Outside the Backdoor

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


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Harvest home

“Now autumn strews on every plain,
His mellow fruits and fertile grain;
And laughing plenty, crown’d with sheaves,
With purple grapes, and spreading leaves.”

Felicia Dorothea Hermans

How can it possibly be almost October? October is the month of National Poetry Day (taking place this year on Thursday 3rd), so I thought I’d start with a verse!  This year’s theme is ‘truth’ which made me ponder on the success of this year’s ‘harvest’. Could I truthfully say that the garden has been more productive than ever?  My honest answer is, I think so.  We seem to have been picking fruit, herbs and vegetables since early spring but, as with any year, there have been successes and, perhaps not disasters, but let’s just say things that didn’t quite go to plan!

Blackberries – a little of our wild rather than planted harvest!

Fruit has been incredibly abundant. Two years ago John remarked that the way the raspberries were developing, we would be making jam another year. How true!  Little did I think we would be adding strawberry to that list alongside our more usual cherry plum and, hopefully, crab apple jelly still to come.  The fridge is looking a little full so I shall be seeking to sell a few jars in aid of good causes. [See The Joy of Jam Making for a better insight and Thinking Forward to Fruit for where I was at with fruit growing a couple of year’s ago!]

Our crab apples ripening (c) Elizabeth Malone

If fruit was on the up side of things, then my peas were definitely on the down side.  Every year I try to grow a bigger pea harvest but I seem to be thwarted.  Top of my ‘don’t bother to try that again’ list was a late sowing.  They were the last peas in the packet and they sulked.  In the end I had just two seedlings which I gave up on as it was clear that they were never going to produce anything.  I knew it was a gamble when I sowed them but part of my motivation was the failure of two previous sowings.  The first sowing of the season was excellent and we were able to make our delicious ‘pasta with peas’ recipe (seek out Ursula Ferrigno’s Truly, Madly, Pasta) and we also had sufficient to add to a number of other dishes but the second two sowings fell victim to slug attack when the previously dry summer suddenly decided to become wet!

Pea ‘Hurst Green Shaft’ starting to fill out (c) Elizabeth Malone

Back on the up side of things, this was a good year for garlic it turns out.  Last year’s grew well but stored poorly but I am hoping for better things this year.  As you can see from the photo, I started out determined that they would do well! The chicken wire was born out of discovering that, if the squirrels weren’t pinching the planted cloves, then the cats were digging them up! Back in November I planted two varieties, Early Purple Wight and Provence Wight, most of which have produced some good sized, healthy looking bulbs with quite a strong flavour.  Normally when I lift them, I brush as much soil off the bulbs as possible and then lay them out, leaves and all, in a seed tray which I then put in the greenhouse to dry off before I do a final clean, trim and store.  Last year I think I left them in the greenhouse for far too long, so this year I was particularly careful and allowed them to dry for just a week before I put them into storage.  They seem to be doing well at the moment so I hope this was the right decision.

Garlic starting to sprout (c) Elizabeth Malone

Weather-wise I have called this the yo-yo summer as the temperature has gone up and down quite randomly.  I seem to recall one weekend when we all roasted just on the Saturday and went back to reaching for cardigans on the Sunday!  This has made judging when to sow and where to nurture seedlings really quite tricky.  I lost one of my earlier sowings of peas when the beautiful fresh green shoots were burnt to a crisp in my greenhouse on an unexpectedly hot day.  My tomatoes sat in the greenhouse for a very long time before I actually got to eat one! Late July and early August lacked sunshine and in the end I removed the shading early in the hopes of encouraging the fruit to ripen. The inevitable result of that was a sudden tomato glut when they all decided to ripen at once!

Sungold tomatoes getting there slowly (c) Elizabeth Malone

To avoid my salad leaves simply being slug food, I grow them as ‘cut and come again’ leaves in trays which I normally start off in the protection of the greenhouse.  Having experienced the pea episode, I have spent more time this summer than usual, walking up and down the side of the house manoeuvring trays of rocket, red oak leaf and chard into either warmer or shadier spots depending on the forecast temperature.  Twice I failed miserably and had to start again.  In contrast to the tomato experience, the cooler, damper conditions of August were a welcome relief and we’ve had some great pickings.

