Outside the Backdoor

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


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March brings breezes, loud and shrill …

March brings breezes, loud and shrill,
To stir the dancing daffodil.

This verse of the poem, made me wonder whether the month of March deserves its reputation for being windy?  Apparently, the answer worldwide is ‘yes’ but in the UK it is actually January when we get the strongest winds.  What we want to see this month is daffodils dancing gently in the breeze and not flattened by a gale!  Perhaps that’s why the smaller varieties, such as tete-a-tete have become so popular in recent years! 

Tete-a-Tete daffodils in our ‘woodland garden’ (c) Elizabeth Malone

Since mentioning daffodils last month, I’ve been waiting for my ‘February Gold’ early flowering daffs to show their hand.  Sadly the very cold snap we’ve experienced during the first half of February has meant that I am still waiting and I fear that they will be ‘March Gold’ instead this year!

What else can we look forward to in the garden this month?  The big one for us is Clematis Armandii.  The first flowers started to appear during February but it should really take off this month.  You may be more familiar with this plant than you realise as it is often grown over fences.  It has long, dark green leathery leaves with very delicate creamy white simple flowers with just four petals that develop in large clusters.  It is beautifully scented and, as a result, is a magnet for early bees.  However, it is not for the faint-hearted!  It’s a big plant that has scrambled up twenty feet or so to cover the remains of our cherry tree in double quick time! 

Clematis armandii (c) John Malone

Flicking back over photos taken in the garden last March, I am struck by how many plants we have at this time of year that are white.  Either white flowers or white blossom.  A very delicate example is our cherry plum tree.  At some point this month, we will glance down the garden and realise that there is a white cloud of blossom.  To really appreciate this tree, you need one of those spring days with clear blue sky that is also unseasonably mild.  It is another bee magnet and you can stand beneath its branches and just listen to the very busy hum.

Cherry Plum blossom Spring 2020 (c) Elizabeth Malone

Whilst we’re talking plum blossom, I must mention our Mirabelle de Nancy tree which is also due to flower this month.  Mirabelle have never been widely available in the UK.  We first came across them in Alsace in France when, in September each year, roadsides are laden with stalls selling these delicious small, sweet yellow fruits.  Tracking down a tree to grow here was quite tricky and now that we’ve got it, I think we’re getting an insight into why it may not be the most popular plum in the UK! If I’m being honest, it’s a little tricky to grow!  We’ve had branches die back, silver-leaf curl and wriggly maggots in the fruits!  Oh and did I mention that the pigeons love them?  So much so that we’ve had to invest in a giant net if we’re ever going to have the opportunity to enjoy them ourselves. 

Blossom on Mirabelle de Nancy (c) Elizabeth Malone

My next white choice is a small flowering cherry, Kojo-no-mai, which sits in a pot outside the back door and was a sale purchase.  It came home with us as compensation for having lost our large pink flowering cherry tree.  It’s a rather small substitute but very pretty.  I remember it being out during lockdown last year.  Interestingly, our photos of it are from the middle of the month but then everything looks to have flowered quite early in 2020.  As this will be only its second spring with us, it will be intriguing to see when it flowers this year.  I can already see buds starting to swell along its branches.

Kojo-no-mai in bloom Spring 2020 (c) Elizabeth Malone

I very rarely mention our front garden but, in March, this tends to come into its own with a hedges of forsythia but also a large osmanthus – an evergreen shrub with tiny delicate white flowers with yellow centres.  It’s another one that is deliciously scented.  You will be starting to spot a theme here!  The osmanthus was an impulse buy when we needed something to fill a large pot and green-up the front garden after a gale uprooted an overgrown eucalyptus.  I don’t, however, think the gale was in March!  We were attracted to the plant in the garden centre and it was simply a bonus that it came with scent.  However, I think we have become more attuned in recent years to buying plants that are scented, simply because scent normally means bees and that can only be a good thing.

Osmanthus (c) John Malone

Now what about those dancing daffodils, I hear you cry.  Well you may be please to know that I am going to recommend some white ones to you!  Thalia.  Strictly speaking these are a variety of narcissus.  I discovered them last year and they are a terrific addition to any garden, plot or pot!  They are multi-headed with about three flowers per stem so they really fill out a pot nicely.  Although they are quite a tall, full-height daffodil, the petals are not the conventional daffodil shape but are more slender and create a floaty illusion, and yes, they are also scented!  I liked them so much last year that I put them on my ‘order more’ list for the autumn.  In fact, I then forgot I’d ordered from one supplier and added to a second order so I will have at least three times as many this year!  Definitely something to look forward to towards the end of the month.  In fact, I think they could look rather lovely flowering at Easter – fingers crossed.

Narcissus Thalia dancing in those March breezes! (c) Elizabeth Malone


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February brings the rain …

The first poetry book I ever owned was called something like A Child’s Treasury of Verse and it included a poem by Sara Coleridge called The Garden Year.  It always springs to mind at the start of the year when it’s hard to forget the first stanza …

January brings the snow, 
Makes our feet and fingers glow

It may have been forecast for London and the south-east a few times during January but suddenly this weekend it delivered and the garden turned white extremely rapidly!

