Outside the Backdoor

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


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Water wise

As I write this, the thermometer is set to soar into the mid-thirties centigrade later today. Admittedly the forecast is suggesting that it may be the classic British summer week of a few hot days followed by a thunderstorm. Anyone who knows me well will know that I’m not looking forward to the thunderstorm bit! That said, I would welcome the rain. In fairness, the garden isn’t looking quite as parched as it did a week or so ago. That Thursday of heavy downpours has refreshed the grass and the veg plot remained damp for several days after. More importantly, the pond filled up as did our water butts, and that’s where I want to focus really – what we do to manage our water wisely.

Rain falling on patio and chairs
Summer downpour (c) Elizabeth Malone

Scarily, over 25 years ago, I remember cataloguing a report from the then National Rivers Authority called Water: Nature’s Precious Resource which was in high demand from our Environmental Sciences students. This report emphasised that, whilst the press might focus on droughts in less developed parts of the world, the developed world needed to become much smarter at managing its water supply as changes to the climate were already beginning to signal trouble ahead. Without a doubt, handling books on these topics influenced my own approach to managing water, especially as gardeners can get a bit of a bad reputation when it comes to water usage! So what steps can we each take to do our bit? I don’t suppose I’m going to mention anything you don’t already know about but, as each summer seems to become a little warmer, there’s no harm in reminding ourselves of the changes we can make.

Watering can being refilled
Filling up – yet again! (C) Elizabeth Malone

Let’s start with water meters. I’ve always found it interesting that we expect to pay for gas and electricity according to usage but not water. If you’ve not yet fitted a meter, do consider it. Compulsory metering is being rolled out by Thames Water but not to our area just yet but you can get a step ahead and request an installation. Evidence suggests that if you are a one or two person household, you will almost certainly save money as well as water!

Two water butts
Water butts – not things of beauty! (C) Elizabeth Malone

Without doubt, a water meter makes you think about how much you are using, particularly in the garden. I suspect that there is a correlation between the owners of water meters and the owners of water butts! We have two water butts and every summer, as they run dry, we threaten to install more. The challenges are space and aesthetics. The two butts we have are not things of beauty! Located behind the shed, they are generally out of sight but the most obvious place to install more is on the patio and, worse than that, directly beneath our carefully chosen light fittings! You can appreciate our dilemma! We keep flicking through catalogues and websites offering slim, discrete designs, designs that pretend to be something else, and designs that also cost a small fortune! At some point we will bite the bullet as we really value our rainwater stocks, not just to avoid using tap water unnecessarily, but to ensure we can water acid loving plants such as our blueberries and our Christmas tree with lime-free water. We also use it to top up the pond occasionally which is better for the wildlife. According to the Consumer Council for Water, “The average house roof in the UK collects enough rain water in a year to fill about 450 water butts.” Just to be clear, I’m not suggesting that you install 450 butts – that would be a little excessive!

Blueberries ripening on plant
Blueberries ripening (c) Elizabeth Malone

Being selective about what you water in the garden is also important. New plants deserve good and frequent soakings as there’s nothing more soul-destroying than seeing your new favourite flower wilt and die within days. Try to find time to water either early morning or later evening to prevent excessive evaporation and also accidental scorching of leaves. The veg plot also needs careful attention. There’s not much point in throwing away all the hard work that goes into germinating, pricking out and planting on young veg plants, only to fry them on a sunny day.

Over view of vegetables plots
Veg plots (c) John Malone

Most advice on using water wisely in the garden makes it clear that you should ditch that sprinkler! That said, I have one exception to that rule and that has been trying to soak around the root area of a large tree. Our birch tree is really struggling and the tree surgeon’s advice was to really soak a wide area around the tree once a week. If we just leave the hose on, then the water runs off. Leaving the sprinkler spraying gently around the base of the tree enables more water to be absorbed where we need it.

Birch tree with dead and live branches with bird
Trying to save our birch tree (c) Elizabeth Malone

Mulching your borders in spring to seal in moisture is something that I always attribute to serious gardeners! For years I thought about doing it and would usually remember too late. We also had a run of very dry January and Februaries which meant that I felt I’d already missed the boat. Mulching also helps condition the soil and last year I decided I would be organised and we ordered sacks and sacks of mulch. It all seemed such a great idea until our rather hairy cats rolled in the straw-like substance and our lounge looked more mulched than the border!

