Outside the Backdoor

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

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Spring is green!

I used this phrase for a recent Facebook post and all my G&S enthusiast friends came back with, “Summer’s rose ..” thinking of the lovely madrigal in Ruddigore. But it’s so true – spring is green!

Euonymus fortunei

Euonymus fortunei (c) Elizabeth Malone

It’s probably the time of year when we appreciate the colour green the most. Owning, as I do, a garden bordered by lilac, you do get rather fed up of the brown twiggyness of winter. Whilst I love my lilacs (see Luscious Lilacs), it has to be said that they do sadly contribute to winter dullness.

Banks of lilac in winter bordering the garden

Lilac just budding green (c) Elizabeth Malone

From March onwards, I find it hard to resist walking around the garden taking photos of the new green emerging and now, in April, everything is positively zinging! The hawthorn, which entered April with a generous smattering of new green leaves, conveniently displayed against a vivid blue sky, is now a dense canopy beginning to show the signs of flower buds getting ready to welcome in May.

Hawthorn leaves against blue sky

Hawthorn leaves on 1 April 2019 (c) Elizabeth Malone

In the ‘woodland’ garden, as I like to call it when feeling posh, the euphorbia has been excellent this year. This one is only the common woodland spurge but we brought it from our previous house and it took to this area with enthusiasm until a couple of years ago when I became quite worried as it looked sickly. It’s good to see that it appears to have bounced back.

Close up of Euphorbia flower / bract

Euphorbia / woodland spurge (c) Elizabeth Malone

I’m pleased to say that my Euphorbia Martinii, purchased at Malvern last year, has also returned. I was worried about it, to say the least, as it became rather swamped by a couple of over-enthusiastic dahlias last summer!

Euphorbia martinii bracts with red eye

Euphorbia martinii (c) John Malone

One of the really exciting greens at this time of year are the very first shoots of new seedlings in the greenhouse and on the veg plot. My rocket was first to be sown, first to germinate and also first to be eaten!

Rocket seedlings just germinating

Rocket germination! (C) Elizabeth Malone

I now have peas and French beans following in its footsteps and my tomatoes are almost ready to be pricked out and potted on – a task for the Easter weekend I think.

Last summer we also planted a number of new roses, five I think in the end, and I’m pleased to say all look to be doing well. However, it was the new leaves of our existing Iceberg climbing rose that really struck me last weekend. It was as if someone had been out and polished them up ready for the new season! These particular shoots were especially good to see as they were on new long stems stretching into the pergola, a direction that we’ve been trying to train it into for several years.

Shiny green new leaves on rose IcebergNew leaves on an Iceberg (c) Elizabeth Malone

Which just makes me think that I shall have to write a post later on this year entitled “Summer’s rose”!! But before I sign off on this post, I’m going to leave you with some lovely vibrant green which, ironically, is providing a fantastic backdrop to that most spring-like of spring flowers, the bluebell!!

Bluebells coming into flower with backlit green leaves

Budding bluebell (c) Elizabeth Malone


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Nesting now

It seemed hardly any time at all between doing the RSPB’s Great Garden Birdwatch at the end of January and spotting the first signs of nesting around the garden. The unseasonably warm spell in February had the most organised of our feathered friends eyeing up the prime sites around the local gardens.

The magpies were first. One Saturday morning I became aware of next door’s buddleia, which drapes over our fence, being pulled around as a magpie wrestled to break off a pliable twig. This was a radical departure compared to previous years when the magpies usually begin nesting by breaking twigs off of our birch tree and then move on to trashing the stipa tenuissima fountain grasses by the pond. I wouldn’t mind of they neatly pulled out all the dead grass as we need to do that anyway in the spring but, no, they tend to leave bits lying all over the garden.

Magpies in the hawthorn

Later in the spring we usually become aware of robins feeding their young as they tend to visit our feeders every few minutes, usually following the same flight pattern. However, this year we’ve spotted robin’s around the garden with their beaks full of nesting material, we think heading across into our neighbour’s garden. He has many nooks and crannies around his garden so it must be a favoured spot for robins who are notorious for nesting in strange places.

