Outside the Backdoor

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


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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.

Compost bin with cat on top

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

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Cat defences

Last week it was a tail of murder and destruction outside our backdoor as a robin’s nest was plundered by the aggressive neighbourhood black cat.  We spent a very tense Wednesday evening trying to defend the nest with the aid of a water pistol but, despite seeing both adults fly from the direction of the nest early on Thursday morning, sadly it was not to be.  By Thursday evening the behaviour and feeding pattern of the robins had reverted to what I can only describe as normal day-to-day routine rather than the incessant to’ings and fro’ings of a feeding pair.  It seems ironic that it was only last month that I was commenting on the conflict we’ve felt at times between owning cats and feeding the birds (Nesting Now) but, as promised then, I will explain more.

Prior to owning our own cats, our garden was the territory of every cat and fox in the neighbourhood.  There was the ginger and white who strolled down the garden so regularly every evening that we actually laid our garden path along the line he had trodden!  There was Timmy one side of us and Toby and his various predecessors the other, plus a whole range of other occasional visitors who regarded our garden as excellent toilet facilities.  The foxes used our garden as the main thoroughfare between the railway line and the road lined with the rubbish bins and recycling containers that provide such rich pickings.  Whilst it was entertaining to see the young cubs being brought into the garden to play, it was less entertaining to clear up their mess every time we wanted to garden or even just to sit outside.

Fox exploring the garden

Fox on patrol – (c) John Malone (2005)

When we began exploring Norwegian Forest cats as a breed we quickly became aware that they are not very streetwise – the clue is in the name – ‘Forest’ not ‘Street’ cat!  Our breeder advised us to either keep them indoors or to create a cat garden.  When the kittens were growing up, we were in the midst of a major building project and so we delayed the creation of the cat garden until after that. During that time, however, we became convinced that this was the right thing to do. They loved being outdoors so much that it seemed almost cruel not to give them access to the garden.

Tortie cat climbing tree

Early explorations (c) John Malone

Whilst we don’t own acres of land, our garden is definitely larger than your average town garden so the first thing we had to decide was whether we could really afford, either in monetary or practical terms, to “cat-proof” the entire garden.  In the end we decided that there was a natural turning point and we incorporated a gate into the proposal that would allow us, but not the cats, access to the ‘far end’ or the ‘woodland’ garden if I’m being posh!  Curiously enough, the gate is at the exact same location at which the previous owners of the house effectively threw in the towel and decided they couldn’t maintain any more garden beyond that point!

Dividing the garden between the main area and woodland area

Natural divide – where to put the fence (c) John Malone (2006)

Having worked out where it was going, we had to decide what the cat fence would be made from and in the end we invested in a product called Purrfect Fence (yes, groan!).  A combination of very tough, plastic coated wire fencing with suspension arms that, theoretically, stop your cat from climbing over it, the product has been used all over the world and, in fairness, has already given over nine years good service in our garden.

Cat fence

Cat fence (c) Elizabeth Malone

The ‘pros’ of having a cat fence are that your cats can wander freely around your garden whilst the neighbourhood moggies cannot.  The foxes are also excluded, well mostly that is, apart from one or two over adventurous incursions that we’ve had to deal with over the years.  Any mess in the garden is your own cat’s mess and not everyone else’s and, of course, your cats are not annoying the neighbours by messing in their gardens!  Given that we also manage when our cats have access to the garden, and it’s certainly never at night or early morning when birds are at their most vulnerable, it also means that our garden is mostly a safe place for birds.

Three cats asleep under garden bench

Lazing around (c) John Malone

On the ‘cons’ side, it is an additional hassle when climbing plants get entangled in the fence.  The cat fence runs along the top of the larch-lap panels in the photo below but you’d never know it due to the over-enthusiastic clematis tangutica ‘Bill Mackenzie’ which swamps it every summer!

Cat inspecting the garden

Hidden fencing and foiled cat! (C) John Malone

If another cat does get in the garden, for example by walking along the various house extension roofs, then it can’t get out by itself (this has only happened twice so far).  The biggest ‘con’, however, is that it is almost impossible to erect the fence effectively around trees and our garden has quite a few of them.  Add to that a cat who considers the fence to be an assault course and who regards it as his duty to find and test every possible escape route, and you find you have created quite a challenge!  Of course once he’s out, he can’t get back in and you have to be alert to his usual routine and anticipate when he’s going to appear on the doorstep (or the roof!) ready to be let back in.

