Outside the Backdoor

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

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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!