Outside the Backdoor

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


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Luscious lilacs

From the end of April into the first half of May, we are surrounded by lilac! It’s a very nice position to be in. The scent is truly amazing, wafting down the length of the garden and into the house on really warm days.

It’s at this time of year that I realise that we have a lot of lilac! During April it transforms from a tangle of brown twigs into a tempting bank of bright green that tells you that spring is really here, and then suddenly one day it is in bloom! On a glorious spring day with azure blue skies, the sight of the white and mauve plumes of flower is quite breathtaking but it is very much a brief moment of glory as, by mid-May, it will all be over and we’ll be left facing the very large challenge of deadheading it and keeping it within limits.

I say keeping it within limits as lilac knows no restraint. During the growing season it every stem can put on about a foot’s growth in a week! I have known us go on holiday for ten days in May only to return and wonder why the garden suddenly seems so narrow? Whilst our backs were turned, the lilac has marched forward and what was a green perimeter is now more akin to a green version of the six foot thick walls of a medieval castle! In fact, for some strange reason, it always puts me in mind of Sleeping Beauty. In the fairy tale, the hedge grows up rapidly around the castle where the princess is sleeping and I can’t help but think of lilac shooting up with such energy amidst other thorny creepers to create an impenetrable wall.

Sadly I have no idea what variety of lilac we have as they were all here when we moved in. They stretch across our garden in an arc that’s probably about thirty feet long. There appears to be three varieties – a medium shade of mauve, a very pale mauve and the intense white. All grow with equal vigour and, if left unchecked, the flowering just gets higher and higher. For the past few years, John has been working hard to bring the lilac down lower and to encourage flowers within sniffing distance. It seems to be working although neither of us fully understands the plant enough to be doing this consistently.

When we enter lilac season I am conscious that I just don’t see much of it about these days compared to something like wisteria which seems to adorn many front gardens at around the same time. It seems strange given that lilac is easy to grow, and looks and smells beautiful but I guess its three week flowering period just isn’t enough to justify the space it would take up in many gardens when gardeners can choose from such a huge variety of plants billed as ‘repeat flowerers’ or ‘long flowering’. Admittedly there are times when we feel a bit defeated by the extent of our lilac wall but there’s no way we would be without it.

PS. At just the same time as I was drafting this post Ali, The Mindful Gardener, blogged on a similar theme. Do check out her thoughts.

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Little and large

At first I wasn’t even sure that I had actually seen it, it was so tiny.  I was gardening at the far end of the garden when I was aware that something very small indeed had flown past me.  It reminded me of the occasion, possibly as much as ten years’ ago, when John had come back from that end of the garden talking excitedly about this tiny bird he had seen with a bright yellow flash on its head.  At that time we had to delve into a bird book in order to identify it – a goldcrest, Britain’s smallest bird!

Since then, goldcrests have had a little more publicity on programmes such as SpringWatch, or maybe I’ve just become more aware of them through reading magazines from the RSPB.  When I say they are small, I really do mean it.  At just 9cm in length, they weigh a mere 6g!  Yes, you read that correctly, not much more than a teaspoon of sugar!  Apparently they do breed right across the country but you are far more likely to find them in coniferous woodlands or parks with large, mature trees, than you are in gardens in Greater London.

Goldcrest

Photo:  Courtesy of Wikimedia – Creative Commons

So had I seen a goldcrest?  I just had an instinctive feeling that I had.  Then, later the same day, I spotted a tiny bird literally hanging around our birch tree.  It looked smaller than a bluetit and, when I say ‘hanging around’, it was doing just that but its mannerisms were different to the bluetit which we see most days.  I grabbed the binoculars and discovered just how difficult it is to home in on something so small!  However, for once the bird cooperated and didn’t immediately fly off, and I was able to home in on it and, to my delight, to see the bright yellow streak on its head – definitely a goldcrest!  It hopped around a bit more before coming a little closer into the camellia.  I’m also delighted to say that it’s been back.  I’m sure I saw it later the same week and then one evening this week it hopped around our hawthorn tree.  Needless to say we didn’t have a camera to hand, hence the Wikimedia photo above!  Having said that, the bird is so tiny that our chances of getting a good picture through the lounge window are probably slight!  It would be fantastic if this little bird became a regular visitor so I have my fingers crossed that it’s not scared off by the boisterous parakeets or, worse still, predated by the ever-present crows, magpies and our local jay.