Ginger cat climbing the pergola

One of many famous escape attempts! (C) John Malone

That said, I think it has been a price worth paying for mostly knowing where they are! Of course whilst he’s out and about, I can’t hand on heart claim that he isn’t devastating the local wildlife or causing havoc with the neighbours (like the time he stole steak from next door!)

But returning to our robin’s nest, our cats were definitely not the guilty party. So what went wrong?  They nested in a dense viburnum that grows in our neighbour’s garden and is just the wrong side of our cat fence.  Our neighbours went away meaning that their spaniel was no longer on patrol.  The black cat, which seems to think it owns our entire road, kept climbing the viburnum onto the top of our fence.  Every time we saw it appear, John was out there with the water pistol but it was impossible to be on ‘nest duty’ around the clock and at some point the inevitable must have occurred. However, since then we have seen the adults flitting around the garden and on a couple of occasions we’ve seen them feeding each other, so hopefully they will go on to have another brood this spring and may be they’ll have more luck second time around.

 


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Spring is green!

I used this phrase for a recent Facebook post and all my G&S enthusiast friends came back with, “Summer’s rose ..” thinking of the lovely madrigal in Ruddigore. But it’s so true – spring is green!

Euonymus fortunei

Euonymus fortunei (c) Elizabeth Malone

It’s probably the time of year when we appreciate the colour green the most. Owning, as I do, a garden bordered by lilac, you do get rather fed up of the brown twiggyness of winter. Whilst I love my lilacs (see Luscious Lilacs), it has to be said that they do sadly contribute to winter dullness.

Banks of lilac in winter bordering the garden

Lilac just budding green (c) Elizabeth Malone

From March onwards, I find it hard to resist walking around the garden taking photos of the new green emerging and now, in April, everything is positively zinging! The hawthorn, which entered April with a generous smattering of new green leaves, conveniently displayed against a vivid blue sky, is now a dense canopy beginning to show the signs of flower buds getting ready to welcome in May.

Hawthorn leaves against blue sky

Hawthorn leaves on 1 April 2019 (c) Elizabeth Malone

In the ‘woodland’ garden, as I like to call it when feeling posh, the euphorbia has been excellent this year. This one is only the common woodland spurge but we brought it from our previous house and it took to this area with enthusiasm until a couple of years ago when I became quite worried as it looked sickly. It’s good to see that it appears to have bounced back.

Close up of Euphorbia flower / bract

Euphorbia / woodland spurge (c) Elizabeth Malone

I’m pleased to say that my Euphorbia Martinii, purchased at Malvern last year, has also returned. I was worried about it, to say the least, as it became rather swamped by a couple of over-enthusiastic dahlias last summer!

Euphorbia martinii bracts with red eye

Euphorbia martinii (c) John Malone

One of the really exciting greens at this time of year are the very first shoots of new seedlings in the greenhouse and on the veg plot. My rocket was first to be sown, first to germinate and also first to be eaten!

Rocket seedlings just germinating

Rocket germination! (C) Elizabeth Malone

I now have peas and French beans following in its footsteps and my tomatoes are almost ready to be pricked out and potted on – a task for the Easter weekend I think.

Last summer we also planted a number of new roses, five I think in the end, and I’m pleased to say all look to be doing well. However, it was the new leaves of our existing Iceberg climbing rose that really struck me last weekend. It was as if someone had been out and polished them up ready for the new season! These particular shoots were especially good to see as they were on new long stems stretching into the pergola, a direction that we’ve been trying to train it into for several years.

Shiny green new leaves on rose IcebergNew leaves on an Iceberg (c) Elizabeth Malone

Which just makes me think that I shall have to write a post later on this year entitled “Summer’s rose”!! But before I sign off on this post, I’m going to leave you with some lovely vibrant green which, ironically, is providing a fantastic backdrop to that most spring-like of spring flowers, the bluebell!!

Bluebells coming into flower with backlit green leaves

Budding bluebell (c) Elizabeth Malone


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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!


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Buds (not in May!)

February has suddenly teased us with a promise of spring. Although almost every morning over the past week has started with a crisp frost, it has been succeeded by beautiful blue skies and sunshine that promises something of the summer to come. Although we shouldn’t be fooled into thinking winter is almost over, (think of the Beast from the East last year!), the garden has responded and there are signs of new growth in all directions, and not always in the obvious plants such as the camellia below.

