Outside the Backdoor

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


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Rain stops play

A month ago, if you’d said to me that I’d be struggling to garden due to the rain, I’d have laughed out loud!  Whilst I would be the first to admit that we desperately needed the rain, I am forced to admit that the weather has not been very typical of July and, as a result, my timing when it comes to getting things done in the garden has been absolutely rubbish!

On one occasion I chose a particularly bad moment to attempt to plant a rather beautiful salvia given to me by a friend the previous weekend.  Dark purple with striking silvery leaves, this salvia is a plant that shouts ‘summer’.  

Having decided on a location, I started preparing the hole.  Admittedly the sky was very overcast but it didn’t look full of the deluge that descended just as I was positioning the plant in the hole!


On another occasion I was forced to take shelter in the greenhouse.  Fortunately I’d just grabbed the tomato food so was able to use my time wisely whilst trapped and emerged having both fed the plants and tied in any wayward shoots.

Trying to decide when to administer liquid feed to various pots and plants in the border has also been challenging.  The pots look quite sodden whereas less than a month ago we were ensuring they all had trays underneath them to capture every valuable drop of moisture.  Now I’m trying to rescue plants from drowning!  Just because a pot is wet, doesn’t mean it doesn’t need feeding, especially as heavy rain like this is liable to wash out any nutrients from the pot.  So I decided to splash around a few cans of liquid seaweed just as the rain began again!  There’s no doubt that you do feel a bit daft watering in the rain!

And then there’s been my misplaced optimism about entertaining outdoors.  Last July we spent a glorious evening entertaining friends out on the patio surrounded by plants and lanterns.  Wouldn’t it be lovely to do it all again this summer?  Sadly the weather has had other ideas.  For a start, a gale force wind blew out all my candles and lanterns and, whilst it wasn’t exactly cold, it wasn’t what you would call a warm, balmy evening either!  Best laid plans eh!


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Bubble, bubble, toil and trouble!

The cherry plums are early!  When John said that they were ready last weekend, I didn’t quite believe him.  With a busy weekend ahead of us and no jam sugar in the cupboard, I took a quick glance and suggested that they could wait at least another week.  However, by this weekend a sizeable number were starting to fall off the tree.  It was time to act!

You may not be familiar with cherry plums.  They are small, bigger than a cherry but not as bit as a plum, and very, very sour!  But they do make good, flavourful jam!  Their red, plummy exterior covers a deep orangey / yellow flesh that gives the jam the colour of a good, dramatic sunset.

This morning we timed our pickings well as not long after the rain began to tip it down, making this the perfect afternoon for jam making.  I confess to be a little taken aback by just how many fruit were on the tree!

This is an old large cake box which was full by the time John returned to the kitchen!  I suspect that the very hot, dry weather that we’ve had up till now combined with the fact that the tree has not fruited for the last couple of years due to pruning (plums tend not to fruit well for a year or so after pruning), has led to a bumper year.

This was an awful lot of fruit to halve and stone!  Very quickly it became clear that we were not yet half way through but we already had the requisite 4lbs of fruit recommended by the recipe.  At this point it can be very easy to get carried away.  Let’s go on to 5lbs I said, or more said John.  Then I pointed out that our large stewpot that we make jam in probably wouldn’t take more than 5lbs of fruit!  At least not by the time you’ve allowed for 5lbs of sugar to join it!  At this point the realisation dawned that we were probably going to be doing the same thing again tomorrow afternoon.

Whilst the fruit simmered down, we washed jam jars and heated them in the oven and I acted on the old trick of cooling plates in the fridge to check the setting point.  Ten minutes of what is technically known as the ‘rolling boil’, when usually both you and the fruit get overheated (you must keep stirring at the same time!), and we were ready to dribble it onto the cold plate to see if it was going to set.  This duly wrinkled and so we were ready for the messy and dangerous job of getting a vat full of boiling fruit and sugar safely into its jars.

Cherry plum jam making

We had underestimated!  Further emergency jar washing commenced!  Although this looks like a right hotch-potch of jars, we find it really useful to have different sizes.  Many of our jars of jam are destined for the church pre-Christmas sale and, with an usual flavour such as cherry plum, it’s good to have some small jars that people can purchase as a taster.

So all that remains now is to repeat the whole exercise again tomorrow …!

And please don’t add ‘eye of newt’ to your jam!!