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Parakeet pairing!  (c)  John Malone

On the same evening that I spotted the goldcrest, John was heading out into the garden to add some kitchen waste to the compost heap when he stopped in his tracks.  “Heron!”, was all he said.  Ah, that time of year.  The frogs were back to lay their spawn in mid-March and since then we have been aware of the heron circling the garden more frequently.  There’s nothing a heron likes better than a few frogs for breakfast, lunch or tea!  This particular heron was stationery, poised to pounce.  When we built our pond, we invested in a pair of very stylised heron sculptures which are quite a feature next to the pond.  Bizarrely, this real-life heron was mimicking the same stance, making it look as if we had three in a row rather than two!

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Real-life heron imitating art!  (c) John Malone

I can always remember the first time I came down to breakfast and saw a heron by the pond.  I honestly thought someone had played a joke and put a plastic one in place!  Why and who, I have no idea why my mind thought this rather than the more obvious thought that this bird had spotted our new garden feature!  Measuring nearly a metre in length and weighing in at between 1.5 and 2 kilograms, nothing could be further from the goldcrest in terms of size!  However, there are a similar number in the country – 60,000 goldcrests compared to around 63,000 heron, but unlike the goldcrest, herons have always liked London.  When we used to work near the Thames in Isleworth, there was a heronry opposite and John could often count five or six in a line up along the river bank.  If you visit Regent’s Park, heron are usually found up in the trees!  To me they remain a creature from a by-gone era and we often joke, “Pterodactyl overhead!” when we see one!

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Take off!  (c) John Malone

I can never quite decide whether the heron is a welcome garden visitor.  Our next door neighbour thinks not, but then his ponds have goldfish in them!  The heron will perch on our fence eyeing them up and then the poor things hide at the bottom of the pond for days, too scared to even come up for their food.  When the house whose garden runs parallel to the end of ours decided to install a series of raised ponds to house koi-carp, we were most entertained by the heron sitting on the roof our their house thinking that all its Christmases had come at once!  In terms of our pond, it’s the frogs and newts that they like.  Sadly many a poor frog has returned to the place of his birth and to his mate only to become heron breakfast!  I find it fascinating to watch the heron stalking, poised and statuesque, but when they jab down to catch their prey, I’m always convinced that they are going to pierce the pond liner and then where would we be?


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Borrowed blossom

Garden designers often talk about the ‘borrowed landscape’. When you live in the suburbia this is a very posh way of referring to what you can see over next door’s fence! I’ve always thought that we are very lucky with our borrowed landscape, living as we do next to another gardener and also looking across the railway line, giving us an uninterrupted view of the classic line of poplar trees. In the Spring we benefit from a wave of blossom as each neighbours’ tree comes into flower, usually starting with the vanilla cream coloured flowers of some self-set plum trees. From there we usually move into our cherry plum blossom, followed by a series of flowering cherries, from the palest pink to deep cerise, and then we move into the white of hawthorn and eventually the apple blossom. When I look out across this from our study up in the loft extension, I think how incredibly lucky we are to have this view in London.

Borrowed blossom from our neighbours

However, this year will be a little different as our garden won’t be contributing much to this display, making us value our neighbours’ trees more than usual. The combination of our loss of cherry tree (see Loss of a Flowering Friend) and our giant tree prune back in the autumn meant that, not only are we lacking pink froth, but also the white cloud of our cherry plum is somewhat diminished and I don’t expect a huge show from our hawthorn either, certainly nothing like last year!

Hawthorn tree

Still, our neighbours are very generous in sharing their display of blossom. On what has been a very rare morning of blue skies and sunshine so far this year, our neighbour’s Magnolia was starting to gear up to what will undoubtedly be an amazing display of waxy tulip flowers, and this from a tree that was pruned quite substantially only two years’ ago. It’s a bit sad to see a little browning and wrinkling on the fresh petals, presumably a result of the harsh March snow and frost?

Magnolia tree in bloom

My parents had a huge Magnolia in their garden but I hadn’t appreciated the mess they can make. Whilst it delivers on beauty, the Magnolia also delivers a heap of clearing up starting with the shedding of the outer flower skin in spring, then its petals, followed by its seed pods in autumn and then finally its leaves as we move into winter! That’s four lots of raking up to do!

Glancing across to the other side of the garden, our neighbours there have two delightful cherry trees. A deep pink one which is just budding up and a paler pink which is currently covered in hanging clusters of blossom.

Flowering cherry tree coming into flower

This delicate tree flowers its socks off each year despite it also being used as a swing by the children!