Excitement of the first green shoots of the season (c) Elizabeth Malone

Some crops are also more sensitive to weather conditions that others.  For example, beans stop producing once the temperature goes much over about 28 degrees Celsius.  That used to be a rare event in the UK and so not much to worry about but this year and last it has become more the norm.  Does this mean that I will be wasting my time sowing beans in the future?  Despite my failed late sowing of peas, I did the same with my French beans and, at the time of writing, the plants are scrambling enthusiastically up their canes so I am hoping that we may succeed in picking an autumnal crop.

Blue Lake French beans cropping nicely (c) Elizabeth Malone

By trying to get a late crop of beans, I’m not trying to defy the seasons. The September edition of Gardeners World Magazine focused on the seasons and what they mean.  This year my church has decided to celebrate Harvest in October because it happens to fit in with other arrangements.  There is nothing wrong with that but, living in the urban environment as we do, it’s important to remember how the produce from our gardens and the nature surrounding us is changing significantly at this time of year and, when we look on the supermarket shelves, to remind ourselves that we are not meant to eat strawberries in December in the UK!  That said, I’m not going to preach about seasonality as life is just too busy not to succumb occasionally to non-seasonal produce.  That said, I did enjoy this quote from Monty Don, reminding us of just how privileged we gardeners can be.

“The seasons connect us directly to the true rhythms of life. … No one is more connected to them than those of us lucky enough to have a garden.”  (Monty Don, Gardeners’ World Magazine, September 2019)

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Ladybird, ladybird fly away home

I’ve always disliked that children’s rhyme about ladybirds but I do like ladybirds themselves and always have done since a child. I loved it when my parents bought me clothing from the Ladybird range which, I confess, I had no idea was still going strong! And I really enjoyed this little hint of humour on a sculpture I saw recently at Wisley as part of the annual Surrey Sculpture Society trail (Rose with little bird by Alison Catchlove).

Silver leaf ironwork sculpture with tiny enamelled ladybird

“Rose with little bird” detail on sculpture by Alison Catchlove (c) Elizabeth Malone

This summer has been a bumper year for ladybirds in our garden which has been a delight to see and a real asset given that it also seems to have been a bumper year for blackfly, greenfly and every other colour of fly, aphid etc!  When it comes to these other tiny, but at times destructive insects, the ladybird is undoubtedly the ally of the gardener.

Did you know that there are over forty species of ladybird in the UK?  Unfortunately it is a non-native species, the Harlequin ladybird, that is now one of the most common in our gardens.  Just to trick us, this ladybird comes in two very contrasting common forms.  The most obvious is the orange one which has 18 black spots but, I discovered recently, that it also comes in black with just 2 red spots!  So when I took a photograph earlier this spring of a black 2-spotted ladybird mating with an red multi-spotted ladybird, this was actually a mating of the same species!

 Ladybirds mating

Seeing double – 2 colours of Harlequin ladybird mating (c) Elizabeth Malone

The problem with the Harlequin is that they don’t just eat aphids and scale insects, they are also cannibalistic!  As a result, they are being accused of causing a decline in our UK native species as, being larger, they are out-competing them and even eating them – ugh!  I confess that this rather changed by view of these innocent looking creatures.  The UK Ladybird Survey is monitoring the impact of the Harlequin alongside the overall health of other species populations around the country. Reading this made me relieved to see that we also had some native 7-spot ladybirds in the garden, this one enjoying our echinacea.

7-spot red ladybird on a pink echinacea petal

The behaviour of the Harlequin seems a long way from the innocence suggested by the origins of the ladybird name.  The UK’s most common ladybird species is the seven-spot and it is thought to have inspired the name ladybird: “Lady” referring to the Virgin Mary (Our lady) who in early paintings is seen wearing a red cloak; the seven spots are symbolic of the seven joys and seven sorrows of Mary.

This spring, the ladybirds began to flourish in our garden around the middle of April when they seemed to be particularly attracted to our mirabelle tree.  On a mild, sunny afternoon they seemed to be present on most branches.  One thing that never ceases to astonish me about ladybirds is that their larvae bear no resemblance to their final adult form.  Ladybird larvae tend to be bigger than an adult ladybird, being long, thin and coloured black and yellow.  I tend to think they look quite evil and, if you didn’t know better, you’d be removing them quickly from your prize plants! However, this couldn’t be further from the truth as they are also exceptionally hungry creatures and can devour up to 5,000 aphids when they hatch.  During July and August these larvae will morph into adult ladybirds and by the autumn they are getting ready to go into a dormant state and hibernate.

