Outside the Backdoor

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


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November dreary? Not here!

Today I read in a gardening magazine that November is such a dreary month. Normally I would agree with that without a moment’s hesitation but this morning, as I looked out the back door onto a sparkling lawn and vivid blue skies, I begged to differ.

In London and the South East I think it’s been a relatively mild autumn so far. We’ve had one or two frosts, enough to blacken the dahlia leaves, but they’ve passed fairly rapidly as daytime temperatures have remained on the warm side. I can’t work out if it’s been wet or dry, however, as we’ve certainly had some torrential downpours that have gone on for several hours but we’ve not had the dank November gloom that often descends. As a result, several plants have taken it upon themselves to continue shining bright. This little rudbeckia was one I grew from seed last year and it left it rather late to return, finally reappearing around early October and causing me to puzzle a great deal over what it was going to be!

November is also the month for Nerines, which seem to be growing in popularity judging by the number of mentions in the gardening press and on the radio/TV that I’ve noticed this year. Ours were given to me in a bundle of newspaper about ten year’s ago by someone who no longer had need of them. Not a lot happened for the first few years but more recently they have been a beautiful surprise as they emerge between the debris of other plants dying back.

Of course some things look spectacular as they die back. This morning I turned around to catch the sun streaming through the fading leaves and flowers of our favourite red grass. I think it’s a Panicum but I really must dig out the label (I keep a box of them) and check! It really does look like an autumn bonfire!

Whether it’s been an affect of the dry summer but the autumn colour this year seems to have been particularly intense. I’ve passed some spectacular looking trees on the drive to work. I’ve never consciously planted anything for autumn colour in our garden and yet we have a number of plants dotted around which are really special at this time of year. I always love the mysterious dark red of the Cotinus (Royal Purple) during the summer but today it was contributing to autumn’s gold with the sun streaming through it.

Elsewhere our berberis (we have two – what on earth is the plural – berberi? Berberises?) were glowing fiery red. No one could ever accuse them of November gloom!

And so I have just checked the BBC Weather app. I fear November has been lulling us into a false sense of security as the week ahead looks as if it will herald the arrival of winter with temperatures set to plummet. Thankfully anything tender has been moved to the greenhouse and the olives have been bubble wrapped. Now it looks like we need the human equivalent, so get ready to dig out those winter woollies, all those reds and golds may look very beautiful but they’re not going to keep us warm!

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The inactive gardener

Over the past couple of months I have really appreciated the view outside the back door and that’s because I’ve spent a great deal of time at home and most of it confined to indoors and all because I sat down! Sadly sprained knees and gardening are not good partners and it’s been particularly frustrating during September and into October when the garden is in its final blaze of glory before autumn deepens into winter.

Stage one of the sprained knee coincided with a few days holiday in the Cotswolds and a lot of garden visiting, all done at a hobble. A revisit to Hidcote was much more enjoyable than the last time we went (three years ago). A new visitor entrance seems to have enabled people to spread out more quickly. It was also the one garden where the plant centre resulted in a purchase – a gorgeous shocking pink Salvia which, unfortunately due to the knee, is still sitting its pot outside the backdoor.

One thing that has struck me whilst I’ve been at home and that is that the birds are returning. It might seem an odd thing to say but it’s well known that our garden birds tend to vanish in August. I used to think it was my imagination but then I read a very useful answer to this question provided by the RSPB who explain that birds have come to the end of their mating season and are moulting their plumage. This makes them quite reclusive as they don’t want to be vulnerable to predators. However, in the last few weeks I’ve become much more aware of movement in the garden as flocks of great tits and goldfinches are one more flitting around our birch tree. The wood-pigeon has been particularly active too but that’s because it has been gorging itself on a diet of grass seed, sprinkled down in an attempt to cover our drought-induced bare patches, followed up by a dessert course of deliciously bright orange pyracantha berries, growing very conveniently at pigeon height just under the hawthorn.