Outside the back door on 24 January 2021 (c) Elizabeth Malone

As well as the snow, earlier in the month we had a Sunday morning with a stunning hoar-frost that looked like imitation snow!.  Not wanting to miss out on the garden looking so magical, with every blade of grass and every twig outlined in white, I wrapped up and headed outside, camera (or rather phone) in hand.  It was absolutely freezing and although I moved around as swiftly as I could, the lack of gloves certainly made me fear frost-bite!!

Frosted rose-hips (c) Elizabeth Malone

So what does February have lined up for us?

February brings the rain, 
Thaws the frozen lake again.

With the amount of rain we had pre-Christmas and then again during January, you might not wish to read this! That said, I think this poem is ‘of an era’. Glancing back through my trusty gardening diary, I don’t feel that February brings the rain anymore. Instead, it’s often quite dry and I’ve been caught unawares having failed to water pots outside the back door, only to find them drooping due to lack of moisture.

February has a surprising amount of colour for us to look forward to and I’m rather assuming that everyone would like a bit of an uplift as we continue to slog our way through Lockdown 3!

First to make an appearance in our garden is likely to be the snowdrop. You will note that it is singular, ‘snowdrop’ and not ‘drops’. That’s because snowdrops don’t’ seem to like our garden and, after numerous attempts, both in bulb form and ‘in the green’, I can still only boast one small clump! I have already seen a few popping their heads up around Hampton on our daily walks so I shall be keeping a close eye out for ours to make sure I don’t miss them!

My one lonely snowdrop (c) Elizabeth Malone

The flower I probably most look forward to in February is Iris Reticulata. One day they’re still just a mass of thin strappy leaves and then the next they provide this very welcome zing of vivid blue or purple splashed with sunshine yellow. However, don’t make the mistake I did one year when, in eagerness to add more to an existing pot, I squished in more bulbs in the autumn only to discover the following spring that I’d planted a different colour and I now had violet blues interspersed with beetroot purple and they clashed horribly!

Iris reticulata ‘Harmony’ (c) Elizabeth Malone

Our Christmas hellebores are now giving way to the spring or Lenten hellebores. We have literally hundreds of these thanks to them self-seeding freely all over the place. Every time I go out to the recycling bin at the moment, I’m terrified that I’m going to step on a rather gorgeous deep red one that’s emerging through the gravel! So which are my favourite hellebores? I think the answer has to be ‘all of them!’ And that’s because I like the surprise of turning up their heads to face me to see what sort of flower they are – plain, speckled, dark centred? It’s always a surprise and delight.

Self-set hellebore (c) Elizabeth Malone

Along with snowdrops, crocuses are the other bulb that I most identify with February. We only have a small clump or two under our hawthorn tree but they seem to have improved year on year. I always remember planting them as one of our cats was determined to dig them up every time I turned my back. I’m amazed we have any at all!

Purple crocus – not sure which variety (c) Elizabeth Malone

Back in the autumn, I also planted up a pot of very early daffodils called February Gold. It was part of my plan to brighten up the late winter which, I guessed, might be a bit strange. Well, it turns out that I was spot on there! That said, looking back over last year’s garden photos (and lockdown meant that there were many of them), I discovered that my favourite daffodil from last year was already flowering on the 15 February. This was Jet-fire. For a small daffodil, Jet-fire is taller that the well-known tete-a-tete and has gold, thrown back petals with a deep orange trumpet. It really performed, with flowers lasting for several weeks.

Narcissus ‘Jet-fire’ (c) Elizabeth Malone

I shall have to wait to see if February Gold lives up to its name! As we continue to progress through these very grim months of pandemic, I encourage you to keep looking outside at what’s around you. February isn’t the dull, grey month that we often think of. There’s plenty of colour awaiting for us!


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Trees

As 2020 draws to a close and we welcome 2021, so I’m concluding my series of articles focusing on the climate crisis, and what better way to finish that on the very seasonal subject of trees.

Autumnal glow outside the back door (c) Elizabeth Malone

Like many things in the 21st century, choosing a Christmas tree becomes a moral, ethical and ecological dilemma. Real or plastic? And if real, what sort of real? Did you know that the UK produces over 4 million Christmas trees a year? This is insignificant compared to the 18 million produced annually in Germany! In November this year, the lockdown rules changed slightly two weeks in just to allow people to visit Christmas tree producers to buy their trees! Far too early if you ask me. The poor things were going to be bald by Christmas – the trees that is, not the people buying them! Think of all that needle-drop as they gently roast by the radiator.

Our regular church Christmas tree – the real option (c) Elizabeth Malone

But that doesn’t answer the question, if you want to make a sustainable, environmental choice, what tree should you choose? In researching this question, I found a very useful article in The Guardian from last year which points out all the pitfalls of artificial trees, from the chemicals used in production through to the more obvious issue of your artificial tree being non-recyclable and likely to exist on this planet for thousands of years before finally decaying. That said, if you already have an artificial tree stashed away in your loft, then you’ve made the commitment and you’re probably better to keep using in for a few decades to come!

