Outside the Backdoor

Observing what can happen in your own garden even in suburbia!


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Dotty about dahlias

Long gone is the era when dahlias were distinctly passé.  For the last ten years or more, dahlias have undergone a huge resurgence in popularity, mostly attributed to the incredibly successful ‘Bishop’ series with their dense dark red foliage.  The most popular of these is Bishop of Llandaff but, due to a number of mishaps, we don’t have any of these outside the back door.  We do, however, have some fellow Bishops – notably Oxford and Canterbury, the result of a newspaper offer on Bishop dahlias that we sent off for some years ago.

Initially we kept our dahlias in pots.  This was based on our bad experiences with the Bishop of Llandaff, one of which drowned on the patio in a very wet spring, and another of which was eaten to death in the border.  Pots seemed a safer option, added to which we could enjoy the flowers close to the house.  We also didn’t really have the right sort of space in the border for planting them out.  However, with the advent of my new hot / late summer border, that has all changed.

Much of the appeal of dahlias is their ability to extend the season.  For the first years that we lived here, I joined the ranks of frustrated gardeners who despair in August as the beautiful flower border of May and June is transformed into a rather desolate flower-less sight.  I know that there’s nothing wrong with green and I relish our evergreens in view in the depths of winter, but in July, August and September, I want something a bit more vibrant!  So, with the new border in place, our Bishops were released from the confinement of their pots and, goodness me, have they taken advantage!  At one point in the middle of August I counted no less than 19 flowers in full bloom on our Oxfords.

Having got into dahlias via the dark-leaved varieties, we have gradually become more adventurous in our choices, realising that it’s not so much about the leaf colour as the flower shape and that there are many, many different flower shapes, some of which will appeal more than others.  I cannot, for example, imagine us suddenly developing a liking for pom-pom dahlias!  They are just not our cup of tea.  Star-shaped dahlias, however, we love and are particularly pleased with ‘Verrone’s Obsidian’ which produces extremely dark red flowers that are almost black and which beautifully complement the orange of the Oxfords.  The star-shaped flowers have much sharper, linear petals whereas the Bishops tend to have much smaller, rounded petals but both are very much single flowers with wide open centres which are a magnet for bees.

Verrone's Obsidian

Into this mix come our Honkas!  Another star dahlia, we have both red and yellow varieties.  The yellows are just such a happy flower, shining like sunrays even on the gloomiest summer day.  The reds are incredibly rich in colour.

I really felt that I had achieved what I set out to do when, on the August bank holiday weekend, a friend remarked on the amount of colour we had in the garden.  Although the main part of the border still had some pretty pink, purples and whites, it was the new hot border with the dahlias that was positively zinging and affirming that it wasn’t autumn just yet.  I am now keeping my fingers crossed that we don’t have an early frost as it would be incredibly sad to see this display reduced to a heap of blackened leaves just yet.

Meanwhile we face the dilemma – to lift, or not to lift?  I would say that we live in a mild area and the gardening books and websites suggest that a thick layer of mulch is therefore all we need to keep our dahlias cosy until next Spring.  But we’ve not done that before and have preferred to lift them, dust down and dry off and we have still lost some tubers.  So it’s going to be a difficult decision but, one thing is for certain, I don’t intend to be without dahlias next summer!

 

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In praise of Laura

Laura is a bit of a star!  Laura is our crab apple tree and, no, we have not named her!  Laura is simply the variety … but it has caused confusion on a number of occasions!

Crab apple Laura in fruit

We chose and planted Laura about 8 years ago having been inspired to plant a crab apple tree by a friend’s jelly made from the very popular John Downie crab apple.  We weren’t entirely sure if we wanted to make jelly and we were also concerned that at John Downie could get too big in our garden.  So we decided to research alternative varieties.

Crab apple Laura in bloom

Laura in bloom – Copyright John Malone

We wanted to keep our options open with regards to the jelly making but we also wanted attractive blossom in the spring and ideally autumn colour – not much then!  For jelly making, you need to plant a variety that will produce sensible sized fruits.  You cannot, for example, easily make jelly from a tree that produces crab apples the size of a grape!  When we discovered Laura, she sounded perfect with dark red fruits about the size of a ping-pong ball.  The lovely thing about dark red fruits is that you also get dark red jelly!

