Outside the Backdoor

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


Leave a comment

June brings …

June brings tulips, lilies, roses,
Fills the children’s hands with posies.

The cover of my church’s magazine this month celebrates the Queen’s official birthday with a picture of the Queen Elizabeth rose. It made me wonder how many of us have either grown up or currently reside with a Queen Elizabeth rose? 

Whilst I was growing up, there were two in our garden and they were still flourishing when I sold the house in 2009.  The scent from them was so powerful that it would waft down towards the house on a warm summer’s evening.  Hunting through some old photos I think I have managed to find a picture with one of the roses in bloom!

One of my Mum’s Queen Elizabeth roses from 2009 (c) John Malone

Without doubt in my mind, June is the month for roses.  Last Spring was so mild that we had roses in the garden in April but this year I’m concerned that the very early buds rather jumped the gun and were left shivering and rain-drenched well into May! 

Yellow Rosa Mutabilis – 10 May 2020 / 28 May 2021 (c) John Malone

I find it interesting to consider why roses are regarded with such affection?  They regularly top the polls of the ‘nation’s favourite’ flower (regardless of whether you are a Gardeners’ World viewer, Country Living reader or BBC Chelsea viewer) and we give them, either as cut flowers or as plants, on memorable occasions – Valentine’s Day, birthdays, anniversaries – we have two Rosa Silver Wedding that we acquired three years ago, and yet they are not the easiest of plants to deal with.  My mother had a way with roses and they bloomed magnificently for her but that left me terrified that we would prune ours incorrectly and be left without any flower!  I wasn’t encouraged by the first rose we ever bought, Etoile de Hollande, which smells divine but flatly refused to produce more than the occasional bud.  As a result, we moved it from its prime position by our pergola and rather unceremoniously re-planted it next to the greenhouse where it has subsequently thrived – talk about temperamental!

Rosa Silver Wedding (c) Elizabeth Malone

You can’t plant a rose and ignore it!  They need pruning, and their sharp thorns rarely thank you for it, and they need feeding, ideally twice a year if you want a really good display.  They can also be prone to disease – blackspot, aphids, they all like roses too!

Rosa Etoile de Hollande (c) John Malone

Apart from my one aforementioned failing climber and the semi-wild ones we inherited with the garden, I rather avoided roses to begin with but now I realise that I have no less than 14, or is it 15, roses.  Number 15 has just arrived having been wrestled from my mother-in-law’s garden.  It’s called Evelyn (she’s also called Evelyn) and I think it is a salmon pink.  To move it, we’ve had to prune it rather a lot so now we’re giving it some ‘TLC’ in the hope that it will forgive us for the rather abrupt move! 

Rosa Helenae – recently usurpsed as our ‘newest’ rose (c) Elizabeth Malone


Leave a comment

May brings …

May brings flocks of pretty lambs
Skipping by their fleecy dams.

I think it’s fair to say that you’re unlikely to see many skipping lambs in and around either Hounslow or Whitton these days and certainly not in my garden!  However, I do have rather fond memories of an overnight stay in the Lake District at a rather unusually named pub if I remember correctly (possibly the Eagle and Child near Kendal) where unseasonably warm April weather meant that we sat outside in their beer garden (in the days when you could choose between sitting outside or in!) from which we were entertained all evening by gambolling lambs!

Lamb getting ready to gambol around the Lake District! (c) John Malone

In the gardening world, May is normally associated with the Chelsea Flower Show but currently this is planned for September for the first time in its history.  Chelsea normally means alliums.  Lots of those purple pompoms on sticks that contrast so vividly with the acid greens of spring foliage.  We’ve grown quite a few alliums in the garden over the years with varying success.  We have plenty of Allium Purple Sensation which have multiplied but we’re also rather fond of Allium Roseum which, as its name suggests, is a light rosy pink.  It’s also a more open flower that the usual tight globes.  I’ve yet to be tempted by any of the giant Alliums that you see around.  If you have any of the smaller globe types, such as Purple Sensation, let the flowerheads dry out after flowering and try to keep them intact through the autumn.  Last year we succeeded in doing this and John was then able to spray the seed heads silver to decorate our Advent crown.

