Outside the Backdoor

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


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The boring side of bulbs

Today I planted the last set of bulbs ready for next Spring and breathed a sigh of relief.  I love Spring bulbs like the next gardener but planting them just isn’t my favourite task.

I only realised this some years ago when I was dutifully scrabbling around in the dry earth of September desperately trying to force into the ground some 200 bulbs that I had succumbed to in a rash moment when reading a ‘free’ offer in a magazine.  My next door neighbour called round and remarked that he disliked bulbs because planting them was hard work and boring.  I remember pausing at that moment and thinking, he’s right!

Early September brings the best bulbs into the garden centres but the ground is either too hard and dry to plant them or covered in late summer flowering gems.  And then there’s the dilemma about tulips.  All the advice points to planting them in November to reduce the potential for disease but if you leave purchasing your tulips until then, you will have very slim pickings in the garden centre which by this time will be full of Christmas decorations!  Store your tulip bulbs carefully and, by the time you are ready to plant them, chances are they will already be sprouting or some will have gone soft!

This autumn I wanted to plant yellows, oranges and reds in my ‘hot’ border but held off until last weekend as it was, to my delight, still flowering profusely.  The arrival of our first frost on 1 November gave me the cue to bring the dahlias back down to ground level and to remove any remaining annuals.  Heavy rain the night before fooled me into thinking bulb planting might be easier but no, the dahlia leaves had well and truly prevented too much water reaching the soil.  I chipped away at making suitable holes and eventually shoe-horned in about 30 bulbs, thereafter retreating indoors with what can only be described as ‘bulb-planting wrist’.

Today I decided to take the easy option and to plant my remaining tulip bulbs in a pot.  Having purchased a pack of orange and purple bulbs shown flowering beautifully together, I was surprised to discover that they were likely to flower at slightly different times.  So I have planted the earlier ones deeper in the hopes that they might all flower together.

Having prepared my pot, I think had to think about squirrel defences.  Having chopped down my dahlias last weekend and mulched them heavily, today I see that the squirrel has thoughtfully spread my mulch all over the lawn!  I have found that both plant supports and upside down  hanging baskets fulfil a useful anti-squirrel function.

Iris reticulata

And so, as I sit back and wait for the joys of Spring and bulbs in all their glory, I spare a thought for those professional gardeners and volunteers who bring amazing displays to us every year, such as the one below at Wisley earlier this year, and I’m just grateful that I only had a few packets of bulbs to plant and not a few hundred or thousand!

Tulips at Wisley

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Yuccas and me

I have been the owner of a yucca plant since my 21st birthday!  A pouring wet day just before my Finals at university and I remember everyone scuttling in and out of my room to wish me a happy birthday and then scuttling back off into the rain to revise.  One friend knocked on the door and, when I opened it, I could barely see her as she was holding a not inconsiderable plant – a yucca!

As you can imagine, the label was lost many years ago so I have no idea what sort of yucca other than it’s the one you still seem to be able to buy as a house plant should you feel so inclined.  However, I would urge caution before popping one into your trolley on the next visit to the garden centre or DIY store.

For the first eight or nine years of my yucca’s life it happily sat in its pot in my bedroom.  I think I potted it on once or twice to give it some new compost.  However, when we moved into our first house, we placed it in the dining room adjacent to the patio doors.  It absolutely loved it there!  Spurred on by all the light, it grew and it grew … and it grew!  The most common question we were asked was, “What are you going to do when it hits the ceiling?”  We were spared this decision for a little longer as, in the course of moving and being squashed into the front well of a Peugeot 205, it had developed a kink in its trunk which delayed the ceiling problem for a little while.

Eventually we had to take the plunge and, having consulted a number of books (bearing in mind this was the days before the internet was ubiquitous!), we chopped it in half!  I can assure you that it took a huge amount of courage to do the deed and, if I remember rightly, the chosen tool was the bread knife as the trunk was too wide for anything as normal as secateurs.  Following the instructions, we doused the newly cut base in hormone rooting powder, plunged it into compost and waited.  We need not have feared, soon the top looked remarkably happy and was clearly getting taller.  Meanwhile, to our amazement, the bottom began to shoot in two places and soon we had a double headed yucca!