Curled up cat in flower border
Mulch magnet! (C) John Malone

Finally, I’m going to mention the ‘lawn’. If you are fortunate enough to have a garden with a piece of ‘green’ in the middle, I suspect that, like me, it’s not exactly bowling green standard. Don’t water the grass when it’s hot and dry, it will turn green again remarkably quickly after one of those stormy downpours. Also, don’t cut during dry weather unless you really have to. Let some of the weeks flower and enable the bees and other insects to flourish on it.

Clover growing amid grass
Clover in lawn (c) Elizabeth Malone


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Sounds of silence

Flapping, squeaking, buzzing … and not a jet engine to be heard!

I have lived my life underneath the Heathrow flight path. At my parents’ house, we used to look forward to a foggy day when the skies would fall silent but, since landing became more automated, even that ceased to be the case. Our current house was chosen for the fact that it generally falls between flight paths and doesn’t get planes directly overhead – hoorah! That said, there’s always the odd day when it feels like air traffic control have you in their sights. We do have the railway line, however, but since the Coronavirus lockdown began, trains have started later, finished earlier and they are shorter so they pass by more quickly.

Intense blue above us (c) Elizabeth Malone

So I look up to the part blue / part cloudy white sky and instead of vapour trails, I can see a swallow circling … or is it a swift? I always find it hard to spot the difference at a distance so we tend to hedge our bets and refer to the ‘swillows’! It’s not a particularly full sky today in terms of birds but then it’s May. Most birds have more important things to be doing right now than swooping across our skies. That said, isn’t it blue? Apparently it’s not just our eyes deceiving us or our imaginations romanticising this new ‘lockdown’ world, it really is ‘bluer’ due to the lack of pollution. The blue skies have provided an intense backdrop to what has been a very beautiful spring.

Cotinus coggyria ‘Royal Purple’ against blue sky (c) Elizabeth Malone

The squeaking is incessant. It has been a huge week for fledglings. This picture doesn’t really tell the story. The lawn was covered in greedy young starlings demanding food and our sparrow family who have kept us entertained all week. The sparrows seem to have taken home-schooling to heart and we observe daily lessons such as how to approach a squirrel-protected bird-feeder!

A handful of greedy young starlings – the rest were hiding behind the bushes!

There’s also a lot of flapping going on. That would be the wood pigeons and magpies sorting themselves out, some in our birch tree and some on the roof of the house at the end of the garden. This is interspersed with the ‘woo-woo’ of the collar doves.

Magpie at sunset in our birch tree (c) Elizabeth Malone

Seconds ago I had to duck! A formidable buzzing passed by my right ear as a giant bumble bee made its way towards the cotoneaster. The flowers of this plant might be tiny but the bees absolutely love it. We used to have the food-waste bin positioned near the prostrate cotoneaster in our front garden but that meant stepping very near the humming masses each time we used it. We concluded that it was prudent to move the bin!

Tiny flowers of the cotoneaster (c) Elizabeth Malone

I can also hear the relaxing sound of running water. Next door’s fountain is trickling into their pond, which reminds me that we’ve not yet turned on our fountain this spring. Something to do later. The sound of the trickling water is also hiding that inevitable summer noise – the whine of a lawnmower! Clearly no one has mentioned that it’s supposed to be ‘no mow May’ around here!

Time to turn on our own pond fountain! (C) Elizabeth Malone

Finally, I can hear the blackbird, surely one of the most beautiful bird songs. I know a mistle-thrust would probably be even more lyrical but this is south-west London, we can’t have everything you now! And as if to remind me that not all bird-song is necessarily beautiful, I can hear a bevvy of parakeets heading our way!

Good afternoon blackbird!
And good evening blackbird!


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The power of ponds

Water is an essential feature of any wildlife garden and for most of us that means a pond. If you are looking to make your garden, terrace or even balcony, more environmentally friendly, you can’t go far wrong in adding a splash of water.

Our pond in spring time (c) Elizabeth Malone

When we moved here twenty years ago, there was a willow tree by the pergola. The pergola had been carefully positioned by the previous owners so that it caught the evening sun in the summer and was therefore a lovely place to wind down at the end of the day with a glass of something cold in your hand. Sitting in the pergola and by the willow tree, we quickly realised that this area was begging for a pond. It is perhaps ironic that the willow tree subsequently died but we have never regretted the decision to build the pond.