Crab apple jelly

Laura has really flourished and every spring we enjoy her stunning deep pink and white flushed blossom and summer by summer she is getting more and more prolific so that we are literally picking bucket-loads of fruit!

Our jelly is made very traditionally using a recipe from a 1960s Good House Keeping cookery book but also following their hot tip which is to add about 3 cloves to the fruit when cooking.  Any more than that would be overpowering but this just gives a slightly warm note to the overall flavour.  I also highly recommend purchasing a jelly straining kit such as the one from Lakeland.  The first year we tried this, I attempted to set up some Heath-Robinson style affair and, goodness me was it messy!  My other hot tip is, do not forget to put your bowl underneath the strainer before pouring!!  (Yes, that is the voice of experience …)

Of all the trees in our garden, I think it would be fair to say that it is Laura that gives us most pleasure.  We enjoy looking at her, we enjoy eating the end product, and she has been a very easy plant to care for with just a little pruning required to keep her in tip-top shape and to ensure she continues to fruit well.

Crab apple Laura in Spring

Crab apple Laura in Spring – copyright John Malone

Should you be inspired to acquire Laura for yourself, she’s not easy to track down but a quick Google search shows that she is currently available from Ken Muir and Pomona Fruits amongst others.

 


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Season of mellow fruitfulness

Traditionally October is the month for Harvest Festival services and yet, in our current climate and ways of farming, the harvest is often long gone and put away even by the start of September.  For me September is the beginning of autumn although this year, it was the end of July when I first walked out the front door one morning on the way to work and thought it felt different.  There’s a sense of coolness in the air and a smell that’s hard to describe but it says that the height of summer is already past and soon the morning ground will be thick with dew.  By thinking of 1st September being the start of Autumn, I’ve read that this means I’m following the meteorological calendar as against the astronomical calendar which would mean that Autumn didn’t get underway until later in the month on the 22nd.  Either way, now is certainly a good time to take stock of the harvest that the garden has produced this year.

Back in May I wrote about our increased interest in growing fruit and this summer we have really reaped the benefits of this.  In June our strawberry plants went mad!  In May, wonderful clusters of white flowers burst through thick bushy green leaves and I watched nervously as the fruits began to form.

Unexpectedly cold nights worried me.  On Gardeners’ World, Monty Don warned that if the centre of the fruits turned black, that meant they had been damaged by the cold.  I sighed with relief as ours remained a healthy yellow but I began to worry again as May turned into June and our summer holiday approached.  Were these fruits all going to ripen as we crossed the Channel?  And if so, who was going to be eating them?  Certainly not us!  As it turned out, luck was on our side and about a fortnight before our departure a few fruits began to turn red.  We started out being thrilled by picking one or two fruits to eat each evening but soon this became ten or twenty fruits – complete bowls full!  Gardeners often proudly declare how many pounds of fruit their plot has produced but we were too busy enjoying the fruit to bother counting.  As our portions of fruit became larger and larger, eventually I had to draw the line.  Faced with masses of strawberries the evening before our holiday departure, I declared that it was too much and suggested that we take a punnet with us to eat en route into the Netherlands.  So it was that, on midsummer’s day, we found ourselves sitting in the lay-by of a service station in Belgium eating home-grown strawberries whilst watching a flock of sparrows taking dust baths!

Our raspberries have also been very productive.  In fact John was heard to say recently that we may yet be exploring recipes for raspberry jam in future years.  Yet again the scale of the harvest crept up on us, from tentatively picking the first few ripe fruits to suddenly realising that we had several punnet’s worth sitting in the fridge.

The blackbirds have also been enjoying our raspberries and our blueberries for that matter!  My defence of sparkly Christmas wrapping tape tied to branches and supports has not been overly successful in deterring our determined feathered friends.  Raspberries have been plentiful enough for us to feel generous towards the birds but their plundering of our blueberries has been less endearing.  We strongly suspect that they have eaten more than us!

Back in July the cherry plum tree was also laden with fruit which was ripening considerably faster than I was expecting.  I have jam jars clearly labelled with ‘cherry plum jam’ and dated 19th August.  This year’s crop was ready by 19th July!  The very hot spell of weather in June and early July clearly had an effect.  Not only were our cherry plums ripening rapidly but a colleague had apricots coming out of his ears!

