Outside the Backdoor

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


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Let it snow!

Chill December brings the sleet,

Blazing fire and Christmas treat,

January brings the snow,

Makes our feet and fingers glow.

Sara Coleridge “The Garden Year”

My first Outside the Back Door based on Sara Coleridge’s poem, “The Garden Year” was written in February last year – so we missed January! For the purposes of my church magazine (the original driver for this blog), I need to combine December and January and, as soon as I read these verses, I knew it would work well as both coincidentally feature sleet and snow. I remember this poem so clearly from childhood and yet, if I’m honest, I can only remember one white Christmas whilst I was growing up. With climate change, the likelihood of a white Christmas in London and the south-east diminishes with each passing year.

Outside the back door January 2021 (c) Elizabeth Malone

That said, you may recall that earlier this year we did indeed have snow! On the 24th January the country was deep in the heart of Lockdown 3, our church was firmly embedded on Facebook and many of us were viewing the Sunday morning service when suddenly down came the snow! There were lots of comments that the vicar and organist were going to get a bit of a shock when they headed outside to discover the world had turned white! Overlooking the turning circle at the end of our road, there were a lot of excited children building snowmen, making snow angels and being pulled along on sleds whilst everyone tried to stay in their strict family bubbles. The shrieks and shouts of excitement were all the more louder given the confined circumstances we were all in at the time.

Winter wonderland January 2021 (c) Elizabeth Malone

I’m not a huge fan of snow. I’m sure lots of you would agree, it’s all very pretty unless you have to get somewhere! The beauty of last year’s lockdown snow was that there was nowhere to go and nothing to do! As a result, I think I enjoyed that snow fall more than most. Working from home, it was quite a relief not to have to worry about train services, opening times, staff rosters etc. Although in fairness some of my staff did have to travel in but we only had reduced services running due to the lockdown which made is much easier than a normal ‘snow day’.

Ice on the fruit trees (c) Elizabeth Malone

We also did what all Norwegian Forest Cat owners seem to do – we threw ours outside into the cold to take some photos of them in their native habitat! To be honest, they’re not that keen on this white slippy stuff and they rushed back indoors to a warm radiator within minutes!

Norwegian Forest Cats are meant to like this stuff! (C) Elizabeth Malone

As well as our footprints and the cats’ paw prints, I do enjoy seeing what else leaves its mark across the snow. It’s the one time you get to see the criss-crossing patterns left by birds hopping around in search of food. That’s the great thing about a winter cold snap, you never quite know what might fly into your garden. In that famous snowfall that brought London to a standstill a few years’ ago, we had a flock of redpolls turn up to raid the seeds on our birch tree. Almost without fail, by the end of January the large cotoneaster at the end of our garden will have been stripped of all its berries by an invasion of redwings. You really know that winter has arrived when you spot the redwings. At the end of January it will be the RSPB’s Big Garden Birdwatch again and we will be glued to the garden with our binoculars to record our feathered friends and to see if anything out of the ordinary turns up.

Bird prints January 2021 (c) Elizabeth Malone

Prior to the snow, on 10th January my photos tell me that we experienced an amazing hoar frost. Sometimes I think this is prettier than snow. Snow tends to weigh things down whereas a hoar frost covers everything in the garden in sparkling jewels. I wrapped up to the nines and had a fun half hour or so walking around the garden for as long as my frozen fingers could hold the phone, photographing sparkling leaves, crystalline cobwebs and icing sugar dusted berries.

Frosted crab apples (c) Elizabeth Malone

By the end of January it starts to feel like we’re emerging from the darkness of winter. It will be almost light at five o’clock in the evening and the first flowers of the new year will be starting to emerge. If I remember exactly when to look, I might just see my tiny clump of snowdrops at the end of the garden. Last year our daily walks often took us through our local Cemetery where the crocuses were already looking stunning by the end of the month. As a result, I’ve planted bowls of crocus to have on our patio this year and I can already see them pushing up through the soil. I’m very much looking forward to seeing their burst of colour but in the meantime, it’s cold, it’s windy, it’s rainy and it’s time to curl up in front of that blazing fire!