Always useful to have a spare artificial one on the loft when you’re running a Christmas Tree festival! (C) Elizabeth Malone

Real trees, however, are not Christmas angels and come with their own environmental hazards from the pesticides and fertiliser used to grow them and the carbon footprint generated by the many miles travelled in transporting them. However, at least you can recycle them although I do have one plea to make. If you’re putting them out for the council collection, please avoid creating a hazard for unsuspecting pedestrians and a dark ‘bin-night’!

Making the most of real trees outside the back door (c) John Malone

For eleven Christmases now, our tree has sat outside the back door – literally! it was a decision taken when the cats were 6 month old kittens and we had seen one too many photographs of kittens wreaking havoc amidst the tinsel! (If you need to cheer yourself up, do seek out the Simon’s Cat video “Santa Claws”. That was the first year we abandoned a cut tree in favour of one in a pot. Our first tree lasted about three Christmases but the current one has clocked up about eight! Every summer it entertains us by putting on an amazing display of its own natural bright green lights as its branches push out their new growth. Sadly now it’s getting a bit sparse in the way of branches at the bottom whilst the top is increasingly bushy, not making it the easiest tree to decorate but we will still relish standing out in the cold, trying to tie baubles onto it with frozen fingers.

O Christmas Tree! (C) Elizabeth Malone

And so before I leave you to enjoy the festivities, in the month when we normally purchase millions of hacked down trees, why not also purchase something more positive? Especially this year when it’s going to be challenging to meet relatives and friends to hand them a present (which they’ll then need to quarantine for up to three days before unwrapping!), why not give the gift of trees? I did this myself back in September when normally I would have bought flowers for the church to commemorate my parents’ birthdays. With the pandemic halting the option of flowers being arranged in church, I decided to do something more permanent and purchase trees through the Woodland Trust. You can literally buy trees, although I appreciate you may not have somewhere to plant the, or you a purchase trees to be planted in woodlands around the country and you can add dedications. The trees I purchase in September will be planted in a woodland near some friends in Worcestershire and I’m looking forward to the day, hopefully in 2021, when we can all take a walk together to view them.

Autumn sunrise outside the back door (c) Elizabeth Malone

However, you’re spending this strangest of Christmases, don’t lose sight on our need to protect the planet and try to make your Christmas a little bit greener this year.


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Hoorah for hedgehogs!

We have hedgehogs!  Not one, not two but three!  I know that everyone thinks I’m a bit crazy to be going on about them like this but we haven’t seen a hedgehog in our garden for more than 15 years.  Having decided to focus this year’s blog posts on the climate crisis and the environment, it’s rather nice to have a story to tell about one of our most endangered species. 

Our first spiny visitor! (c) John Malone

Not that many years ago, hedgehogs were abundant in the UK.  Just think how many you used to see squished on the road!  And that, in its own way, has been part of the problem.  Man’s impact on the hedgehog has been significant.  If we’ve not run over them in our cars, we’ve removed the hedges they need to nest in (the clue is in the name!) and tidied our gardens to within an inch of their lives.  In the 1950s it’s thought that there was over 36 million hedgehogs in this country but now it’s estimated that the number is probably only around 1 million.  As a result this year saw hedgehogs added to the red-list of endangered species in the UK alongside other well-loved creatures such as the red squirrel.

We first became aware of our hedgehogs in the spring. In fact, I wouldn’t even have been on alert to look out for them had not a colleague not too many miles away remarked that she had them in her garden. Only a few days later I spotted some droppings in the garden. With three cats, we know cat poo well so quickly ruled that out! Foxes can’t really get into our garden because of our cat fence but prior to having that fence, clearing the garden of fox poo was a regular and very unpleasant task, so we quickly ruled that out too. To the amusement of friends and colleagues I Googled “hedgehog poo” and up popped a picture that matched what was in our garden almost exactly.

Hedgehog poo on our lawn (c) Elizabeth Malone

Then, by total chance, I spotted a hedgehog running down the garden one evening! My husband looked sceptical but the following evening he saw it too! Inspired by this, our neighbour went out and purchased hedgehog food. Each evening the food vanished but we never saw what was eating it. As the days drew longer, we became less than convinced that we were feeding hedgehogs. I considered purchasing one of those wildlife trigger cameras but, oh goodness, what a selection there is out there! I decided it was all far too complicated and resigned myself to the thought that our hedgehog had trotted off to better gardens.

Our hedgehog highway (protected from fox digging!) (c) Elizabeth Malone

On the last weekend in September, I walked out into the garden and saw more hedgehog poo! That hadn’t been there the day before! Two days later we were washing up as dusk fell when I spotted a hedgehog running across the lawn! We shot outside with cameras and my husband rummaged in the shed for the remaining hedgehog food. Our little spiky friend seemed quite appreciative so the following evening we were prepared and the tray of food went out in preparation. As my husband took it out, he spotted movement amongst the dahlias. Suddenly I saw frantic waving – there was not one but two hedgehogs out there! One was really small, a baby we decided. At this point we began to realise that we knew very little about the lifecycle of the hedgehog – more Googling followed!

Proof that there were two! (c) John Malone

Equipped with our new knowledge, we started to worry. If the little one was a recent baby, the statistics showed that its chances of putting on enough weight to survive the winter were quite slim. Our commitment to feeding them went up a notch or two at this point. We researched further food options and ordered kitten biscuit to be added to our next supermarket delivery. On one evening they had to do with a pouch of wet cat food and they were clearly unimpressed as that was the one evening we didn’t see them! The kitten food has proved popular as the kibble is small enough for a little hedgehog snout to cope with. Then, to our amazement, two became three! In fact, my husband was heading out with the food and nearly stood on one! At that point we realised that there were two more huddled together under our hawthorn tree.