Of course, this only solved the problem for a year or two and soon the original plant and its offspring were also getting rather tall and so we repeated the process all over again.  By the time we moved into our current house in 2000, we had no less than five yucca plants!  My sister-in-law once commented that, if we didn’t have the plants, we would have had room for a three-piece band in the corner of the dining room!

Eventually sense prevailed and we reduced our yucca numbers down to two.  I can’t remember what happened to them all but at least one ended up a work and graced the university’s main reception for some years.

Our remaining yuccas continued to grow and, guess what?  We built an extension with a high ceiling!  It was a really good way of avoiding the problem again!  In fact that summer, during the building works, we were amazed that the plants survived so well outside.  As the build timescale extended, we were eventually chivvying the builders to get a move on so that we could get the plants into the warm before winter began.

In 2015, it would be fair to say we hit a crisis – two yucca plants almost at ceiling height … again!  So, it was out with the bread knife and rooting powder once more.  We decided not to do both plants at once.  Despite having done this process many times, we still lack confidence that we are going to be successful and only on that first occasion has the base of the old plant continued to flourish.  I also didn’t fancy being left without any tall, structural plants in the lounge as they do look good in the high-ceilinged room.

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Demonstrating height!

With our 2015 cutting now reaching a sensible height, this spring we had to do the inevitable and tackle the remaining tall plant.  We left it later than usual.  Not until the 29th May did we summon up the courage to man-handle it out of the backdoor and onto the patio for surgery!

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Our latest yucca offspring!

it is only now, four months on and with two or three brand new leaves emerging from the middle, do I feel we can say that we have another successful cutting and that the tradition of us owning a yucca plant looks set to continue for many years to come.  I have now lost count but I think this cutting is now the fourth generation, making it the great-grandchild of the original!


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Definitely NOT outside the back door!

Over the past couple of weekends I have made a fascinating study of front gardens.  This isn’t a new passion of mine and I’m not about to re-title this blog anytime soon.  I have been leafleting and, I will put my hand up now, to admit that I am about to make a shameless plug for a amateur show that I’m involved with – Hounslow Light Opera’s ‘Little Shop of Horrors‘ (tickets still available – and there is a horticultural connection!!)

LSOH social media banner

We do many things to promote a show and door-to-door leafleting is one of them.  I’ll readily admit that it’s not my favourite task but it does provide a fascinating opportunity to see what other people living locally have done with their front gardens.

May be it’s just a South-West London thing but to me front gardens are definitely the poor relation.  How often has anyone said to you that you must come round as their front garden is looking stunning at the moment?  Living where we do, front gardens are either for car parking or skip parking as yet another house extends up, sideways or even down!

I will confess that local front gardens have sprung a few surprises on me recently.  For example, I have been surprised at the prevalence of plastic trees … yes, really!  Plastic box in tubs and hanging plastic box balls, which have a tendency to fade to blue, seemed surprisingly popular in one local street.  (Hampton friends reading this, it’s OK, it’s not you!)

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Another striking thing has been the multitude of different hues of gravel, from the humble grey beach pebble through to the designer purple slate chips.  I confess I quite liked the slate grey and white gravel in front the house with a matching slate grey door with white surrounds.  We have gravel in our front garden but it’s a fairly boring shade of brown (or gold as the packet claims).  Another neighbour recently gravelled her front garden as a quick option (they intend to extend in a few years and so don’t want to create a lovely garden and then plonk scaffolding in it) but she’s quickly discovered one big disadvantage – the foxes absolutely love playing in it at night!

Our own front garden has had a rather chequered history.  When we moved here, it was dominated by a monkey puzzle tree which was certainly a talking point.  Then all of a sudden, twelve years ago now, it died.  It was incredibly sad to see this and the speed with which it happened was truly shocking.  This picture shows it at the start of 2005 when it was still vividly green.

