Outside the Backdoor

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

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New shoots

So it’s already twelfth night and the greenery and berries from last year’s gardening season are heading out to the recycling bin.

Cat and greenery

Lending a paw (c) Elizabeth Malone

I couldn’t help but notice over Christmas that there was a lot of looking back going on and, in our gardens, a lot of focus on things still in flower. So when do we draw the line under the last gardening year and step forward into the next? Over the Christmas and New Year break, I took a stroll around the garden and was very much struck by the amount of new growth. It’s been a relatively mild winter so far here in south-west London and so many plants and bulbs are starting to reach out into the new year.

One of the biggest surprises I had was this violet coming into bud. My original clump of violets was given to me barely two years ago but they seem to have settled in well. I divided up them up on receipt into three different plants and each is now filling out. These are planted in the shade of our cherry plum tree and an increasingly giant self-sown sycamore on Railtrack land (therein lies a challenge!) which is providing them with a naturalistic woodland setting which they clearly love.

Violet bud

Violet in bud (c) Elizabeth Malone

I turned around from struggling to take close up photos of the violet and spotted this white cyclamen unfurling itself. I think this particular plant began its life in a winter patio pot and was then planted out. It’s in a rather dark corner of the ‘woodland’ area which appears to suit it. Look carefully and you can see more buds emerging. The leaves also seem to be especially good this winter.

White cyclamen

White cyclamen bud (c) Elizabeth Malone

Camellia buds are emerging confidently. I was worried that last summer’s drought would severely affect these as the general advice is that camellias need plenty of water in early autumn to enable their buds to form and whilst the drought had ended by then, it was quite some time before the ground could really be considered as wet. However all three of my camellias are currently promising a good display, as are others up the road, so fingers crossed that they don’t end up a mushy brown mess courtesy of heavy frosts!

Camellia bud

Camellia bud (c) Elizabeth Malone

I’m not sure that I’ve ever really taken notice of our Portuguese laurel when it’s at this early pink stage of budding. Now here’s a plant that probably needs to bit of curtailing at some point during the coming year!

Laurel bud

Laurel in bud (c) Elizabeth Malone

The cabbage centres of the Euphorbia seem to be forming well. This is plain, standard ‘woodland spurge’, nothing special but I do still enjoy the vibrant lime green bracts when they emerge. They are usually interspersed by daffodils, which are starting to poke their heads above ground but were really too low to make a sensible photo. My large headed daffodils have been disappointing in recent years with the buds often nibbled by creatures in the soil before coming into bloom. I’m keeping my fingers crossed for better things in 2019.

Euphorbia, or woodland spurge

Euphorbia emerging (c) Elizabeth Malone

I’m also wondering why there seem to be just four crocuses appearing here?! Given that I specifically planted more back in the autumn, I’m wondering where they have gone? Has a squirrel relocated them by chance?

Crocus buds

Crocus leaves (c) Elizabeth Malone

Of course it’s not all about skipping forward a season to brighter spring days, some plants are in their element now. The great advantage of the holiday season being the chance to see the garden in daylight other than just at the weekend. This winter flowering jasmine has been providing a splendid backdrop to gold baubles throughout Christmas. It’s vibrancy has also lit up some rather gloomy, cloudy days.

Winter flowering jasmine

Winter flowering jasmine (c) Elizabeth Malone

Like the jasmine, the winter flowering honeysuckle (Lonicera fragrantissima) is planted near the house. The jasmine gives us a bright welcome each morning whilst the honeysuckle scents the patio and will even waft into the house on a relatively mild day. The honeysuckle is also loved by winter bees and we’ve observed several over the holiday.

Winter flowering honeysuckle

Lonicera fragrantissima (c) ElizabethMalone

But the current star of the garden has to be our Viburnum Bodnantense (Charles Lamont) which is flowering its socks off in a fashion rarely seen before. For some reason I do associate pink blossom with the height of Spring so this shrub really does feel like it’s heralding the new year and soon it will be time to start some real gardening for 2019, the bit we all love, some sowing and planting!