Allium ‘Purple Sensation’ (c) John Malone

I’ve often mentioned how I’m drawn to purple flowering plants and May is when the flower border really does turn purple.  As well as the alliums, it’s time for the geraniums to get going and we have some very large clumps of Geranium Johnson’s Blue which isn’t blue at all.  Like many geraniums (cranesbill), this one will spread anywhere and take over the entire garden given the chance so I crawl around on hands and knees teasing out its running roots every spring to try to maintain some order!

Geranium Johnson’s Blue (c) Elizabeth Malone

I’ve gradually come to realise that if a geranium is happy, it will quickly turn into a thug!  A few years ago we visited the garden belonging to the parents of newsreader Sophie Raworth.  I saw a very unusual deep pink geranium that I liked.  It took a white to track this down but John eventually located it in a small specialist nursery and gave it to me as a birthday present.  It has the extremely wordy title of Geranium oxonianum thurstonianum and is described by the RHS as “a vigorous perennial”.  Three years ago it arrived in a small 5cm square pot.  The clump is now at least 50cm across!  Thankfully it’s very pretty and flowers its socks off!

Geranium oxonianum thurstonianum (c) John Malone

Another more recent purple acquisition and favourite is Centaurea Jordy.  Centaurea is the posh name for perennial cornflowers or knapweed.  I’m afraid that I’m of the generation where mention of the word ‘knapweed’ conjures up Constable Knapweed from the children’s TV series ‘The Herbs’ (very educational!)  This cornflower is a deep, dark, beetrooty purple.  It’s great for bees, butterflies and other beneficial insects.  Unfortunately it does have a tendency to develop mildewy leaves and to be nibbled by those insects so sadly mine always seems to start the spring well but then falters.  May be this year will be different?

Centaurea Jordy (c) John Malone

Sticking with the colour purple, Clematis Niobe should also be in flower in May.  I used to rate clematis as my favourite plant and we have lots of different varieties around the garden.  It would even be true to say that we have some form of clematis in flower every month of the year.  However, if it is my favourite plant, then it does seem some years since I added a new one.  Perhaps the empty fence behind where the birch tree used to be is crying out for one? 

Clematis Niobe (c) John Malone

I’m also hoping that our Wisteria Amethyst Falls will produce some decent flowers this year.  Often advertised as ‘abundantly flowering’, I would disagree!  We chose this variety as we don’t have an appropriate spot for a huge, traditional wisteria.  This one is certainly smaller and lower growing but it’s also been quite difficult to establish and persuade to flower.  In its defence, it could be that it’s being drowned out by an over-enthusiastic cotoneaster growing alongside. 

Wisteria Amethyst Falls (c) John Malone

Finally, I mentioned the Raworth’s garden above which we visited as part of the National Garden Scheme.  We all need some different gardens to visit this year so please do consider booking a visit to an NGS garden.  These openings of private gardens help to raise huge sums of money for health charities such as Macmillan, HospiceUK, Marie Curie and Parkinson’s.  Whether the garden you choose to visit is large or small, I promise you won’t be disappointed!


Leave a comment

April brings …

April brings the primrose sweet,
Scatters daisies at our feet.

Is there a busier, but equally more rewarding, month in the garden than April? There’s certainly a lot more to look forward to than just primroses and daisies! Looking back over last year’s Lockdown Garden photos, goodness me, we were blessed with the most incredibly beautiful sunny, blue skies April!

5 April 2020 – that lilac was very early! (C) Elizabeth Malone

I have to be very careful in writing this as it’s become very clear to me over recent weeks that everything in the garden in 2020 was early. Writing this in March, the month is still rather chilly. On more than one occasion the weather forecasters have been heard to remark that the temperature is below average for the time of year. In the context of climate change and the continual rise in global temperatures, this is something we should probably be grateful for.