One bird that I really hope will not attempt to nest in the garden is the heron! It’s very easy to forget that herons nest in trees until you actually see them sitting in one. In mid-March the heron normally returns to our garden and is the biggest giveaway that the frogs have returned to spawn. Sadly the frogs then normally become heron breakfast. The heron can often be seen in the early morning standing like a statue by the pond ready to pounce. However, this weekend we looked up from breakfast to spot the heron perched on a large branch of our dead cherry tree! It looked ridiculously large and out of place.

Heron by the pond

Heron pond-side

I became really excited at the start of March when, three mornings in a row, I saw a pair of song thrushes in the garden. We do occasionally see a thrush but it’s becoming an increasingly rare sight in south west London and it must be at least three years since we last saw one. So to see two scuttling around the border together was quite remarkable and it would be lovely to think that they may set up home somewhere nearby.

Talking of things arriving in pairs, I spotted not one but two jays in the hawthorn. Jays do tend to divide opinion. There’s no question that their call is raucous and totally lacking any musicality but their colours are stunning. However, they also have the reputation of raiding the nests of smaller songbirds. I feel very torn about them but I do enjoy seeing the flash of blue feathers and it was quite unusual to see two together, although the one that perched on the bird bath looked rather incongruous.

We continue to get the occasional sighting of something less common in the garden. One Sunday in January I spotted a nuthatch in the hawthorn. With their blue and apricot colours and distinct eyeliner, they are a particularly pretty bird and we have only seen one in the garden once before. They are also incredibly shy so the minute I spotted it, I was glued to my chair and didn’t dare move a muscle. This time last year we were thrilled to see a goldcrest in the garden for only the second time in the nineteen years we’ve lived here. We were delighted to see it return in the autumn and I think I spotted one in the trees last weekend.

I am often asked why we encourage birds into our garden when we have three cats. Curiously, with the way we manage the cats access to the garden, it means that our garden is safer than most. The cats are never out early morning or at dusk when birds are most vulnerable and the cat fence keeps our cats in and the neighbour’s cats out. So there are many hours a day when the birds are safe from the local felines and foxes. I’ll write about this more depth in a future Outside the Backdoor.

Cat amongst flower pots

Roly getting into the gardening spirit!

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Perfecting potatoes

We all have our favourites. May be for you it’s crispy golden roasties served with Sunday lunch or perhaps small, perfectly formed spheres flavoured with a hint of mint. Either way, potatoes are a staple in most people’s diets – do you actually know anyone who doesn’t like them?

Roast potatoes

Sunday roasties (c) Elizabeth Malone

I’m also guessing that I’m not alone in that my very first experience of vegetable growing was potatoes. Some sprouted in the cupboard when I was little and my parents decided it would be fun for me to plant them. Given that they were probably just potatoes bought from the local greengrocer, I seem to recall that they provided us with a surprisingly generous yield (or maybe that’s just my memory?!)

When we dug our initial veg plot, it was with the intention of growing potatoes at the very least, anything else was a bonus. Over the years we’ve had mixed success in terms of both yield and quality. One of our biggest failings has been remembering which variety we’ve bought and whether it worked well enough to try again the following year. And then when we do remember, something holds us up in getting to the garden centre in timely fashion to purchase the same variety and so we end up trying something new again and repeating the cycle – you really would think we would be more organised! We could, of course, order from the huge variety of seed potatoes on offer in all the seed catalogues but, given the size of our veg plot, we only need one bag so it seems a bit over the top!

Example seed catalogue page

How many varieties?!

Last year, however, was different. Yes, we were still a bit late to the party in terms of what was left in the garden centre but we walked away with a bag of Foremost which did us proud, yielding a very good quantity of creamy tubers. The Potato Varieties database says that Foremost are relatively resistant to viruses and scab and that was certainly true of ours. On a number of previous occasions, our crop has been distinctly scabby but not last year. In fact we recently found an old cardboard cover from a bag of seed potatoes and laughed at the photo on the front which showed a distinctly scabby potato! Hardly great marketing and we did wonder what had possessed us to buy those.

Being quite a waxy potato, Foremost were also excellent for cooking as they maintained both their shape and flavour. We’ve had reasonable success with Arran Pilot over the years but Charlotte totally fell apart in the pot. We tried leaving the skins on but they would burst out! Our very first potatoes were International Kidney, the variety grown as Jersey Royals. We were very disappointed with the flavour concluding, like the best French wine-makers, that the ‘terroir’, ie. the soil, clearly contributes more to the overall taste than we perhaps give credit for.