Enjoying a supper of kitten food (c) John Malone

We are really thrilled to be welcoming these increasingly rare and endangered creatures into our garden and are delighted that our efforts at gardening in an environmentally friendly way appears to be paying off. Our garden isn’t overly tidy. We have corners that frankly we cannot reach so leaves and twigs gather which are ideal for hedgehogs. We have never sprayed chemicals although I will admit to the occasional use of supposedly wildlife friendly slug pellets but these are only used when a plant is being decimated and for a limited time. However, if we can keep our hedgehogs happy, I won’t need these as they can eat the slugs for me!

Hedgehog house under construction! (C) Elizabeth Malone

We’ve been reflecting on why the appearance of the hedgehogs has been so thrilling? Is it anything to do with lockdown and needing some good news stories? Or is it that this is giving us a chance to put conservation into action in our own back yard? Either way, we hope our little spiny friends will find somewhere snug to hibernate this winter and that we can welcome them outside the backdoor again next year.


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RECYCLING FOR GARDENS AND WILDLIFE

The end of last month saw Recycle Week 2020, organised by WRAP – the Waste and Resources Action Programme.  WRAP is working on UK wide initiatives to work with, for example, the packaging industry to reduce those layers of unnecessary plastic that we fight our way through even to open a packet of biscuits!  Eventually there will come a time when we all say, remember when we had all those plastic cartons lying around?  But for now, for the majority of people, convenience means that we continue to buy and dispose of more plastic than we would ideally like.  So can we be creative and use it for the benefit of our gardens and wildlife?  Recently I’ve stumbled across a few ideas that have merit and some which may even keep our younger readers occupied across the October half-term!

Encouraging insects (c) John Malone

The first is the fruit-juice carton birdfeeder!  This popped up on my newsfeed on Facebook recently and I thought, what a fun idea!  Although ideally you should be feeding your garden birds all year round, there is a tendency for us all to do that little bit more for them during winter.  Fruit juice cartons, you know the sort, are ideal for this as they even come with a ready-made sloping roof to protect seed from the rain!  Crafty website Pinterest has literally thousands of pictures of people being creative with their fruit juice cartons.  A fruit juice carton bird feeder may not be squirrel-proof, but then neither are many of the more expensive models on sale in garden centres so you may as well give this a go!

Juice carton bird feeder

Earlier in the spring I mentioned that I’d also used fruit juice cartons as additional seed trays.  I have to say that these worked remarkably well!  The were particularly good for large seeds, such as cosmos, which you can easily space out.  I’d certainly do this again.

Milk carton watering cans are another way to re-use one of those bits of plastic that are hard to avoid.  Again, there are hundreds of examples of how to do this.  I also saw one suggestion about keeping a carton of water to hand next to your most needy plants so that you can step in and water them at the drop of a hat!

Sadly the pandemic has meant that all those nice, reusable coffee cups that we were all getting used to carrying around with us, are generally no longer accepted at most coffee outlets.  This means that we’re starting to face a mountain of disposable coffee cups again so why not rinse them out, take them home and use them as plant pots?  The ‘rinse out’ bit is vitally important there as I doubt anyone wants to find coffee dregs in the bottom of their handbag!

Of course the best recycling you can do in your garden that benefits both plants and wildlife is composting.  Yet again the other Friday evening, Monty Don was extolling the virtues of composting on Gardeners’ World and talking us through his enormous 4-bin system.  As I’ve said before, composting on this scale is unthinkable for most of us!  Realistically most of us have to be content with either a small square bin or one of those council supplied ‘daleks’.  We are lucky enough to have one of each and equally each has been a learning curve. 

Council ‘dalek’ composter (with cat!) (c) Elizabeth Malone

To avoid the plastic dalek turning into green sludge, we decided to built a wooden bin to take most of our grass clippings, or at least to allow us to drip-feed them into the other bin.  To be honest, we rather ignored this heap until this spring when the pandemic caused our green garden waste collections to be cancelled at just the peak of the garden waste production cycle!  Consequently this bin was revitalised and brought back into weekly (or almost daily) usage to take both grass clippings and larger, woodier prunings.  To our surprise, it seems to be working ok and there might even be something vaguely usable at the end of it all.

Rogue tomato plants in my border with the roses! (c) Elizabeth Malone

The dry spring and an expanded hot border meant that we also took the brave (or foolish) decision to empty our dalek completely and start again.  It hadn’t been fully emptied for some years and so we were rewarded with surprisingly rich, dark compost at the bottom which, hopefully, will have enriched some of our dry soil.  What we had not bargained for, however, was the knock-on effect of all those split / slightly mouldy tomatoes that I’ve tossed in the bin over the years.  As a result, I spent most of the spring pulling up tiny tomato plants from all over the garden!  Inevitably I missed two … which have spent the summer growing rampant in the flower border!  They’ve had no feed and irregular watering and yet they are producing bigger and better fruits that those that I have spent time and energy fussing over in the greenhouse.  Isn’t that just typical? 

