Outside the Backdoor

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


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Relishing the roses

Back in March I wrote that you can never have too many roses! Some friends literally took me at my word and on our Silver Wedding anniversary we received not one, but two Silver Anniversary roses! I’m pleased to report that they are doing well and we’ve had our first bloom.

It was the emergence of this first bud that prompted me into thinking that it was time to do a quick round up of how our roses have been doing so far this Spring / early Summer. For those of you who normally read these blog posts in our church magazine, you’ll realise why this one won’t make it to print there – black and white would be such a waste!

Ahead of the game we started the rose season with the first bud of Rosa Mutabilis, the China rose. This amazing plant produces these beautiful, open yellow / flushed pink flowers which gradually darken to a deep cerise. The openness of the flowers means that they are attractive to wildlife, they smell beautiful and the bush will continue to flower well into the autumn. Described like that, it really is the perfect plant!

So perfect that John decided that we would have the yellow variety as well. Sadly this doesn’t have the same scent. However, it looks like being a do-er again as, whilst newly planted this year, it has leapt into flower!

Another do-er is our Shropshire Lad. Bought in memory of my father, who was a Shropshire Lad, it started life in my mother’s garden and I still remember the day when, with a friend’s help, I wrestled it from the ground to bring it here. That was the day that I learnt just how long a tap-root a rose can have! Despite all our careful planning, digging a broad circle around the plant and following all the advice you see on television, we ended up pulling and cursing and eventually cutting some roots. Thankfully it didn’t hold it back and it soon settled in and rewards us with blooms for most of the summer

Shropshire Lad has been causing a bit of debate on another garden blog so I hope this picture will add evidence to Ali, the Mindful Gardener‘s, conclusion that she doesn’t own a Shropshire Lad!

Which just goes to show how difficult it is to identify a rose if you don’t know what it is. Here’s a good example. This next rose had a difficult start in life. Planted in a pot on my mother’s patio, she hadn’t bargained for the builders next door dropping cement all over it! Fortunately roses are tough at heart and since moving it here it has gradually found its feet but sadly I don’t know what it is. I am open to suggestions!

Last year when planning our new hot border, we decided that a rose would be a good addition as it would add longer flowering interest than many of the perennials often associated with hot border planting such as dahlias. I spent a long time looking at different yellow and orange roses before finally settling on Togmeister. I didn’t twig immediately that it was named after Terry Wogan but, with its irrepressible flow of golden blooms, it is perhaps aptly named.

Last year Togmeister flowered and flowered and is giving every indication of doing exactly that again this year. In a way this is good as the blooms don’t actually last very long. The rosebuds are a perfect shape and deep buttery yellow but, once fully open, the flowers fade quite quickly to pale yellow and then fall. It also has a delicious scent, slightly on the lemony side, what you might call a very ‘clean’ smelling rose rather than dense and cloying.

Finally I just want to mention our climbing Iceberg. John had trained this so beautifully on the pergola this year, carefully pruning to encourage upward flowering shoots only to discover that this meant that the buds were perfectly placed for marauding squirrels to devour! Courtesy of the cats we are now one squirrel less but there’s still at least three around which has prompted us to deploy hot chilli powder to the tops of the pergola in the hopes that it really is a deterrent! Meanwhile, we were thrilled this week to see that a small cluster of blooms had defied the cheeky wildlife and was managing to flower. What a sight this rose would have been if all the flowers had been able to bloom ….

Photography – Credit this time around to John Malone for the pictures of ‘Silver Anniversary” and ‘Shropshire Lad’. The rest are down to the author!

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From sludge to sublime

One of the most significant things we’ve added to our garden in the eighteen years we have been here is the pond.  It is very much a wildlife pond so no fish for us!  Almost from day one we have been fascinated by the variety of species it sustains, from the bright flashes of blue and red damselflies to the more dramatic emergence of large dragonflies who leave their outer skins on the iris leaves as they prepare to take flight.
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1st damselfly of 2018 sunning itself on the pergola by the pond (c) Elizabeth Malone

Then there are the dozens of pond skaters who dart around from spring to autumn, the waterboatmen doing backstroke across the length and the snails, lots of snails – wherever did they all come from?  Of course there are frogs too and their tadpoles, and a colony of newts who hang suspended in the shadow of water lily pads.
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Just hanging around!  (c) Elizabeth Malone

In terms of planting, the pond is almost entirely ringed by marsh marigolds which I remember us first falling in love with in Iceland where they grow wild and in abundance alongside rivers and streams.  Their deep golden yellow always looks stunning when the water surrounding them reflects a vivid blue sky.  We also have iris and the water forget-me-not is extremely happy, as is the purple flowered pickerel which is really getting rather too big for its boots.  All of these plants are very welcome as they are also incredibly popular with bees and hoverflies who appear to enjoy being by the water as much as we do on a hot summer’s day.
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Marsh marigolds (c) John Malone

