Outside the Backdoor

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

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A tale of dragons and damsels

It was only when I came to write this article that I was suddenly struck by the thought of knights of old saving damsels in distress from dragons!  I can’t help but wonder how ‘dragon’ flies and ‘damsel’ flies came to be named?  So far I have failed to find out but, thankfully, that’s not really the point of this article!

Broad-bodied chaser taking a break in our garden (c) John Malone

When it comes to insects, there are an awful lot that many of us would prefer to run a mile from.  However, I suspect dragonflies and damselflies are an exception as we are fascinated by their iridescent colours and their darting aerobatics.  They are also out and about on lovely warm, sunny spring and summer days, so they have lots of positive associations with walks out in the countryside.  We are lucky in that, having created the pond in our garden, it quickly attracted these fascinating creatures which then, in turn, made us find out a bit more about them and try to identify what we were seeing.

Red damselfly settled on our Iceberg rose over the pond (c) Elizabeth Malone

First of all, do you know your damselfly from your dragonfly?  Damselflies are the smaller ones.  They are also the early birds, emerging as the weather starts to warm up around April.  They have a gentle flight and, when resting hold their wings against their body.  Most commonly you will see red ones and blue ones and quite often you will see them in pairs performing their curled mating routine just above the water.  In our garden, they love to skim the pond and to settle upon waterlily pads.

Blue damselfly enjoying the sunshine on our lilypads (c) John Malone

Dragonflies, on the other hand, can be quite substantial.  They have a strong, fast flight, holding their wings out at right angles to their bodies like miniature aircraft and, whilst you do commonly see them over water, you might also spot them elsewhere in the countryside, skimming over fields and hedgerows.  There are three common types in the UK – hawkers, darters and chasers.  If you see a dragonfly, or damselfly for that matter, and want to know what sort it is, the British Dragonfly Society has a good identification guide on its website.

Hawker dragonfly (not sure which!) in Bushy Park (c) John Malone

Both damselflies and dragonflies emerge from larvae that have lived in water for anything up to 2-3 years.  Dragonflies especially, spend more of their life underwater as larvae than they do flying around as adults.  This worried me when we recently did our pond clearance as I was concerned that we might accidentally be removing lots of dragonfly and damselfly larvae.  However, plenty seem to be hatching this summer so I think we’re ok!  When ready to hatch, they will emerge up the strappy leaves of plants such as iris, and they will then cast off their outer shell leaving the ‘ghost’ of an insect behind.  You will then find them sitting around, drying off their new wings before they take flight.

Emerging dragonfly on our pond (c) John Malone

My favourite of these insects is the beautifully named Banded Demoiselle which is an exquisite creature of iridescent blues and greens.  We occasionally get one in the garden but you can see them in Crane and Bushy parks so do keep an eye out for them.  You become aware of them when you see something that looks more like a piece of silk flying in mid-air!  However, earlier today I discovered that these are also difficult to remove from indoors!  One flew into the dining room and it was a two-person job to eject it without causing it any harm.  They just seem too delicate to handle!

Banded demoiselle exploring agapanthus buds (c) John Malone

And finally, some people believe that if a damselfly lands on you, it indicates that you have a pure soul!

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All of a flutter

I originally drafted this for my church magazine back in the middle of April and I was delighted to say that there were butterflies fluttering around the garden in the exceptionally warm spring weather.  On that particular day I spotted Brimstone, Holly Blue, White and a Peacock. Today I’ve been able to spot a Small White, Holly Blue again and Speckled Wood. I am truly grateful to see this activity as the picture nationally in terms of butterfly numbers is rather depressing.  The Butterfly Conservation charity regarded the summer of 2021 as one of the worst on record.  If you think back, last spring had a long cold spell which put everything back by a couple of weeks which can’t have helped. 

Ever present Holly Blues enjoy our lilac (c) Elizabeth Malone

Seeing a butterfly in the garden on one of the first warm days of the year always gives me a little thrill.  It’s real sign that spring is just around the corner, but there’s more to butterflies than their delightful colours and a little bit of seasonal joy. Butterflies are an indicator of the health of our environment and are also an important pollinator.  It’s easy to focus on bees as pollinators but, see a butterfly perched on a flower probing for nectar, and you’re quickly reminded of their importance.

Verbena Bonariensis is one of the most popular sources of nectar in our garden (c) Elizabeth Malone

I’m no expert when it comes to butterflies and I had to look up how many species we have in the UK.  Apparently it’s 59, two of which are regular migrants.  The migrants are the Painted Lady and Clouded Yellow.  I do remember seeing several Painted Ladies in the garden one summer when there was a huge migration and it made headline news.  When I say that I’m no expert, I really mean it.  I think I can identify about ten species of butterfly and I’m afraid to say that when it comes to moths my knowledge is non-existent!  I find butterflies and moths surprisingly hard to identify.  I have a book that groups them by colour but I can often find myself in the ‘blue’ section, only to discover that they book considers the butterfly to be ‘white’.  It is not helpful!  You can also get rather distracted by names in the process too.  After all, who wouldn’t want to come across a Dingy Skipper!

