Outside the Backdoor

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

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New border, new blooms

I have a new flower border!  It had existed in my head for ages but finally, in April, we took spade to turf and dug away,  It was quite a plunge to take but I’m glad we decided to dive in as I’m now beginning to see the effect I was hoping for.

I know many garden designers would criticise us for ‘gardening around the edges’ and not dividing the garden into ‘rooms’ or creating weaving pathways, but we are in a densely packed part of south west London so we have always appreciated the sense of openness that we get in our garden.  What we have done on this occasion is to deepen the border on the left-hand side in front of a bank of shrubs, some of which are evergreen (Choisya) but most of which is deciduous Lilac.  Both the Lilac and Choisya are wonderful in Spring when in flower but the rest of the year they can be a bit dull.  So, by removing a swathe of grass from in front of these to shape a new planting area, and by a careful selection of plants, we have attempted to create an area which will be colourful from early to late Summer.  The border is also directly in line of view from the house so having some bright colour to look out onto was also part of our intention.

Having removed the turf (and re-used some of this to patch dead areas of lawn) and then edged it, we set about digging over the rather dry soil and enriching it with our own leaf mould, before deciding exactly what was to be planted there.

In preparation – is it deep enough?

Shopping for high / later summer perennials in early spring is, as we discovered, surprisingly cost effective as smaller versions of the plants are just coming into garden centres and often on deals such as 3 or 4 for £10.00.  Having agreed that this was going to be a hot colour scheme, on one such trip we acquired some golden Heleniums, scarlet Monardas and orange Penstemon.  Before planting out, the plants spent a few days on the patio in the shelter of the house during which time the Heleniums grew and grew!  However, this was nothing compared to the Monardas once planted!  It was like a scene from Jack and the Beanstalk as these plants appeared to put on an inch a day!  I have never grown Monardas before and you may not be that familiar with them but they are the cultivated form of Bergamot which is used to flavour Earl Grey tea.  Their leaves are incredibly aromatic if you rub them between your fingers.  Another common name for Monardas is ‘bee balm’ as they are a very nectar rich, bee friendly plant, so we are looking forward to them contributing to our efforts to ensure that our garden is as bee-friendly as possible.  The Penstemons have proved interesting.  These are Penstemon ‘pinus’ and, as the name suggests, they look just like little pine trees!  They are so unlike the other penstemons we have around the garden.  It felt like their tiny flowers appeared from nowhere but they are providing a glowing orange edge to the border.
A trip to a previously unexplored garden centre with a gardening enthusiast friend led to the acquisition of a deep yellow, repeat flowering rose to provide some central structure to the border.  To our surprise, the Togmeister has already produced a clutch of blooms and more are appearing.  It is a relatively low growing rose which has meant getting down on our knees to check out the scent.

Togmeister by Peter Beatles

To provide some cooler contrast, I have also planted two Eryngiums.  I do love these spiky plants even if they can be quite prickly to plant!  One of them is the smooth leaved variety whilst the other of the more vicious spikey leaved type.  This latter plant has also shot up to about a metre high in a matter of weeks and is covered in pale flower stars that have deepened and deepened through mid-blue to an intense purple.

Eryngium – early flowers

And then it was purple!

Eryngium – by mid June

It’s not all been about adding to the coffers of the garden centres!  The new border has provided a home for some bright and dark dahlias which spent previous summers in pots to protect them from slug attack.  We have decided to brave planting them out for a better show of flower.  The dry spring combined with a very small, judicious use of so-called ‘environmentally friendly’ slug pellets has helped to protect them so far.  A couple of these dahlias were grown from cuttings that I managed to propagate last autumn and to keep alive!  Cuttings are never my strong point and I’m always amazed when occasionally they work.  We have also dotted about a few of our self-seeded Stipa Tenuissima grasses which grow like weeds in our garden.  This particular grass provides a wonderful sense of movement.

Inevitably I am now wondering whether we should have dug the border wider and deeper.  This is partly due to a rather sad occurrence which is going to change the shape of that side of the garden.  It seems that our ornamental flowering Cherry tree is no more.  It produced a few buds in Spring but no real blossom to speak of and is entirely bereft of leaves.  I will probably write more about this at a future date but, the impact of this in relation to our new border, is that we avoided continuing the border under this tree as it would have been too shady.  People often talk about gardening as ‘shaping nature’ but just occasionally nature takes its own course and forces you to have a bit of a rethink.

For now, however, I am very pleased with my view down onto the mix of green and red foliage, illuminated here and there with bright spots of yellow, orange and purple and I am looking forward to a riot of hot colours as July and August approach.

Early June

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Urban oasis

Whilst it might sometimes sound as if I never venture further than outside my own backdoor (other than for work), I’d like to reassure you that this isn’t the case.  Being interested in both gardening and wildlife, and ideally combining the two, I have recently become enamoured with somewhere that may be familiar to some of you but which I am ashamed to admit took me 20 years to get round to visiting – the London Wetland Centre at Barnes.  Back in March, I finally made my first trip here and, having decided to take the plunge and join the Wildfowl and Wetland Trust, who run the site, I am now trying to make sure that my membership is well used.  Something to note for those of you who read this blog and are local to me, residents of the Borough of Richmond get a discounted deal on membership and discount vouchers for taking along other visitors.  So do check this out as it’s a great place to take friends and relatives staying with you.


London Wetland Centre, March 2017

My first visit was back in March when wildlife was abundant but the surrounding landscape was still relatively bare.  Trees were only just beginning to show signs of leaf, the ponds had little but green surrounding them, and the occasional borders were relatively colourless.  The contrast on my second visit could not have been greater.  On a swelteringly hot day in May, when others were cooking nicely in the surroundings of the Chelsea flower show, I found myself absorbing the colourful delights of the planting at the centre.


Flag iris in abundance at the London Wetland Centre, May 2017

Appropriately, some of the richest colour came from Nigel Dunnett’s garden, originally created for the Royal Bank of Canada.  Its poppies glowed and its iris zinged.  Given that Prof Dunnett was exhibiting further down the road with his ‘Greening Grey Britain‘ garden, here was a nice Chelsea link.  This garden at the Wetland Centre demonstrates much of what Prof Dunnett is trying to communicate ie. the importance of greening up our urban spaces to add colour and texture that is good for the soul alongside a rich and diverse habitat that can sustain wildlife in an otherwise intimidating environment.  I’m guessing that I’m preaching to the converted if you’re reading this blog, but I’m particularly delighted that us urban gardeners are now being given recognition for the environmental contribution we are all making.


Away from the planting and with the BBC’s SpringWatch only days away, we were treated to drama in the bird world worthy of television as lapwings fiercely defended their territory from the predatory herons and crows.  I have never previously seen a heron slink so low in the water in order to keep itself hidden from potential prey.


Distant lapwings surrounded by gulls

If you’ve not visited the WWT at Barnes, then I urge you to go further than just outside the back door and experience this extraordinary oasis in the heart of London.  And if neither birds or wild planting are your thing, then there are always the irresistibly cute otters there to provide entertainment!


Asian short clawed otter at Barnes