What is far less welcome is the pond weed, in particular the blanket weed which, for some reason this spring, has decided to launch a takeover of our pond.  It began with the frogspawn.  Whilst that may seem a very odd statement, I love frogspawn when it is newly laid or when you can see tiny tadpoles wriggling within the jelly cell, but I don’t like it as the tadpoles break out of it leaving a rather slimy gunge all over the surface of the pond.  This gunge appears to attract the blanket weed.   We normally use barley straw to combat blanket weed but perhaps we were too slow in getting it into the water this year?  Or perhaps the weed was encouraged when the temperatures suddenly leapt from freezing to sweltering within a week back in April, but either way we were faced with unattractive pond soup.
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Blanket weed – yuk!  (c) Elizabeth Malone

Fortunately I found a bundle of barley straw in the back of the shed cupboard but we realised that it stood no chance without a little help from us.  But which utensil to use?  I tried the winding the weed around the stick approach but I think I would have been there all summer.  John decided on the garden rake which worked reasonably well but was still slow progress.  In the end he decided that there was nothing for it but to put on the pond gauntlets and plunge in up to elbow depth.  Soon he had three piles of green, gungy weed around the pond, each having carefully been checked first for any inhabitants but also left overnight so that any shy creatures could creep out of their own accord.  Although the pond looked horribly murky for an hour or so, it was surprisingly how quickly it cleared and it was great to be able to get a clear view of our newt colony swimming around.  They didn’t seem too disappointed that some of their weed/food had been removed, in fact they almost seemed to appreciate being able to swim more freely.
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Gungy weed drying off! (c) Elizabeth Malone

As part of his delving into the deep, John also retried the pond pump and soon had a delightful trickle of water cascading little diamonds of water.  Apparently moving water helps the barley straw to be active but it was also rather lovely on a really hot day just to sit and watch the water spilling over and reflecting the blue sky above.  Time to just sit and stare.
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Time to relax!  (c) Elizabeth Malone


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Luscious lilacs

From the end of April into the first half of May, we are surrounded by lilac! It’s a very nice position to be in. The scent is truly amazing, wafting down the length of the garden and into the house on really warm days.

It’s at this time of year that I realise that we have a lot of lilac! During April it transforms from a tangle of brown twigs into a tempting bank of bright green that tells you that spring is really here, and then suddenly one day it is in bloom! On a glorious spring day with azure blue skies, the sight of the white and mauve plumes of flower is quite breathtaking but it is very much a brief moment of glory as, by mid-May, it will all be over and we’ll be left facing the very large challenge of deadheading it and keeping it within limits.

I say keeping it within limits as lilac knows no restraint. During the growing season it every stem can put on about a foot’s growth in a week! I have known us go on holiday for ten days in May only to return and wonder why the garden suddenly seems so narrow? Whilst our backs were turned, the lilac has marched forward and what was a green perimeter is now more akin to a green version of the six foot thick walls of a medieval castle! In fact, for some strange reason, it always puts me in mind of Sleeping Beauty. In the fairy tale, the hedge grows up rapidly around the castle where the princess is sleeping and I can’t help but think of lilac shooting up with such energy amidst other thorny creepers to create an impenetrable wall.

Sadly I have no idea what variety of lilac we have as they were all here when we moved in. They stretch across our garden in an arc that’s probably about thirty feet long. There appears to be three varieties – a medium shade of mauve, a very pale mauve and the intense white. All grow with equal vigour and, if left unchecked, the flowering just gets higher and higher. For the past few years, John has been working hard to bring the lilac down lower and to encourage flowers within sniffing distance. It seems to be working although neither of us fully understands the plant enough to be doing this consistently.

When we enter lilac season I am conscious that I just don’t see much of it about these days compared to something like wisteria which seems to adorn many front gardens at around the same time. It seems strange given that lilac is easy to grow, and looks and smells beautiful but I guess its three week flowering period just isn’t enough to justify the space it would take up in many gardens when gardeners can choose from such a huge variety of plants billed as ‘repeat flowerers’ or ‘long flowering’. Admittedly there are times when we feel a bit defeated by the extent of our lilac wall but there’s no way we would be without it.

PS. At just the same time as I was drafting this post Ali, The Mindful Gardener, blogged on a similar theme. Do check out her thoughts.