Sometimes we borrow more than just blossom from our neighbours. On one side of the garden we have a pink lavaterra which our neighbour had found too big and had tried to remove. The plant was having none of it and decided it would try its luck by turning in the opposite direction and emerging from under our fence! Our neighbours on the other side have generously granted us access to that very spring-like shrub, Kerria Japonica (possibly Pleniflora), which has worked its way under the fence and now also blooms well in our garden!

Kerria flowers

It’s so much nicer to be accidentally sharing plants outside the backdoor than weeds!


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You can never have too many roses!

“You can never have too many roses!”  So said Monty Don recently in his book Nigel – My family and other dogs which, incidentally, is a delightful read being as much about his garden at Longmeadow as it is about his canine companions.  I’ve said this before but I didn’t used to think I was a rose person.  I always left roses to my Mum who seemed to have the knack of pruning them to produce some spectacular blooms.  However, more and more I have come to appreciate roses in the garden, not just for their beauty but also for their scent, their long flowering period and their attractiveness to wildlife.  The number of roses in our garden has crept up steadily on us and, until just before Christmas, numbered nine.  However, with our two recent acquisitions, which John is preparing a bed for, we are now up to eleven.

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Rose – A Shropshire Lad (c) Elizabeth Malone

The new acquisitions are going to be planted with a backdrop of roses themselves.  We have extended the flower bed in front of the cherry tree trunk which itself is backed by the small white flowering shrubby climber or rambler.  It’s a rose that we inherited with the garden and we have no idea what it is!  All we know is that it grows vigorously and produces charming little star-like white flowers which attract a multitude of hoverflies.

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Our mystery rose (c) John Malone

One of the newcomers is a yellow Rosa Mutabilis.  We already own the pink variety which has turned out to be a real performer.  It will start flowering sometime during May and will continue right into the autumn.  The flowers emerge a rich peach colour and then deepen to pink.  It is a single flower with a lovely scent which all contributes to it attracting the bees.  We are now planting the yellow variety to complement the hot border that I created last year.  The flowers should emerge a deep buttery yellow and then fade to cream.  It is also due to be a repeat flowerer but sadly this one says it lacks scent.  It does, however, have the advantage of having relatively few thorns – unlike its pink relative!

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Rosa mutabilis (c) John Malone

The other newcomer is Rosa Helenae which, if the write up is to be believed, will make up for the lack of scent in Mutabilis.  It is described as being very wildlife friendly, producing lots of orange hips for the birds in the autumn and also having good autumn colour.  Helenae is a creamy white with a yellow centre and produces its flowers in large clusters.  It should flower profusely throughout the summer.  It’s going to be planted at an angle so as to scramble up the trunk of the cherry.

Of course what this means is that, come every future February, we will now have considerably more pruning and feeding to do!  Although due to the poor weather, it was March this year before I worked my way around the garden clutching my trusty box of organic rose fertiliser.  I try to remember to feed all the roses in February and again in June to either keep them flowering or boost a potential second flush.  We also mulch them each Spring with stable manure.  We must be doing something right as the plants do seem to be flourishing.

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Rose – Togmeister (c) John Malone

At the far end of our garden we have some shrubby roses that don’t flower terribly well but do smell beautiful when they do.  They are Rosa Canina – the dog rose.  I do hope Monty Don has some planted somewhere at Longmeadow – it would seem appropriate!


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Rain, rain go away!

I wrote this post a few weeks ago for the church magazine.  Little did I know but rain was about to be the least of problems for us gardeners this “Spring”!  Note the inverted commas, as Spring has really started in a somewhat unusual fashion this week!  When I wrote this back in February, even then I was thinking that I would probably regret this title in July/August when it’s hot, dry and the garden is looking burnt to a crisp!  But right now I have virtually nothing I can write about being outside the backdoor as, so far, the story of 2018 has been rain, or more recently snow, has well and truly stopped play!

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Outside the Backdoor – 2 March 2018 (c) Elizabeth Malone

At least now it is getting lighter!  And by the end of the month, the clocks will have ‘sprung forward’.  No longer do the streetlights turn off as I walk to the station in the morning.  This happens to me for about two or three weeks in the winter when my departure coincides precisely with the timing of the lights and always reminds me of the first Harry Potter film when Dumbledore extinguishes the streetlights so that the wizards delivering the baby Harry to his Aunt and Uncle aren’t spotted by the ‘muggles’.  The evenings are lighter too.  If I leave work on time, it is now light and I’ve even taken a photograph of our emerging new building glowing rosy in a sunset.

