Tips on how to give animals and insects a winter haven - plus, find out what else needs doing in the garden this week.

By Hannah Stephenson

A third of us are actively trying to encourage wildlife into our gardens - an increase of more than 30% compared with four years ago, according to research by the Horticultural Trades Association (HTA).

More products targeted at the wild bird market are available in garden centres and we can choose feeding regimes which will attract birds that we most want to see in our gardens, says the HTA, the trade association for the UK garden industry.

Indeed, some 62% of us now regularly feed the birds in our garden and nearly a quarter provide nesting and breeding habitats.

But birds are not the only wildlife we can look after during the winter months and beyond.

By making leafy habitats and cosy corners, we will provide shelter for small animals who need to hibernate uninterrupted and for beneficial insects who will stop the nuisances ones such as aphids in their tracks.

Leave stones laid over hollows for toads, newts and even slow worms, as well as centipedes which prey on slugs. Pile up a few logs, which don't need to be massive, in a quiet, shady spot and soon stag beetles, spiders and bees will be making a home out of this damp log cabin.

Log piles may also be housing slugs and snails, which in turn will attract blackbirds and wood mice looking for a meal, while hedgehogs may also forage for insects and slugs.

Try not to make your garden too tidy if you want to provide shelter for wildlife. Areas of long grass and piles of leaves, stones and twigs provide shelter for many beneficial insects and small mammals. Always check carefully for signs of life by gently turning over autumn bonfires before igniting them.

Ladybirds gather in large clusters to overwinter on dead plant stems, particularly in more sheltered parts of the garden. Helping them through winter will mean fewer aphids in late spring, when ladybird larvae begin to eat them.

There's a wide variety of foods available which attract different species of bird to your garden. Robins and blackbirds love plump, juicy mealworms which will provide a good source of protein, fat and valuable moisture.

Seed mixes are full of nutritional value and are eagerly consumed by most species. Straight seeds such as sunflower hearts are the first choice for many birds and black sunflowers are enjoyed by chaffinches, greenfinches, sparrows and tits. Nyjer seeds are nirvana for goldfinches and siskins.

Keeping bird feeders and baths well stocked all winter will not only help the birds but also encourages them to explore other nooks and crannies in your garden, where overwintering slugs, caterpillars and other larvae are waiting to be eaten.

Avoid cutting hedges until the end of winter to provide valuable shelter for birds and give them more time to eat the berries and wait until March to cut back ivy growing up walls and fences, so the berries will be available to birds and the foliage can provide a foraging shelter for insect-eaters such as tits.

If you have a pond, put a few clay roof tiles in it to provide cover for overwintering frogs and other aquatic wildlife.

If you help wildlife through the winter months, beneficial insects, birds and other animals will have a head start in spring.

Best of the bunch - Fatsia japonica

This valuable evergreen shrub, also known as the false castor oil plant, has huge tropical-looking, hand-shaped deep green leaves and brings some architectural interest to shady spots in the garden.

It can grow to around 3m x 4m (10ft x 12ft) if left to its own devices, but can be kept smaller by pruning without too much fuss.

In late autumn, the leaves are joined by rounded clusters of large, fluffy, cream-coloured flowers and then black berries similar to those of ivy. It isn't fussy about its soil, but is best grown in light shade.

Good enough to eat - Walnuts

As you pack your supermarket trolley with nuts to last through the festive season, it might be worthwhile trying to grow some of your own.

Walnuts may not be the easiest things to grow in our climate - and indeed, the walnut tree originates from Persia - but new self-fertile varieties are proving more successful in this country.

Certain types can tolerate our wet, cool conditions and crop well. Walnut trees should be planted in a sheltered sunny spot and protected from late frosts which may destroy their new growth and flowers.

Choose varieties such as 'Buccaneer' or 'Rita' (even the smaller varieties grow up to 7.5m) and plant them in the autumn, staking the tree for several years, until established. Keep it well-watered during its early years and enrich the earth around it with compost.

Fully ripened walnuts can be harvested in September and October, when the husk starts to split. They should be dried straight away by a boiler and then put in well-ventilated bags and kept in a cool, airy spot.

Three ways to... Take advantage of ground cover plants

1. When choosing, look for large perennials which you can divide straight away into two or three.

2. Ground cover works best in swathes and carpets of similar plants, so use three, five, seven or more young plants of one type.

3. For all-year-round interest, choose plants which flower at different times of the year, including hardy cranesbills, such as Geranium macrorrhizum, common thyme and winter-flowering heather.

What to do this week

:: Check pots and bowls of bulbs which are being forced for Christmas, making sure they don't dry out or become waterlogged.

:: Plant any remaining tulip and hyacinth bulbs without delay.

:: Prune climbing and rambling roses and cut back hybrid tea roses and floribundas to reduce damage from windrock.

:: Harvest kale, cabbages, endives, spinach, turnips, swedes and Jerusalem artichokes.

:: Consider installing a pond heater to keep a small area of water ice-free if you have fish.

:: Top-dress established borders with garden compost or well-rotted manure.

:: Continue clearing ground for new beds, digging and leaving soil rough for the frost to break it down.

:: Remove any roots of perennial weeds.

:: Order new dahlia plants and tubers for delivery next year.

:: Complete picking apples and pears as soon as possible.

:: Erect a temporary windbreak around newly planted evergreens to prevent damage.