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But by the end of 2005, the branches were brown and crisp from top to toe and even more vicious than when it had been alive!  (Although they did look great in the frost and covered in cobwebs.

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Once the tree had been taken down, we really didn’t know what to do to fill the gap.  Pots, including one with a eucalyptus that became far too big, filled the space and continue to do so today.

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We never knew why the monkey puzzle died and that has always deterred us from committing again to something distinctive in the front garden.  So enjoy our spring hellebores, our potted hollies by the door and the blast of golden forsythia in the front and middle hedge every spring but, beyond that I realise we are just like everyone else and most of our focus is outside the back door!

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Still, I’m not going to complain.  At least these plants don’t demand blood!


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Dotty about dahlias

Long gone is the era when dahlias were distinctly passé.  For the last ten years or more, dahlias have undergone a huge resurgence in popularity, mostly attributed to the incredibly successful ‘Bishop’ series with their dense dark red foliage.  The most popular of these is Bishop of Llandaff but, due to a number of mishaps, we don’t have any of these outside the back door.  We do, however, have some fellow Bishops – notably Oxford and Canterbury, the result of a newspaper offer on Bishop dahlias that we sent off for some years ago.

Initially we kept our dahlias in pots.  This was based on our bad experiences with the Bishop of Llandaff, one of which drowned on the patio in a very wet spring, and another of which was eaten to death in the border.  Pots seemed a safer option, added to which we could enjoy the flowers close to the house.  We also didn’t really have the right sort of space in the border for planting them out.  However, with the advent of my new hot / late summer border, that has all changed.

Much of the appeal of dahlias is their ability to extend the season.  For the first years that we lived here, I joined the ranks of frustrated gardeners who despair in August as the beautiful flower border of May and June is transformed into a rather desolate flower-less sight.  I know that there’s nothing wrong with green and I relish our evergreens in view in the depths of winter, but in July, August and September, I want something a bit more vibrant!  So, with the new border in place, our Bishops were released from the confinement of their pots and, goodness me, have they taken advantage!  At one point in the middle of August I counted no less than 19 flowers in full bloom on our Oxfords.

Having got into dahlias via the dark-leaved varieties, we have gradually become more adventurous in our choices, realising that it’s not so much about the leaf colour as the flower shape and that there are many, many different flower shapes, some of which will appeal more than others.  I cannot, for example, imagine us suddenly developing a liking for pom-pom dahlias!  They are just not our cup of tea.  Star-shaped dahlias, however, we love and are particularly pleased with ‘Verrone’s Obsidian’ which produces extremely dark red flowers that are almost black and which beautifully complement the orange of the Oxfords.  The star-shaped flowers have much sharper, linear petals whereas the Bishops tend to have much smaller, rounded petals but both are very much single flowers with wide open centres which are a magnet for bees.

Verrone's Obsidian

Into this mix come our Honkas!  Another star dahlia, we have both red and yellow varieties.  The yellows are just such a happy flower, shining like sunrays even on the gloomiest summer day.  The reds are incredibly rich in colour.

I really felt that I had achieved what I set out to do when, on the August bank holiday weekend, a friend remarked on the amount of colour we had in the garden.  Although the main part of the border still had some pretty pink, purples and whites, it was the new hot border with the dahlias that was positively zinging and affirming that it wasn’t autumn just yet.  I am now keeping my fingers crossed that we don’t have an early frost as it would be incredibly sad to see this display reduced to a heap of blackened leaves just yet.

Meanwhile we face the dilemma – to lift, or not to lift?  I would say that we live in a mild area and the gardening books and websites suggest that a thick layer of mulch is therefore all we need to keep our dahlias cosy until next Spring.  But we’ve not done that before and have preferred to lift them, dust down and dry off and we have still lost some tubers.  So it’s going to be a difficult decision but, one thing is for certain, I don’t intend to be without dahlias next summer!

 


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In praise of Laura

Laura is a bit of a star!  Laura is our crab apple tree and, no, we have not named her!  Laura is simply the variety … but it has caused confusion on a number of occasions!

