Outside the Backdoor

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



Sitting outside the back door in the late summer / early autumn sunshine with the seeded heads of bronze fennel towering five feet above me, it suddenly occurred to me that I’m not sure that I have ever written about herbs in this column.  It’s ironic really as most of my herbs literally grow outside the back door!

The most striking herb in the garden is probably the bronze fennel.  It’s always been here and regularly self-seeds.  We do like its lovely soft, transparent foliage and its yellow umbeliferer flower heads attract dozens of hover flies throughout the summer.  However, you can have too much of a good thing so, more recently, we have tried to intervene to stop it self-seeding quite so freely and instead have harvested the seeds for cooking.  Of course you can have too many of those as well and a friend is due to benefit from this year’s crop shortly.

Thyme is by far my favourite herb.  I love its flavour but I love its scent even more and have often said that I would be happy to wear it as perfume.  As a result, I now have four varieties of thyme growing in pots on the patio.  One is a woodier, thin leaved thyme, ideal for putting sprigs into a slow cooking casserole in the winter.  I have two broad-leaved thymes, one golden leaved and the other silver and it’s great to thread the leaves off of these and sprinkle them over roasted vegetables.  The fourth pot of thyme is still with us by accident.  We have a favourite winter soup which calls for thyme and, in the depths of February, our potted thymes are often bare and we are struggling to find enough leaves to really impart flavour.  Hence earlier this year we succumbed to buying a supermarket grown pot – grown in the UK, I’m pleased to say, but this thyme has proved to be extraordinarily prolific.  It grew beautifully on the windowsill in the kitchen until summer finally arrived when we decided it had earned its keep and was rewarded with its own pot on the patio.  It is still growing madly and, so as not to run out of thyme again in February, John has been very painstakingly stringing the leaves and popping them into ice-cube trays to freeze with the intention that we can then just drop a cube or two into the soup when needed.

We also have rather a lot of parsley on the patio right now and also in the veg plot.  Two years ago I had a great harvest of parsley that went on right through the winter.  The only snag was needing to pick it in a very hard frost when it had frozen solid!  Last winter it had run to seed and I had a poor year growing from seed so had nothing to replace it with.  Not wishing to end up in the same situation, I have grown two sets of parsley this year and so we have rather a lot distributed around the garden including one rather odd plant in a border – I must have dropped a seed!

The other patio herbs are mint and rosemary.  Mint grown in pots to curb its enthusiasm although I have been known to kill a mint plant before now!  We have a couple of types of garden mint, including one called ‘Lamb mint’, and a black stemmed peppermint which we are quite bad at remembering to use for tea.  Mint seems to have done really well this summer despite the heat and danger of pots drying out too much.  We have studiously been picking the stems that were showing signs of flowering and that way we’ve persuaded the plants to concentrate on their leaves.  Rosemary, of course, is equally suited to pairing with your lamb. I’ve had a couple of rosemary bushes over the years but they have been relatively short-lived and the most recent succumbed to a bad attack of rosemary beetle.  The latest, closely supervised in its patio pot, has also been attacked by these iridescent pests but we’ve managed to save it so far.

In writing this, I’m suddenly aware of just how many herbs I grow.  I haven’t mentioned basil yet.  I normally sow this from seed each year and usually have several pots on the go but this year it hasn’t been happy – too hot, too cold, too wet, too dry!  We’ve had some leaves to add here and there but not enough to make a decent helping of pesto.  “Could do better” is my note to self for next year.

Finally, I should mention sage.  We have pineapple and tangerine sage growing on the patio for decoration and scent.  I’m sure you’re all thinking, ‘but she must have sage for cooking?’  Sadly not as I find that sage and I simply don’t mix.  In this respect I follow all the good allotment advice which is to grow what you eat, not what you think you might eat!  Our sages will, therefore, remain strictly decorative!

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Bedazzled by Dahlias

Everyone seems to be writing about dahlias right now so please forgive me for joining in! This time last year I wrote about being Dotty about Dahlias and talked about the dilemma – to lift or not to lift? So I thought it would be timely so share with you the success (or failure!) of what we did.

Well, as you can see from the photo above, we have dahlias but are these my originals? This gigantic Veronne’s Obsidian is a great example of a successful ‘leave in the ground’ strategy. Being in south-west London, we should by rights be able to over-winter our dahlias in the ground. In November we cosied them up under a thick layer of our best leaf mould. In less that 24 hours our mulch was scattered to the four winds courtesy of squirrels and squirrel-chasing cats! Clearly whoever recommended the mulching approach didn’t own cats and apparently wasn’t pestered by squirrels either! What were we supposed to do, rake it all up each day and re-mulch? I think not! As the winter progressed and remained relatively mild, I kept my fingers crossed and then the Beast from the East struck! Well that’s it, I thought to myself, and promptly placed an order for replacement tubers!

It seems I need not have feared as not only did the giant Obsidian’s reappear, but so too my red Honkas! In fact, I think all the tubers that were left in the ground eventually reappeared and are currently in flower. To me, flowering seems to have been late this year – a result of the Beast from the East or the drought? Take your pick! Throughout August I kept watching the buds carefully, particularly some plants where it was clear that they were going to be absolutely covered in blooms, but nothing seemed to be happening. Then as September arrived, so did the flowers and, as it turned out, the bees with them. Both the Obsidians and Honkas have literally been a hive of activity over the past few weeks.

There have, however, been some puzzles. We continued to over-winter five dahlias in pots – three yellow Honka, a Bishop of Canterbury (above) and another of York. I have fed both the dahlias in pots, as I always do, and also those in the ground. However, despite their cosseted existence, the potted dahlias have performed poorly. The yellow Honkas have yet to flower and the two Bishops have been rather circumspect which has been disappointing. Their cousin the Bishop of Oxford, however, was left in the border and is flowering beautifully (below).

The other puzzle has been my replacement red Honkas which clearly aren’t! Having resorted to Google, it would appear that these are ‘Honka Surprise’ – how apt! Fortunately I rather like them and so they are welcome to stay.

So as autumn progresses, I am again faced with the dilemma of what to do with my dahlias? I’m pretty convinced that I’m going to leave all the tubers in the ground that are planted in the main border. I will mulch with something, even if it does merely serve as a squirrel playground. As for my potted dahlias, I definitely need a re-think. I’m half hoping that having written about them, they will now prove me wrong and launch into an autumn fling but if not, I think it may be time to go back to the drawing board, or rather the plant catalogue!

So did you leave your dahlias in the ground last year? And regardless of where they were left, are you dahlias flowering later than usual?