Pink blossom of Viburnum Bodnantense

Viburnum Bodnantense ‘Charles Lamont’ (c) Elizabeth Malone


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More than just poppies – Icelandic adventures

This summer we paid our seventh visit to Iceland. Yes, you did read that correctly, seventh! I will admit it is a bit of an obsession and when I announced that we were going again, as well as being asked, ‘ Why?’, I found that this was often followed up by the question, ‘Would you like to live there?’ I guess a lot of people who holiday frequently in France or Spain often end up with a holiday pad or retiring to their favourite country, so it’s a natural question to ask but my response is always a resounding, ‘No!’ For a start I don’t like snow and ice – one visit to Iceland in February (2016) confirmed this!


Thingvellir National Park (c) John Malone

And whilst the scenery is truly spectacular, it is also an extraordinarily challenging landscape for growing anything and I honestly can’t imagine gardening in Iceland or, for that matter, choosing to give up gardening. Neither John or I set out to be enthusiastic gardeners but we both really value the relaxation it affords and the rewards of growing things both to eat and as things of beauty. So on this particular holiday I decided to take note of what it is like to have the Icelandic landscape outside your backdoor.

Iceland is volcanic and there are reminders of this at every turn. From the moment you land at Keflavik airport you are greeted by, what at first glance appears to be a rocky, unforgiving, barren landscape. Look closer, however, and you soon realise that you may well have a wealth of flowers outside the back door but they will be wild ones and that green won’t be lawn but moss covered lava! Iceland does moss covered lava rather beautifully with densely springy mounds of delicate grey/green that are so fragile that one foot in the wrong place can destroy them for centuries.


Moss covered lava along Route 1 (c) John Malone

Iceland remains a small and sparsely populated island. A population of around 350,000 and approximately 36% of those people live in Reykjavik and its suburbs. Move out of this urban hub and the next ‘town’ along the Ring Road has no more than around 2000 inhabitants, in fact a ‘town’ in Iceland is often home to as few as 500 people served by a single shop cum service station. That ‘town’ will, however, almost certainly have a spectacular backdrop of mountains or be adjacent to a thrilling waterfall, or be fringed by a dramatic black sand beach. What it won’t have will be a garden centre! In fact, I’m not sure that the concept of a garden centre even exists in Iceland!


Seagrass growing in volcanic sand at Jokulsarlon (c) Elizabeth Malone

Icelandic houses are so surrounded by the countryside that it’s often hard to define what is ‘garden’. Occasionally you see a house that does appear to have a fence and a defined garden and these are often quite quirky. The Icelanders love these miniature houses!


Eskifjordur (c) Elizabeth Malone

That doesn’t mean that you won’t see planting. This ‘planter’ was one of the more obscure sights that I spotted this time around, being a leftover from the whaling industry.  Least said about that, the better!


Planter, Faskrudsfjordur (c) Elizabeth Malone

We also came across some almost municipal planting outside a church in Eskifjordur where these stunning meconopsis were to be found.


Meconopsis, Eskifjordur (c) John Malone

The weather in Iceland can really be unforgiving, especially the wind! In the East Fjords we stayed in a newly built hotel (the delightful Hotel 1001 Nott) where I was amused to see the precautions they had taken to ensure their newly planted trees had some chance of staying upright!

Which brings me on to trees.  Trees in Iceland could be a topic for a blog in its own right. Deforestation occurred in the early years of the settlement and, as a result of thin soil the trees have struggled to grow back. Re-foresting Iceland is a project in itself. When we first visited in 1996, the joke about what to do if you get lost in an Icelandic forest (just stand up!) was absolutely true. Now there are trees of significant size although the area they cover is still relatively small. At the end of the day, you have to remember that Iceland, even in these days of climate change, is still mostly covered in ice.


Part of the national forest at Skriduklauster (c) John Malone

What we tend to forget is that often the wonderfully scenic surroundings of a large country house in England, are a man-made illusion. The likes of Capability Brown and Humphrey Repton thought nothing of moving rivers or entire villages to create the perfect landscape for their wealthy clients. The Icelandic landscape, however, resists all attempts at taming it. Krysuvik might be a rather extreme example but when we visited this volcanic site on our first trip in 1996, we marvelled at the steam vent screaming boiling water out of the ground just like a kettle. When we returned in 2013 we were astonished to discover that the entire area had been re-formed by a miniature explosion that had sent rocks, boiling mud and water in all directions! In more extreme examples, earthquakes have caused entire valleys to sink by metres and in the town of Hvergerdi, as recently as 2008 an earthquake ruined many of the greenhouses used for growing vegetables.