Crab apple Laura in fruit

We chose and planted Laura about 8 years ago having been inspired to plant a crab apple tree by a friend’s jelly made from the very popular John Downie crab apple.  We weren’t entirely sure if we wanted to make jelly and we were also concerned that at John Downie could get too big in our garden.  So we decided to research alternative varieties.

Crab apple Laura in bloom

Laura in bloom – Copyright John Malone

We wanted to keep our options open with regards to the jelly making but we also wanted attractive blossom in the spring and ideally autumn colour – not much then!  For jelly making, you need to plant a variety that will produce sensible sized fruits.  You cannot, for example, easily make jelly from a tree that produces crab apples the size of a grape!  When we discovered Laura, she sounded perfect with dark red fruits about the size of a ping-pong ball.  The lovely thing about dark red fruits is that you also get dark red jelly!

Crab apple jelly

Laura has really flourished and every spring we enjoy her stunning deep pink and white flushed blossom and summer by summer she is getting more and more prolific so that we are literally picking bucket-loads of fruit!

Our jelly is made very traditionally using a recipe from a 1960s Good House Keeping cookery book but also following their hot tip which is to add about 3 cloves to the fruit when cooking.  Any more than that would be overpowering but this just gives a slightly warm note to the overall flavour.  I also highly recommend purchasing a jelly straining kit such as the one from Lakeland.  The first year we tried this, I attempted to set up some Heath-Robinson style affair and, goodness me was it messy!  My other hot tip is, do not forget to put your bowl underneath the strainer before pouring!!  (Yes, that is the voice of experience …)

Of all the trees in our garden, I think it would be fair to say that it is Laura that gives us most pleasure.  We enjoy looking at her, we enjoy eating the end product, and she has been a very easy plant to care for with just a little pruning required to keep her in tip-top shape and to ensure she continues to fruit well.

Crab apple Laura in Spring

Crab apple Laura in Spring – copyright John Malone

Should you be inspired to acquire Laura for yourself, she’s not easy to track down but a quick Google search shows that she is currently available from Ken Muir and Pomona Fruits amongst others.

 


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Season of mellow fruitfulness

Traditionally October is the month for Harvest Festival services and yet, in our current climate and ways of farming, the harvest is often long gone and put away even by the start of September.  For me September is the beginning of autumn although this year, it was the end of July when I first walked out the front door one morning on the way to work and thought it felt different.  There’s a sense of coolness in the air and a smell that’s hard to describe but it says that the height of summer is already past and soon the morning ground will be thick with dew.  By thinking of 1st September being the start of Autumn, I’ve read that this means I’m following the meteorological calendar as against the astronomical calendar which would mean that Autumn didn’t get underway until later in the month on the 22nd.  Either way, now is certainly a good time to take stock of the harvest that the garden has produced this year.

Back in May I wrote about our increased interest in growing fruit and this summer we have really reaped the benefits of this.  In June our strawberry plants went mad!  In May, wonderful clusters of white flowers burst through thick bushy green leaves and I watched nervously as the fruits began to form.

Unexpectedly cold nights worried me.  On Gardeners’ World, Monty Don warned that if the centre of the fruits turned black, that meant they had been damaged by the cold.  I sighed with relief as ours remained a healthy yellow but I began to worry again as May turned into June and our summer holiday approached.  Were these fruits all going to ripen as we crossed the Channel?  And if so, who was going to be eating them?  Certainly not us!  As it turned out, luck was on our side and about a fortnight before our departure a few fruits began to turn red.  We started out being thrilled by picking one or two fruits to eat each evening but soon this became ten or twenty fruits – complete bowls full!  Gardeners often proudly declare how many pounds of fruit their plot has produced but we were too busy enjoying the fruit to bother counting.  As our portions of fruit became larger and larger, eventually I had to draw the line.  Faced with masses of strawberries the evening before our holiday departure, I declared that it was too much and suggested that we take a punnet with us to eat en route into the Netherlands.  So it was that, on midsummer’s day, we found ourselves sitting in the lay-by of a service station in Belgium eating home-grown strawberries whilst watching a flock of sparrows taking dust baths!

