiar forms such as conkers. A few leaves may be turning brown and crunchy already. Many summer migrant animals are beginning to depart, and some winter migrants start to arrive. Year round residents are turning their attentions to winter preparations, stockpiling food either hidden in select locations, or stored in their own tissues. The gradual transition of summer to autumn brings plenty of interest to a wildlife garden.

Jobs for the month

  • Clean out birdbaths
  • Keep birdbaths topped up
  • Replenish birdfeeders. The breeding season is not yet over, so avoid large chunks and peanuts.
  • Leave some seedheads standing, rather than cutting them back, to provide food and shelter for wildlife.
  • Give meadows a final cut before the winter, aiming for 7.5cm (3in) height, and letting the clippings lie for a couple of days before raking (to allow wildlife to crawl back into the sward).

Mammals, reptiles and amphibians

Mammals are still very visible in the garden. Young woodmice, shrews, voles, foxes and badgers are still out exploring and learning necessary life skills. The evening is the best time to spot most mammals.

This is still good bat-watching season, as the evenings are still warm enough for both nocturnal mammals and insects. British bat species are garden-friendly, eating midges and tiny insects that cause annoyance on summer evenings.

You may see or hear young hedgehogs and badgers foraging for food at night. Hedgehog and badger food is available for sale. It is not a good idea to feed hedgehogs with bread and milk, as this is unhealthy for them. Good quality cat and dog food, or raw minced meat mixed with egg, are suitable alternatives.

You could construct a hedgehog hibernation box for later in the season. Although hedgehogs are often happy to choose a pile of old leaves and twigs, some wildlife enthusiasts have reported success with a constructed wooden box buried under old leaves. A small entrance hole (10-12sq cm or 4-5sq in), and a covered tunnel leading to the entrance, will help to prevent foxes and other predators from raiding the nest. A tunnel can easily be constructed using old bricks with a wooden plank as a cover. You can then watch the hedgehogs come and go from a known location.

Corrugated iron or plastic laid on the soil can provide warm tunnels for small reptiles, amphibians and mammals to hide in.

Birds

Many summer migrant visiting birds begin their journey back home this month. Swifts and swallows are often the first to go, and you may see them swooping and dive-bombing as they gather for departure. Willow-warblers, blackcaps and pied flycatchers also start to leave this month, but housemartins often stay a little later, often staying until late September or early to mid-October, depending on the weather.

Native adult birds are more evident this month, having recovered from the summer moult and come out of hiding. Birdsong is back to its usual summer volume and variety. Young birds are still out exploring their new environment.

A birdbath can be a vital source of drinking water for birds. Ensure that yours is kept topped up. Models are available to attach to windows, walls and sills, if you are limited for space. Do be aware of hygiene: change the water regularly and scrub the bath out with a mild detergent (available from bird food suppliers) to help prevent the spread of disease.

In hot, dry weather, many birds delight in ‘dust-bathing’ as well as splashing in the birdbath. It seems that the dust and the many insects that the birds encourage to crawl over them help to control irritating itchy mites living within their feathers.

Avoid peanuts and large chunks when putting out birdfood, as there is a still a risk that large pieces could be fed by adults to fledglings, and they could choke.The breeding season in the UK is over by the end of August, so after August 31st you can put out peanuts and chunks of bread. In the meantime, safe foods include wildbird seed mixes (but not those containing peanuts or dog biscuit); black sunflower seeds (the birds will remove the outside casing, and the inner seed is soft); mild grated cheese; sultanas, raisins and currants (best soaked overnight); pinhead oatmeal; apples, pears and other soft fresh fruit; mealworms and waxworms. Alternatively, you can buy fat balls from many garden centres and bird food suppliers. This is an easy alternative, and you will be confident that you are doing no harm.

To maximise the numbers of different bird species that you attract to your garden, it is a good idea to cater to their different feeding habits. Hanging bird feeders attract species such as tits, finches and sparrows. There are many models available, designed to help keep out rats, cats, pigeons and squirrels, or to fit onto walls, windows, windowsills and balconies. Bird tables attract robins, house and tree sparrows, doves, pigeons, bullfinches, greenfinches, chaffinches and bramblings. Food scattered on the ground attracts blackbirds, thrushes, dunnocks and wrens.

Hanging bird feeders are best sited over a paved or decked area, which can be regularly swept clear of debris. This may reduce problems with squirrels and vermin, if they prove a nuisance.

Bird tables are best sited a few feet clear of cover or high vegetation, so that cats and other predators cannot launch themselves onto unsuspecting feeding birds. Tables can be quite close to windows or patios, as many birds get used to human activity, and are not put off by us.

Insects

Bug life should be encouraged. Without insects and other invertebrates, there would be no birds and mammals, and many flowers would fail to pollinate, set seed or produce fruit. Bugs help to keep each other in check. It is often when one pest in the food chain is killed with chemicals that others are suddenly free to multiply unchecked, so creating further problems for the gardener.

Damselflies and dragonflies are still evident near ponds and water features. Damselflies have a lazier, zig-zagging pattern of flight, whereas dragonflies take a faster and more direct flight path. The third generation of adults emerge around this month.

Pond skaters and water boatmen are still seen skating on the pond surface in search of food.

Hoverflies and ladybirds are still evident. They are good garden ‘pest-catchers’, so are to be encouraged. Hoverflies do not sting even though they look similar to wasps - this is just the scary camouflage they use to deter predators. Gardeners have traditionally planted marigolds around the vegetable patch to attract hoverflies as pest control.

Wasps, despite their reputation as fruit blemishing, stinging pests, are good controllers of many garden pests, including flies and grubs. They are also useful pollinators of flowers.