The squirrels are also more active too. They are waiting for me to plant my spring bulbs! I’ve even spotted them scouting around the patio pots. Well they are out of luck as, until my knee heals, there’s going to be no bulb planting done around here! However, I am determined that I am going to have a good display of bulbs next Spring, unlike this year where I had virtually none left in my pots and the tulips I did have were not the ones I planted! The bulbs were ordered promptly in September and are now sitting in the cupboard under stairs. Before I plant them, I am first heading to the DIY store to pursue a cunning plan that involves the purchase of chicken wire and the creation of some pot protectors. I have a selection of miniature iris reticulata in purple (hopefully like the ones I grew in 2015 – see below), two types of multi-stemmed narcissi, one pale lemon and the other brilliant yellow with a vibrant orange trumpet, and finally a selection of tulips to top them off. I will also need to acquire some bedding plants to top off the pots and provide some winter colour and I will confess that I”m not quite sure how bedding plants and chicken wire will mix.

But before we get too carried away into winter and next spring, one of the pleasures of the last few weeks has been a final flurry of roses. In fact some of my roses have flowered better during late September and October than they did back in May and June as the drought began to bite. My Shropshire Lad was very considerate in producing a high bloom that I could see easily from inside the house but the distant yellow glow of Togmeister had me hobbling out down the garden to take a sniff!

Finally, as we prepare to turn the clocks back, we’ve been enjoying some stunning harvest moons rising eerily between the silhouetted branches of the birch tree. I have been busy rehearsing ‘Ruddigore’ too and I am reminded of the ghost’s song in Act 2, “When the night wind howls, in the chimney cowls, and the bat in the moonlight flies. Then inky clouds, like funeral shrouds, sail over the midnight sky”.


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Herbs

Sitting outside the back door in the late summer / early autumn sunshine with the seeded heads of bronze fennel towering five feet above me, it suddenly occurred to me that I’m not sure that I have ever written about herbs in this column.  It’s ironic really as most of my herbs literally grow outside the back door!

The most striking herb in the garden is probably the bronze fennel.  It’s always been here and regularly self-seeds.  We do like its lovely soft, transparent foliage and its yellow umbeliferer flower heads attract dozens of hover flies throughout the summer.  However, you can have too much of a good thing so, more recently, we have tried to intervene to stop it self-seeding quite so freely and instead have harvested the seeds for cooking.  Of course you can have too many of those as well and a friend is due to benefit from this year’s crop shortly.

Thyme is by far my favourite herb.  I love its flavour but I love its scent even more and have often said that I would be happy to wear it as perfume.  As a result, I now have four varieties of thyme growing in pots on the patio.  One is a woodier, thin leaved thyme, ideal for putting sprigs into a slow cooking casserole in the winter.  I have two broad-leaved thymes, one golden leaved and the other silver and it’s great to thread the leaves off of these and sprinkle them over roasted vegetables.  The fourth pot of thyme is still with us by accident.  We have a favourite winter soup which calls for thyme and, in the depths of February, our potted thymes are often bare and we are struggling to find enough leaves to really impart flavour.  Hence earlier this year we succumbed to buying a supermarket grown pot – grown in the UK, I’m pleased to say, but this thyme has proved to be extraordinarily prolific.  It grew beautifully on the windowsill in the kitchen until summer finally arrived when we decided it had earned its keep and was rewarded with its own pot on the patio.  It is still growing madly and, so as not to run out of thyme again in February, John has been very painstakingly stringing the leaves and popping them into ice-cube trays to freeze with the intention that we can then just drop a cube or two into the soup when needed.

We also have rather a lot of parsley on the patio right now and also in the veg plot.  Two years ago I had a great harvest of parsley that went on right through the winter.  The only snag was needing to pick it in a very hard frost when it had frozen solid!  Last winter it had run to seed and I had a poor year growing from seed so had nothing to replace it with.  Not wishing to end up in the same situation, I have grown two sets of parsley this year and so we have rather a lot distributed around the garden including one rather odd plant in a border – I must have dropped a seed!

The other patio herbs are mint and rosemary.  Mint grown in pots to curb its enthusiasm although I have been known to kill a mint plant before now!  We have a couple of types of garden mint, including one called ‘Lamb mint’, and a black stemmed peppermint which we are quite bad at remembering to use for tea.  Mint seems to have done really well this summer despite the heat and danger of pots drying out too much.  We have studiously been picking the stems that were showing signs of flowering and that way we’ve persuaded the plants to concentrate on their leaves.  Rosemary, of course, is equally suited to pairing with your lamb. I’ve had a couple of rosemary bushes over the years but they have been relatively short-lived and the most recent succumbed to a bad attack of rosemary beetle.  The latest, closely supervised in its patio pot, has also been attacked by these iridescent pests but we’ve managed to save it so far.