Several years ago, in a burst of enthusiasm, we also dallied with Christmas potatoes. We bought a kit which meant we also acquired three planting sacks. The Christmas potatoes were virtually non-existent but the sacks have proved useful.

Crop of potatoes grown in sacks in summer 2018Sack of potatoes – our 2018 yield (c) Elizabeth Malone

Last spring we had a few too many seed potatoes to fit into our plot and so the remainder found their way into the sacks.  Traditionally potatoes need to be ‘earthed up’.  In other words, as they grow, you gradually draw more and more soil up over the leaves to cover them.  This is supposed to both increase the yield and protect any tubers near the top of the plant from being exposed to daylight which would turn them green and poisonous.  The same principle still applies to growing in bags.  When you first plant the bag, you only half fill it so that you can continue to ‘earth up’.  I don’t know whether this is a good idea of not but last year I didn’t waste good quality fresh compost on this but quite often topped up the bags with any spent compost, for example, from recent seed trays.  So I was simply re-using relatively fresh compost that had just done its job in enabling the seedlings to germinate but which, within a few weeks, would have gone to waste.  Regardless of being a good idea or not, the bags gave us a moderate yield as we expected and again this was of beautifully smooth skinned, clean tubers so it’s certainly something we’ll think about doing again.

Getting ready to plant seed potatoes

Lined up and ready to plant! (C) Elizabeth Malone

Although we only have two relatively small plots for our veg garden, each measuring approximately 8 feet by 8 feet, we do endeavour to rotate our crops.  Potatoes, however, being relatively large plants do provide us with a challenge and generally we just have to swap them from plot to plot on alternate years.  The size of our plots also limits what we grow so we have focused on either ‘earlies’ or ‘second earlies’, these being the type of potato that we would normally regard as ‘new’ rather than maincrop potatoes which would be left in the ground longer.  Early potatoes are normally ready for harvesting around the end of June so this means that the freed up space can be used for late sowings of beans or other veg whereas if we grew maincrop potatoes, we would be leaving them in the ground for much longer.  It’s all a balance of space and taste!

White potato plant flowers

Foremost in flower (c) Elizabeth Malone

Hopefully by the time you read this, we will have tracked down some Foremost tubers and they will be starting to chit (develop their shoots) out in the shed ready for planting at the end of March.  Apparently my grandfather always insisted on planting his potatoes on Good Friday “when the devil is looking the other way”!  Easter’s a bit late for that this year!

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Buds (not in May!)

February has suddenly teased us with a promise of spring. Although almost every morning over the past week has started with a crisp frost, it has been succeeded by beautiful blue skies and sunshine that promises something of the summer to come. Although we shouldn’t be fooled into thinking winter is almost over, (think of the Beast from the East last year!), the garden has responded and there are signs of new growth in all directions, and not always in the obvious plants such as the camellia below.


Camellia in bud (c) Elizabeth Malone

Although the sun disappeared yesterday, I was tempted out into the garden to do the first proper stint of the year. With my still unreliable knee, I had to content myself with some gentle sowing of early peas and rocket in the greenhouse and a little light weeding and feeding whilst John diligently pruned all the roses and gave the acer a significant chop before starting to wield the axe against the pyracantha that has become a monster!

Before getting to work, I decided to do a complete circuit of the garden to assess what was shooting, what was reappearing from last year and what, as yet, is still keeping us guessing – again, reminding myself that it is still only the middle of February. Just for the fun of it, I also decided to have my first real play with John’s birthday present – a macro lens! Not being a photographer as such, I found it a slightly strange experience, having to coax it to focus on the small detail I wanted and not something it suddenly found in the distance. I’ve also found it incredibly frustrating trying to load up giant media files to blog with today but that’s another story I think!

My perambulations began literally outside the backdoor with a perennial wall flower that I bought as a between seasons gap filler last summer. It flowered its socks off from about May till August. Last weekend I began to realise how interesting foliage was becoming, with this soft, almost grey tinged with a hint of pink.

Grey leaves and buds of a perennial wallflower

Once in full flower, this will be a mass of vibrant yellow but for now, the tight flower buds at the centre begin crimson, start to hint of orange but then, with a bit of sunshine, turn yellow. Given how early it is starting to flower this year, will it still be in flower in July like last year?