One of the most rewarding sights of the harvest, however, has been our mirabelle tree.  We planted our Mirabelle de Nancy about four years ago but it is a tree that has had its challenges.  We fell in love with the mirabelle fruit during holidays to Alsace.  In September we would pass stalls selling brown paper bags full of mirabelle, a fruit that we had never seen on sale in the UK.  Having investigated trees, we finally established the variety, ordered one and planted it with great attention to detail.  However, it has been subject to leaf-curl which causes die-back in the branches, and also to fruit withering before maturity.  As a result, we have had about two mirabelle in total that have ever tasted remotely like what we had hoped for.  This year may well be different.  At lunchtime today, we had four mirabelle with yellow skins beautifully blushed with rosy pink that indicated these were perfectly ripe fruit and they were absolutely delicious!  We’re a long way from having enough to make mirabelle tarts or mirabelle jam but we are definitely heading in the right direction.

Soon it will be time to get the jam pan on the boil again and this time for crab apple jelly.  Our tree, Laura (that’s the variety and not a nick-name), is laden.  The wonderfully dark beetroot coloured fruits appear to be swelling day by day, presumably due to the rather extreme amounts of rain that have descended during August.  Like everything else, it looks like being an early harvest!


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Rain stops play

A month ago, if you’d said to me that I’d be struggling to garden due to the rain, I’d have laughed out loud!  Whilst I would be the first to admit that we desperately needed the rain, I am forced to admit that the weather has not been very typical of July and, as a result, my timing when it comes to getting things done in the garden has been absolutely rubbish!

On one occasion I chose a particularly bad moment to attempt to plant a rather beautiful salvia given to me by a friend the previous weekend.  Dark purple with striking silvery leaves, this salvia is a plant that shouts ‘summer’.  

Having decided on a location, I started preparing the hole.  Admittedly the sky was very overcast but it didn’t look full of the deluge that descended just as I was positioning the plant in the hole!


On another occasion I was forced to take shelter in the greenhouse.  Fortunately I’d just grabbed the tomato food so was able to use my time wisely whilst trapped and emerged having both fed the plants and tied in any wayward shoots.

Trying to decide when to administer liquid feed to various pots and plants in the border has also been challenging.  The pots look quite sodden whereas less than a month ago we were ensuring they all had trays underneath them to capture every valuable drop of moisture.  Now I’m trying to rescue plants from drowning!  Just because a pot is wet, doesn’t mean it doesn’t need feeding, especially as heavy rain like this is liable to wash out any nutrients from the pot.  So I decided to splash around a few cans of liquid seaweed just as the rain began again!  There’s no doubt that you do feel a bit daft watering in the rain!

And then there’s been my misplaced optimism about entertaining outdoors.  Last July we spent a glorious evening entertaining friends out on the patio surrounded by plants and lanterns.  Wouldn’t it be lovely to do it all again this summer?  Sadly the weather has had other ideas.  For a start, a gale force wind blew out all my candles and lanterns and, whilst it wasn’t exactly cold, it wasn’t what you would call a warm, balmy evening either!  Best laid plans eh!


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Bubble, bubble, toil and trouble!

The cherry plums are early!  When John said that they were ready last weekend, I didn’t quite believe him.  With a busy weekend ahead of us and no jam sugar in the cupboard, I took a quick glance and suggested that they could wait at least another week.  However, by this weekend a sizeable number were starting to fall off the tree.  It was time to act!

You may not be familiar with cherry plums.  They are small, bigger than a cherry but not as bit as a plum, and very, very sour!  But they do make good, flavourful jam!  Their red, plummy exterior covers a deep orangey / yellow flesh that gives the jam the colour of a good, dramatic sunset.

This morning we timed our pickings well as not long after the rain began to tip it down, making this the perfect afternoon for jam making.  I confess to be a little taken aback by just how many fruit were on the tree!

This is an old large cake box which was full by the time John returned to the kitchen!  I suspect that the very hot, dry weather that we’ve had up till now combined with the fact that the tree has not fruited for the last couple of years due to pruning (plums tend not to fruit well for a year or so after pruning), has led to a bumper year.