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Little and large

At first I wasn’t even sure that I had actually seen it, it was so tiny.  I was gardening at the far end of the garden when I was aware that something very small indeed had flown past me.  It reminded me of the occasion, possibly as much as ten years’ ago, when John had come back from that end of the garden talking excitedly about this tiny bird he had seen with a bright yellow flash on its head.  At that time we had to delve into a bird book in order to identify it – a goldcrest, Britain’s smallest bird!

Since then, goldcrests have had a little more publicity on programmes such as SpringWatch, or maybe I’ve just become more aware of them through reading magazines from the RSPB.  When I say they are small, I really do mean it.  At just 9cm in length, they weigh a mere 6g!  Yes, you read that correctly, not much more than a teaspoon of sugar!  Apparently they do breed right across the country but you are far more likely to find them in coniferous woodlands or parks with large, mature trees, than you are in gardens in Greater London.

Goldcrest

Photo:  Courtesy of Wikimedia – Creative Commons

So had I seen a goldcrest?  I just had an instinctive feeling that I had.  Then, later the same day, I spotted a tiny bird literally hanging around our birch tree.  It looked smaller than a bluetit and, when I say ‘hanging around’, it was doing just that but its mannerisms were different to the bluetit which we see most days.  I grabbed the binoculars and discovered just how difficult it is to home in on something so small!  However, for once the bird cooperated and didn’t immediately fly off, and I was able to home in on it and, to my delight, to see the bright yellow streak on its head – definitely a goldcrest!  It hopped around a bit more before coming a little closer into the camellia.  I’m also delighted to say that it’s been back.  I’m sure I saw it later the same week and then one evening this week it hopped around our hawthorn tree.  Needless to say we didn’t have a camera to hand, hence the Wikimedia photo above!  Having said that, the bird is so tiny that our chances of getting a good picture through the lounge window are probably slight!  It would be fantastic if this little bird became a regular visitor so I have my fingers crossed that it’s not scared off by the boisterous parakeets or, worse still, predated by the ever-present crows, magpies and our local jay.

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Parakeet pairing!  (c)  John Malone

On the same evening that I spotted the goldcrest, John was heading out into the garden to add some kitchen waste to the compost heap when he stopped in his tracks.  “Heron!”, was all he said.  Ah, that time of year.  The frogs were back to lay their spawn in mid-March and since then we have been aware of the heron circling the garden more frequently.  There’s nothing a heron likes better than a few frogs for breakfast, lunch or tea!  This particular heron was stationery, poised to pounce.  When we built our pond, we invested in a pair of very stylised heron sculptures which are quite a feature next to the pond.  Bizarrely, this real-life heron was mimicking the same stance, making it look as if we had three in a row rather than two!

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Real-life heron imitating art!  (c) John Malone

I can always remember the first time I came down to breakfast and saw a heron by the pond.  I honestly thought someone had played a joke and put a plastic one in place!  Why and who, I have no idea why my mind thought this rather than the more obvious thought that this bird had spotted our new garden feature!  Measuring nearly a metre in length and weighing in at between 1.5 and 2 kilograms, nothing could be further from the goldcrest in terms of size!  However, there are a similar number in the country – 60,000 goldcrests compared to around 63,000 heron, but unlike the goldcrest, herons have always liked London.  When we used to work near the Thames in Isleworth, there was a heronry opposite and John could often count five or six in a line up along the river bank.  If you visit Regent’s Park, heron are usually found up in the trees!  To me they remain a creature from a by-gone era and we often joke, “Pterodactyl overhead!” when we see one!

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Take off!  (c) John Malone

I can never quite decide whether the heron is a welcome garden visitor.  Our next door neighbour thinks not, but then his ponds have goldfish in them!  The heron will perch on our fence eyeing them up and then the poor things hide at the bottom of the pond for days, too scared to even come up for their food.  When the house whose garden runs parallel to the end of ours decided to install a series of raised ponds to house koi-carp, we were most entertained by the heron sitting on the roof our their house thinking that all its Christmases had come at once!  In terms of our pond, it’s the frogs and newts that they like.  Sadly many a poor frog has returned to the place of his birth and to his mate only to become heron breakfast!  I find it fascinating to watch the heron stalking, poised and statuesque, but when they jab down to catch their prey, I’m always convinced that they are going to pierce the pond liner and then where would we be?


