Outside the Backdoor

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

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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!


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.


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.


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.


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!


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?


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!


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.


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?

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As the backdoor closes on another year …

In this Betwixtmas world between Christmas and New Year, what is there to do outside the backdoor?  It’s either frozen solid or sodden, or worse still, both!  We’ve had several mornings where heavy rain has fallen on icy ground, leaving me wondering why people all round the country are paying for the pleasure of ice-skating when they could just take a slide outside!

It is a time, however, for reflection and for planning.  In January Outside the Backdoor celebrates two years as a blog and I’m delighted to say that my WordPress statistics suggest that in 2017 I more than doubled both the views and visitors to the site, which is very rewarding, making it seem all worthwhile. So thank you to everyone who has shown interest and please do keep reading!

So as we look back over 2017, what have been the highlights of the year from Outside the Backdoor?  Well I can’t resist starting with an update on my yucca situation.  Back in October I wrote about Yuccas and me and, at that time the original stalk from which we had taken this year’s cutting, had been unceremoniously dumped behind the garden shed.  It wasn’t our intention to leave it there for long but you know how it is.  Imagine our astonishment when in the depths of November we were having a general tidy around the garden and John spotted that the stem was sprouting!  We brought the pot back indoors and now we have a very healthy set of leaves emerging.

Unexpected yucca sprouting 1 (c) John Malone

And the yucca story doesn’t stop there.  When we took the previous cutting, possibly in 2014, we used the old stem as part of the fill in under our fence to prevent the foxes tunnelling their way through.  On a foray to the far end of the garden to inspect holly in the hopes of a berry or two for Christmas, John spotted that this stem is also shooting!  What is going on?!  These yuccas are obviously a good deal tougher than one might think!

Unexpected yucca sprouting 2 (c) John Malone

 Another highlight of 2017 was definitely crab apple Laura who regaled us with spectacular blossom and a very generous crop of fruit in the autumn, resulting in many jars of jelly and a good contribution to church sales!

Crab apple jelly 2017 (c) Elizabeth Malone

Top of my local highlights list comes my new hot border.  Dug and planted up in the Spring, it provided us with a stunning array of golden yellows, burnt oranges and fiery reds through into the autumn.  In fact, the final flowers of the last rudbedkia only gave into the frosts in early December.  This border was really rewarding and I am only left wondering why we didn’t create it sooner.

New hot border ‘outside the backdoor’ (c) Elizabeth Malone

In this period of looking backwards and forwards, there are two things I’d highlight from 2017 that I hope will come to pass in 2018.  The first is a definite as it is already sitting outside the backdoor now waiting to be planted properly.  We have acquired two new roses, one of which was inspired by our trip to Denmark earlier in the year and in particular to the spectacular gardens of Egeskov Castle.  The Garden of Life, with its journey through time was exceptionally beautiful and we spent a disproportionate amount of our visit here admiring its planting.  The White Garden was also stunning and both had a rose in common – a creamy white rambler with a gorgeous scent which we had seen flourishing elsewhere in Scandinavia.  Courtesy of Peter Beales’ website, Rosa Helenae has since appeared in my Christmas ‘stocking’ – well, heeled into the veg plot as a temporary measure, to be more precise!

The White Garden, Egeskov Castle, Denmark (c) John Malone

What hasn’t arrived yet, and it is probably only a ‘yet’, is a pot or two of Stipa Gigantea.  A week away in early autumn was spent with a view of this golden grass greeting us every morning.  We saw it in rain, wind and occasionally sunshine and left with a strong sense of ‘must have’.  It is on the new year shopping list!

Stipa Gigantea at the Fishing Lodge, Netton (c) Elizabeth Malone

What better way to end 2017 than devising a shopping list for 2018!  And I’ve not even started browsing the seed catalogues that have dropped onto the door mat over the Christmas break – how timely!  So as we say farewell to 2017, let’s look forward to the garden flourishing in 2018.


Dark at breakfast, dark at tea

"The Advent wind begins to stir
 With sea-like sounds in our Scotch fir,
 It's dark at breakfast, dark at tea,
 And in between we only see
 Clouds hurrying across the sky
 And rain-wet roads the wind blows dry
 And branches bending to the gale
 Against great skies all silver pale ..."

John Betjeman’s Advent 1955 is one of my favourite poems of the season.  I don’t have a Scotch fir but I do overlook the tall poplar trees along the railway line and they certainly bend in the gale, their skeletal forms looking particularly wintry against the early morning skies.  But it’s that “dark at breakfast, dark at tea” line which for me sums up the essence of this time of year outside the backdoor.  It’s the fate of the working gardener.


As I head off to work at 7:30am, it is just getting light and I am sometimes treated to spectacular sunrises as I approach the station.  By the time return at 6.00pm it has already been dark for a couple of hours.  Closer to Christmas, the walk home is brightened by the various lit decorations and last year I found myself running my own ‘best door wreath’ competition in my head!  However, this means that I don’t see the garden at all during the week and my first view outside on a Saturday morning can be quite a revelation!  For example, the sudden realisation that the winter clematis is in full flower or that some over-eager bulbs have started to shoot.

Over the past 6-7 years, we have ensured that we plant winter flowering shrubs near the house so that we can easily catch a glimpse of them either from the dining room on a cold / wet day or see them illuminated by the glow of the Christmas lights.  For the last two winters, I have made a deliberate effort to plant a large pot with a winter flowering display that will catch the light, using pale cream or lemon violas, white hellebores and either silver or gold leaved ivies, avoiding anything with dark petals or dark leaves that won’t reflect what light there is.  I’ve positioned it beyond the kitchen window so that it catches some of the light from the house when we’re cooking.

I will also enjoy the moment when we can head outside to decorate our Christmas tree which has been sitting in its pot all year waiting for its moment of glory.  It’s grown a lot this year, entertaining us with its bright green shoots in Spring and growing by at least six inches!  We started this tradition of an outdoor tree on the patio when our cats were kittens but now it’s become a habit and we actually rather enjoy having the tree outside and the way its decorations sparkle in the winter sunlight or twinkle away as the wind causes the branches and lights to quiver.  We will also weave white lights around our olive trees on the patio and through the hawthorn, although this might be a bit of a challenge this year as we’ve just had the hawthorn pruned back quite substantially which, in itself, is letting more light into the house.

I am the first to admit that I am quite a fair-weather gardener so I would be lying if I said that I am looking forward to the long Christmas holiday so that I can get out into the garden and do stuff but I always hope for a few dry days in the run up to Christmas so that we can raid the garden for Christmas greenery without the need to dry it off before bringing it indoors.  Any holly that has real berries will decorate inside whilst holly, ivy and laurel will make up some swags to adorn our side gates.

However, I am looking forward to the long holiday as it will enable me to be at home in the daylight so that I can really appreciate what is sitting just outside the backdoor.  I will enjoy sitting in the warm looking out at the active birds flitting between feeders.  If it’s mild, I may even spot an occasional bumble-bee seeking food amidst the clematis flowers or ivy, and like many of you I’m sure, I will sit mulling ideas of things to do in the Spring!


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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.


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!


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!