This was an awful lot of fruit to halve and stone!  Very quickly it became clear that we were not yet half way through but we already had the requisite 4lbs of fruit recommended by the recipe.  At this point it can be very easy to get carried away.  Let’s go on to 5lbs I said, or more said John.  Then I pointed out that our large stewpot that we make jam in probably wouldn’t take more than 5lbs of fruit!  At least not by the time you’ve allowed for 5lbs of sugar to join it!  At this point the realisation dawned that we were probably going to be doing the same thing again tomorrow afternoon.

Whilst the fruit simmered down, we washed jam jars and heated them in the oven and I acted on the old trick of cooling plates in the fridge to check the setting point.  Ten minutes of what is technically known as the ‘rolling boil’, when usually both you and the fruit get overheated (you must keep stirring at the same time!), and we were ready to dribble it onto the cold plate to see if it was going to set.  This duly wrinkled and so we were ready for the messy and dangerous job of getting a vat full of boiling fruit and sugar safely into its jars.

Cherry plum jam making

We had underestimated!  Further emergency jar washing commenced!  Although this looks like a right hotch-potch of jars, we find it really useful to have different sizes.  Many of our jars of jam are destined for the church pre-Christmas sale and, with an usual flavour such as cherry plum, it’s good to have some small jars that people can purchase as a taster.

So all that remains now is to repeat the whole exercise again tomorrow …!

And please don’t add ‘eye of newt’ to your jam!!

 


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New border, new blooms

I have a new flower border!  It had existed in my head for ages but finally, in April, we took spade to turf and dug away,  It was quite a plunge to take but I’m glad we decided to dive in as I’m now beginning to see the effect I was hoping for.

I know many garden designers would criticise us for ‘gardening around the edges’ and not dividing the garden into ‘rooms’ or creating weaving pathways, but we are in a densely packed part of south west London so we have always appreciated the sense of openness that we get in our garden.  What we have done on this occasion is to deepen the border on the left-hand side in front of a bank of shrubs, some of which are evergreen (Choisya) but most of which is deciduous Lilac.  Both the Lilac and Choisya are wonderful in Spring when in flower but the rest of the year they can be a bit dull.  So, by removing a swathe of grass from in front of these to shape a new planting area, and by a careful selection of plants, we have attempted to create an area which will be colourful from early to late Summer.  The border is also directly in line of view from the house so having some bright colour to look out onto was also part of our intention.

Having removed the turf (and re-used some of this to patch dead areas of lawn) and then edged it, we set about digging over the rather dry soil and enriching it with our own leaf mould, before deciding exactly what was to be planted there.

In preparation – is it deep enough?


Shopping for high / later summer perennials in early spring is, as we discovered, surprisingly cost effective as smaller versions of the plants are just coming into garden centres and often on deals such as 3 or 4 for £10.00.  Having agreed that this was going to be a hot colour scheme, on one such trip we acquired some golden Heleniums, scarlet Monardas and orange Penstemon.  Before planting out, the plants spent a few days on the patio in the shelter of the house during which time the Heleniums grew and grew!  However, this was nothing compared to the Monardas once planted!  It was like a scene from Jack and the Beanstalk as these plants appeared to put on an inch a day!  I have never grown Monardas before and you may not be that familiar with them but they are the cultivated form of Bergamot which is used to flavour Earl Grey tea.  Their leaves are incredibly aromatic if you rub them between your fingers.  Another common name for Monardas is ‘bee balm’ as they are a very nectar rich, bee friendly plant, so we are looking forward to them contributing to our efforts to ensure that our garden is as bee-friendly as possible.  The Penstemons have proved interesting.  These are Penstemon ‘pinus’ and, as the name suggests, they look just like little pine trees!  They are so unlike the other penstemons we have around the garden.  It felt like their tiny flowers appeared from nowhere but they are providing a glowing orange edge to the border.
A trip to a previously unexplored garden centre with a gardening enthusiast friend led to the acquisition of a deep yellow, repeat flowering rose to provide some central structure to the border.  To our surprise, the Togmeister has already produced a clutch of blooms and more are appearing.  It is a relatively low growing rose which has meant getting down on our knees to check out the scent.