Cropping better than the cossetted ones! (c) Elizabeth Malone

Do you have a top tip for recycling materials in the garden?  Do let me know.


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All creatures great and small

Health warning – I’m about to be controversial this month!  How do you like your verges?  Those strips of ground along the sides of pavements, roads and around car parks?  Do you look for bowling green perfection?  Are you happy with rough and ready?  Or would you like to see something attractive but relaxed and informal, not too neat?  This year I’ve been focusing Outside the Back Door on what we can all do in our gardens and back yards to improve our environment and do our little bit for the climate crisis but this month I want to look slightly further afield.  Not too far, probably just as far as the top of the road.

Wildflower meadow at the National Physical Laboratory in Teddington (c) Elizabeth Malone

One effect of the Coronavirus lockdown was councils having to re-prioritise tasks and budgets.  In many cases the need to trim verges around the boroughs fell to the bottom of the list.  In my own borough, the debate escalated recently as “enraged of RIchmond” took to social media to complain that standards were slipping and how ghastly it was to see all these wild flowers blooming around verges and attracting, shock, horror, insects!  As you might imagine, those of a different persuasion equally fought their corner, arguing the case strongly for this more relaxed, environmentally friendly approach – an approach which, in fairness, has already been deliberately adopted by some local authorities.  

Hampton Cemetery in Spring 2020 (c) Elizabeth Malone

With so many appreciating getting closer to nature during lockdown, or rather nature getting closer to them, the role played by our in-between spaces, such as verges, can’t be ignored.  If we’re to hear more birdsong, we need to ensure plenty of insects around for birds to feed on – they can’t live on our nut and seed feeders alone!  And if we want to be dazzled by beautiful butterflies, we must provide the nectar to sustain them.  Our rougher, more unkempt verges can bloom and become a really important source of food.

Cabbage whites particularly like verbena it seems (c) Elizabeth Malone

Insects must surely be the most reviled of all God’s creatures?  I’m the first to admit that I will run a mile from a wasp and can only remove spiders up to a certain dimension!  I’ve only been stung by a bee once (I hope I don’t regret writing that!) and it was a painful experience.  Thankfully it’s not put me off encouraging bees into the garden.  Any plant I buy these days comes with the ‘bee friendly’ tag.  Scientists have shown that without bees we couldn’t survive.  So imagine my concern when, during that very hot spell towards the end of June, I kept finding large bumblebees dying on my lawn.  At the time our ‘lawn’ was a mass of clover as we’d stopped cutting due to the drought.  Every day we were finding one or two bees staggering across the flower heads and then they would just stop, literally dead in their tracks.  It was so sad to see.  I was so concerned that I contacted the local Wildlife Trust who introduced me to a new Facebook group called Nature in Richmond.  There I found other people reporting the same thing but also bee ‘experts’ who explained that the UK’s bumblebee populations are moving north due to warmer summers in the south of England as a result of climate change.  

Bees fighting over the echinacea in our garden (c) Elizabeth Malone

Joining this Facebook group has been a revelation.  You can post a photograph of just about anything wildlife related and someone is likely to know the answer.  Apart from recognising their importance, I confess I know almost nothing about insects but I have been delighted to post a photo of, for example, a hoverfly and to have it identified as a ‘marmalade hoverfly’.  Another colourful mystery was a red-belted clear-wing moth!  I’ve discovered that sightings such as this also get logged by the South-West London Environmental Network and added to their Biodiversity Record.  So whilst it’s a great source of information (and of some fabulous photography I should add), it’s also rewarding to know that we’re contributing to understanding the nature around us.

Red-belted clearwing moth in our garden as identified by the local nature group
(c) Elizabeth Malone

So whilst we’re on the topic of insects, let’s not forget the butterflies and my impression is that it has been a good summer for them.  I’ve carried out one or two butterfly counts in the garden and uploaded them to the Butterfly Conservation Trust who run this annual survey.  Across the summer I’m delighted to have seen large and small whites, commas, peacocks, red admirals, holly blues, brimstones, speckled wood and an abundance of gatekeepers.  However, a couple of weeks ago I saw a flash of orange followed by a flash of black and white that settled on the crab apple tree.  Before I could take a closer look it had fluttered away.  I went to get the camera but by then it had vanished.  A few days later I was walking in Crane Park and saw the same thing.  This time it was more obliging and settled on a convenient nettle patch ready to be photographed – a Jersey Tiger!  I’m pretty sure I’ve never seen one of these before and I’m delighted to say that I’ve seen another since in a local road where there is an unkempt verge, full of nettles (and sadly dumped rubbish).  Butterflies love nettles and wild flowers that are rich in nectar.  They are also a very important indicator of the health of our environment.  So it’s back to those grass verges again.

Jersey Tiger butterfly on hydrangea leaves in our garden August 2020 (c) Elizabeth Malone


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Plastic, not so fantastic

It’s hard to believe it but avoiding the use of excess plastic already appears to be ‘so last year’.  The Coronavirus pandemic may have given us clearer skies and cleaner air but it’s done absolutely nothing for plastic pollution which must surely be on the rise again?  So what can we gardeners do to try to tip the balance in the other direction?