Crocus in Hampton Cemetery January 2021 (c) Elizabeth Malone


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Remembrance in our gardens

Dull November brings the blast,
Then the leaves are falling fast.

To me, November is the month which brings the fastest change in our trees. Often at the start of the month the autumn colour is at its peak but, within a few days, a cold night, sharp frost or gusty wind can bring them all down in a trice, leaving behind the bare skeletal branches.

Our November outlook (c) Elizabeth Malone

November is also the month for Remembrance and so it’s interesting to reflect that trees are often planted either in memory of someone or to commemorate a special occasion. Next year we’ll see a prime example of this as the Queen’s Green Canopy project gets underway in celebration of the Platinum Jubilee.

I wonder how many of you have planted trees or other plants for similar reasons, perhaps in memory of a loved one, to mark a family event or an anniversary. We have quite a few plants dotted around our garden that are always linked to family or friends in our minds. When we celebrated our Silver Wedding anniversary, two gorgeous white ‘Silver Wedding’ roses arrived on our doorstep. One thrived but the other was accidentally swamped until we took decisive action and moved it to a much better, more open site, since when it has gone from strength to strength. Not only do the roses remind us of our own anniversary but they remind us of the people who gave them to us on that occasion, particularly poignant since one of them is no longer with us.

Rosa Silver Wedding (c) Elizabeth Malone

When my Dad died we bought my Mum a ‘Shropshire Lad’ rose in his memory. This is where a little thinking ahead pays off. When Mum also passed away, I was left with the dilemma of what to do with this rose. There was no way that I was going to leave it behind in their garden and so, with extreme determination and brute force, it was brought to our garden where it delights us every summer with glorious sprays of deliciously scented flowers. The day we moved that rose I learnt just how challenging it is to move an established plant with a long tap root! So when my mother-in-law had to move out of her home this year and we were faced with a similar dilemma, I knew exactly how hard it was going to be. Like ‘A Shropshire Lad’, ‘Rosa Evelyn’ (her namesake) proved just as stubborn and was wrestled out of the ground but with inevitable collateral damage. That said, she subsequently produced a flurry of blooms in her new location so we have high hopes for future years.

Rosa Evelyn (c) Elizabeth Malone

This summer I acquired another David Austin rose, ‘The Lady Gardener’, on what was a bitter-sweet occasion. This was a carefully chosen leaving present from my colleagues as I said farewell to Kingston University after 29 years. It is a peachy pink rose with fabulous scent and is always going to remind me of fantastic colleagues, fun times (and some stressful ones too), and I’m pleased that it smells fresh and lemony and not of dusty old books and journals!

The Lady Gardener (c) Elizabeth Malone

Another happy occasion plant is our blue Hibiscus which was given to us as a house warming present over 21 years ago now. It has become an extremely well established, thriving shrub standing at least 5 feet tall and probably as wide. It is also loved by bees who delve deep down into its flowerheads and come out covered all over in its white dusty pollen.

Hibiscus (c) Elizabeth Malone

I once read about someone who had decided that their garden would only contain plants that bore the names of family and friends. I think that this could become extremely confusing and potentially awkward. I have confused several people by referring to my crab apple tree as ‘Laura’ which is actually the variety. Someone once said, ‘Oh marvellous, you give your trees names!’ which, of course, isn’t the case! It’s just that it seems nicer to say, ‘Laura’s blossoming well’ or, ‘There’s fruit beginning on Nancy’, rather than just mentioning our Mirabelle tree.

Mirabelle de Nancy (c) Elizabeth Malone

When you do plant something in memory of someone or something, there’s always the added pressure of ensuring that it survives well and, of course, ensuring that the consequences of your planting aren’t a burden or hindrance to future owners.  So if you are thinking about contributing a tree to the Jubilee celebrations next year, think carefully before you plant!


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Fresh October

Fresh October brings the pheasant;
Then to gather nuts is pleasant.

Continuing this years series of blogs based on Sara Coleridge’s poem ‘The Garden Year’, I realised that nuts don’t feature in my garden at all, or at least not deliberately. Over the years I have pulled out many a seedling horse chestnut tree sprouting from a conker buried by an industrious squirrel.