 Black and yellow ladybird larvae

Ladybird larvae on rose leaves (c) Elizabeth Malone

So what do you need to do if you want to encourage more ladybirds into your garden?  One of the key things to remember is that ladybirds are a beneficial insect, so don’t go spraying them with chemicals!  In fact, if you want ladybirds to thrive in your garden, avoid chemicals altogether.  We haven’t used chemical sprays or non-organic feeds in our garden for nearly 20 years now and we suspect that it is one of the reasons why we see such a diverse range of wildlife.

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7-spot ladybird in the depths of an agapanthus bloom (c) Elizabeth Malone

When it comes to planting for ladybirds, apparently they love things such as angelica, calendula, caraway, chives, cosmos, dill, fennel, feverfew, marigold, statice, sweet alyssum and yarrow.  Interestingly, we don’t grow many of these but we do have an extensive bank of bronze fennel and this year, for the first time, I’ve been successful in growing dill.  I have also grown cosmos but, as at the time of writing, only one deep pink flower has emerged.  I don’t know whether the ladybirds prefer the flowers or the foliage?  A day or so after taking the photo below, I did see a ladybird on this plant. Sadly another Harlequin, which kept moving around, falling off the fronds and making it impossible to photograph!

Deep pink daisy shaped cosmos flower

Cerise cosmos just waiting for some ladybirds (c) Elizabeth Malone


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The joy of jam making

“Did you manage to get it to set?”

Our first ever strawberry jam!  (c) Elizabeth Malone

Ignorance is bliss, it turns out when it comes to strawberry jam!  Dimly at the back of my mind I felt that there was something I ought to know about strawberry jam as against any other types of jam. No sooner had I posted a photograph on Facebook of our luscious deep red jam, than the questions began.  Due to the low pectin levels in strawberries, apparently the jam is notoriously difficult to get to ‘set’, that is, make it of a good jammy, sticky consistency.  Well I’m delighted to say that ours did set.  It is quite a ‘soft-set’ but then I think that’s how strawberry jam should be.

We were just thrilled to have so many strawberries to have a ‘jam crisis’ moment. We have had the occasional strawberry glut before. There was the year we exported a large quantity on holiday with us (see my post from 2017 – Seasons of mellow fruitfulness) and another year when a poorly timed holiday meant that the neighbours had the full benefit. This year, however, we timed it just right. As we returned from holiday, the strawberries began ripening and we were having a bowlful every evening.

Strawberry glut!  (c) Elizabeth Malone

But it turns out that there comes a point when you can’t keep up! My husband was picking some fruit every day when he returned from work so I lost track of just how many berries were stashed away in the fridge until one morning when he declared that we needed to deploy ‘Plan B’!  I had joked about Plan B – “we can always make jam”, I jested. As it turns out, we made several kilos of it and very nice it is too on a Sunday morning with croissants.

Strawberries on the go!  (c) Elizabeth Malone

The only jam we’d made previously was cherry plum, jam being pretty much the only thing you can make with these yellow, rose flushed, sour fruits. If you like your jam on the tart side, cherry plum is for you! Unfortunately our cherry plum tree is rather large and every so often we have no choice but to have it pruned which means we have at least one fallow year in terms of jam making. This summer is its first post-prune bounce back and we could see enough fruit developing for a batch of jam. Along with the crab apples starting to swell (see In praise of Laura), I sensed a jar crisis looming! Thankfully an appeal to friends saw us restocked.

Cherry plum jam 2019 (c) Elizabeth Malone

What I hadn’t reckoned on was the strawberry glut being followed by a raspberry glut! As strawberry production slowed down, the raspberries began to crop.  Just a few each day to begin with but soon it became closer to half a punnet.  They turned out to be superbly timed to be eaten along with the blueberries which have been cropping very nicely on the patio this year and our cunning ‘popadome’ device has been an excellent investment, meaning that we have benefited from the berries rather than the local blackbird population! Whilst I like our garden to be wildlife friendly, there are limits! Last year we barely ate a blueberry as almost the entire the crop was plundered by our feathered friends.

Popadome over the blueberries (c) Elizabeth Malone

As with the strawberries, there was an ominous sense of the fridge filling up. Buoyed by the success of our rookie strawberry jam, we decided to give raspberry a go. I delved into our elderly but trusty Good Housekeeping book and was astonished to read just how basic the recipe was for raspberry jam – raspberries and sugar! No water, no lemon juice, no need to fiddle around hulling or halving the fruit, just get it in the pan and cook it.