Comma butterfly on Verbena Bonariensis in our garden (c) Elizabeth Malone

The beauty of butterflies is that you really don’t need a garden to appreciate them.  A walk in your local park on a summer’s day is definitely enhanced by butterflies.  If you venture into one of our wilder, larger local spaces such as Bushy or Richmond parks, you are also likely to see species that might otherwise not turn up in your garden.  Two summer’s ago I finally worked out what a Small Skipper was courtesy of a walk in Bushy when they seemed to be everywhere.  Crane Park is also an excellent spot for a walk with butterflies.  I saw one of my first Jersey Tiger moths in Crane during the summer of 2020.  They adore nettles and there are plenty of those in Crane Park!

Small Skipper, Bushy Park (c) John Malone

If you do have a garden, or even a balcony, you can help our butterflies by planting pollinator friendly plants.  Back in 2011, the RHS launched a scheme which is now called ‘Perfect for Pollinators’ and enabled growers to label certain plants with the bee symbol so that gardeners can identify wildlife friendly plants.  Perfect for Pollinators may have a bee as its symbol but it is targeted at all pollinators – bees, hoverflies and butterflies.  Most flowering plants listed here will have single flowers as these are easier for pollinators to access but it will also include plants that are known to be rich in nectar and pollen.  I hope it goes without saying but if you want a butterfly-friendly garden, you will need to ditch the pesticides and you may also have to be a little less tidy.  Enabling your grass to grow a little longer encourages wildflowers which are good sources of nectar.  You don’t need to go as far as ploughing up the lawn and sowing a wildflower meadow, even though they can be very beautiful.

Wildflower meadow, NPL Teddington (c) John Malone

As is often the case when writing these articles, it’s made me list the butterflies I regularly see in our garden.  I’m pleased to say the list includes Large White, Small White, Peacock, Brimstone, Speckled Wood, Gatekeeper, Holly Blue, Red Admiral, Small Tortoiseshell, Comma, Orange Tip and an occasional Jersey Tiger.  I think that’s probably the limit of what we’re likely to attract.

Gatekeeper in the garden last summer (c) Elizabeth Malone

Last June we spent a week in Dorset.  Three things really stood out for me.  Firstly, Dorset County Council has a conservation project of verge trials which meant that all the main roads we drove along were lined with an astonishing display of wildflowers.  It was really stunning.  Secondly, we walked around a sculpture trail in a disused quarry where there were butterflies everywhere, and I mean everywhere!  I don’t know when I’ve seen so many.  In particular, we kept seeing large white ones with lots of spots which I have since learned is the Marbled White.  Thirdly, we walked a small stretch of the South-West Coastal Trail near Osmington Mills where again we were accompanied by dozens and dozens of butterflies.  All of this added up to the feeling that we were in an area that truly values its wildlife and biodiversity.

Portland Sculpture trail wildflowers – the butterflies refused to stay still! (c) Elizabeth Malone

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Homes for hogs

When I compiled my list of wildlife topics for the 2022 series of Outside the Back Door, I planned to time this article about hedgehogs to coincide with when they would be emerging from hibernation – how wrong could I be!

Some of you will be already aware that we have felt really privileged to be the home of several hedgehogs for the past two years.  However, it has proved a big learning curve, as you will discover if you read on, and one of the most surprising thing has been their lack of willingness to hibernate this winter!  More of which shortly.

An early hedgehog spot from summer 2020 (c) John Malone

Our hedgehog discovery came during those sunny days of the first lockdown in April 2020.  Hedgehogs were only on my mind due to a colleague having spotted some in her garden across the river in Molesey.  So when I found strange small curved droppings on our lawn, I found myself Googling “hedgehog poo”!  The photo that popped up matched exactly what had appeared on our lawn.  Then, to my amazement, I spotted one running down the garden at dusk only a few evenings later.  I’m not sure that my husband believed me at first but, several days later, we both saw one.  We were absolutely thrilled.  Thankfully so was our neighbour so we were able to create a hedgehog highway by protecting a dip in the ground that had appeared under our fences. 

Our hedgehog highway (c) Elizabeth Malone

We didn’t get into feeding the hogs until late summer / early autumn when, thanks to a friend, we put out some special hedgehog food, prompted by a further sighting.  We then did our research and discovered that dry kitten kibble is recommended as hedgehogs only have little mouths.  Since then, kitten food has become a regular addition to our weekly shop and I can’t help think that the supermarkets must be wondering just how many kittens we own!!  Food stopped being taken in early November 2020 and, naively, we concluded we could stop feeding until the spring.  In spring 2021, we spotted droppings again and resumed feeding and, even more importantly, putting out a tray of water.  A quick scan around the garden each evening with a torch would often reveal a munching hog or two.

Supper time! (c) John Malone

It turns out that hedgehogs can be marvellous inspiration for a whole range of birthday present ideas and in May 2021 ‘Hog Cam’ was launched!  Timed to switch on after dusk, this motion sensitive camera could capture short videos of active hogs.  To our amazement, anything up to four hedgehogs could be seen at a time!  It appeared our garden had become ‘hedgehog central’ in Hampton!