Squirrel posing locally in Bushy Park (c) Elizabeth Malone

We also have a small oak tree in a pot dug up from somewhere in the garden and, again, probably growing from an acorn buried by a squirrel as I’m not aware of any oak trees particularly nearby. Our little tree is thriving but leaving us with the puzzle of what to do with it? Our garden isn’t the right size and scale for a majestic oak! As we live near Oak Avenue Nature Reserve, I’m wondering if I could sneak out in the dead of night and plant it there? With the emphasis next year on planting trees for the Queen’s Platinum Jubilee, maybe there will be an opportunity?

Our baby oak tree (c) Elizabeth Malone

Whilst we may not have nuts to gather in the garden, this is without doubt the season of seedpods and berries. I watch in trepidation as the gigantic sycamore at the end of the garden casts thousands more ‘helicopter’ seeds in all directions. This tree wasn’t even here 21 years ago! It’s a self-set that has grown up just beyond our fence on Railtrack land which makes it somewhat challenging to get anyone to do anything with it. Once again next spring I will be pulling out hundreds of its offspring.

Sycamore warning! (C) Elizabeth Malone

Glancing out of the window to the patio, I can see that the berries on the black elder, Sambucus Nigra Black Lace, have already been devoured by the birds.  Berries from our main elder tree will probably have been eaten by pigeons but I suspect that the black elder berries have been snapped up by the flock of sparrows that seem to have adopted our garden over the summer.  Most afternoons between 8 and 12 of them descend and hide in the adjacent hedge.  For the next half hour or so there will be the sound of wingbeats as they ‘bounce’ up and down and in and out of the various bushes dining on a selection of insects, berries and seeds.  They are very entertaining to watch but also really distracting if you’re trying to concentrate on something!

Sambucca Nigra Black Lace against visit autumn sky (c) Elizabeth Malone

Underneath our bird feeders and therefore relatively low to the ground, we have a pyracantha will brilliant orange berries. These are at pigeon-height and will gradually disappear one-by-one of the coming weeks. From there the pigeons will then move on to the cotoneaster berries in the front garden which will mean we startle them every time we open the front door! I was going to suggest that it would be easier for the pigeons to progress to the hawthorn berries just above them. (Our bird feeders hang in the hawthorn tree which is less easily climbed by our cats!) However, I’ve just realised how few berries are actually left on the tree which implies that they’ve not been slow in coming forward to eat them. There’s a whole winter to go yet but they clearly don’t believe in being abstemious and saving some for later!

Prickly pyracantha (c) Elizabeth Malone

Green holly berries seem to be in abundance. Does this mean we’re in for a hard winter? I’m not quite sure when they turn from green to red, presumably when the temperature starts to drop? Of course as soon as they are red, then the birds will be ready to eat these too, leaving us to hunt around in mid-December looking for any that might still be available to decorate the house.

Now the holly bears a berry as green as the grass (c) Elizabeth Malone

What is becoming clear as I write this is just how important all these berries and seeds are to our wildlife. One plant that many of us have in our gardens, that grows wild in our churchyards and open spaces and yet is often reviled, is ivy. We were recently on holiday in Ramsgate in Kent where the seafront esplanade was lined by a mile or more of ivy. The sheer number of insects buzzing and hovering around the flowers was truly astonishing. To see this would make you question whether the UK’s insect life really is under threat? Although if any of you have done the ‘splat test’ on your car number plates this summer, you will know that this is a serious problem. (Our number plates remained almost spotless on journeys to Dorset in June and Kent in September). We have a lot of ivy in the garden. In one corner a whole range of birds must nest in it. We can’t see properly but every spring we’re aware of regular flitting to and fro. In the autumn, late bees will flock to it as one of the last flowering plants around and on a sunny day there is a constant stream of hoverflies skimming over it. In the depths of winter its shiny black berries will provide essential food for birds as well as decorating the house for Christmas. Yes, ivy can become too big for its boots at times but it’s easily pulled back to something more manageable and we wouldn’t be without it.

Garden ivy and hoverfly (c) Elizabeth Malone


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September brings …

Warm September brings the fruit;  Sportsmen then begin to shoot.

You may be relieved that I am not going to write about shooting here.  A far too controversial topic for a garden blog!  Far more interesting and rewarding to talk about fruit.