DSC_0751

Camellia in bud (c) Elizabeth Malone

Although the sun disappeared yesterday, I was tempted out into the garden to do the first proper stint of the year. With my still unreliable knee, I had to content myself with some gentle sowing of early peas and rocket in the greenhouse and a little light weeding and feeding whilst John diligently pruned all the roses and gave the acer a significant chop before starting to wield the axe against the pyracantha that has become a monster!

Before getting to work, I decided to do a complete circuit of the garden to assess what was shooting, what was reappearing from last year and what, as yet, is still keeping us guessing – again, reminding myself that it is still only the middle of February. Just for the fun of it, I also decided to have my first real play with John’s birthday present – a macro lens! Not being a photographer as such, I found it a slightly strange experience, having to coax it to focus on the small detail I wanted and not something it suddenly found in the distance. I’ve also found it incredibly frustrating trying to load up giant media files to blog with today but that’s another story I think!

My perambulations began literally outside the backdoor with a perennial wall flower that I bought as a between seasons gap filler last summer. It flowered its socks off from about May till August. Last weekend I began to realise how interesting foliage was becoming, with this soft, almost grey tinged with a hint of pink.

Grey leaves and buds of a perennial wallflower

Once in full flower, this will be a mass of vibrant yellow but for now, the tight flower buds at the centre begin crimson, start to hint of orange but then, with a bit of sunshine, turn yellow. Given how early it is starting to flower this year, will it still be in flower in July like last year?

Yellow wallflower bud

Dotted around the garden, a whole range of daffodils are now on the starting blocks and ready to burst forth in the next week or two. The small tete-a-tete do well in our garden, better than the full sized daffodils. However, I spotted a clump of large daffodils today that I don’t remember planting!

Daffodil buds

Daffodils in bud (c) Elizabeth Malone

Just above them, our clematis armandii is starting to bloom. The buds look quite unattractive in their early phase. If that was all you saw when you first came across the plant, I’m not sure whether you would want to give it house room? However, the pure white flowers are so elegant and the scent on a warm spring day is magnificent. It is, of course, a bit of a thug and needs to have some of its enthusiasm tamed each year otherwise the entire garden would be nothing by clematis!

White clematis armandii flower and buds

My walk around the garden was just before John decided to wield the secateurs against the roses. The amount of new growth on them was certainly shouting, “Prune me!” It was an interesting reminder of all those new roses we acquired last year, all of which now need pruning, feeding and mulching! I’m now wondering whether the box of rose food I bought is big enough?

Rose leaves

Rose leaves – ready to prune back (c) Elizabeth Malone

Whilst roses may demand attention, mahonia is a plant we do absolutely nothing to. We never planted it in the first place but have odd clumps that spring up in both the front and back gardens.  The sight of this one about to bud amused me when I saw the result of the photo – it reminds me of one of those strange looking romanesco cauliflowers!

Yellow mahonia about to flower

Mahonia in bud (c) Elizabeth Malone

As well as the flowers, I took a close look at the fruit trees. The apple trees are yet to show any real signs of buds developing but both the mirabelle and crab apple stems are beginning to swell with new growth.

Mirabelle stem in bud

Mirabelle de Nancy stem in bud (c) Elizabeth Malone

Finally I turned to the veg plot which always looks rather desolate at this time of year. The autumn planted garlic is now shooting well, displaying strong fresh green stems. The chicken wire seems to be doing its job in terms of stopping cats and squirrels digging up the cloves! John has cut the raspberries back but the strawberries desperately need a good haircut. Due to my knee problems, I failed to tidy them in the autumn so they are long overdue some tlc. The remainder is a blank canvas waiting to be sketched out for the year ahead.

Autumn plants garlic starting to shoot

Autumn planted garlic (c) Elizabeth Malone

Of course it’s not all about new beginnings – some plants are already starting the cycle all over again.  Hellebores being the obvious example. Ours have been really splendid this year and it’s great to see that there are still buds waiting to open.

Red hellebore

That said, the pavement next to this one was strewn with stamen, showing that they’re planning ahead and getting ready to self-seed everywhere, which they do rather well!

Hellebore stamen on the ground

And finally, it’s always lovely to see something return. We bought this Euphorbia Martinii at Malvern last year. It looked great when we planted it but the poor thing got swamped by dahlias and grasses and I feared the worst. Even a week ago I didn’t spot this but here we are, and it’s looking fine!