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Borrowed blossom

Garden designers often talk about the ‘borrowed landscape’. When you live in the suburbia this is a very posh way of referring to what you can see over next door’s fence! I’ve always thought that we are very lucky with our borrowed landscape, living as we do next to another gardener and also looking across the railway line, giving us an uninterrupted view of the classic line of poplar trees. In the Spring we benefit from a wave of blossom as each neighbours’ tree comes into flower, usually starting with the vanilla cream coloured flowers of some self-set plum trees. From there we usually move into our cherry plum blossom, followed by a series of flowering cherries, from the palest pink to deep cerise, and then we move into the white of hawthorn and eventually the apple blossom. When I look out across this from our study up in the loft extension, I think how incredibly lucky we are to have this view in London.

Borrowed blossom from our neighbours

However, this year will be a little different as our garden won’t be contributing much to this display, making us value our neighbours’ trees more than usual. The combination of our loss of cherry tree (see Loss of a Flowering Friend) and our giant tree prune back in the autumn meant that, not only are we lacking pink froth, but also the white cloud of our cherry plum is somewhat diminished and I don’t expect a huge show from our hawthorn either, certainly nothing like last year!

Hawthorn tree

Still, our neighbours are very generous in sharing their display of blossom. On what has been a very rare morning of blue skies and sunshine so far this year, our neighbour’s Magnolia was starting to gear up to what will undoubtedly be an amazing display of waxy tulip flowers, and this from a tree that was pruned quite substantially only two years’ ago. It’s a bit sad to see a little browning and wrinkling on the fresh petals, presumably a result of the harsh March snow and frost?

Magnolia tree in bloom

My parents had a huge Magnolia in their garden but I hadn’t appreciated the mess they can make. Whilst it delivers on beauty, the Magnolia also delivers a heap of clearing up starting with the shedding of the outer flower skin in spring, then its petals, followed by its seed pods in autumn and then finally its leaves as we move into winter! That’s four lots of raking up to do!

Glancing across to the other side of the garden, our neighbours there have two delightful cherry trees. A deep pink one which is just budding up and a paler pink which is currently covered in hanging clusters of blossom.

Flowering cherry tree coming into flower

This delicate tree flowers its socks off each year despite it also being used as a swing by the children!

Sometimes we borrow more than just blossom from our neighbours. On one side of the garden we have a pink lavaterra which our neighbour had found too big and had tried to remove. The plant was having none of it and decided it would try its luck by turning in the opposite direction and emerging from under our fence! Our neighbours on the other side have generously granted us access to that very spring-like shrub, Kerria Japonica (possibly Pleniflora), which has worked its way under the fence and now also blooms well in our garden!

Kerria flowers

It’s so much nicer to be accidentally sharing plants outside the backdoor than weeds!


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You can never have too many roses!

“You can never have too many roses!”  So said Monty Don recently in his book Nigel – My family and other dogs which, incidentally, is a delightful read being as much about his garden at Longmeadow as it is about his canine companions.  I’ve said this before but I didn’t used to think I was a rose person.  I always left roses to my Mum who seemed to have the knack of pruning them to produce some spectacular blooms.  However, more and more I have come to appreciate roses in the garden, not just for their beauty but also for their scent, their long flowering period and their attractiveness to wildlife.  The number of roses in our garden has crept up steadily on us and, until just before Christmas, numbered nine.  However, with our two recent acquisitions, which John is preparing a bed for, we are now up to eleven.

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Rose – A Shropshire Lad (c) Elizabeth Malone

The new acquisitions are going to be planted with a backdrop of roses themselves.  We have extended the flower bed in front of the cherry tree trunk which itself is backed by the small white flowering shrubby climber or rambler.  It’s a rose that we inherited with the garden and we have no idea what it is!  All we know is that it grows vigorously and produces charming little star-like white flowers which attract a multitude of hoverflies.

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Our mystery rose (c) John Malone

One of the newcomers is a yellow Rosa Mutabilis.  We already own the pink variety which has turned out to be a real performer.  It will start flowering sometime during May and will continue right into the autumn.  The flowers emerge a rich peach colour and then deepen to pink.  It is a single flower with a lovely scent which all contributes to it attracting the bees.  We are now planting the yellow variety to complement the hot border that I created last year.  The flowers should emerge a deep buttery yellow and then fade to cream.  It is also due to be a repeat flowerer but sadly this one says it lacks scent.  It does, however, have the advantage of having relatively few thorns – unlike its pink relative!

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Rosa mutabilis (c) John Malone

The other newcomer is Rosa Helenae which, if the write up is to be believed, will make up for the lack of scent in Mutabilis.  It is described as being very wildlife friendly, producing lots of orange hips for the birds in the autumn and also having good autumn colour.  Helenae is a creamy white with a yellow centre and produces its flowers in large clusters.  It should flower profusely throughout the summer.  It’s going to be planted at an angle so as to scramble up the trunk of the cherry.