Raspberries in the garden (c) Elizabeth Malone

Last summer I found myself blackberry before starting work!  It was one of the joys and surprises of working from home, heading out for a walk before the endless screentime and Teams meetings, and in July coming home with a bag full of fruit!  However, it was early July, far too early for blackberrying.  Whilst this summer will no doubt be remembered for being wet and grey, it has produced fruit closer to the time of year we used to expect.  Blackberrying this year has definitely been an August pursuit.  Both this year and last, it has been a joy to see blackberrying being passed down the generations.  On various walks we have seen people of all ages filling the ubiquitous plastic bag with berries and heading off literally red-handed!

Out and about blackberrying (c) Elizabeth Malone

This year we are also lucky enough to have an abundant supply of blackberries at the far end of the garden.  This is a mixed blessing.  Twenty years ago we spent many hours hauling out bramble from this overgrown and chaotic area of the garden.  Now it seems that some of it is back, delighted to have been exposed by some judicious pruning of a giant laurel.  We are hoping that we can contain it and manage it in such a way that it will continue to bear fruit in future years without taking over the entire garden.

Washed and drying! (c) Elizabeth Malone

Last year was the first time we added bramble jelly to our jam-making repertoire.  We were inspired by a commercially bought jar and thought ‘we can do this!’  We already had the jelly strainer and stand from our crab apple jelly making so all we needed to do was delve into our ancient but trustworthy Good Housekeeping recipe book which is full of ideas for jams and jellies.  In our eagerness to ensure a good set, it would be fair to say that the first batch came out a little, eh, stiff!  It tasted delicious but it was firm enough to support walls!  We have learned from this and the batch made last weekend is a lovely light, easy spreading consistency!

Deep, dark blackberry juice dripping (c) Elizabeth Malone

Blackberries and raspberries have certainly been the winners on the berry front this summer.  The less said about strawberries, the better – too wet!! Although we worried at the start of the raspberry season as it was so wet and we found that the berries were turning mouldy before we had time to pick them. A more pleasant benefit of the rain turned out to be a surprisingly good crop of cherry plums which were the first fruits this year to make us get our jam making it ready.

Jam ready for potting up (c) Elizabeth Malone

Cherry plums are small, dark red on the outside but glowing orange on the inside. They are also extremely sharp! Too sharp for even enjoying in something like a crumble. Believe me, we have tried it! If you enjoy you jam with a slight tang to it, cherry plums are for you!

Now as we head into September we are starting to watch the crab apple tree with interest. Fruits that seemed quite small only a week ago, are now starting to look a good size. The longer you leave crab apples, the more juice you tend to get for the jelly making process. That said, there are limits. Into October is good, but by November the fruits are falling off the tree and are better suited for bird food or potentially wiring into an Advent decoration. But let’s not even mention the ‘C’ word just yet!

Crab apple ‘Laura’ in fruit (c) Elizabeth Malone


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August brings …

August brings the sheaves of corn,
Then the harvest home is borne.

When I first glanced at this month’s verse from Sara Coleridge’s The Garden Year I was tempted to start talking about harvesting fruit and other produce from around the garden, but then I looked ahead.  I need to save that for September!

Our garden isn’t full of sheaves or corn and probably never has been.  Prior to the houses being built here in the early 1950s, there were market gardens and, going even further back, it is likely that the land belonged to one of the local ecclesiastical establishments.  Even then I doubt that the monks or whoever were harvesting sheaves of corn here – more likely fruit and veg.

Stipa tenuissima (c) Elizabeth Malone

So for my ‘sheaves of corn’ I’m going to turn my attention to our grasses, many of which are currently in full ‘flower’ and billowing golden around the pond and in the border.  When the fashion for grasses first began, I wasn’t an immediate convert.  I thought that grasses were rather boring and that this was a bit of a fad, especially as garden designers and make-over programmes seemed obsessed with the peculiar black grass Ophiopogon which I still don’t like.  I think that it was probably the old grass borders at RHS Wisley that began to change my mind.  I imagine that it was an exceptionally well-timed visit one autumn that meant we saw the grasses in their full glory. 