Tulip Purissima April 2020 (c) John Malone

April is the month of sowing and the long Easter weekend is the prime time for that. Many of you will have heard me say before that my grandfather reputedly always planted his potatoes on Good Friday, “when the devil’s looking the other way”! John’s Arran Pilots are chitting in the shed and I suspect they will indeed be planted out on Good Friday this year.

Arran Pilot potatoes from 2020 ready for planting (c) Elizabeth Malone

I’ve already started some sowing. I have two tomato experiments germinating next to me in the study. After 20 years of growing the very reliable and delicious Sungold, last year was a bit of a disaster with a very poor crop so I’ve decided to ring the changes and have dug out of my seed box a couple of packets of free tomato seeds that came courtesy of Gardeners’ WorldMagazine. I will be trying out the upright Red Cherry and the trailing tomato Matkovska. It will be a huge change for me to have red fruits rather than yellow.

Sungold tomatoes from 2019 (c) Elizabeth Malone

I am also venturing into unknown territory this year with cucumbers and beetroot. The cucumber seed turned out to be larger than I was expecting and so I’ve sown in on an edge like you would sow a large courgette seed. Hopefully that’s the right thing to do? Having been rather over-enthusiastic in spreading out my garlic cloves in the autumn, it rather feels as if the veg plot has shrunk in size this year and so my beetroot experiment is going to happen in a large, rectangular ‘grow-sack’. Not that I’ve worked out where that’s going yet either although I have ordered masses of compost (peat-free of course) to fill it! That will be a puzzle to be solved over the Easter weekend.

Not advertising! Trying the ‘veg’ version for the first time (c) Elizabeth Malone

Beyond the veg plot, April is the month when our pond springs into life. The margins will be totally surrounded by the brilliant yellow of marsh marigolds. The first newts have already been spotted swimming around, rising to the surface to bask in the sunshine on any warm days. If we’re lucky we may have frogspawn and tadpoles although last year I fear that the heron put paid to that. The surface will be broken up by pond skaters skipping around and snails gliding beneath.

Our pond in April 2020 (c) John Malone

Elsewhere in the border the colours start to shift from early spring yellow into blues and purples as the bluebells come into flower. My best guess is that we have a mix of natural English alongside the invasive Spanish bluebell but I confess that I quite like both. Last year my tulips were flowering in the second half of March but this year I think they will be at their best in early April.

Bluebells in the garden in April 2020 (c) Elizabeth Malone

One thing that sadly won’t be with us this year is our apricot coloured broom which unfortunately fell victim to drought last summer. We finally gave up hope last weekend and cut it back down to ground level. It didn’t seem entirely dead so there is still an outside possibility of it re-shooting. However, we bought a deep raspberry coloured broom for the far end of the garden and that seems to be doing well.

A new broom (c) John Malone

April should also reward us with the very beautiful tree peony. We have had mixed success with tree peonies over the years but we now actually have two that flower. One is the palest shell-pink and has huge papery petals. As the buds swell, they look like giant balls of ice-cream. They are short-lived flowers and have to be enjoyed in the moment so I am hoping for some warm spring days when we can stroll across the lawn to view its progress on a daily basis. The other is a deep cerise but is sadly a little hidden by other plants. It has more complex double flowers and looks like velvet.

Tree peony April 2020 (c) John Malone

And finally, April is the month when we should really see butterflies returning to our gardens. Any warm sunny day should bring them fluttering around and hopefully benefitting from the array of new flowers to choose from. I’m also going to be using another of my ‘grow-sacks’ to experiment with sowing wild-flower seeds which I hope will attract lots of bees, butterflies and other beneficial insects over the summer. I’ve never sown wildflowers before so I thought I’d start small before I get carried away and turn the lawn into a meadow!

Peacock butterfly visiting Purissima tulips in April 2020 (c) Elizabeth Malone


Leave a comment

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


Leave a comment

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!


Leave a comment

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.


Leave a comment

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.


1 Comment

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.


Leave a comment

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


Leave a comment

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