Agapanthus – not planted in plastic! (c) Elizabeth Malone

I confess that this isn’t an area of environmentally responsible gardening that I’ve fully embraced.  If I’m quite honest, it’s because it’s so difficult!  I’m writing this sitting on a hot patio surrounded by plastic pots; in the shed behind me reside several plastic bags of compost; and I’m about to water the garden (it is parched) with a plastic hose sitting on a plastic reel.

Echinacea – also not plastic! (c) Elizabeth Malone

One thing that I’ve noticed about being ‘plastic conscious’ is that my shed is in danger of filling up with bits of plastic that “may come in useful” one day – a bit like my Dad used to collect bits of wood!  I’ve always kept the plastic pots that new plants arrive in.  I re-use them every spring for seedlings and potting stuff on.  There’s quite a lot of them in every size, shape and, since the need to make things more recyclable, colour.  When I re-use them, I do enjoy it if the label is still on the side and I can see what originally came in it.  Sometimes it’s a sad story of a plant that didn’t make it but on other occasions it’s astonishing how small the pot now looks compared to the thriving plant!

Potting on involves a lot of plastic re-use (c) Elizabeth Malone

Re-using plants pots is an easy thing anyone can do but, in my desperation for plastic not to be ‘single-use’, I’ve started to acquire a stack of strangely shaped trays that have usually come from biscuits or fruit or other foodstuffs in the hope of repurposing them for the garden in some obscure way.  This spring I had great success growing cosmos seedlings in plasticised fruit-juice cartons.  Plenty of gardeners extol the virtues of cardboard loo-roll tubes for sowing long-rooted seedlings such as sweet peas.  I did try this once but the cardboard went a bit weirdly mouldy on me.  I will try not to let this put me off giving it another go.  Fashioning pots for seedlings from newspaper is also another alternative but, as we all buy less and less printed newspapers, this might actually cease to be an option in years to come.

Seeds germinated in old fruit juice cartons (c) Elizabeth Malone

‘Re-use’ has to be the keyword when it comes to reducing plastic in our gardening.  If you’ve got something that is plastic, don’t replace it for the sake of it, just keep using it until it finally bites the dust!  Seed trays would be a good example.  You can buy wooden ones or trendy bamboo, but if you already have old-fashioned plastic, keep using it for as long as possible.

Extremely well-used plastic seed tray (c) Elizabeth Malone

Plant labels are another good example.  Plastic ones can be re-used time and time again.  However, I know that each year I lose a few!  Eventually I will need to buy some more.  I have some rather nice slate ones waiting in the wings but a simple alternative would be to use something like wooden lolly sticks.

Entertaining but plastic! (c) Elizabeth Malone

The other heap of stuff that is in danger of overflowing in my shed is old compost bags.  It is possible to buy compost in non-plastic containers but generally speaking I’ve found that this either applies to bulk-buying or requires time that I simply don’t have.  This spring, I think most gardeners were happy to take any compost they could get, such was the impact of the lockdown.  So whilst my compost might tick the ‘peat-free’ box, sadly it fails on the plastic free front.

No, it’s not autumn yet, but a good re-use of old compost sacks (c) Elizabeth Malone

Which leads me to consider other packaging.  Organic liquid fertilisers, such as seaweed extract, are fantastic for feeding your plants and keeping them health but, inevitably, they come in plastic bottles.  In the spring I do use chicken manure pellets which also come in giant plastic tubs.  Some of these get re-used for storing bird-food and keeping it safe from the mice, but I am thinking that I need to consider purchasing more of the dry types of feed, such as blood, fish and bonemeal, that come in cardboard boxes. 

For the time being, my watering arrangements will remain unchanged.  I have two plastic watering cans that are almost certainly more than 20 years old.  If one of them suddenly gives up the ghost, then I will think of buying a non-plastic alternative.

More trusty old friends – the can is at least 20 years old! (c) Elizabeth Malone

One thing I’m not guilty of is using plastic ties.  I prefer old fashioned green garden twine.  At the start of lockdown I needed some urgently and included a ‘ball of string’ as part of an order to a local garden centre.  The most enormous ball of garden twine that you’ve ever seen arrived!  I won’t need to buy twine for quite some time to come!

Look at the size of that twine! (c) Elizabeth Malone


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Water wise

As I write this, the thermometer is set to soar into the mid-thirties centigrade later today. Admittedly the forecast is suggesting that it may be the classic British summer week of a few hot days followed by a thunderstorm. Anyone who knows me well will know that I’m not looking forward to the thunderstorm bit! That said, I would welcome the rain. In fairness, the garden isn’t looking quite as parched as it did a week or so ago. That Thursday of heavy downpours has refreshed the grass and the veg plot remained damp for several days after. More importantly, the pond filled up as did our water butts, and that’s where I want to focus really – what we do to manage our water wisely.