Freshly picked raspberries and blueberries 2019 (c) Elizabeth Malone

Raspberry, it turns out, is the polar opposite of strawberry. After our traditional 10 minutes of a rolling boil, we did the usual cold plate trick to test the ‘set’. Normally the jam or jelly spreads about a bit on the plate as you run your finger through it to see if it wrinkles up. The raspberry landed on the plate and set! In fact running my finger through it turned out to be the equivalent of sticking my finger into boiling jam – raspberry jam keeps its heat!

We only made a couple of jars of raspberry but can’t wait to try it. Instead of the fridge being full of fruit, we now have a different problem – it’s full of jars of jam!

First ever raspberry jam! (c) Elizabeth Malone

  • Do you make jam from your garden produce?
  • Have you braved making strawberry jam and did it set?!


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All on a summer’s afternoon

I was doing that rare thing of actually sitting in the garden recently when I glanced up and did a double take. A red kite, flying relatively low, over the gardens of south-west London is not a common sight! I scrabbled around for my phone and randomly pointed the camera up at the blue sky, being blinded by the sun as I did so, hence the extremely out of focus image below!

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Out of focus red kite over south-west London! (c) Elizabeth Malone

It served to remind me that a few year’s ago I wrote an article about the wildlife I’d seen in the garden on a single summer’s afternoon and so I was prompted to stroll around and take a closer look.

The comma must surely be the friendliest of butterflies? That afternoon there were two dancing around over the pond and around our pergola. They follow this same pattern every year and yet I know full well that they are not the same butterflies! They sun themselves on the pergola, or occasionally on the leaves of the climbing iceberg rose and then when they flutter around, if you happen to be standing close by, they will land on you!

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Comma butterfly (c) John Malone

We do get quite a range of butterflies in the garden from small holly blues through to much larger cabbage whites which eye up my salads for laying their eggs! This afternoon we were in for a treat when a very large red admiral chose to sunbathe first on our echinops and then on the echinacea. Of course the moment the camera was present, it danced around and failed to stay still but we did eventually manage to capture the moment.

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Red admiral teasing us on an echinacea (c) Elizabeth Malone

Also dancing around and teasing us were two much smaller butterflies that I didn’t immediately recognise but later identified as gatekeepers.  I confess that I have been very slow to develop my knowledge of butterflies and so am slightly embarrassed to have read that gatekeepers are really common and, to be honest, I ought not have had to look them up!  I was delighted when one decided to pose on this echinacea.

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Gatekeeper butterfly on Echinacea Purpurea Magnus (c) Elizabeth Malone

The garden is also buzzing with bees of every shape and size. Last weekend it was the tall, heavy stems of the acanthus with their multiple flowerheads that were literally the bees-knees but this weekend focus has shifted to the raspberries. Stand nearby and all you can hear is a constant drone, a poignant reminder of how important it is to have a healthy bee population to pollinate our crops. But whilst it’s a delight to see that there are so many bees present, it does make fruit-picking a little hazardous!

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Bee investigating raspberry flower (c) Elizabeth Malone

In the main flower border, the echinops are now coming into their own, developing their spiky haircuts. The traditional pale blue globes have always been popular with the bees so last year, when we bought a white variety, we wondered whether it would have the same draw? We need not have worried as typically there is at least two bees on each globe and I have seen as many as five!

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Echinops sphaerocephalus ‘Arctic Glow’ (c) John Malone

Whilst I am writing this, I am wriggling my bare toes in the cool grass but I am conscious that we don’t have a pristine lawn and we do have quite a lot of clover growing which is also popular with the bees. I don’t want to accidentally wriggle my toes into a bee!

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Our clover infested lawn (c) Elizabeth Malone

It has also been a bumper year for ladybirds. This photo had all my friends talking on Facebook – what would the offspring look like?!

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Ladybirds on our mirabelle tree in April (c) Elizabeth Malone

Since that photo was taken in April, we have had numerous ladybird larvae around the garden and we have, on occasion moved them to a particularly aphid infested plant in the hopes that they view it as having been taken to a Michelin starred restaurant.