Old grass borders at RHS Wisley in 2017 (c) John Malone

We grow a lot of Stipa Tenuissima in our garden, not all of it deliberately!  Stipa Tenuissima self-seeds extremely readily and we find it popping up all over the place.  Little tiny strands of plants can soon become a substantial clump.  It’s also known as ‘pony tails’ but in our household it should be known as ‘cats tails’.  On more than one occasion I’ve glanced down the garden and wondered what Bryggen, our ginger cat, is up to, only to realise that it’s a giant waving Stipa and not his tail!  (He does have an exceptionally bushy, grand tail!)

You can see why I sometimes get confused! (c) Elizabeth Malone

Two years ago I made room for one of my favourite grasses.  It’s another stipa, Stipa Gigantea.  With a name like that, I’m sure you can appreciate why I said ‘make room’ for it!  This is the golden oat grass which looks fabulous against a brilliant blue sky.  Last year I was really disappointed that it only had about one flower head but this year it has rewarded me with a few dozen.  It really has looked spectacular and I’ve learnt that it also has small yellow flowers that dangle like earrings. 

Stipa gigantea in flower (c) Elizabeth Malone

I love the way that grasses also always have a colloquial name – pony tails (Stipa tenuissima), oat grass (Stipa gigantea), switch grass (Panicum), zebra grass (Miscanthus sinensis), cloud grass (Agrostis) and quaking grass (Briza) are the ones that we grow and I know about but there are many more.

My most recent acquisition is a Briza which has bell-shaped dangling seed heads which, as its colloquial name suggests, quake in the wind.  It’s only a hardy annual but experts suggest that it will self-seed and so I will have my fingers crossed for next year.  I might even try to save some seed and so it myself if I can work out when to do that.

My cloud grass was grown from seed, from a free packet send by a small nursery with some other plants.  Having not grown it before, I didn’t like to take a chance on following the packet instructions and scattering it where it was due to grow.  Instead I only scattered a small number and am very grateful that I did.  Nothing came up!  So the following spring I scattered some over a small pot and to my amazement they germinated.  I teased them out of the pot and planted them out into the border where a couple survived and went on to flower beautifully.  I sowed the remainder this spring and have a few small plants dotted around so fingers crossed for this year too.  However, they are small and fiddly so I’m not sure that I’ll be ordering more seed or collecting it for next year but let’s see.

Cloud grass (c) Elizabeth Malone

Less of a do-er has been our zebra grass, Miscanthus sinensis, which has now occupied several sites in our garden and struggled in nearly all of them. Could this year be different?  The strappy leaves are certainly taller than previous years so may be all the rain we’ve had has an effect?  It would be lovely if it did finally take off as it is rather fun – not many plants are stripey!

Miscanthus ‘zebrinus’ (c) Elizabeth Malone

Another favourite grass by our pond is a Panicum that has red-edged leaves and produces beautiful dark red, almost black flowers / seed heads in the autumn.  It seems perfectly suited to the lower light of September and October and I’ve taken numerous photos of it over the years, still trying to get the perfect shot that sums it up.  It is always a bit of a last blast of summer.  It will then stay with us, providing some structure in the garden during winter, until we cut it back in early spring and start the whole cycle again.

Panicum backlit by autumn sun (c) Elizabeth Malone


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July brings …

Hot July brings cooling showers,

Apricots, and gillyflowers.

Gillyflowers?  I can hear you all asking, what are they?  Well apparently they are several things.  They can be wallflowers or sweet Williams, and back in Shakespeare’s day, the name was used to refer to carnations.  More recently, the term has been linked to ‘pinks’ or dianthus which I’d never grown until this spring.

Two years’ ago we were visiting the lovely garden of Broughton House in Kirkudbright in Dumfries when John spotted this small, perfectly formed pink flower.  Foolishly we didn’t ask what it was and assumed that, as it was a type of dianthus, it would be easy to find somewhere – ha, ha!  We’ve never yet managed to track it down.