Our raspberries have also been very productive.  In fact John was heard to say recently that we may yet be exploring recipes for raspberry jam in future years.  Yet again the scale of the harvest crept up on us, from tentatively picking the first few ripe fruits to suddenly realising that we had several punnet’s worth sitting in the fridge.

The blackbirds have also been enjoying our raspberries and our blueberries for that matter!  My defence of sparkly Christmas wrapping tape tied to branches and supports has not been overly successful in deterring our determined feathered friends.  Raspberries have been plentiful enough for us to feel generous towards the birds but their plundering of our blueberries has been less endearing.  We strongly suspect that they have eaten more than us!

Back in July the cherry plum tree was also laden with fruit which was ripening considerably faster than I was expecting.  I have jam jars clearly labelled with ‘cherry plum jam’ and dated 19th August.  This year’s crop was ready by 19th July!  The very hot spell of weather in June and early July clearly had an effect.  Not only were our cherry plums ripening rapidly but a colleague had apricots coming out of his ears!

One of the most rewarding sights of the harvest, however, has been our mirabelle tree.  We planted our Mirabelle de Nancy about four years ago but it is a tree that has had its challenges.  We fell in love with the mirabelle fruit during holidays to Alsace.  In September we would pass stalls selling brown paper bags full of mirabelle, a fruit that we had never seen on sale in the UK.  Having investigated trees, we finally established the variety, ordered one and planted it with great attention to detail.  However, it has been subject to leaf-curl which causes die-back in the branches, and also to fruit withering before maturity.  As a result, we have had about two mirabelle in total that have ever tasted remotely like what we had hoped for.  This year may well be different.  At lunchtime today, we had four mirabelle with yellow skins beautifully blushed with rosy pink that indicated these were perfectly ripe fruit and they were absolutely delicious!  We’re a long way from having enough to make mirabelle tarts or mirabelle jam but we are definitely heading in the right direction.

Soon it will be time to get the jam pan on the boil again and this time for crab apple jelly.  Our tree, Laura (that’s the variety and not a nick-name), is laden.  The wonderfully dark beetroot coloured fruits appear to be swelling day by day, presumably due to the rather extreme amounts of rain that have descended during August.  Like everything else, it looks like being an early harvest!


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Rain stops play

A month ago, if you’d said to me that I’d be struggling to garden due to the rain, I’d have laughed out loud!  Whilst I would be the first to admit that we desperately needed the rain, I am forced to admit that the weather has not been very typical of July and, as a result, my timing when it comes to getting things done in the garden has been absolutely rubbish!

On one occasion I chose a particularly bad moment to attempt to plant a rather beautiful salvia given to me by a friend the previous weekend.  Dark purple with striking silvery leaves, this salvia is a plant that shouts ‘summer’.  

Having decided on a location, I started preparing the hole.  Admittedly the sky was very overcast but it didn’t look full of the deluge that descended just as I was positioning the plant in the hole!


On another occasion I was forced to take shelter in the greenhouse.  Fortunately I’d just grabbed the tomato food so was able to use my time wisely whilst trapped and emerged having both fed the plants and tied in any wayward shoots.

Trying to decide when to administer liquid feed to various pots and plants in the border has also been challenging.  The pots look quite sodden whereas less than a month ago we were ensuring they all had trays underneath them to capture every valuable drop of moisture.  Now I’m trying to rescue plants from drowning!  Just because a pot is wet, doesn’t mean it doesn’t need feeding, especially as heavy rain like this is liable to wash out any nutrients from the pot.  So I decided to splash around a few cans of liquid seaweed just as the rain began again!  There’s no doubt that you do feel a bit daft watering in the rain!

And then there’s been my misplaced optimism about entertaining outdoors.  Last July we spent a glorious evening entertaining friends out on the patio surrounded by plants and lanterns.  Wouldn’t it be lovely to do it all again this summer?  Sadly the weather has had other ideas.  For a start, a gale force wind blew out all my candles and lanterns and, whilst it wasn’t exactly cold, it wasn’t what you would call a warm, balmy evening either!  Best laid plans eh!