Hedgehogs dining at dusk (c) John Malone

Going live with the camera in May meant that we were up and running in time for the rutting season.  You may well be familiar with the red deer rut in the autumn with its dramatic clashing of antlers, but I can now tell you that the hedgehog rut in May/June can become pretty feisty too!  Despite all those prickles, the male hogs will push and shunt their rivals around the garden.  They circle the female who will often remain quite still.  We were never quite sure whether we captured them mating and we didn’t see any tiny hoglets either but maybe we’ll be luckier this year?  The other thing we have learnt from the camera is that they don’t hibernate for uninterrupted long periods as we had imagined.  This winter they didn’t stop coming for food each evening until into January and, since then, they have only ceased to arrive for a relatively short period of about 2-3 weeks.  The night they turned up and we’d failed to put food out for them made us feel very guilty!

Prime real-estate for hedgehogs – currently unoccupied! (c) Elizabeth Malone

Given the parlous state of hedgehog populations in the UK, we do feel very privileged to host these adorable little creatures in our garden.  The good news is that recent studies by the PTES have shown that urban hedgehog populations seem to be steadying whereas in rural areas the numbers continue to fall.  This implies that it is all due to habitat.  The clue is in the name – ‘hedge’ hog.  Without hedges, we’re without hogs.  However, wildlife and gardening programmes have done their utmost to encourage anyone with a garden to make them hedgehog friendly and this is clearly having a positive effect.

So what can you do to help hedgehogs in your local area?  Firstly, keep a look out for signs, such as the crescent shaped droppings, that would suggest you have hedgehogs in your area.  If you want to feed them, try putting a small tray of dried cat food out at dusk.  If you’re worried about rats, our experience so far has only shown a rat go to the dish twice since last May, although we do have a rather cheeky mouse right now.  The local cats also seem to ignore kitten food, clearly thinking it’s beneath them.  The fox, however, has swiped the lot occasionally but not always.  Also make sure you put out a dish of water.  We have been amazed at how much they drink.  Each hog will take some food and then waddle to the tray for a long drink, and they will do this to’ing and fro’ing for hours at a time!  They also travel long distances at night in search of food so enable a pathway between your garden and a neighbours.  Just dig down slightly to create a little run through for them.  Finally, leave corners of your garden where they can snuggle up beneath leaves and twigs.  Any actions you take may be vital in ensuring that our hedgehogs continue to survive – good luck!

Our dedicated drinking station (courtesy of a friend!) (c) Elizabeth Malone

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Birds of Prey (in South West London!)

I was out delivering leaflets for our Community Lunch when I spotted it circling over the centre of Hounslow – a red kite!  No, I don’t’ mean the sort that a child might try playing with on a breezy day.  I mean the feathered, flying variety which, prior to the start of a re-introduction programme in 1989, was almost extinct in the UK.  The red kite reintroduction programme is one of nature conservations greatest successes to date.  Anyone who has driven along the M40 in recent years will be aware of just how strong the numbers have become.  I once counted 75 kites between the M25 junction and Junction 9 in Oxfordshire.  I hasten to add that I wasn’t driving at the time.  During the first Lockdown in 2020, I became aware of red kites soaring overhead above our garden and surrounding area. Quite often they are being mobbed by crows which is what alerted me to their presence. More recently I have become accustomed to seeing them on a regular basis as I drive over to church, usually soaring over Hounslow Heath near the cemetery.  Until last autumn I was trying to work out whether I was seeing the same bird or whether there was a pair.  However, a local RSPB post told me that there are at least three in the area.  Apparently they can often be spotted sitting near the entrance to Crane Park. It’s a good reminder to always look up – you never know what you might see!  When it comes to a red kite, if you’re not sure what you’re looking for, they are reddish brown in colour with white wing patches and, as they soar, their tail feathers fork which makes them relatively easy to spot. 

Kite hovering over Hampton (c) Elizabeth Malone

Another bird of prey you might see locally is a sparrowhawk.  We’ve had a very welcome resurgence of sparrows in Hampton but, with sparrows, inevitably comes one of their key predators – the sparrowhawk.  Relatively small for a bird of prey, they have steely grey back and wings with a browny/pink breast.  One morning in January there was the most tremendous cheeping commotion coming from our front garden that put all our cats on high alert.  When I looked outside, there was a sparrowhawk sat right in the middle of our euonymus hedge!  The moment it moved, the sparrows all fell silent.  I don’t think it succeeded in catching one but I was torn between losing a sparrow or the hawk not getting its breakfast!

Sparrowhawk on my hedge! (c) Elizabeth Malone

The third bird of prey I want to mention is another that you can almost be guaranteed to see locally in south west London and that’s the kestrel.  Even if you’re not a great bird-spotter, I suspect you know how to recognise a kestrel.  They are the birds that you often seen hovering at the side of a motorway with their eye firmly fixed on their prey; their wings beating furiously whilst their head remains totally stationary.  They are fascinating to watch and if you want to see one locally, head out for a walk in Bushy Park.  They particularly seem to like the grassland area as you enter the park from the Hampton side at the end of Duke’s Head Passage although I’ve also seen them just beyond the ponds, again over the rough grassland where they are hoping to spot mice and other small mammals. 

Kestrel hovering in Bushy Park (c) Elizabeth Malone

We’ve also seen one very local to us in Hatherop Park in Hampton but, to our surprise, we saw one hovering over our own garden last summer! 