Togmeister by Peter Beatles


To provide some cooler contrast, I have also planted two Eryngiums.  I do love these spiky plants even if they can be quite prickly to plant!  One of them is the smooth leaved variety whilst the other of the more vicious spikey leaved type.  This latter plant has also shot up to about a metre high in a matter of weeks and is covered in pale flower stars that have deepened and deepened through mid-blue to an intense purple.

Eryngium – early flowers


And then it was purple!

Eryngium – by mid June


It’s not all been about adding to the coffers of the garden centres!  The new border has provided a home for some bright and dark dahlias which spent previous summers in pots to protect them from slug attack.  We have decided to brave planting them out for a better show of flower.  The dry spring combined with a very small, judicious use of so-called ‘environmentally friendly’ slug pellets has helped to protect them so far.  A couple of these dahlias were grown from cuttings that I managed to propagate last autumn and to keep alive!  Cuttings are never my strong point and I’m always amazed when occasionally they work.  We have also dotted about a few of our self-seeded Stipa Tenuissima grasses which grow like weeds in our garden.  This particular grass provides a wonderful sense of movement.

Inevitably I am now wondering whether we should have dug the border wider and deeper.  This is partly due to a rather sad occurrence which is going to change the shape of that side of the garden.  It seems that our ornamental flowering Cherry tree is no more.  It produced a few buds in Spring but no real blossom to speak of and is entirely bereft of leaves.  I will probably write more about this at a future date but, the impact of this in relation to our new border, is that we avoided continuing the border under this tree as it would have been too shady.  People often talk about gardening as ‘shaping nature’ but just occasionally nature takes its own course and forces you to have a bit of a rethink.

For now, however, I am very pleased with my view down onto the mix of green and red foliage, illuminated here and there with bright spots of yellow, orange and purple and I am looking forward to a riot of hot colours as July and August approach.

Early June


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Urban oasis

Whilst it might sometimes sound as if I never venture further than outside my own backdoor (other than for work), I’d like to reassure you that this isn’t the case.  Being interested in both gardening and wildlife, and ideally combining the two, I have recently become enamoured with somewhere that may be familiar to some of you but which I am ashamed to admit took me 20 years to get round to visiting – the London Wetland Centre at Barnes.  Back in March, I finally made my first trip here and, having decided to take the plunge and join the Wildfowl and Wetland Trust, who run the site, I am now trying to make sure that my membership is well used.  Something to note for those of you who read this blog and are local to me, residents of the Borough of Richmond get a discounted deal on membership and discount vouchers for taking along other visitors.  So do check this out as it’s a great place to take friends and relatives staying with you.

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London Wetland Centre, March 2017

My first visit was back in March when wildlife was abundant but the surrounding landscape was still relatively bare.  Trees were only just beginning to show signs of leaf, the ponds had little but green surrounding them, and the occasional borders were relatively colourless.  The contrast on my second visit could not have been greater.  On a swelteringly hot day in May, when others were cooking nicely in the surroundings of the Chelsea flower show, I found myself absorbing the colourful delights of the planting at the centre.

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Flag iris in abundance at the London Wetland Centre, May 2017

Appropriately, some of the richest colour came from Nigel Dunnett’s garden, originally created for the Royal Bank of Canada.  Its poppies glowed and its iris zinged.  Given that Prof Dunnett was exhibiting further down the road with his ‘Greening Grey Britain‘ garden, here was a nice Chelsea link.  This garden at the Wetland Centre demonstrates much of what Prof Dunnett is trying to communicate ie. the importance of greening up our urban spaces to add colour and texture that is good for the soul alongside a rich and diverse habitat that can sustain wildlife in an otherwise intimidating environment.  I’m guessing that I’m preaching to the converted if you’re reading this blog, but I’m particularly delighted that us urban gardeners are now being given recognition for the environmental contribution we are all making.

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Away from the planting and with the BBC’s SpringWatch only days away, we were treated to drama in the bird world worthy of television as lapwings fiercely defended their territory from the predatory herons and crows.  I have never previously seen a heron slink so low in the water in order to keep itself hidden from potential prey.

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Distant lapwings surrounded by gulls

If you’ve not visited the WWT at Barnes, then I urge you to go further than just outside the back door and experience this extraordinary oasis in the heart of London.  And if neither birds or wild planting are your thing, then there are always the irresistibly cute otters there to provide entertainment!

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Asian short clawed otter at Barnes