In writing this, I’m suddenly aware of just how many herbs I grow.  I haven’t mentioned basil yet.  I normally sow this from seed each year and usually have several pots on the go but this year it hasn’t been happy – too hot, too cold, too wet, too dry!  We’ve had some leaves to add here and there but not enough to make a decent helping of pesto.  “Could do better” is my note to self for next year.

Finally, I should mention sage.  We have pineapple and tangerine sage growing on the patio for decoration and scent.  I’m sure you’re all thinking, ‘but she must have sage for cooking?’  Sadly not as I find that sage and I simply don’t mix.  In this respect I follow all the good allotment advice which is to grow what you eat, not what you think you might eat!  Our sages will, therefore, remain strictly decorative!


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Bedazzled by Dahlias

Everyone seems to be writing about dahlias right now so please forgive me for joining in! This time last year I wrote about being Dotty about Dahlias and talked about the dilemma – to lift or not to lift? So I thought it would be timely so share with you the success (or failure!) of what we did.

Well, as you can see from the photo above, we have dahlias but are these my originals? This gigantic Veronne’s Obsidian is a great example of a successful ‘leave in the ground’ strategy. Being in south-west London, we should by rights be able to over-winter our dahlias in the ground. In November we cosied them up under a thick layer of our best leaf mould. In less that 24 hours our mulch was scattered to the four winds courtesy of squirrels and squirrel-chasing cats! Clearly whoever recommended the mulching approach didn’t own cats and apparently wasn’t pestered by squirrels either! What were we supposed to do, rake it all up each day and re-mulch? I think not! As the winter progressed and remained relatively mild, I kept my fingers crossed and then the Beast from the East struck! Well that’s it, I thought to myself, and promptly placed an order for replacement tubers!

It seems I need not have feared as not only did the giant Obsidian’s reappear, but so too my red Honkas! In fact, I think all the tubers that were left in the ground eventually reappeared and are currently in flower. To me, flowering seems to have been late this year – a result of the Beast from the East or the drought? Take your pick! Throughout August I kept watching the buds carefully, particularly some plants where it was clear that they were going to be absolutely covered in blooms, but nothing seemed to be happening. Then as September arrived, so did the flowers and, as it turned out, the bees with them. Both the Obsidians and Honkas have literally been a hive of activity over the past few weeks.

There have, however, been some puzzles. We continued to over-winter five dahlias in pots – three yellow Honka, a Bishop of Canterbury (above) and another of York. I have fed both the dahlias in pots, as I always do, and also those in the ground. However, despite their cosseted existence, the potted dahlias have performed poorly. The yellow Honkas have yet to flower and the two Bishops have been rather circumspect which has been disappointing. Their cousin the Bishop of Oxford, however, was left in the border and is flowering beautifully (below).

The other puzzle has been my replacement red Honkas which clearly aren’t! Having resorted to Google, it would appear that these are ‘Honka Surprise’ – how apt! Fortunately I rather like them and so they are welcome to stay.

So as autumn progresses, I am again faced with the dilemma of what to do with my dahlias? I’m pretty convinced that I’m going to leave all the tubers in the ground that are planted in the main border. I will mulch with something, even if it does merely serve as a squirrel playground. As for my potted dahlias, I definitely need a re-think. I’m half hoping that having written about them, they will now prove me wrong and launch into an autumn fling but if not, I think it may be time to go back to the drawing board, or rather the plant catalogue!

So did you leave your dahlias in the ground last year? And regardless of where they were left, are you dahlias flowering later than usual?


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BEE WISE

Having had a rather negative few weeks in the garden over July and August (burnt plants, drought etc.), I’ve decided to blog about something much more positive and uplifting this week.  This morning I was taking photographs of numerous bees who were in love with our dahlias.  Dahlia Verrone’s Obsidian to be precise.  A really dark, velvety red dahlia with a deep golden centre, rich with pollen for the bees.