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Ladybird lavae (c) Elizabeth Malone

And what of the pond on this summer’s afternoon? Apart from needing to top it up due to lack of rain, it is actually quite challenging to see the surface as the water lilies have rather taken over! Just occasionally I can see that there is still a late developing tadpole swimming around the lily pads and, if I’m very lucky, I might catch a glimpse of a sun-bathing newt. This afternoon there are very few damselflies but there have been plenty of both blue and red over the summer and we are starting to enter dragonfly season.  We now know to look out for them emerging out of the water and onto the strappy leaves of the iris or the stems of the pontederia.

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Dragonfly emerging from both the pond and its skin (c) Elizabeth Malone

We didn’t set out to create a wild-life friendly garden but now I don’t think we buy any plant that isn’t wild-life friendly. So flowers are always single (we don’t particularly like double varieties anyhow) and if they come with the ‘perfect for pollinators’ label, even better. It’s great that our gardens are now being recognised for the contribution they make to environmental wellbeing. And so as I sign off, I can see a squirrel scratching its nose at the top of our birch tree, two small white butterflies on the verbena bonariensis and three bees on the lavender – all great company on a sunny afternoon.

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Bee and lavender (c) Elizabeth Malone

 


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Inspiration big and small

Traditionally, the gardening press would have us believe that gardeners spend the winter indoors, tucked up by a warm, glowing fire, scanning the seed and plant catalogues for inspiration.  Then, come spring and summer, we all leap into action to put all that planning into practice.  Whilst there is something rewarding about flicking through a magazine or catalogue in the depths of winter, the reality is that many of us really gain inspiration for our gardens either from the garden centres in spring, as all those tempting pots appear, or from visiting gardens and shows.

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Plant haul from last year’s Malvern Show (c) Elizabeth Malone

When it comes to visiting gardens, those on offer through the National Trust or the Royal Horticultural Society, tend to provide great inspiration but it is on rather a grand scale.  Gardens open through the National Gardens Scheme (NGS), however, can be much closer to what you may be trying to achieve at home.

The NGS slowly came into being in the early 1900s and since then has become a thriving charitable enterprise which has donated over £58 million to charity since its records began in 1927.  Often referred to as the “Yellow Book”, you can now more easily access details of gardens using the NGS app on your computer or mobile device, enabling you to find out very easily what is open in your area each weekend throughout the summer.  With over 3,500 gardens listed, there’s nearly always something open within easy reach.

We try to visit a couple of NGS gardens each year and on one weekend in May this year we visited two rather contrasting gardens.  The first was a very typical NGS garden.  It was literally a stone’s throw from where we live, barely half a mile from our front door.

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Gloucester Road, Hampton, UK (c) Elizabeth Malone

It was the first time this garden had thrown its gates open to the public and they were blessed with a glorious warm, sunny spring afternoon.  (I do always feel for those who find they’ve chosen to open on the wettest weekend of the year!)  This particular garden provided both inspiration and reassurance.  We were struck by just how many plants we had in common – clearly all things that grow well in Hampton!  By contrast, we don’t grow acers in a big way, whereas this garden had several, all of which were developing their brightly coloured little winged seedpods.

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Acer wings in Gloucester Road (c) Elizabeth Malone

The element of this garden that really struck us, however, was the amount of different seating opportunities it presented.  Carefully positioned chairs and benches enable the sitter to either follow the sun or follow the shade depending on the mood.  As we were visiting en route to another appointment, we took the opportunity to sit and absorb the garden, something we don’t really do enough of in our own garden.  Inspired by this, earlier this weekend I found myself dragging a deckchair into a different part of the garden and found myself viewing our veg plot from an entirely new angle.

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A new angle on our veg (c) Elizabeth Malone

Our second NGS garden that weekend was an entirely different proposition.  Chilworth Manor dates back to Doomsday and although I looked up their website before visiting, I really hadn’t anticipated a garden on quite such a grand scale.  John, on the other hand, hadn’t anticipated quite such a hair-raising steep, narrow lane to drive down! We descended into the valley down, what we subsequently learnt, was the hill that inspired John Bunyan’s “hill of difficulty” in Pilgrim’s Progress! Chilworth Manor has participated with the NGS for many years and Lady Heald, the former owner of the Manor, was one of their National Chairwomen.  However, as she became elderly, the house and garden fell into disrepair until purchased by the current owners ten year’s ago.  They have both transformed the garden and planted a vineyard!