 


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New border, new blooms

I have a new flower border!  It had existed in my head for ages but finally, in April, we took spade to turf and dug away,  It was quite a plunge to take but I’m glad we decided to dive in as I’m now beginning to see the effect I was hoping for.

I know many garden designers would criticise us for ‘gardening around the edges’ and not dividing the garden into ‘rooms’ or creating weaving pathways, but we are in a densely packed part of south west London so we have always appreciated the sense of openness that we get in our garden.  What we have done on this occasion is to deepen the border on the left-hand side in front of a bank of shrubs, some of which are evergreen (Choisya) but most of which is deciduous Lilac.  Both the Lilac and Choisya are wonderful in Spring when in flower but the rest of the year they can be a bit dull.  So, by removing a swathe of grass from in front of these to shape a new planting area, and by a careful selection of plants, we have attempted to create an area which will be colourful from early to late Summer.  The border is also directly in line of view from the house so having some bright colour to look out onto was also part of our intention.

Having removed the turf (and re-used some of this to patch dead areas of lawn) and then edged it, we set about digging over the rather dry soil and enriching it with our own leaf mould, before deciding exactly what was to be planted there.

In preparation – is it deep enough?


Shopping for high / later summer perennials in early spring is, as we discovered, surprisingly cost effective as smaller versions of the plants are just coming into garden centres and often on deals such as 3 or 4 for £10.00.  Having agreed that this was going to be a hot colour scheme, on one such trip we acquired some golden Heleniums, scarlet Monardas and orange Penstemon.  Before planting out, the plants spent a few days on the patio in the shelter of the house during which time the Heleniums grew and grew!  However, this was nothing compared to the Monardas once planted!  It was like a scene from Jack and the Beanstalk as these plants appeared to put on an inch a day!  I have never grown Monardas before and you may not be that familiar with them but they are the cultivated form of Bergamot which is used to flavour Earl Grey tea.  Their leaves are incredibly aromatic if you rub them between your fingers.  Another common name for Monardas is ‘bee balm’ as they are a very nectar rich, bee friendly plant, so we are looking forward to them contributing to our efforts to ensure that our garden is as bee-friendly as possible.  The Penstemons have proved interesting.  These are Penstemon ‘pinus’ and, as the name suggests, they look just like little pine trees!  They are so unlike the other penstemons we have around the garden.  It felt like their tiny flowers appeared from nowhere but they are providing a glowing orange edge to the border.
A trip to a previously unexplored garden centre with a gardening enthusiast friend led to the acquisition of a deep yellow, repeat flowering rose to provide some central structure to the border.  To our surprise, the Togmeister has already produced a clutch of blooms and more are appearing.  It is a relatively low growing rose which has meant getting down on our knees to check out the scent.

Togmeister by Peter Beatles


To provide some cooler contrast, I have also planted two Eryngiums.  I do love these spiky plants even if they can be quite prickly to plant!  One of them is the smooth leaved variety whilst the other of the more vicious spikey leaved type.  This latter plant has also shot up to about a metre high in a matter of weeks and is covered in pale flower stars that have deepened and deepened through mid-blue to an intense purple.

Eryngium – early flowers


And then it was purple!

Eryngium – by mid June


It’s not all been about adding to the coffers of the garden centres!  The new border has provided a home for some bright and dark dahlias which spent previous summers in pots to protect them from slug attack.  We have decided to brave planting them out for a better show of flower.  The dry spring combined with a very small, judicious use of so-called ‘environmentally friendly’ slug pellets has helped to protect them so far.  A couple of these dahlias were grown from cuttings that I managed to propagate last autumn and to keep alive!  Cuttings are never my strong point and I’m always amazed when occasionally they work.  We have also dotted about a few of our self-seeded Stipa Tenuissima grasses which grow like weeds in our garden.  This particular grass provides a wonderful sense of movement.

Inevitably I am now wondering whether we should have dug the border wider and deeper.  This is partly due to a rather sad occurrence which is going to change the shape of that side of the garden.  It seems that our ornamental flowering Cherry tree is no more.  It produced a few buds in Spring but no real blossom to speak of and is entirely bereft of leaves.  I will probably write more about this at a future date but, the impact of this in relation to our new border, is that we avoided continuing the border under this tree as it would have been too shady.  People often talk about gardening as ‘shaping nature’ but just occasionally nature takes its own course and forces you to have a bit of a rethink.

For now, however, I am very pleased with my view down onto the mix of green and red foliage, illuminated here and there with bright spots of yellow, orange and purple and I am looking forward to a riot of hot colours as July and August approach.