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New Town House under Construction, Kingston University, Feb 2018  (c) Elizabeth Malone

However, for most of January and February, whenever I have been available to go out into the garden, the weather has been vile.  I was so optimistic on the second weekend in January when it was dry, not particularly warm but frost free.  We headed outside and soon I was tugging at a horrible dead, slimy mulch of crocosmia leaves, removing them from the border and exposing the bright green shoots of bulbs as well as making the patio look cleaner and neater.  I cleared more dead perennial leaves and shoots from the border and soon filled up our green bin whilst John tackled tidying up the sprawling Clematis tangutica, capturing as many of its silky seedpod heads before they spread too widely and produced a multitude of offspring.

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Clematis tangutica, Bill Mackenzie (c) John Malone

The following weekend it was wet – very wet, and so it has continued.  John has been marginally more successful in getting outside than me.  He often works from home a couple of days a week and seizes the opportunity of a bit of garden tidying in his lunch hour.  Having said that, we seemed to hit several weeks when the sunny days were the ones in the office and vice-versa.  This also led to three slightly tetchy mini-tigers as the cats prowled indoors, expressing their frustration at not being able to get out much.  Still, the other day I returned home to the declaration that the apple trees had now been pruned with a view to encouraging their fruiting spurs and on another occasion I returned from church to find the last prickly twigs of the raspberries being consigned to the rubbish heap.  All it takes is one fine day.  A couple of Sundays back, I returned from church to a sunny but blustery garden to discover that John has acted on my decision to remove much of our Escallonia.  If ever there was a shrub that had become too big for its own good!  Twiggy, dark and misshapen, something had to happen.  From ten feet tall to under two feet tall in a morning!  The light it has created is fantastic and now we can see the lovely Camelia beyond coming into bloom.

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Camelia – February 2018 – (c) Elizabeth Malone

Ironically perhaps, but one of the jobs we need to get done is to repair our water butt connections.  One of the water butts sprung a leak last year and in the early autumn we were able to empty it and John crawled inside to mend it.  Unfortunately this only solved part of the problem as it transpired that the connecting pipe also needed replacing.  We have the components but now we need a dry day to fix them.  It’s particularly annoying as we know we are losing water and, despite the wet weather now, you can be sure that this will all suddenly change and we will soon be needing watering cans.

It’s not all doom and gloom, however.  Looking on the bright side, February has treated us to a charming display of miniature Iris reticulata.  These perfectly formed flowers are real jewels at this time of year.  I have already spotted daffodils in flower up the road (before they got covered in snow!) and I can see giant green spikes in the border so ours are starting to emerge.  What I cannot see, which is somewhat frustrating, are the tulips I planted in the autumn and I strongly suspect that the energetic squirrel chases taking place in the garden are tulip fuelled!

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Iris reticulata – February 2018 – (c) Elizabeth Malone


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Loss of a flowering friend

Approximately every five years some of the larger trees in our garden require something more drastic than a light prune and so we summon the tree surgeons to come and wield the chain-saws.  Back in November, we did the same again but this year, sadly, we also had to ask their advice on dealing with our dead flowering cherry.

When we moved into our house our timing was perfect.  It was late April and the flowering cherry was in full bloom.  We were just in time to see it at its best before the pink snow-cloud began.  Funnily enough, we had to get it pruned that summer – at the same time as having the boiler replaced, if I recall correctly!  It was then that we learnt that ornamental flowering cherries are often quite short-lived – around fifty years on average, we read.  From that moment on, we felt nervous.  Our house was built in 1955 but when was the tree planted?  Given its look of maturity, we guessed not long after that which made it around fifty years old.  Still, for the next fourteen years or so, it flourished.

Then in November 2013 it was time for the tree pruning round again.  The cherry was taken back to its previous pruning points by the same company who had, by now, pruned it at least twice before.  After this major prune, the trees always look a bit sparse but by the autumn they have usually filled out again.  This time the cherry remained a bit sparse all year.  We didn’t think a great deal of it at the time but, in retrospect, the following summer of 2015, it didn’t really improve.  It flowered in the spring as usual but it wasn’t its usual voluminous self.  Perhaps it will improve next year, we said to ourselves – but it didn’t.  Again we had lovely pink blossom followed by glossy coppery leaves but somehow it just didn’t seem to be returning to the same fullness that we had become used to.  Mostly we put it down the combination of dry Januaries and then peculiarly grey and uninspiring summers.