Watching and waiting – kestrel in Hatherop Park (c) Elizabeth Malone

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Garden birds – our feathered friends

This year I’m going to focus on different aspects of wildlife that we might find in our gardens and local parks. Like so many, I’ve been amazed how many little wildlife nooks and crannies I’ve discovered during the various lockdowns of the past two years. I’ve also become a Volunteer Ranger in my local Royal Park, Bushy Park, in south-west London which is giving me another insight into what lives locally other than the human species!

I’m starting with garden birds as it’s time for the RSPB’s annual Big Garden Birdwatch which will have me once again glued to the dining room window, binoculars and scrap paper in hand for my five-bar-gate counting. However, I’m aware that I am no wildlife photographer and birds have a habit of flying away the moment I produce a camera, so I apologise now for any appalling photos included here! This is a garden blog and not a photography blog!!

Birds are probably the most obvious form of wildlife that we like to attract to our gardens and provide us with a very quick and easy connection to nature. Whether it’s just a small feeder tray of seed or a whole collection of squirrel-proof feeders with a range of different types of food, it seems that we all love providing some extra nourishment for our feathered friends, especially during the cold months of winter when it’s harder for them to find enough food naturally, and during the breeding season.  If you’re going to purchase a bird feeder, I’d urge you to spend as much as you can afford on a something tough and squirrel proof otherwise your birds may not get quite the food you’d planned!

Our study, squirrel-proof feeders have services us well (c) Elizabeth Malone

Before writing this, I made a quick list of all the birds we regularly see on our garden and I’m delighted to say that we have more than 20 species flying in on a weekly, if not a daily basis.  (I’ll add a list at the end). However, there have been some significant shifts over the years.  Twenty years ago we were complaining about the mess created by the fussy eaters – the greenfinches, who used to pick at the seed and throw out anything not to their taste.  Now we would be over the moon to see one.  The reason behind this rapid decline has been well publicised by the various bird charities. A parasitic disease that prevents the birds from eating properly means that poor greenfinches are now headed for the endangered list.  The disease is thought to be passed on around feeders so it’s an important reminder to keep your feeders clean. Now I’m beginning to fear for chaffinches. Once plentiful in our garden, I’m delighted to say that I’ve seen a male arrive in the past week but where are the rest of his chums?

Chaffinch on our old patio when they used to turn up in large numbers (c) John Malone

At the opposite end of the scale, I’m delighted to say that the last couple of years have seen a resurgence of house sparrows in our garden.  I counted no less than 21 descending into our hedge the other afternoon.  They love our birdbath and are the one species that really get in there and happily splash around. However, we have discovered that birds don’t like the tennis ball we’ve been using to stop the water freezing. They won’t go near the bath if the ball is in there!

Sadly off-putting tennis ball!

Goldfinches arrived some 15 years ago and continue to multiply, devouring niger seed by the kilo.  Over the past 2 winters, I have also seen a goldcrest in the garden.  Not to be confused with the goldfinch, this little chap is the UK’s smallest bird (along with the very similar firecrest) and is absolutely tiny but easy to spot with its striking yellow striped head.  I have my fingers crossed that they might also become a regular but they don’t seem to be attracted to feeders so might be harder to encourage. In the Bushy Park Visitor Centre we have a goldcrest nest on display. It is absolutely tiny and it’s really hard to imagine the size of eggs and fledglings that hatch in this minute marvel.

Of course it’s not only feeders that make a bird-friendly garden. Shrubbery for birds to shelter and nest is also important, as is plenty of sources of natural food such as berries and plants that attract insects. That much maligned plant, ivy, surely has to be near the top of the list as one of the most bird-friendly plants. The other day I spotted a woodpigeon getting up to all kinds of antics trying to reach a particularly juicy bunch of ivy berries.

Ivy in the frost (c) Elizabeth Malone

Every winter we await the arrival of redwings in our garden. They absolutely love the cotoneaster berries and will demolish a large plant full in a matter of days. Given how rare it is to see either a song thrush or mistle thrush in the garden these days, an annual visit from this very pretty close relative is always a delight.

Cotoneaster beloved of redwings (c) Elizabeth Malone

My favourite visitors are the great spotted woodpeckers and the long-tailed tits.  The woodpeckers embody the phrase ‘pecking order’ and it’s always interesting to see the reaction of other birds when they stake their claim at the feeders. Recently I saw a cheeky little goldfinch holding its own on one side of the feeder whilst the woodpecker dined on the opposite side. And of course hearing them ‘drum’ is a sure sign that spring is on the way. The long-tailed tits are just delightful, such pretty little birds. Always in small groups, they adore fatballs.

Of course the regular visitor that divides opinion in this part of the world is the ring-necked parakeet. We’ve been through phases in our garden when they’ve driven us crazy, arriving in huge flocks, but then suddenly we won’t see them for a while. I confess that it’s a bit of a love/hate relationship with them. They are noisy, messy and drive away the smaller birds but equally they are very entertaining to watch with their ridiculous acrobatics as they try to hang upside down!