Rain falling on patio and chairs
Summer downpour (c) Elizabeth Malone

Scarily, over 25 years ago, I remember cataloguing a report from the then National Rivers Authority called Water: Nature’s Precious Resource which was in high demand from our Environmental Sciences students. This report emphasised that, whilst the press might focus on droughts in less developed parts of the world, the developed world needed to become much smarter at managing its water supply as changes to the climate were already beginning to signal trouble ahead. Without a doubt, handling books on these topics influenced my own approach to managing water, especially as gardeners can get a bit of a bad reputation when it comes to water usage! So what steps can we each take to do our bit? I don’t suppose I’m going to mention anything you don’t already know about but, as each summer seems to become a little warmer, there’s no harm in reminding ourselves of the changes we can make.

Watering can being refilled
Filling up – yet again! (C) Elizabeth Malone

Let’s start with water meters. I’ve always found it interesting that we expect to pay for gas and electricity according to usage but not water. If you’ve not yet fitted a meter, do consider it. Compulsory metering is being rolled out by Thames Water but not to our area just yet but you can get a step ahead and request an installation. Evidence suggests that if you are a one or two person household, you will almost certainly save money as well as water!

Two water butts
Water butts – not things of beauty! (C) Elizabeth Malone

Without doubt, a water meter makes you think about how much you are using, particularly in the garden. I suspect that there is a correlation between the owners of water meters and the owners of water butts! We have two water butts and every summer, as they run dry, we threaten to install more. The challenges are space and aesthetics. The two butts we have are not things of beauty! Located behind the shed, they are generally out of sight but the most obvious place to install more is on the patio and, worse than that, directly beneath our carefully chosen light fittings! You can appreciate our dilemma! We keep flicking through catalogues and websites offering slim, discrete designs, designs that pretend to be something else, and designs that also cost a small fortune! At some point we will bite the bullet as we really value our rainwater stocks, not just to avoid using tap water unnecessarily, but to ensure we can water acid loving plants such as our blueberries and our Christmas tree with lime-free water. We also use it to top up the pond occasionally which is better for the wildlife. According to the Consumer Council for Water, “The average house roof in the UK collects enough rain water in a year to fill about 450 water butts.” Just to be clear, I’m not suggesting that you install 450 butts – that would be a little excessive!

Blueberries ripening on plant
Blueberries ripening (c) Elizabeth Malone

Being selective about what you water in the garden is also important. New plants deserve good and frequent soakings as there’s nothing more soul-destroying than seeing your new favourite flower wilt and die within days. Try to find time to water either early morning or later evening to prevent excessive evaporation and also accidental scorching of leaves. The veg plot also needs careful attention. There’s not much point in throwing away all the hard work that goes into germinating, pricking out and planting on young veg plants, only to fry them on a sunny day.

Over view of vegetables plots
Veg plots (c) John Malone

Most advice on using water wisely in the garden makes it clear that you should ditch that sprinkler! That said, I have one exception to that rule and that has been trying to soak around the root area of a large tree. Our birch tree is really struggling and the tree surgeon’s advice was to really soak a wide area around the tree once a week. If we just leave the hose on, then the water runs off. Leaving the sprinkler spraying gently around the base of the tree enables more water to be absorbed where we need it.

Birch tree with dead and live branches with bird
Trying to save our birch tree (c) Elizabeth Malone

Mulching your borders in spring to seal in moisture is something that I always attribute to serious gardeners! For years I thought about doing it and would usually remember too late. We also had a run of very dry January and Februaries which meant that I felt I’d already missed the boat. Mulching also helps condition the soil and last year I decided I would be organised and we ordered sacks and sacks of mulch. It all seemed such a great idea until our rather hairy cats rolled in the straw-like substance and our lounge looked more mulched than the border!

Curled up cat in flower border
Mulch magnet! (C) John Malone

Finally, I’m going to mention the ‘lawn’. If you are fortunate enough to have a garden with a piece of ‘green’ in the middle, I suspect that, like me, it’s not exactly bowling green standard. Don’t water the grass when it’s hot and dry, it will turn green again remarkably quickly after one of those stormy downpours. Also, don’t cut during dry weather unless you really have to. Let some of the weeks flower and enable the bees and other insects to flourish on it.

Clover growing amid grass
Clover in lawn (c) Elizabeth Malone


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Sounds of silence

Flapping, squeaking, buzzing … and not a jet engine to be heard!

I have lived my life underneath the Heathrow flight path. At my parents’ house, we used to look forward to a foggy day when the skies would fall silent but, since landing became more automated, even that ceased to be the case. Our current house was chosen for the fact that it generally falls between flight paths and doesn’t get planes directly overhead – hoorah! That said, there’s always the odd day when it feels like air traffic control have you in their sights. We do have the railway line, however, but since the Coronavirus lockdown began, trains have started later, finished earlier and they are shorter so they pass by more quickly.

Intense blue above us (c) Elizabeth Malone

So I look up to the part blue / part cloudy white sky and instead of vapour trails, I can see a swallow circling … or is it a swift? I always find it hard to spot the difference at a distance so we tend to hedge our bets and refer to the ‘swillows’! It’s not a particularly full sky today in terms of birds but then it’s May. Most birds have more important things to be doing right now than swooping across our skies. That said, isn’t it blue? Apparently it’s not just our eyes deceiving us or our imaginations romanticising this new ‘lockdown’ world, it really is ‘bluer’ due to the lack of pollution. The blue skies have provided an intense backdrop to what has been a very beautiful spring.