Early June


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Urban oasis

Whilst it might sometimes sound as if I never venture further than outside my own backdoor (other than for work), I’d like to reassure you that this isn’t the case.  Being interested in both gardening and wildlife, and ideally combining the two, I have recently become enamoured with somewhere that may be familiar to some of you but which I am ashamed to admit took me 20 years to get round to visiting – the London Wetland Centre at Barnes.  Back in March, I finally made my first trip here and, having decided to take the plunge and join the Wildfowl and Wetland Trust, who run the site, I am now trying to make sure that my membership is well used.  Something to note for those of you who read this blog and are local to me, residents of the Borough of Richmond get a discounted deal on membership and discount vouchers for taking along other visitors.  So do check this out as it’s a great place to take friends and relatives staying with you.

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London Wetland Centre, March 2017

My first visit was back in March when wildlife was abundant but the surrounding landscape was still relatively bare.  Trees were only just beginning to show signs of leaf, the ponds had little but green surrounding them, and the occasional borders were relatively colourless.  The contrast on my second visit could not have been greater.  On a swelteringly hot day in May, when others were cooking nicely in the surroundings of the Chelsea flower show, I found myself absorbing the colourful delights of the planting at the centre.

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Flag iris in abundance at the London Wetland Centre, May 2017

Appropriately, some of the richest colour came from Nigel Dunnett’s garden, originally created for the Royal Bank of Canada.  Its poppies glowed and its iris zinged.  Given that Prof Dunnett was exhibiting further down the road with his ‘Greening Grey Britain‘ garden, here was a nice Chelsea link.  This garden at the Wetland Centre demonstrates much of what Prof Dunnett is trying to communicate ie. the importance of greening up our urban spaces to add colour and texture that is good for the soul alongside a rich and diverse habitat that can sustain wildlife in an otherwise intimidating environment.  I’m guessing that I’m preaching to the converted if you’re reading this blog, but I’m particularly delighted that us urban gardeners are now being given recognition for the environmental contribution we are all making.

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Away from the planting and with the BBC’s SpringWatch only days away, we were treated to drama in the bird world worthy of television as lapwings fiercely defended their territory from the predatory herons and crows.  I have never previously seen a heron slink so low in the water in order to keep itself hidden from potential prey.

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Distant lapwings surrounded by gulls

If you’ve not visited the WWT at Barnes, then I urge you to go further than just outside the back door and experience this extraordinary oasis in the heart of London.  And if neither birds or wild planting are your thing, then there are always the irresistibly cute otters there to provide entertainment!

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Asian short clawed otter at Barnes

 


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One for sorrow, two for joy …

“One for sorrow, two for joy …” and so the well-known rhyme begins but how many for five?  We asked ourselves this question recently when no less than five magpies landed in our cherry, birch and hawthorn trees at the same time!  They were strikingly lit by the early evening sunshine against a rather threatening grey sky although, being the driest Spring in years, the threatening cloud amounted to nothing.

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OK, so we only managed to capture 3 on camera!

I suspect that very few people would claim that the magpie is their favourite bird.  It’s certainly not mine but I do find them interesting and resourceful.  Of our local bird population, they are almost always the first to show signs of nesting.  This is usually evidenced by a pair of them in our trees tugging at smaller branches to create structure for their nest.  Where the nest is, I don’t know but it’s somewhere over to the north side from our house.  Having seen them break off pieces of twig, we then see them take off with these long strands trailing from their beaks.  Later they will be back to rummage in our grasses by the pond.  Presumably this makes good nest lining.  My only complaint is they are not very tidy about this.  Grasses do need thinning each spring and I do this by pulling my hands through them (wearing gloves as it can otherwise be a painful experience) and relieving the plant of huge great chunks of dead material which I then place in the compost bin.  The magpies, on the other hand, take the pieces of grass they fancy, leaving the rest strewn across the lawn.

As you may have noticed, magpies also chatter a lot so you soon know when they are around.  Sadly, the poor magpie is not blessed with a lovely lyrical voice like the blackbird, robin or wren, but instead makes a rather unpleasant clattering noise.  That said, it isn’t as painful on the ear as a jay!  We get a jay visit most Springs and it took a while for me to realise that it was the source of the most horrible screeching sound.  You just have to sit back and admire the colours of the jay and hope that it doesn’t decide to announce its arrival!