Ring-necked parakeet on our feeder – only one?! (c) John Malone

If you feel that you’re only seeing the same few species of bird from your kitchen window, why not take a walk out to your local park? You may be surprised at the diversity of birds you see along the way. As I read on a recent local RSPB post, always look up, you never know what you might see!

Birds we see in our garden in south-west London over the course of a year:

  • Blue tit
  • Great tit
  • Long-tailed tit
  • Coal tit
  • Sparrow
  • Goldfinch
  • Chaffinch – fewer than we used to see
  • Wren
  • Robin
  • Redwing
  • Blackbird
  • Blackcap
  • Woodpigeon
  • Collar dove
  • Magpie
  • Jay
  • Great spotted woodpecker
  • Crow
  • Jackdaw
  • Parakeet
  • Heron
Herons love our pond (c) John Malone

And very occasionally …

  • Green woodpecker
  • Sparrow hawk
  • Stock dove
  • Goldcrest
  • Thrush

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Let it snow!

Chill December brings the sleet,

Blazing fire and Christmas treat,

January brings the snow,

Makes our feet and fingers glow.

Sara Coleridge “The Garden Year”

My first Outside the Back Door based on Sara Coleridge’s poem, “The Garden Year” was written in February last year – so we missed January! For the purposes of my church magazine (the original driver for this blog), I need to combine December and January and, as soon as I read these verses, I knew it would work well as both coincidentally feature sleet and snow. I remember this poem so clearly from childhood and yet, if I’m honest, I can only remember one white Christmas whilst I was growing up. With climate change, the likelihood of a white Christmas in London and the south-east diminishes with each passing year.

Outside the back door January 2021 (c) Elizabeth Malone

That said, you may recall that earlier this year we did indeed have snow! On the 24th January the country was deep in the heart of Lockdown 3, our church was firmly embedded on Facebook and many of us were viewing the Sunday morning service when suddenly down came the snow! There were lots of comments that the vicar and organist were going to get a bit of a shock when they headed outside to discover the world had turned white! Overlooking the turning circle at the end of our road, there were a lot of excited children building snowmen, making snow angels and being pulled along on sleds whilst everyone tried to stay in their strict family bubbles. The shrieks and shouts of excitement were all the more louder given the confined circumstances we were all in at the time.

Winter wonderland January 2021 (c) Elizabeth Malone

I’m not a huge fan of snow. I’m sure lots of you would agree, it’s all very pretty unless you have to get somewhere! The beauty of last year’s lockdown snow was that there was nowhere to go and nothing to do! As a result, I think I enjoyed that snow fall more than most. Working from home, it was quite a relief not to have to worry about train services, opening times, staff rosters etc. Although in fairness some of my staff did have to travel in but we only had reduced services running due to the lockdown which made is much easier than a normal ‘snow day’.

Ice on the fruit trees (c) Elizabeth Malone

We also did what all Norwegian Forest Cat owners seem to do – we threw ours outside into the cold to take some photos of them in their native habitat! To be honest, they’re not that keen on this white slippy stuff and they rushed back indoors to a warm radiator within minutes!

Norwegian Forest Cats are meant to like this stuff! (C) Elizabeth Malone

As well as our footprints and the cats’ paw prints, I do enjoy seeing what else leaves its mark across the snow. It’s the one time you get to see the criss-crossing patterns left by birds hopping around in search of food. That’s the great thing about a winter cold snap, you never quite know what might fly into your garden. In that famous snowfall that brought London to a standstill a few years’ ago, we had a flock of redpolls turn up to raid the seeds on our birch tree. Almost without fail, by the end of January the large cotoneaster at the end of our garden will have been stripped of all its berries by an invasion of redwings. You really know that winter has arrived when you spot the redwings. At the end of January it will be the RSPB’s Big Garden Birdwatch again and we will be glued to the garden with our binoculars to record our feathered friends and to see if anything out of the ordinary turns up.

Bird prints January 2021 (c) Elizabeth Malone

Prior to the snow, on 10th January my photos tell me that we experienced an amazing hoar frost. Sometimes I think this is prettier than snow. Snow tends to weigh things down whereas a hoar frost covers everything in the garden in sparkling jewels. I wrapped up to the nines and had a fun half hour or so walking around the garden for as long as my frozen fingers could hold the phone, photographing sparkling leaves, crystalline cobwebs and icing sugar dusted berries.

Frosted crab apples (c) Elizabeth Malone

By the end of January it starts to feel like we’re emerging from the darkness of winter. It will be almost light at five o’clock in the evening and the first flowers of the new year will be starting to emerge. If I remember exactly when to look, I might just see my tiny clump of snowdrops at the end of the garden. Last year our daily walks often took us through our local Cemetery where the crocuses were already looking stunning by the end of the month. As a result, I’ve planted bowls of crocus to have on our patio this year and I can already see them pushing up through the soil. I’m very much looking forward to seeing their burst of colour but in the meantime, it’s cold, it’s windy, it’s rainy and it’s time to curl up in front of that blazing fire!

Crocus in Hampton Cemetery January 2021 (c) Elizabeth Malone

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Remembrance in our gardens

Dull November brings the blast,
Then the leaves are falling fast.