Of course what this means is that, come every future February, we will now have considerably more pruning and feeding to do!  Although due to the poor weather, it was March this year before I worked my way around the garden clutching my trusty box of organic rose fertiliser.  I try to remember to feed all the roses in February and again in June to either keep them flowering or boost a potential second flush.  We also mulch them each Spring with stable manure.  We must be doing something right as the plants do seem to be flourishing.

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Rose – Togmeister (c) John Malone

At the far end of our garden we have some shrubby roses that don’t flower terribly well but do smell beautiful when they do.  They are Rosa Canina – the dog rose.  I do hope Monty Don has some planted somewhere at Longmeadow – it would seem appropriate!


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Rain, rain go away!

I wrote this post a few weeks ago for the church magazine.  Little did I know but rain was about to be the least of problems for us gardeners this “Spring”!  Note the inverted commas, as Spring has really started in a somewhat unusual fashion this week!  When I wrote this back in February, even then I was thinking that I would probably regret this title in July/August when it’s hot, dry and the garden is looking burnt to a crisp!  But right now I have virtually nothing I can write about being outside the backdoor as, so far, the story of 2018 has been rain, or more recently snow, has well and truly stopped play!

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Outside the Backdoor – 2 March 2018 (c) Elizabeth Malone

At least now it is getting lighter!  And by the end of the month, the clocks will have ‘sprung forward’.  No longer do the streetlights turn off as I walk to the station in the morning.  This happens to me for about two or three weeks in the winter when my departure coincides precisely with the timing of the lights and always reminds me of the first Harry Potter film when Dumbledore extinguishes the streetlights so that the wizards delivering the baby Harry to his Aunt and Uncle aren’t spotted by the ‘muggles’.  The evenings are lighter too.  If I leave work on time, it is now light and I’ve even taken a photograph of our emerging new building glowing rosy in a sunset.

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New Town House under Construction, Kingston University, Feb 2018  (c) Elizabeth Malone

However, for most of January and February, whenever I have been available to go out into the garden, the weather has been vile.  I was so optimistic on the second weekend in January when it was dry, not particularly warm but frost free.  We headed outside and soon I was tugging at a horrible dead, slimy mulch of crocosmia leaves, removing them from the border and exposing the bright green shoots of bulbs as well as making the patio look cleaner and neater.  I cleared more dead perennial leaves and shoots from the border and soon filled up our green bin whilst John tackled tidying up the sprawling Clematis tangutica, capturing as many of its silky seedpod heads before they spread too widely and produced a multitude of offspring.

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Clematis tangutica, Bill Mackenzie (c) John Malone

The following weekend it was wet – very wet, and so it has continued.  John has been marginally more successful in getting outside than me.  He often works from home a couple of days a week and seizes the opportunity of a bit of garden tidying in his lunch hour.  Having said that, we seemed to hit several weeks when the sunny days were the ones in the office and vice-versa.  This also led to three slightly tetchy mini-tigers as the cats prowled indoors, expressing their frustration at not being able to get out much.  Still, the other day I returned home to the declaration that the apple trees had now been pruned with a view to encouraging their fruiting spurs and on another occasion I returned from church to find the last prickly twigs of the raspberries being consigned to the rubbish heap.  All it takes is one fine day.  A couple of Sundays back, I returned from church to a sunny but blustery garden to discover that John has acted on my decision to remove much of our Escallonia.  If ever there was a shrub that had become too big for its own good!  Twiggy, dark and misshapen, something had to happen.  From ten feet tall to under two feet tall in a morning!  The light it has created is fantastic and now we can see the lovely Camelia beyond coming into bloom.

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Camelia – February 2018 – (c) Elizabeth Malone

Ironically perhaps, but one of the jobs we need to get done is to repair our water butt connections.  One of the water butts sprung a leak last year and in the early autumn we were able to empty it and John crawled inside to mend it.  Unfortunately this only solved part of the problem as it transpired that the connecting pipe also needed replacing.  We have the components but now we need a dry day to fix them.  It’s particularly annoying as we know we are losing water and, despite the wet weather now, you can be sure that this will all suddenly change and we will soon be needing watering cans.

It’s not all doom and gloom, however.  Looking on the bright side, February has treated us to a charming display of miniature Iris reticulata.  These perfectly formed flowers are real jewels at this time of year.  I have already spotted daffodils in flower up the road (before they got covered in snow!) and I can see giant green spikes in the border so ours are starting to emerge.  What I cannot see, which is somewhat frustrating, are the tulips I planted in the autumn and I strongly suspect that the energetic squirrel chases taking place in the garden are tulip fuelled!

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Iris reticulata – February 2018 – (c) Elizabeth Malone