Yellow wallflower bud

Dotted around the garden, a whole range of daffodils are now on the starting blocks and ready to burst forth in the next week or two. The small tete-a-tete do well in our garden, better than the full sized daffodils. However, I spotted a clump of large daffodils today that I don’t remember planting!

Daffodil buds

Daffodils in bud (c) Elizabeth Malone

Just above them, our clematis armandii is starting to bloom. The buds look quite unattractive in their early phase. If that was all you saw when you first came across the plant, I’m not sure whether you would want to give it house room? However, the pure white flowers are so elegant and the scent on a warm spring day is magnificent. It is, of course, a bit of a thug and needs to have some of its enthusiasm tamed each year otherwise the entire garden would be nothing by clematis!

White clematis armandii flower and buds

My walk around the garden was just before John decided to wield the secateurs against the roses. The amount of new growth on them was certainly shouting, “Prune me!” It was an interesting reminder of all those new roses we acquired last year, all of which now need pruning, feeding and mulching! I’m now wondering whether the box of rose food I bought is big enough?

Rose leaves

Rose leaves – ready to prune back (c) Elizabeth Malone

Whilst roses may demand attention, mahonia is a plant we do absolutely nothing to. We never planted it in the first place but have odd clumps that spring up in both the front and back gardens.  The sight of this one about to bud amused me when I saw the result of the photo – it reminds me of one of those strange looking romanesco cauliflowers!

Yellow mahonia about to flower

Mahonia in bud (c) Elizabeth Malone

As well as the flowers, I took a close look at the fruit trees. The apple trees are yet to show any real signs of buds developing but both the mirabelle and crab apple stems are beginning to swell with new growth.

Mirabelle stem in bud

Mirabelle de Nancy stem in bud (c) Elizabeth Malone

Finally I turned to the veg plot which always looks rather desolate at this time of year. The autumn planted garlic is now shooting well, displaying strong fresh green stems. The chicken wire seems to be doing its job in terms of stopping cats and squirrels digging up the cloves! John has cut the raspberries back but the strawberries desperately need a good haircut. Due to my knee problems, I failed to tidy them in the autumn so they are long overdue some tlc. The remainder is a blank canvas waiting to be sketched out for the year ahead.

Autumn plants garlic starting to shoot

Autumn planted garlic (c) Elizabeth Malone

Of course it’s not all about new beginnings – some plants are already starting the cycle all over again.  Hellebores being the obvious example. Ours have been really splendid this year and it’s great to see that there are still buds waiting to open.

Red hellebore

That said, the pavement next to this one was strewn with stamen, showing that they’re planning ahead and getting ready to self-seed everywhere, which they do rather well!

Hellebore stamen on the ground

And finally, it’s always lovely to see something return. We bought this Euphorbia Martinii at Malvern last year. It looked great when we planted it but the poor thing got swamped by dahlias and grasses and I feared the worst. Even a week ago I didn’t spot this but here we are, and it’s looking fine!

Euphorbia martinii

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Nothing says ‘February’ more to me in the garden than snowdrops.  Just when we’re really getting fed up with the long dark winter days, along come these elegant white flowers to tell us that spring is just around the corner.

Snowdrop bud - close up

Snowdrop flowerhead (c) John Malone

Unfortunately, when it comes to growing snowdrops, I don’t seem to have much luck.  Years ago I bought some bulbs and planted them in what seemed a good place but about one appeared.  In fact I think that one is still appearing each spring but it is rather lonely! 

At the time I was a relatively inexperienced gardener and, of course, later I read that it is much easier to establish snowdrops ‘in the green’, that is planted out when they have finished flowering but still have their green leaves feeding the bulb beneath.  So I acquired some small pots from the garden centre packed full of snowdrops that were just about to finish flowering and I planted them out only never to be seen again.  My final foray into attempting to settle them into our garden was a couple of years ago when a friend, who is apparently inundated with them in her garden in Surrey, generously provided me with a large clump which I duly planted in the shade of the hawthorn, yet again with complete and utter failure!  I suspect that the problem is that the nice, partially shaded, damp spots beneath trees that I plant them into in the spring, become dry shaded deserts in summer, whereas they actually need to be kept moist to thrive and multiply.  It would seem that the naturally forming leaf-mould simply isn’t enough.