To me, November is the month which brings the fastest change in our trees. Often at the start of the month the autumn colour is at its peak but, within a few days, a cold night, sharp frost or gusty wind can bring them all down in a trice, leaving behind the bare skeletal branches.

Our November outlook (c) Elizabeth Malone

November is also the month for Remembrance and so it’s interesting to reflect that trees are often planted either in memory of someone or to commemorate a special occasion. Next year we’ll see a prime example of this as the Queen’s Green Canopy project gets underway in celebration of the Platinum Jubilee.

I wonder how many of you have planted trees or other plants for similar reasons, perhaps in memory of a loved one, to mark a family event or an anniversary. We have quite a few plants dotted around our garden that are always linked to family or friends in our minds. When we celebrated our Silver Wedding anniversary, two gorgeous white ‘Silver Wedding’ roses arrived on our doorstep. One thrived but the other was accidentally swamped until we took decisive action and moved it to a much better, more open site, since when it has gone from strength to strength. Not only do the roses remind us of our own anniversary but they remind us of the people who gave them to us on that occasion, particularly poignant since one of them is no longer with us.

Rosa Silver Wedding (c) Elizabeth Malone

When my Dad died we bought my Mum a ‘Shropshire Lad’ rose in his memory. This is where a little thinking ahead pays off. When Mum also passed away, I was left with the dilemma of what to do with this rose. There was no way that I was going to leave it behind in their garden and so, with extreme determination and brute force, it was brought to our garden where it delights us every summer with glorious sprays of deliciously scented flowers. The day we moved that rose I learnt just how challenging it is to move an established plant with a long tap root! So when my mother-in-law had to move out of her home this year and we were faced with a similar dilemma, I knew exactly how hard it was going to be. Like ‘A Shropshire Lad’, ‘Rosa Evelyn’ (her namesake) proved just as stubborn and was wrestled out of the ground but with inevitable collateral damage. That said, she subsequently produced a flurry of blooms in her new location so we have high hopes for future years.

Rosa Evelyn (c) Elizabeth Malone

This summer I acquired another David Austin rose, ‘The Lady Gardener’, on what was a bitter-sweet occasion. This was a carefully chosen leaving present from my colleagues as I said farewell to Kingston University after 29 years. It is a peachy pink rose with fabulous scent and is always going to remind me of fantastic colleagues, fun times (and some stressful ones too), and I’m pleased that it smells fresh and lemony and not of dusty old books and journals!

The Lady Gardener (c) Elizabeth Malone

Another happy occasion plant is our blue Hibiscus which was given to us as a house warming present over 21 years ago now. It has become an extremely well established, thriving shrub standing at least 5 feet tall and probably as wide. It is also loved by bees who delve deep down into its flowerheads and come out covered all over in its white dusty pollen.

Hibiscus (c) Elizabeth Malone

I once read about someone who had decided that their garden would only contain plants that bore the names of family and friends. I think that this could become extremely confusing and potentially awkward. I have confused several people by referring to my crab apple tree as ‘Laura’ which is actually the variety. Someone once said, ‘Oh marvellous, you give your trees names!’ which, of course, isn’t the case! It’s just that it seems nicer to say, ‘Laura’s blossoming well’ or, ‘There’s fruit beginning on Nancy’, rather than just mentioning our Mirabelle tree.

Mirabelle de Nancy (c) Elizabeth Malone

When you do plant something in memory of someone or something, there’s always the added pressure of ensuring that it survives well and, of course, ensuring that the consequences of your planting aren’t a burden or hindrance to future owners.  So if you are thinking about contributing a tree to the Jubilee celebrations next year, think carefully before you plant!

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Fresh October

Fresh October brings the pheasant;
Then to gather nuts is pleasant.

Continuing this years series of blogs based on Sara Coleridge’s poem ‘The Garden Year’, I realised that nuts don’t feature in my garden at all, or at least not deliberately. Over the years I have pulled out many a seedling horse chestnut tree sprouting from a conker buried by an industrious squirrel.

Squirrel posing locally in Bushy Park (c) Elizabeth Malone

We also have a small oak tree in a pot dug up from somewhere in the garden and, again, probably growing from an acorn buried by a squirrel as I’m not aware of any oak trees particularly nearby. Our little tree is thriving but leaving us with the puzzle of what to do with it? Our garden isn’t the right size and scale for a majestic oak! As we live near Oak Avenue Nature Reserve, I’m wondering if I could sneak out in the dead of night and plant it there? With the emphasis next year on planting trees for the Queen’s Platinum Jubilee, maybe there will be an opportunity?

Our baby oak tree (c) Elizabeth Malone

Whilst we may not have nuts to gather in the garden, this is without doubt the season of seedpods and berries. I watch in trepidation as the gigantic sycamore at the end of the garden casts thousands more ‘helicopter’ seeds in all directions. This tree wasn’t even here 21 years ago! It’s a self-set that has grown up just beyond our fence on Railtrack land which makes it somewhat challenging to get anyone to do anything with it. Once again next spring I will be pulling out hundreds of its offspring.