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Herbaceous border at Chilworth Manor (c) Elizabeth Malone

Our visit began with an introduction by the Head Gardener who provided some interesting insights into restoring a garden on this scale.  We soon wandered off under our own steam, taking in the woodland and Japanese gardens as well as the absolutely stunning and extensive walled garden.  The white wisteria walk is probably one of the most striking features I’ve seen in any garden for some time.  The roses and peonies had yet to burst forth and so we could only imagine what it would look like in another few weeks.

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Wisteria walk at Chilworth (c) Elizabeth Malone

So was there anything to be inspired by in this garden?  I really enjoyed the sculpture dotted around.  It wasn’t advertised as a ‘sculpture garden’ but there were interesting pieces to be discovered, carefully placed to complement the planting and area surrounding them.  We have two heron sculptures by our pond, bought many year’s ago, but we’re still very fond on them and they have now weathered rather beautifully.  If I didn’t have any sculpture in the garden, I think I would be actively looking for some!

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“Heron” by our pond (c) Elizabeth Malone

I confess that we were also inspired to buy a couple of bottles of their wine.  A pale pink but very dry English rosé which is only in its second vintage and quite limited in supply.  Chilworth has joined with other local vineyards to create the Surrey Hills wine trail which also looks rather fun!  I don’t think, however, that we’ll be planting vines any time soon!

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Chilworth Manor rose wine (c) Elizabeth Malone

So why not check out the NGS website and spend a lovely summer’s afternoon contributing to a good cause whilst enjoying the garden, indulging in some tea and cake and maybe something a little stronger?!  And I promise that we’d not drunk the wine when we spotted these – yes, they own alpacas too!

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Alpaca at Chilworth (c) John Malone

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 


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Inspired by iris

It was this particular plant that we spotted at the start of a visit to West Green House recently that caused me to say, “We don’t really grow iris” …

In retrospect, it was an utterly ridiculous statement. If we don’t grow iris, then what on earth was this in a pot back in the spring?!

Or for that matter, what are these yellow things blowing around in the breeze by the pond?

What I think I meant was that I don’t feel I know iris as a species particularly well, not compared to say roses or clematis. In fact, it’s probably the early spring flowering ‘reticulata’ that I’m most familiar with and can reel off the names of varieties such as Harmony or George etc, quite happily. So small iris that are content to be out in the cold, I understand those.

I feel I have a vague grip on iris that enjoy paddling too. These ‘pseudacorus’, the traditional yellow flag iris, are clearly enjoy being in our pond and have spread over the years. We think we have three varieties. I say ‘think’ as I’m pretty certain that we only planted two and the third has made its own way here. This deep yellow one is the intruder.

Whereas I’m reasonably certain that we chose this paler lemon variety when we originally planted the pond.

Both are looking stunning this spring but we also planted a purple variety. We think it’s still with us but it seems to enjoy playing hide and seek, only appearing every couple of years and, blink, and we soon miss it. Having looked carefully around the pond last weekend, we think it may be about to reveal itself so are now on ‘purple iris watch’!

So the iris that I feel I know very little about are those that prefer growing conditions at completely the opposite end of the scale – hot, sunny and dry! There are so many different varieties that fall into this category that I find it quite overwhelming. I honestly don’t know my ‘siberica’ from my ‘germanica’ and I guess I’ve always felt nervous of planting them in the wrong place.

However, the inevitable happened when we left West Green House, we headed for a local garden centre and there, right in front of us, was a tall, proud, deep purple iris. How could we resist?

We have watched its first buds unfurl and I can now honestly say that I understand it when people say that their petals are like silk. I took a close look at this bud and it could easily have been woven rather than grown. Whilst I peered closely into the bud, a bee came along and quickly took advantage of our new purchase, flying deeply into the flower. It’s a very beautiful addition to our main border which has always sported quite a purple theme. Now all we need to do is master how to look after it and hopefully it will bulk up and then we’ll have to brave dividing it in years to come.

This certainly seems to have been a spring of iris and, as we become better acquainted, this might be the start of our iris journey.

 

 


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Cool compost

So this month’s topic is compost! I promise that I’m not about to come over all ‘Monty Don’ on you and suggest that you create three giant bins in your garden for this purpose. Whilst making your own compost is to be recommended, few of us with town gardens can do this with any real conviction. Whilst our garden may be larger than the average urban backyard, I don’t want to lose valuable planting and green space to compost making, so I’m afraid that my attempts are limited to a council supplied bin which, in fairness, takes a lot of our green kitchen waste and, about twice a year, enables us to give a new plant a decent start in life.