When asked to think about something that is life-sustaining, I suspect most people would cite water.  Bees are not the first thing we think of but, with their ability to pollinate crops, they are absolutely vital to our existence.  I’m sure you don’t need me to tell you that currently our bees are under serious threat.  If it isn’t pesticides, then it’s the varroa mite or the lack of flowering plants that is out to get them.  The EU has now taken action to ban neonicotinoids on outdoor crops which is certainly an important step but, like so many environmental causes, we can all play a small part in trying to save our bees.

Organisations such as Friends of the Earth and the Royal Horticultural Society (RHS) have highlighted just how important our own back gardens are in helping our bees.  The RHS has its ‘Perfect for Pollinators’ plant label to encourage gardeners to purchase plants that are rich in pollen and easy for bees to access.  Even simple things, such as planting single rather than double flowered plants, all play their part.

For the last few years we have made the effort to ensure that any new plants we buy are ‘bee friendly’ and, judging by the number of bees we see in our garden throughout the year, it is having some impact.  We planted the lovely blue’ish purple Echinops (globe-thistle) some years ago but this year we were also tempted to add a grey/silver variety.  Having done so, I began to worry whether it would attract bees as effectively as its more common neighbour.  I need not have feared, I am delighted to say that both blue and silver globes have been covered in bees during their peak flowering season.

I am also a great fan of Echinacea and have them in pots on the patio and also planted in the border.  They can be quite tender but, having lost a couple in pots which were supposedly over-wintering in the greenhouse one year, I decided to risk two out in the border and I’m pleased to say that they have now returned for about four years on the trot so I can’t help thinking that if they survived the Beast from the East, then we’re OK!  Bees love Echinacea and can often be found clambering around their large central cones.

Agapanthus is perhaps the one that surprises me.  We planted these many years ago, well before the bee cause caught our attention but the bees do love them.  They easily disappear up inside the tubular flowers which gradually open one by one across the whole flower-head.  One of the strengths of Agapanthus is this gradual opening.  You can never say that the flower is completely open as they will gradually open each bud one by one.

Lavender is the obvious bee-friendly plant and we do have three different varieties in the garden – one French and two English types.  Although the bees are attracted to them, I wouldn’t say that they are the most popular flower in our garden and this year even the lavender has been drought-ridden, hence the lack of photo!  Whilst we’re on the subject of purple plants, I have to mention Eryngium, that very spikey plant.  The bees don’t seem to notice its spikiness and happily dive in where others might fear to tread!

Then of course there is the purple Verbena Bonariensis, with its tall, slender stems topped by clusters of tiny tubular flowers, which is another hit with our buzzing friends.  One year we had clouds of Verbena around the garden but then it seemed to vanish.  We carefully nurtured a few tiny self-sown seedlings and I’m delighted to say that this year we have had several lovely plants.  Unfortunately, when a bee lands on them, they sway around too much for me to be able to capture bee and plant in focus.  So apologies for the lack of bee in the photo below!

You might be forgiven for thinking that I’m just planting purple plants because I’ve always had a bit of thing about purple!  However, the scientists have shown that purple is the colour that bees can see most clearly.  For someone who likes purple, it’s a great excuse!

Have you taken action to encourage bees outside your back door?


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Watering wisely?

It’s just over two weeks since I shared the Burnt Garden with you and we’ve actually had some rain – not a lot, but enough to refill both water butts – hoorah!

Is it me, or did it take a while for the gardening press and media to catch up with the fact that many of us gardeners are really struggling with heat and drought this summer?  And I know it’s not just been a London and South-East thing.  Friends in Scotland were bemoaning the lack of water back in the Spring, long before the high temperatures took hold here.  Finally, about a week ago, the emails starting arriving advising us to ‘water wisely’, but just what does that mean?

I mentioned that the recent rain had filled our two water butts.  We are now carefully rationing this new bounty to ensure that we can continue to use rainwater to water our blueberries, other acid-loving plants and, most importantly and unseasonably, our Christmas tree!

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Although in doing this, I am conscious that this year most of my promising blueberries have ended up feeding the local blackbirds!

We can also use the rainwater to top up the pond in due course.  We are now having a serious discussion as to where we can site further water butts because clearly, if our summers are going to continue like this, we need more than two!  However, I’m sure it doesn’t take me to tell you that water butts are large and usually ugly beasts but needs must!