Sycamore warning! (C) Elizabeth Malone

Glancing out of the window to the patio, I can see that the berries on the black elder, Sambucus Nigra Black Lace, have already been devoured by the birds.  Berries from our main elder tree will probably have been eaten by pigeons but I suspect that the black elder berries have been snapped up by the flock of sparrows that seem to have adopted our garden over the summer.  Most afternoons between 8 and 12 of them descend and hide in the adjacent hedge.  For the next half hour or so there will be the sound of wingbeats as they ‘bounce’ up and down and in and out of the various bushes dining on a selection of insects, berries and seeds.  They are very entertaining to watch but also really distracting if you’re trying to concentrate on something!

Sambucca Nigra Black Lace against visit autumn sky (c) Elizabeth Malone

Underneath our bird feeders and therefore relatively low to the ground, we have a pyracantha will brilliant orange berries. These are at pigeon-height and will gradually disappear one-by-one of the coming weeks. From there the pigeons will then move on to the cotoneaster berries in the front garden which will mean we startle them every time we open the front door! I was going to suggest that it would be easier for the pigeons to progress to the hawthorn berries just above them. (Our bird feeders hang in the hawthorn tree which is less easily climbed by our cats!) However, I’ve just realised how few berries are actually left on the tree which implies that they’ve not been slow in coming forward to eat them. There’s a whole winter to go yet but they clearly don’t believe in being abstemious and saving some for later!

Prickly pyracantha (c) Elizabeth Malone

Green holly berries seem to be in abundance. Does this mean we’re in for a hard winter? I’m not quite sure when they turn from green to red, presumably when the temperature starts to drop? Of course as soon as they are red, then the birds will be ready to eat these too, leaving us to hunt around in mid-December looking for any that might still be available to decorate the house.

Now the holly bears a berry as green as the grass (c) Elizabeth Malone

What is becoming clear as I write this is just how important all these berries and seeds are to our wildlife. One plant that many of us have in our gardens, that grows wild in our churchyards and open spaces and yet is often reviled, is ivy. We were recently on holiday in Ramsgate in Kent where the seafront esplanade was lined by a mile or more of ivy. The sheer number of insects buzzing and hovering around the flowers was truly astonishing. To see this would make you question whether the UK’s insect life really is under threat? Although if any of you have done the ‘splat test’ on your car number plates this summer, you will know that this is a serious problem. (Our number plates remained almost spotless on journeys to Dorset in June and Kent in September). We have a lot of ivy in the garden. In one corner a whole range of birds must nest in it. We can’t see properly but every spring we’re aware of regular flitting to and fro. In the autumn, late bees will flock to it as one of the last flowering plants around and on a sunny day there is a constant stream of hoverflies skimming over it. In the depths of winter its shiny black berries will provide essential food for birds as well as decorating the house for Christmas. Yes, ivy can become too big for its boots at times but it’s easily pulled back to something more manageable and we wouldn’t be without it.

Garden ivy and hoverfly (c) Elizabeth Malone

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September brings …

Warm September brings the fruit;  Sportsmen then begin to shoot.

You may be relieved that I am not going to write about shooting here.  A far too controversial topic for a garden blog!  Far more interesting and rewarding to talk about fruit.

Raspberries in the garden (c) Elizabeth Malone

Last summer I found myself blackberry before starting work!  It was one of the joys and surprises of working from home, heading out for a walk before the endless screentime and Teams meetings, and in July coming home with a bag full of fruit!  However, it was early July, far too early for blackberrying.  Whilst this summer will no doubt be remembered for being wet and grey, it has produced fruit closer to the time of year we used to expect.  Blackberrying this year has definitely been an August pursuit.  Both this year and last, it has been a joy to see blackberrying being passed down the generations.  On various walks we have seen people of all ages filling the ubiquitous plastic bag with berries and heading off literally red-handed!

Out and about blackberrying (c) Elizabeth Malone

This year we are also lucky enough to have an abundant supply of blackberries at the far end of the garden.  This is a mixed blessing.  Twenty years ago we spent many hours hauling out bramble from this overgrown and chaotic area of the garden.  Now it seems that some of it is back, delighted to have been exposed by some judicious pruning of a giant laurel.  We are hoping that we can contain it and manage it in such a way that it will continue to bear fruit in future years without taking over the entire garden.

Washed and drying! (c) Elizabeth Malone

Last year was the first time we added bramble jelly to our jam-making repertoire.  We were inspired by a commercially bought jar and thought ‘we can do this!’  We already had the jelly strainer and stand from our crab apple jelly making so all we needed to do was delve into our ancient but trustworthy Good Housekeeping recipe book which is full of ideas for jams and jellies.  In our eagerness to ensure a good set, it would be fair to say that the first batch came out a little, eh, stiff!  It tasted delicious but it was firm enough to support walls!  We have learned from this and the batch made last weekend is a lovely light, easy spreading consistency!

Deep, dark blackberry juice dripping (c) Elizabeth Malone

Blackberries and raspberries have certainly been the winners on the berry front this summer.  The less said about strawberries, the better – too wet!! Although we worried at the start of the raspberry season as it was so wet and we found that the berries were turning mouldy before we had time to pick them. A more pleasant benefit of the rain turned out to be a surprisingly good crop of cherry plums which were the first fruits this year to make us get our jam making it ready.