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Compost bin camouflaged by cat (c) Elizabeth Malone

No, my focus this month is on the compost that you are most likely to be buying in the garden centre, supermarket or DIY store, usually labelled ‘multi-purpose’ which covers a multitude of sins. It was the Easter weekend, when the national news was dominated by the Extinction Rebellion protests, that I found myself getting on my soap box and starting to preach about making sure that you are gardening ‘peat free’. On Easter Saturday I walked into a garden centre which was proclaiming its extra special holiday deal on multi-purpose compost which is was proud to shout was ‘100% peat’. I stared in horror as the woman next to me started loading her trolley. “You do realise”, I found myself saying, “that it’s 100% peat, don’t you?” The look she gave me either said “what planet are you from?” Or “OK, local nutter, move away now.” It made me realise that, as a keen amateur gardener, I’ve been reading the horticultural press for the last couple of decades and watching the experts on TV, probably Geoff Hamilton being the first, advising me to avoid using peat-based composts at all costs. But what if you’re not a keen amateur? What if you just garden occasionally in the spring and summer when you fancy a bright hanging basket or a pot outside the backdoor? That afternoon I tested my theory out on my osteopath (who once famously cut all the flower heads off a peony thinking it was a rose that he’d forgotten to prune!), and quite right he asked, “Why shouldn’t I use peat?”

Plant pots in greenhouse

Potting up for the summer – make sure it’s peat free (c) Elizabeth Malone

Peat bogs are to the UK what the rainforest is to South America, they are our carbon cupboard and, as such, can do an enormous amount to protect us from climate change. They also help prevent against flooding and they are a vital habitat for our wildlife. Scarily we have lost more than 90% of the UK’s natural peat bogs. If you want to read more about this, Friends of the Earth have an excellent article.

I began tinkering with gardening about 26 years ago. In the beginning I almost certainly bought standard peat-based compost but I quickly abandoned it. Thinking back, this was almost certainly because of Geoff Hamilton on Gardeners’ World who was an environmental campaigner way ahead of his time. When Alan Titchmarsh took over the helm of GW, he was quickly under pressure to move towards peat-free gardening. The fact that I remember this makes me convinced that we had already converted.  Whilst I am no expert gardener, I feel that I have gardened very successfully in my own way, without peat for more than 20 years.  I once had a conversation with a chap at a garden centre who saw me buying peat-free and told me that it wouldn’t be much good for seed-germination, but I was happy to tell him that I’d never found this a problem.  Something like this might be a stumbling block for commercial growers who need a very good success rate but for us amateurs, I think we can afford a few seeds to go amiss.

Newly germinated seedlings

Cosmos germinating (c) Elizabeth Malone

Part of my annoyance on that Easter Saturday stemmed from the fact that Westland, a giant horticultural company, have bought the ‘New Horizon’ brand whose ‘peat-free and organic’ compost I have been using for donkey’s years. In another local garden centre, the familiar green bags had been replaced by bright red ones. Peat free yes, but no longer organic. I bought a couple as a stop-gap to get me through the weekend but a week later I was delighted to discover that another local garden centre had now begun to stock a peat-free, organic compost from Melcourt, endorsed by the RHS. This may well become my ‘go-to’ compost.  The great thing about this particular garden centre, and here I will give a shout-out for Adrian Hall’s, is that they stocked Melcourt peat-free and organic, Melcourt peat-free only and the New Horizon peat-free, thus giving the customer a choice of several peat-free options amidst the non-peat-free.  This is definitely progress as most garden centres, even if they’re not shouting ‘100% peat’, still leave you hunting for the one peat-free brand they stock.  I’ve just done a quick google search for peat-free composts and have been surprised to discover that all the big chains claim to stock them.  However, it strikes me that it’s just not very visible when you walk into the store and an awful lot of people will just by the first thing they see, particularly if it’s on special offer.  So I think that we, as gardeners, have a responsibility to educate our friends and to make sure our garden centres and DIY stores understand the importance of what they stock and also how they stock it.

French bean seedlings

French bean seedlings (c) Elizabeth Malone

Saving what peat we have left is something we can all easily contribute towards. Next time you go looking for a bag of multi-purpose compost, just make sure it says ‘peat-free’. If it doesn’t, find one that does and, if the garden centre doesn’t have a peat-free option, take your business elsewhere.

White geranium phaem

Cerinthe and Geranium Phaem Alba – self seeding and avoiding compost altogether! (c) Elizabeth Malone