Cotinus coggyria ‘Royal Purple’ against blue sky (c) Elizabeth Malone

The squeaking is incessant. It has been a huge week for fledglings. This picture doesn’t really tell the story. The lawn was covered in greedy young starlings demanding food and our sparrow family who have kept us entertained all week. The sparrows seem to have taken home-schooling to heart and we observe daily lessons such as how to approach a squirrel-protected bird-feeder!

A handful of greedy young starlings – the rest were hiding behind the bushes!

There’s also a lot of flapping going on. That would be the wood pigeons and magpies sorting themselves out, some in our birch tree and some on the roof of the house at the end of the garden. This is interspersed with the ‘woo-woo’ of the collar doves.

Magpie at sunset in our birch tree (c) Elizabeth Malone

Seconds ago I had to duck! A formidable buzzing passed by my right ear as a giant bumble bee made its way towards the cotoneaster. The flowers of this plant might be tiny but the bees absolutely love it. We used to have the food-waste bin positioned near the prostrate cotoneaster in our front garden but that meant stepping very near the humming masses each time we used it. We concluded that it was prudent to move the bin!

Tiny flowers of the cotoneaster (c) Elizabeth Malone

I can also hear the relaxing sound of running water. Next door’s fountain is trickling into their pond, which reminds me that we’ve not yet turned on our fountain this spring. Something to do later. The sound of the trickling water is also hiding that inevitable summer noise – the whine of a lawnmower! Clearly no one has mentioned that it’s supposed to be ‘no mow May’ around here!

Time to turn on our own pond fountain! (C) Elizabeth Malone

Finally, I can hear the blackbird, surely one of the most beautiful bird songs. I know a mistle-thrust would probably be even more lyrical but this is south-west London, we can’t have everything you now! And as if to remind me that not all bird-song is necessarily beautiful, I can hear a bevvy of parakeets heading our way!

Good afternoon blackbird!
And good evening blackbird!


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The power of ponds

Water is an essential feature of any wildlife garden and for most of us that means a pond. If you are looking to make your garden, terrace or even balcony, more environmentally friendly, you can’t go far wrong in adding a splash of water.

Our pond in spring time (c) Elizabeth Malone

When we moved here twenty years ago, there was a willow tree by the pergola. The pergola had been carefully positioned by the previous owners so that it caught the evening sun in the summer and was therefore a lovely place to wind down at the end of the day with a glass of something cold in your hand. Sitting in the pergola and by the willow tree, we quickly realised that this area was begging for a pond. It is perhaps ironic that the willow tree subsequently died but we have never regretted the decision to build the pond.

Pond and pergola (c) John Malone

Before embarking on the pond we had tested the water (apologies for the terrible pun!) by plugging the drainage hole in a large ceramic pot, filling it with water and adding a water lily. It actually worked really well and was a delight to look at. I’d really recommend this for anyone who either doesn’t have the space for a pond or who just wants to add a bit more water to their garden.

Our increasingly giant water lily! (C) John Malone

Without a shadow of doubt, our pond is teeming with wildlife. As I write this, it is a glorious sunny spring day and red damselflies are emerging, skimming the water, perching on marigold leaves and quickly finding a mate. I’ve also counted six newts. On a day like this they love to just float in the sunshine. Sadly we didn’t have any frogspawn this year. We did have a lonely frog who turned up and waited patiently for its mate but clearly to no avail. We are really missing the tadpoles as they devour the green weed in the pond and keep the water clear. Instead I am having to mess around, trying to extract it with a hoe or any other device that seems to work. I’ve tried scooping with a net but trying to clean out the net before making the next scoop, is really frustrating! There are also water snails – where did they come from? Everyone always says build a pond and the wildlife will come. This is so true.

Tadpoles last spring (c) Elizabeth Malone

Creating a pond needn’t be complicated but a little extra thought will help develop a really good wildlife haven. For example, ensuring that there are plants with tall, strappy leaves enables damselflies and dragonflies to emerge from the water and dry off after shedding their skin. You need plants that will maintain oxygen levels to enable frogs and newts to survive. You should also always include a way out for any creature that accidentally falls in. Most people have hedgehogs in mind when they say this but your cat might appreciate it too! Fortunately we have only ended up with a soggy moggy on about three occasions!

Dragonfly emerging (c) John Malone

As well as being a wildlife home, the pond also helps to sustain a variety of other creatures. The birds love to bathe here as well as drink and we frequently see bees and wasps refreshing themselves. The heron, however, is one of our less welcome visitors as it is probably the reason why we don’t have frogspawn. From our observations, there is nothing better that a heron likes for breakfast than a nice juicy frog! A bit like foxes, I think we have a bit of a love-hate relationship with the heron. They are so intriguing to watch. The first time I saw one standing by our pond early one morning, my first thought was that someone was playing a joke on me and had stuck a plastic one in the garden … but then it moved its head slightly!

Bee taking advantage of the marsh marigolds (c) John Malone

As we originally envisaged, sitting next to the pond is a really restful experience, watching the wildlife and listening the trickling water (on the occasions when we do remember to turn on the fountain!) and I would recommend to anyone adding a pond to your garden to enhance the environment, not just for the wildlife, but for you as well.

The relaxing sound of trickling water (c) Elizabeth Malone