Gardens with nooks and crannies, and a few areas where debris is allowed to accumulate (perhaps a woodland area or a meadow within a more formal design), are often more insect-friendly than gardens composed entirely of paving, pots, lawn and bedding.

Put out log and twig piles made from old prunings and felled tree branches. These provide valuable shelter for wildlife, and can be made into attractive features by planting up with ferns, primroses, or other suitable plants. A site well away from the house should ensure unwanted creepy crawlies do not stray into domestic areas.

Piles of slabs or rockery stones act as a suitable wildlife habitat, as do old bales of straw or hay.

Plants

As a general rule, single flowers attract more insects than double blooms. Bear in mind that insects are attracted to particular plants for their nectar (Sedum spectabile), their pollen (Lavatera), the shelter they provide (ornamental grasses and many other species) or their suitability for breeding (many native species and weeds, even the common nettle). A variety of insect-friendly planting from all these groups is likely to attract more insects than a mass planting of flowers providing only nectar or pollen.

There are still many butterflies about in September, and you may spot the small tortoiseshell, peacock or the speckled wood butterfly (in wooded areas).

Hedges, including non-natives and conifers, are a good resource for wildlife, providing shelter, nesting sites and food. Deciduous trees, particularly natives like oak or coppiced hazel, are excellent choices. Some insects that happily feed from a variety of plants are more selective about their breeding territory, and show a preference for native plants. Deciduous trees additionally support much more plant life underneath them, with bulbs, annuals and perennials thriving in the dappled shade. This is not the case underneath dense conifers.

Be less frequent with your hedge trimming to provide greater shelter and food for wildlife.

Don’t deadhead roses that produce hips. The colourful hips are decorative and a useful source of food for wildlife.

Wait for the seed heads of wild flowers and insect-attracting blooms to ripen (usually when they start to shed seed naturally), then pluck off the heads and shake them over a chosen area of bare soil where you would like to have wild flowers next year. Many flowers - poppies for example - take easily from this kind of casual sowing.

Meadows

Late summer meadows are ready for cutting and mowing this month, and all meadows may benefit from a final tidying trim at the end of the season. Scything of clippings is all that is necessary, but closer mowing allows the area to be used as lawn for the rest of the summer. Leave cuttings to lie for a day or two so that wildife can return to the sward below, and then rake up and remove the cuttings. Meadow cuttings were traditionally used for making hay, but they can also be used on the compost heap - just remove any pernicious or flowering weeds, so that they don’t spread in the compost.

Annual wildflower meadows do not need mowing. Just leave them to finish flowering, set seed and die down naturally. Be aware that they will only last one year, and will die back completely at some point in the autumn. If you are lucky, some of the plants will have re-seeded themselves and may come back next spring. However, you will probably need to supplement this with new sowings.

This is a good time to start thinking about sowing or planting a new meadow. Planning and seed sowing is best done this month, but plug plants can be planted a little later into the autumn (mild areas only). Plug plants can be planted into cleared patches in existing grass. Beware tough ryegrasses, as they can easily overwhelm less robust meadow grasses and wildflowers. Yellow rattle (a wildflower parasite of grasses) can be useful to sow in such situations, as it will gradually weaken existing grasses, while being an attractive addition to the meadow itself. RHS members can contact the members’ advisory service for more details.

New meadows will not need mowing until about six weeks after the start of the spring growing season, and a monthly mow is beneficial after that, to control weed growth as the meadow becomes established. Regular cutting also removes soil nutrients, a desirable thing for meadow cultivation, as wild flowers tend to thrive and show increased diversity in nutrient-poor soils.

  • Grey squirrel. Credit: Wildstock

    Grey squirrel

    Sciurus carolinensis

    At this time of year squirrels will begin stockpiling for the winter. You may see them collecting nuts, which they will bury ready for retrieval during the tough months ahead. Greys are the squirrel species that most of us will see, having displaced our native red squirrels over much of the UK. They are generally considered an unwelcome visitor to our shores, and are a pest of forest habitats due to damage they cause to trees. However their value is their popularity in urban environments, particularly with children seeking close encounters with wildlife.

  • Common wasp. Credit: Wildstock

    Common wasp

    Vespula vulgaris

    There may seem to be far more wasps around all of a sudden. This isn't due to any increase in numbers, rather it signifies a change in behaviour. For most of the summer wasps are busy catching insects to feed to their larvae. In return the larvae secrete a sweet substance which feeds the adults. But now the egg laying has ceased and so the adult wasps cannot rely on the secretions of the larvae for sustenance. So at this time of year a supply of fallen fruit (or sugary fingers) will probably attract hungry wasps. Wasps should be a welcome visitor to your garden, as major predators of insects they do their bit to maintain the natural order; just avoid being stung!

  • Crane fly. Credit: Martin Schuyl

    Crane fly

    Tipula paludosa

    You may have already met with the larvae of the crane fly this year, the infamous "leatherjackets". These are notorious pests of grasses and cereals, however they do provide a valuable source of food for ground foraging birds. In September the emergence of adult crane flies reaches its peak (hence the common name for the most abundant species in Britain, the September crane fly), and almost everyone will become familiar with their dangly-legged, haphazard flight. Their emergence provides a relatively easy food source for many insectivorous animals, particularly birds.

  • Comma butterfly. Credit: Wildstock

    Comma butterfly

    Polygonia c-album

    Now that summer is coming to an end you may notice the fragile wings of some butterflies looking more tattered, as age and the struggle for survival begins to show. For one butterfly however, this might be hard to notice. The wings of the comma naturally look pretty ragged at first glance, but a longer look will reveal the elegance of the symmetrically scalloped wings. At this time of year they will be more likely to enter gardens, as individuals search for reliable sources of nectar, and other sugary substances, in preparation for hibernation.