We are also told not to water established plants and trees but, as I mentioned before, I am very worried about our birch tree and my fears were given credence by the tree consultant who I called in to give it an honest assessment.  When I said that I had drenched the root base weekly, he told me that it was no where near enough in order to prevent the tree being stressed further and possibly dying.  He pointed out that the roots probably run under most of the garden so, rather than just soaking the immediate area around the trunk, I should be watering every evening on a very wide scale and encouraging my neighbours to do the same.  So Operation Birch has begun, resulting in a very strange area of bright green grass nearest the tree whilst the rest of the lawn still currently looks like the Sahara!

I am convinced that everyone thinks I’m wasting my water trying to revive the lawn which, of course, is not the case!

Whilst most of the gardening advice is to focus water around the roots and to give a deep, focused soaking, this isn’t going to work for the tree, so I have developed a 15 minutes and then move on approach to using a sprinkler.  This is a real time saver.  Wherever I set my sprinkler, I know water will benefit the tree along with anything else planted nearby.  To avoid over-drenching any one area, I have been known to set the oven timer!  I can then nip out between other tasks and move it on.

Finally, I suppose it is worth reminding ourselves that some plants are really enjoying the heat.  My tomatoes, which were sown late due to the Beast from the East (oh, how that seems a lifetime ago!), are now ripening and it looks like being a good crop.

The watering can is constantly to hand to give them a dousing every evening.  Recently someone was advising reducing the leafy growth even before the end of summer and given the need to save water, this seems sensible, so I am snipping off bits of tomato when the mood takes me and when I can bear to step inside the greenhouse!  I think it would be fair to say that, with the heat we’ve had, I’m the one who comes out looking like a tomato!

 

 

 

 


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The burnt garden

Confession time – I didn’t believe the weather forecasters when they predicted this summer’s heatwave … to my cost.  We headed off for almost two weeks holiday just as the bright yellow, glowing sunshine symbol was starting to wink away on the BBC weather app.  I didn’t entirely ignore the warnings as I did leave watering instructions for my cat-sitter but, unfortunately, I was far too focused on whether it was going to be 8 degrees or 18 in Iceland – it turned out to be both!  More of which another time.  However, there I was on a grey, slightly damp day in the East Fjords when a text pinged through.  London temperatures had soared, plants were scorching and it was clear that troops needed to be mustered if we were to return to anything alive.  Thank heavens for the wonders of hotel wifi and neighbours who responded admirably to my email pleading for help!  However, it was still a shock when we returned home to sights such as this!

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This acuba started off life as a cutting from my mother’s garden.  Interestingly, in one previous hot summer, I remember her showing me the scorched leaves and us wondering if they really could just have been burnt by the sun.  This one is planted in full sun whilst its sibling is in a much shadier area and still has lovely shiny green leaves.  Neither wilt or show any other signs of stress, just these unsightly burnt areas on leaves that were in direct sun.

The bay tree in the front garden is another disaster area.

It’s in a large pot and, nestled up by the hedge, it is both sheltered but also easily forgotten if you don’t know it’s there.  The front garden faces west and consequently receives the full blast of the sun’s setting rays.  When the weather finally gets cool enough, clearly  we will need to give it a short back and sides.  Fortunately we have a second bay in a pot outside the back door which is in better shape should the need for bay arise, although curiously I do think of bay as being a winter herb when it comes to cooking.

There were also some scorched surprises.  I automatically think of dahlias as hot weather plants but it would seem that they too have their limits.  I fear that this Veronne’s Obsidian may not perform at its best this year.

My phlox was a brighter story but, look beneath the purple spray and, yes, there’s plenty of dead, drought ridden growth lurking there too.

But the plant that is worrying me most is our birch tree.  Regular readers will recall the sad tale of my flowering cherry tree, well the birch is right next door to it.  I have known it turn gold early and start dropping leaves when we’ve had previous dry summers but, as you can imagine, this time I am worried.  It has a number of dead branches on one side and the leaves were falling in their hundreds.  I’ve soaked a wide area where I believe its roots to be and I’ve mulched it over.  I’ve also called a tree specialist for advice – they are coming next week.  So please, all fingers crossed, I really can’t bear to loose another tree.