Euphorbia martinii


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Snowdrops

Nothing says ‘February’ more to me in the garden than snowdrops.  Just when we’re really getting fed up with the long dark winter days, along come these elegant white flowers to tell us that spring is just around the corner.

Snowdrop bud - close up

Snowdrop flowerhead (c) John Malone

Unfortunately, when it comes to growing snowdrops, I don’t seem to have much luck.  Years ago I bought some bulbs and planted them in what seemed a good place but about one appeared.  In fact I think that one is still appearing each spring but it is rather lonely! 

At the time I was a relatively inexperienced gardener and, of course, later I read that it is much easier to establish snowdrops ‘in the green’, that is planted out when they have finished flowering but still have their green leaves feeding the bulb beneath.  So I acquired some small pots from the garden centre packed full of snowdrops that were just about to finish flowering and I planted them out only never to be seen again.  My final foray into attempting to settle them into our garden was a couple of years ago when a friend, who is apparently inundated with them in her garden in Surrey, generously provided me with a large clump which I duly planted in the shade of the hawthorn, yet again with complete and utter failure!  I suspect that the problem is that the nice, partially shaded, damp spots beneath trees that I plant them into in the spring, become dry shaded deserts in summer, whereas they actually need to be kept moist to thrive and multiply.  It would seem that the naturally forming leaf-mould simply isn’t enough.

Crocus, daffodils, hellebores

Other spring bulbs thrive beneath the hawthorn (c) Elizabeth Malone

I think part of my frustration stems from the fact that we grow other early spring flowers, such as hellebores, really well in similar locations. At the far end of our garden, a few hellebores have magnified into something quite spectacular for a small area. We have cream ones, deep red ones and those that have hybridised to form a mix; and they put on a magnificent display come rain, shine or snow!

Cream hellebores with red spots

Spotted hellebores (c) John Malone

Leucojum, like giant snowdrops, have also done well. The first of these were bought in pots as a ‘past their best’ deal in our local Homebase some years ago. We decided to give them a home and have not regretted it as they have bulked up and flower reliably year after year and look like outlasting the Homebase store!

Snowflake flower - Leucojum

Snowflake flower – Leucojum (c) Elizabeth Malone

So when it comes to snowdrops, I fear that I shall have to make do with admiring other people’s and for me, the first sight of them in 2019 came very early on a visit to RHS Wisley on the 4th January when there were already large clumps fully in flower.  Also at Wisley, the curators were busy putting together a very special display in the alpine house of some unusual and valuable examples which have been lent for show just this spring.  I couldn’t help but notice the big shiny padlock on the display case and wondered just how much those few plants were worth?  Only a few years ago there were newspaper articles of snowdrop bulbs changing hands on the internet for £300!

Snowdrop in bud

Snowdrops in bud at RHS Wisley (c) John Malone

In February last year we called into Castle Drogo in Devon en route to a weekend in Cornwall.  It was a bright spring-like day and as we were tight for time, we enquired where best to see any snowdrops in the grounds.  The National Trust volunteer produced a plan of the grounds, studied it carefully, and then started circling a few areas where we might possibly see some.  He gave the impression that our chances were slim. So imagine our surprise when we stepped outside the visitor centre only to spot a large clump of nodding white flowers literally yards from the door! And only a few feet further along the path we spotted clump after clump!

Snowdrops and mossy tree trunks

Snowdrops at Castle Drogo, Devon 2018 (c) John Malone

About five years ago, one of our Landmark Trust holidays presented us with plentiful snowdrops right outside the door.  We were staying in the wonderfully named House of Correction in Lincolnshire on some very chilly March days (yes, that is snow surrounding the snowdrops you can see in the photo below!)  Thankfully most Landmark Trust properties are blessed with a roaring fire and on this occasion we were most grateful for it!

Snowdrops in the snow

Snowdrops with a little snow at the House of Correction, Lincolnshire (C) John Malone

The potential sight of snowdrops is surely a great incentive to get outdoors at this chilly and gloomy time of year. So where should you head? Well clearly not out into my garden!  The National Trust have done a ‘Best places to see snowdrops near you’ list, which is very thoughtful of them. Winkworth Arboretum, which is normally more renowned for its autumn colour or even its bluebells in May, is on the list and is not a million miles from us so we might be taking a trip out!

Meanwhile, do you have a plant that you would love to grow in your garden but which stubbornly refuses to cooperate?