So what else do we know about magpies?  Well apparently their long tails account for at least half of their overall body length and their length of tail also indicates their social status.  Magpies are also known to be sedentary birds so it is highly likely that the five sitting in our trees were all related to one another and probably evidence of successful matings from previous years.  However, according to the RSPB, because the magpie’s territories are relatively limited, the area can therefore only sustain a certain number of pairs of birds.  As a result, non-breeding colonies will gradually form so that the area doesn’t become over populated and food scarce.  On average magpies lay around six eggs but the percentage of these that hatch and then survive into adulthood is relatively small.  Their overall life expectancy is around three years.

Sadly magpies also have a reputation for harassing smaller songbirds and destroying their nests.  I take a rather pragmatic view of this.  We’ve had sparrowhawks in the garden before now and they will terrorise everything.  In comparison, a magpie is a relatively small inconvenience for the other local birds and we see plenty of variety still so I don’t believe that their presence is that damaging.

Which brings us back to the rhyme.  So what is ‘five’?  The answer it turns out is silver and, just in case you don’t know the full rhyme, here it is for you:

One for sorrow, two for joy,
Three for a girl and four for a boy,
Five for silver, six for gold,
Seven for a secret than can never be told.
Eight for a wish, nine for a kiss,
Ten for a bird you must not miss!


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Thinking forward to fruit

The desire to grow fruit seems to have crept up on me unawares.  When we first moved here, we inherited a relatively young, leaning apple tree of unknown variety and a selection of blackberry and common bramble – both wanted and unwanted!  That was it really and for a couple of years nothing changed.

Our 24105214226_23c618e151_zfirst venture towards fruit growing was to plant another apple tree – an Egremont Russet which I gave John one birthday as it’s always been his favourite variety.  For the past couple of years we’ve had a reasonable crop helped, no doubt, by warm summers which enabled them to ripen properly.

At some point we took up an offer in the newspaper of free strawberry runners and planted these up in pots.  They have fruited quite well but the plants are now quite old and, without filling the patio with even more strawberry pots, there’s really no way this is enough to produce a decent sized bowl of fruit.  The desire to grow more strawberries and also to add raspberries was one of the main drivers for revamping our veg plot two years ago.

Our ‘Autumn Bliss’ raspberry canes came in the winter but, as soon as spring sprung, they shot away with bright green shoots.  We erected poles and wire to support them, although not quite the sophisticated set up with tensioners and the like as seen on Gardeners’ World!  Despite all the expert advice, we succumbed in year one and let them fruit – how can anyone possibly resist?  Clearly it did them no harm whatsoever as in year two they not only reached for the skies but also started heading off across the lawn!  Now this we hadn’t really anticipated.  Everyone knows that bramble and blackberry is invasive but no one warns you about over enthusiastic raspberries!  Just slice down the side to stop runners, is the expert advice.  Well we did that but to no avail!  They are determined to rule the world and we now spend considerable effort in removing them from where they are not wanted!

Last year, on the Friday before the May Bank Holiday my new strawberry runners arrived, perfect timing for planting over the weekend.  Strawberry runners are just a mass of root with small signs of shorn back leaves and when they’ve arrived in a jiffy bag in the post, they look distinctly unpromising.  However, I prepared my row as instructed, sprinkled some general fertiliser, spread out the runners and duly planted and watered in.  With the warm sunshine, the following day they already looked settled and I could have sworn were showing more signs of green.  The variety I chose was ‘Albion’ and produces fruits throughout the season from June until October – I have since learnt that this is what is known as an ‘everbearer’.  There are so many varieties available, however, that it’s very hard to know whether you’ve chosen well.  All the reviews suggest that this has excellent flavour but we’re not really convinced – the jury is still out.  However as year 2 approaches, the strawberry plants have bushed out and are absolutely covered in flowers – I cannot wait to find out what happens next!

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Meanwhile, our blueberry collection is growing.  We grow these in pots as they require acid soil so would fare badly if planted in the relatively neutral soil of our garden.  Two of our existing blueberry bushes were selected at random as offers in gardening magazines.  One is a tall striking plant that produces lots of berries but 33662456630_a7abea7134_zalso has striking red foliage in the autumn.  The other is small and compact and has been less reliable on the fruit front.  I have been on the lookout for another of the same variety as the tall one, ‘Chandler’, but it seems quite hard to track down.  Two summers ago I became distracted in a garden centre by a new variety called ‘Sunshine Blue’.  Another compact variety but bred for patio growing, it was absolutely laden with small pinkish flowers.  I just couldn’t resist.  It’s a self-polinating variety and produced a bumper crop before almost succumbing to being waterlogged.  We have now spent a summer nursing it back to health and this spring it has flowers once more so we have our fingers crossed.  However, unable to resist another of those magazine offers, we have three more juvenile blueberries that arrived only a couple of weeks ago and which have now been potted up into small pots as befits their current size.