Krysuvik (c) Elizabeth Malone

So rather than garden outside the back door, Icelanders make the most of their natural surroundings and are fiercely protective and proud of what grows naturally. In Faskrudsfjordur we fell in love with the gullies teeming with both water and wildflowers.


Flower filled gullies, Faskrudsfjordur (c) Elizabeth Malone

Every time we hiked to a waterfall or stopped the car in a lay-by, I was busy taking photos of the flora and fauna – so many beautiful wild flowers and the scent of wild thyme in the air.


Too many wild flower photos to choose from! (c) Elizabeth malone

That said, the use of lupins to halt soil erosion has led to an invasion. Swathes of previously bare landscape now glow purple. In some areas it’s very attractive but there’s no doubt that it is now the lupin that needs to be halted before ‘ice’ land becomes ‘lupinland’.


Knee deep in lupins at Svinnasfelljokull (c) John Malone

As someone who loves lupins to form part of a deep herbaceous border, brimming with colour and a little bit of chaos as plants intertwine, I can’t imagine only having plant colour for a few short months of the year with growth relatively restricted by the thin layer of soil. An herbaceous border simply wouldn’t and couldn’t exist in Iceland. Neither could some of my favourite plants – dahlias, roses, clematis, to name a few. That said, I envy the Icelanders’ range of wild flowers and grasses, a reminder of so much we have destroyed with our intensively farmed land. There is a very natural beauty to Iceland and I pray that it may stay that way but the combination of the banking crash, the subsequent massive increase in tourism and the seemingly inevitable march of climate change, mean that the landscape is under threat. It is very sad to think that, in a perhaps less than a century, an English garden could be possible in Iceland …


Fields of buttercups surround Strokkur at Geysir (c) John Malone

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Now the holly bears a berry …

It’s already looking rather festive outside our front door and has been for several months since our holly decided that it was going to produce an impressive crop of berries this autumn!

Holly bush

Holly bush (c) Elizabeth Malone

When it comes to the run up to Christmas, I confess to being a bit of a Scrooge, grumpily commenting on any pre-Advent lights and tutting at any tree decorated before the 1 December. I will enjoy putting up the Christmas decorations when it’s time but ‘time’ as far as I’m concerned is not until the middle of December. In the meantime, I will continue to enjoy the natural decorations adorning the garden and this autumn seems to have been particularly fruitful.

“Now the holly bears a berry as black as the coal” according to the Cornish Sans Day Carol but I can’t help wondering if they really meant Sarcococca? Although you could never sing that in a carol! But ours have been turning from a strange mix of red and black into dense shiny globules over the past few weeks.


Sarcococca berries (c) Elizabeth Malone

Meanwhile our cotoneaster berries are being raided by the birds. You can’t blame them really and the warm red glow must surely be an open invitation to come and feast?

Cotoneaster berries

Cotoneaster berries (c) Elizabeth Malone

When it comes to feasting, we had a lovely surprise last weekend when John discovered a small, very late crop of autumn raspberries. In fairness, they weren’t the most flavourful or the sweetest of the season but we still appreciated this last hurrah of home grown produce this autumn.


Raspberry Autumn Bliss (c) Elizabeth Malone

A few weekends ago we spotted fruit of rather a different kind when this rather spectacular ‘fairy ring’ appeared on the lawn. I’m afraid we had to capture it quickly in a photo and then remove it for fear of an over-inquisitive cat taking a nibble – it’s happened before with most unpleasant results! I am no fungi expert so am happy for anyone to tell me what they are.


Toadstools on the lawn (c) Elizabeth Malone

And finally, a reminder of the heady days of that scorcher summer we had. Our olive tree has, not one, but two real olives on it! This happened once before when they summer temperatures were just enough to convince the tree it was perhaps living in the Mediterranean after all. That said, I don’t think I’m going to be celebrating my own bottled olive oil any time soon!!

Olive tree

Black olive – just one! (C) Elizabeth Malone


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!


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”.



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?