Mystery dianthus at Broughton House (c) John Malone

Inspired by this, we have picked up pots of dianthus in garden centres on and off and flicked through catalogues, but never actually committed to buying any until this spring when two pots accompanied us home from Wisley one day.  It was May – cold, a bit damp, and generally grey and miserable.  The plants were put to one side for potting up later as I wanted them to replace winter violas that were still flowering but about to die back.  Stupidly I took my eye off the ball.  The weather changed rapidly on the bank holiday weekend and the poor plants were fried!  I dunked them into a bowl of water and slowly over the course of the next couple of days they picked up but they still bear the scars.  Many of the leaves are still scorched brown and we’ve lost one flush of flowers.  So let that be a lesson to us as “hot July” approaches and, judging by recent years, we’re unlikely to get many “cooling showers”!

Dianthus – nearly fried! (c) Elizabeth Malone

Pinks, or dianthus, are quite scented but it’s a smell that I can’t quite make up my mind whether I like or not.  It’s quite spicy.  Often described as ‘clove-like’, I’m not sure I can smell that connection.  However, that did set me off thinking about scent in our garden.  As long-standing readers of this column will know, I do plant a lot for wildlife, especially for bees and butterflies, and although scent has a role to play here, most of my ‘plants for pollinators’ were chosen more for their flower shape than their scent.  For example, the flowers that have been attracting dozens of bees during June have been the poppies.  The buzzing of the bees reverberates around the flower head as they bury themselves deep down in the centre of the bloom, causing the petals to almost rattle.  However, to the best of my knowledge, poppies are unscented.  That said, the lavender is about to take centre stage and that is extremely fragrant.  It will soon be covered in bees but I’m not sure that I’ve ever seen butterflies head towards it.

Beauty of Livermere attacting bees (c) John Malone

Butterflies tend to prefer to perch on top of flat, open flowers.  They love the echinacea, another unscented plant, and also the verbena bonariensis.  Verbena is deceptive.  You could be forgiven for thinking that it is another flat flowerhead until you look carefully and you will see that the flower is made up of dozens upon dozens of tiny little tubes of nectar. Looking back through my photos, I realise the verbena is loved by bees, hoverflies and dragonflies as well as butterflies!

Large White enjoying Verbena Bonariensis last summer (c) Elizabeth Malone

It will be interesting to see how the summer progresses but currently I’m worried about butterflies in south-west London.  We saw quite a few in the garden in April – small whites, holly blues, commas, brimstones and the occasional peacock, but on the warm days in June we hardly saw a thing.  Has that been the effect of that long, cold May?  Last year we were lucky enough to see both a cinnabar moth and a Jersey tiger in the garden, in fact the Jersey tiger seemed to be everywhere.  We saw it in Crane Park and also in a local hedgerow but so far, nothing out of the ordinary this summer. 

A Jersey Tiger enjoying the nettles of Crane Park last summer (c) Elizabeth Malone

One of my experiments to attract more insects to the garden has been the sowing of a wildflower bed.  Returning to my original theme of scent, it’s interesting to note that it didn’t play a part in my plan.  Having never grown wildflowers before, I decided not to go mad and dig up the lawn but instead to sow some seed into a large re-usable gro-sack.  Instead of filling the sack with the obvious multi-purpose compost, I bought topsoil and mixed it with old spent compost and lots of grit in order to downgrade the quality of the planting medium.  Wildflowers, after all, don’t need to be pampered!  I then simply scattered over a packet of mixed seed and waited.  Initially I was annoyed by it as the sack sagged badly under the weight of the soil and it didn’t look particularly attractive but it is now flowering.  The only thing is, I’m not sure what the flowers are that have emerged!  I’m also not sure how well it’s doing on attracting insects – I’ve seen just one hoverfly so far!

My first wildflowers (c) Elizabeth Malone

If you’ve been wondering whether I’m going to mention apricots somewhere in this article, I’m afraid I’m going to disappoint you.  We have fruit trees but not apricots.  We also have a lot of fruit and I can assure you that one of the things that is most attractive to bees is raspberries.  My advice is pick with care!!


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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


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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!


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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


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March brings breezes, loud and shrill …

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

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

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

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

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

Clematis armandii (c) John Malone

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

Cherry Plum blossom Spring 2020 (c) Elizabeth Malone

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

Blossom on Mirabelle de Nancy (c) Elizabeth Malone

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

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

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

Osmanthus (c) John Malone

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

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