Jam ready for potting up (c) Elizabeth Malone

Cherry plums are small, dark red on the outside but glowing orange on the inside. They are also extremely sharp! Too sharp for even enjoying in something like a crumble. Believe me, we have tried it! If you enjoy you jam with a slight tang to it, cherry plums are for you!

Now as we head into September we are starting to watch the crab apple tree with interest. Fruits that seemed quite small only a week ago, are now starting to look a good size. The longer you leave crab apples, the more juice you tend to get for the jelly making process. That said, there are limits. Into October is good, but by November the fruits are falling off the tree and are better suited for bird food or potentially wiring into an Advent decoration. But let’s not even mention the ‘C’ word just yet!

Crab apple ‘Laura’ in fruit (c) Elizabeth Malone

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August brings …

August brings the sheaves of corn,
Then the harvest home is borne.

When I first glanced at this month’s verse from Sara Coleridge’s The Garden Year I was tempted to start talking about harvesting fruit and other produce from around the garden, but then I looked ahead.  I need to save that for September!

Our garden isn’t full of sheaves or corn and probably never has been.  Prior to the houses being built here in the early 1950s, there were market gardens and, going even further back, it is likely that the land belonged to one of the local ecclesiastical establishments.  Even then I doubt that the monks or whoever were harvesting sheaves of corn here – more likely fruit and veg.

Stipa tenuissima (c) Elizabeth Malone

So for my ‘sheaves of corn’ I’m going to turn my attention to our grasses, many of which are currently in full ‘flower’ and billowing golden around the pond and in the border.  When the fashion for grasses first began, I wasn’t an immediate convert.  I thought that grasses were rather boring and that this was a bit of a fad, especially as garden designers and make-over programmes seemed obsessed with the peculiar black grass Ophiopogon which I still don’t like.  I think that it was probably the old grass borders at RHS Wisley that began to change my mind.  I imagine that it was an exceptionally well-timed visit one autumn that meant we saw the grasses in their full glory. 

Old grass borders at RHS Wisley in 2017 (c) John Malone

We grow a lot of Stipa Tenuissima in our garden, not all of it deliberately!  Stipa Tenuissima self-seeds extremely readily and we find it popping up all over the place.  Little tiny strands of plants can soon become a substantial clump.  It’s also known as ‘pony tails’ but in our household it should be known as ‘cats tails’.  On more than one occasion I’ve glanced down the garden and wondered what Bryggen, our ginger cat, is up to, only to realise that it’s a giant waving Stipa and not his tail!  (He does have an exceptionally bushy, grand tail!)

You can see why I sometimes get confused! (c) Elizabeth Malone

Two years ago I made room for one of my favourite grasses.  It’s another stipa, Stipa Gigantea.  With a name like that, I’m sure you can appreciate why I said ‘make room’ for it!  This is the golden oat grass which looks fabulous against a brilliant blue sky.  Last year I was really disappointed that it only had about one flower head but this year it has rewarded me with a few dozen.  It really has looked spectacular and I’ve learnt that it also has small yellow flowers that dangle like earrings. 

Stipa gigantea in flower (c) Elizabeth Malone

I love the way that grasses also always have a colloquial name – pony tails (Stipa tenuissima), oat grass (Stipa gigantea), switch grass (Panicum), zebra grass (Miscanthus sinensis), cloud grass (Agrostis) and quaking grass (Briza) are the ones that we grow and I know about but there are many more.

My most recent acquisition is a Briza which has bell-shaped dangling seed heads which, as its colloquial name suggests, quake in the wind.  It’s only a hardy annual but experts suggest that it will self-seed and so I will have my fingers crossed for next year.  I might even try to save some seed and so it myself if I can work out when to do that.

My cloud grass was grown from seed, from a free packet send by a small nursery with some other plants.  Having not grown it before, I didn’t like to take a chance on following the packet instructions and scattering it where it was due to grow.  Instead I only scattered a small number and am very grateful that I did.  Nothing came up!  So the following spring I scattered some over a small pot and to my amazement they germinated.  I teased them out of the pot and planted them out into the border where a couple survived and went on to flower beautifully.  I sowed the remainder this spring and have a few small plants dotted around so fingers crossed for this year too.  However, they are small and fiddly so I’m not sure that I’ll be ordering more seed or collecting it for next year but let’s see.

Cloud grass (c) Elizabeth Malone

Less of a do-er has been our zebra grass, Miscanthus sinensis, which has now occupied several sites in our garden and struggled in nearly all of them. Could this year be different?  The strappy leaves are certainly taller than previous years so may be all the rain we’ve had has an effect?  It would be lovely if it did finally take off as it is rather fun – not many plants are stripey!

Miscanthus ‘zebrinus’ (c) Elizabeth Malone

Another favourite grass by our pond is a Panicum that has red-edged leaves and produces beautiful dark red, almost black flowers / seed heads in the autumn.  It seems perfectly suited to the lower light of September and October and I’ve taken numerous photos of it over the years, still trying to get the perfect shot that sums it up.  It is always a bit of a last blast of summer.  It will then stay with us, providing some structure in the garden during winter, until we cut it back in early spring and start the whole cycle again.

Panicum backlit by autumn sun (c) Elizabeth Malone