Autumn holidays in France were responsible for us falling in love with the Mirabelle, that tiny yellow plum that packs a huge punch in terms of flavour.  However, they are not often grown in the UK and it’s possible that we are beginning to discover why.  Our Mirabelle tree, which has just spent its fourth Spring in our garden, flower in late March and produces a tiny delicate white blossom.  The flowers eventually turn into small green berries and from then on in it’s a question of all fingers crossed for a tiny crop of plums.  This is really exciting as it’s so hard to buy these as fruit in the UK.  Occasionally a few boxes appear in M&S for a short period and also in the occasional select greengrocers but to have our own in the garden will be quite an achievement but so far we have had about six and, to be honest, we’ve probably picked them too early to ensure we ate them and not the birds.  That said, keeping the tree alive and healthy is all we currently wish for.  It seems particularly prone to some sort of leaf curl and eventually this causes die-back.  We prune these branches out carefully and hope that they remain disease free.  This spring it looks a little more confident but we just have to wait and see – there are no guarantees in the fruit world.

And talking of guarantees, our cherry plum keeps us guessing year on year.  Often confused with mirabelle, the cherry plum produces small red fruits with deep gold flesh which is very, very sour!  However, they do make excellent  jam – particularly if you like your jam with a bit of ‘zing’!  Three years ago we were inundated with cherry plums and produced pots and pots of jam but we’ve now had two fallow years.  This spring the tree was covered in its delicate white blossom and we can see fruit forming so we have all fingers crossed.

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My how you’ve grown!

We’ve lived here for almost exactly 17 years and on the anniversary of our moving in, I delved into the bookshelves to find the scrap book that I’d made of our house move and the first year or so of living here.  Yes, a scrap book, really!  Remember the days of print photographs?!  Whilst the house has changed a great deal, the difference in the garden is just fascinating.

To begin with, what struck me was what was missing – no pond, no veg bed, no greenhouse, no lighting.  On the other hand, there was a long list of things that had been removed – brick barbecue, strange box like structure in the border and many, many weeds!

Having just replaced the pergola, these early photos go to show how new the original one must have been when we moved here.  And what a shame that the willow tree succumbed to drought very early on.

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The old pergola, Summer 2000

On reflection, having a willow tree shedding its leaves into the pond every autumn would have been a nuisance.  Now we have the benefit of sitting by the pond, enjoying

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Clematis Alpina

the early spring sunshine and watching the tadpoles and newts floating around.  And the tiny Clematis Alpina attached to that stick at the front is now a thing of beauty despite many squirrel attempts to defeat it.

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New pergola at dusk, Spring 2017

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The other major area of transformation has been what we generally refer to as ‘down the far end’ or, on a more aspirational day, the ‘woodland garden’!  It is not inaccurate to describe it as a woodland garden.  It is, after all, an area of planting underneath some very large trees, only one of which is actually rooted in our garden.  When we originally viewed the house in early February, the area looked very innocent; just a large slightly weedy, muddy patch.  However, by the time we moved in at the end of April, it had become a complete jungle of weeds that took the best part of a year to clear!

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The ‘woodland garden’!  Summer 2000

As we worked our way through the bramble and greenery, our weed identification skills improved somewhat!  Meanwhile, the mound we created of rubbish would grow and grow.  We’d then leave it for a week or so to rot down and then start adding again the following weekend.  Eventually we revealed what might have been an attempt to create a herb garden at some time in the past.  We also uncovered a range of intriguing objects, not least of all the original grate from the house fireplace that appeared to have been buried here!

Realising that this was never, ever going to be suitable for a herb garden (too shady for one thing), we went about adding to the woodland feel by planting two Camelias – one deep rosy pink and the other pure white.  Here you can just about see them against the fence.

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New planting in the ‘woodland garden’, Spring 2001?

My how they have grown!  Sixteen years down the line and they are at least six feet tall and both have been pruned on several occasions!  They have even reached sideways to join up with each other!

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Camelias, Spring 2017

If there is a lesson to be learned from these photos, then it must be ‘read the plant label carefully’!  Don’t be fooled by the innocent little stick of a plant, you may well be given home to a giant!