Crocus, daffodils, hellebores

Other spring bulbs thrive beneath the hawthorn (c) Elizabeth Malone

I think part of my frustration stems from the fact that we grow other early spring flowers, such as hellebores, really well in similar locations. At the far end of our garden, a few hellebores have magnified into something quite spectacular for a small area. We have cream ones, deep red ones and those that have hybridised to form a mix; and they put on a magnificent display come rain, shine or snow!

Cream hellebores with red spots

Spotted hellebores (c) John Malone

Leucojum, like giant snowdrops, have also done well. The first of these were bought in pots as a ‘past their best’ deal in our local Homebase some years ago. We decided to give them a home and have not regretted it as they have bulked up and flower reliably year after year and look like outlasting the Homebase store!

Snowflake flower - Leucojum

Snowflake flower – Leucojum (c) Elizabeth Malone

So when it comes to snowdrops, I fear that I shall have to make do with admiring other people’s and for me, the first sight of them in 2019 came very early on a visit to RHS Wisley on the 4th January when there were already large clumps fully in flower.  Also at Wisley, the curators were busy putting together a very special display in the alpine house of some unusual and valuable examples which have been lent for show just this spring.  I couldn’t help but notice the big shiny padlock on the display case and wondered just how much those few plants were worth?  Only a few years ago there were newspaper articles of snowdrop bulbs changing hands on the internet for £300!

Snowdrop in bud

Snowdrops in bud at RHS Wisley (c) John Malone

In February last year we called into Castle Drogo in Devon en route to a weekend in Cornwall.  It was a bright spring-like day and as we were tight for time, we enquired where best to see any snowdrops in the grounds.  The National Trust volunteer produced a plan of the grounds, studied it carefully, and then started circling a few areas where we might possibly see some.  He gave the impression that our chances were slim. So imagine our surprise when we stepped outside the visitor centre only to spot a large clump of nodding white flowers literally yards from the door! And only a few feet further along the path we spotted clump after clump!

Snowdrops and mossy tree trunks

Snowdrops at Castle Drogo, Devon 2018 (c) John Malone

About five years ago, one of our Landmark Trust holidays presented us with plentiful snowdrops right outside the door.  We were staying in the wonderfully named House of Correction in Lincolnshire on some very chilly March days (yes, that is snow surrounding the snowdrops you can see in the photo below!)  Thankfully most Landmark Trust properties are blessed with a roaring fire and on this occasion we were most grateful for it!

Snowdrops in the snow

Snowdrops with a little snow at the House of Correction, Lincolnshire (C) John Malone

The potential sight of snowdrops is surely a great incentive to get outdoors at this chilly and gloomy time of year. So where should you head? Well clearly not out into my garden!  The National Trust have done a ‘Best places to see snowdrops near you’ list, which is very thoughtful of them. Winkworth Arboretum, which is normally more renowned for its autumn colour or even its bluebells in May, is on the list and is not a million miles from us so we might be taking a trip out!

Meanwhile, do you have a plant that you would love to grow in your garden but which stubbornly refuses to cooperate?

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New shoots

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

Cat and greenery

Lending a paw (c) Elizabeth Malone

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

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

Violet bud

Violet in bud (c) Elizabeth Malone

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

White cyclamen

White cyclamen bud (c) Elizabeth Malone

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

Camellia bud

Camellia bud (c) Elizabeth Malone

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

Laurel bud

Laurel in bud (c) Elizabeth Malone

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

Euphorbia, or woodland spurge

Euphorbia emerging (c) Elizabeth Malone

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

Crocus buds

Crocus leaves (c) Elizabeth Malone

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

Winter flowering jasmine

Winter flowering jasmine (c) Elizabeth Malone

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

Winter flowering honeysuckle

Lonicera fragrantissima (c) ElizabethMalone

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

Pink blossom of Viburnum Bodnantense

Viburnum Bodnantense ‘Charles Lamont’ (c) Elizabeth Malone

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More than just poppies – Icelandic adventures

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


Thingvellir National Park (c) John Malone

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

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


Moss covered lava along Route 1 (c) John Malone

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


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

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


Eskifjordur (c) Elizabeth Malone

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


Planter, Faskrudsfjordur (c) Elizabeth Malone

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


Meconopsis, Eskifjordur (c) John Malone

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

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


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

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

Krysuvik (c) Elizabeth Malone

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


Flower filled gullies, Faskrudsfjordur (c) Elizabeth Malone

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


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

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


Knee deep in lupins at Svinnasfelljokull (c) John Malone

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


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