When spring 2017 dawned, I watched carefully.  There were buds, but not many.  John said it was still a bit early.  This was true and, what I’d learnt about cherry blossom over the years, was that it goes from nought to sixty very rapidly in flowering terms!  A small bud one week is very quickly a mass of blossom only about ten days later.  Then the cherry tree over the road started coming into flower.  There was still no sign of flower on ours.  It’ll catch up, said John.  It didn’t.  It soon became clear that every other flowering cherry in the neighbourhood was covered in pink or, worse still, starting to get past its flowering best and yet ours stood there, stationary, with just a few chunky buds doing nothing.  It was a sad sight.

We decided to take action – possibly rather late in retrospect.  As a paid up member of the Royal Horticultural Society, I decided that now was the time to consult their plant help line.  They responded pretty promptly with advice on scraping back the bark in different places to see if the branches looked brown and dead under the surface.  They didn’t.  So we followed their further advice and sent in samples from different areas of the tree roots.  Sadly I received the following response:

“All three roots in your sample are healthy, with plenty of fine feeder roots present, so from this sample at least it does not appear as if a root disease is involved in the problem. However, the complete lack of leaves on a large tree like this, coupled with the speed of the decline that you describe, seems somewhat dramatic to me for the effects of drought and age – if these were solely responsible I would have expected a more steady decline. Having said that, fifty years is certainly a good age for this type of tree!  I think that if the tree is still not showing any signs of producing new leaves then its condition can probably be regarded as terminal.”

I don’t recommend spending a summer with a large dead tree in your garden – it is a depressing sight!  We had also just created the new hot border nearby which, if we had known the tree was going to die, we would have dug a different shape!  And yet when the tree surgeons came to quote, I really couldn’t bring myself to instruct them to remove it completely.  Instead I asked them to create a framework to support climbing plants, provided they felt the trunk was sufficiently robust to do so.  This they did and so now we have a new opportunity.

Sitting heeled into our currently empty veg plot is a new rambling rose – Rosa Helenae.  Its flowers will be small, white, clustered and scented and we hope that it will ramble its way up the old cherry trunk.  This will be a our first venture into owning a ‘rambling’ as against ‘climbing’ rose.  I just hope we’re prepared for the thorns!  I grew up with a rambling rose and still recall my mother cursing pruning it each year and her delight when the opportunity arose to remove it – and she was a great rose lover!!  I guess sometimes the saying of ‘right plant, right place’ also needs to apply to home and owner and getting snagged on thorns every time you walk down the garden isn’t much fun!

So as the 2018 gardening year commences, we will plant our new rose and we’ll reconfigure the hot border and hope to draw our eyes away from the dead branches behind.


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Promise tree

The children in our Sunday Club at church this morning created a Promise Tree. It’s similar to making New Year’s Resolutions in that you write your intention on a ‘leaf’ and pin it to the ‘tree’. Rather than New Year’s Resolutions, it struck me that a Promise Tree was ideally suited for us gardeners and that set me about thinking what would be on my ‘leaves’ this year?

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Promise Tree by the St Stephen’s Church, Hounslow, Sunday Club children (c) Elizabeth Malone

Be bold! This particular commitment is inspired by my constant fight with the giant Escallonia which, when I was trying to disentangle dead perennials yesterday, seemed more giant than ever. This is it below – big, dark and green, lurking behind the light, flowering and fragrant winter honeysuckle!

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Escallonia (c) Elizabeth Malone

It’s not just that it is giant and dark but it has become a mass of hard, spiky wood. Unlike many challenging shrubs, it is surprisingly good at shooting from what appears to be dead wood and it is that quality that has led me to keep it all these years. It has provided endless greenery to complement bunches of daffodils for Mothering Sunday bouquets and it also has pretty pink flowers but, sadly, it is no longer attractive and I fear it has served its time.

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Woody Escallonia (c) Elizabeth Malone

When I suggested to my husband that we get someone it to remove the offending article, he looked up with some glee, clearly delighted at the prospect of removing this himself!

My second promise leaf would be a continuation of previous year’s resolutions – plant more for bees and butterflies. During an NGS open garden visit last summer, I came across Geranium Thurstonianum. I’m thrilled to discover that the RHS shows it as being bee-friendly. I think it might just fit in the large gap left by the Escallonia.

And finally my third promise leaf has to be on the hot topic of the moment – plastic. Thinking about this in the garden context, I believe I’m doing OK. I re-use all my plastic pots and very rarely do I ever throw one away. It has to be really broken for that to happen. I re-use plant labels and we often re-use compost bags for bagging up leaves etc. The bubble wrap on my greenhouse was renewed last winter but that was the first time in about fifteen years. So I think it is other areas of life where the plastic promise leaf will need to come into its own.

So what would be on your promise leaf?