Pond and pergola (c) John Malone

Before embarking on the pond we had tested the water (apologies for the terrible pun!) by plugging the drainage hole in a large ceramic pot, filling it with water and adding a water lily. It actually worked really well and was a delight to look at. I’d really recommend this for anyone who either doesn’t have the space for a pond or who just wants to add a bit more water to their garden.

Our increasingly giant water lily! (C) John Malone

Without a shadow of doubt, our pond is teeming with wildlife. As I write this, it is a glorious sunny spring day and red damselflies are emerging, skimming the water, perching on marigold leaves and quickly finding a mate. I’ve also counted six newts. On a day like this they love to just float in the sunshine. Sadly we didn’t have any frogspawn this year. We did have a lonely frog who turned up and waited patiently for its mate but clearly to no avail. We are really missing the tadpoles as they devour the green weed in the pond and keep the water clear. Instead I am having to mess around, trying to extract it with a hoe or any other device that seems to work. I’ve tried scooping with a net but trying to clean out the net before making the next scoop, is really frustrating! There are also water snails – where did they come from? Everyone always says build a pond and the wildlife will come. This is so true.

Tadpoles last spring (c) Elizabeth Malone

Creating a pond needn’t be complicated but a little extra thought will help develop a really good wildlife haven. For example, ensuring that there are plants with tall, strappy leaves enables damselflies and dragonflies to emerge from the water and dry off after shedding their skin. You need plants that will maintain oxygen levels to enable frogs and newts to survive. You should also always include a way out for any creature that accidentally falls in. Most people have hedgehogs in mind when they say this but your cat might appreciate it too! Fortunately we have only ended up with a soggy moggy on about three occasions!

Dragonfly emerging (c) John Malone

As well as being a wildlife home, the pond also helps to sustain a variety of other creatures. The birds love to bathe here as well as drink and we frequently see bees and wasps refreshing themselves. The heron, however, is one of our less welcome visitors as it is probably the reason why we don’t have frogspawn. From our observations, there is nothing better that a heron likes for breakfast than a nice juicy frog! A bit like foxes, I think we have a bit of a love-hate relationship with the heron. They are so intriguing to watch. The first time I saw one standing by our pond early one morning, my first thought was that someone was playing a joke on me and had stuck a plastic one in the garden … but then it moved its head slightly!

Bee taking advantage of the marsh marigolds (c) John Malone

As we originally envisaged, sitting next to the pond is a really restful experience, watching the wildlife and listening the trickling water (on the occasions when we do remember to turn on the fountain!) and I would recommend to anyone adding a pond to your garden to enhance the environment, not just for the wildlife, but for you as well.

The relaxing sound of trickling water (c) Elizabeth Malone


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Grow your own

At the start of this year I set out to write a series of Outside the Back Door articles focused on different aspects of climate change and how we can all do our bit to improve the environment.  Against this month I noted down, “Grow your own”.  At that moment I could not possibly have foreseen that the global lockdown in response to the Coronavirus pandemic was about to cause the most enormous surge in interest in people growing their own food.  As tinned tomatoes vanished from the supermarket shelves, so did packets of vegetable seed from every garden centre and then, as the garden centres closed, from every online supplier in the country.  I just checked some of the well-known seed companies and discovered that two are still trying to fulfil orders placed three weeks ago whilst another has deployed an online queuing system before you can even enter their website!

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Finna helping me organise my seed box!  (c) Elizabeth Malone

One thing I have learnt from this current crisis, I’m not someone who jumps onto bandwagons!  At no time in the past few weeks have my kitchen cupboards been overloaded with pasta or flour and my bathroom is not stuffed full of loo-roll!  However, as I patiently wait to see whether last year’s packet of parsley seed will still germinate, I slightly regret this attitude and what is turning out to be the mistaken belief that these huge surges in demand would soon flatten out and we’d be able to buy things as normal, well at least online.  As a result, I find myself advocating growing your own veg at a time when my own veg plot is looking a little less full than normal.

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Preparing one of our small veg beds for potatoes (c) Elizabeth Malone

That said, wouldn’t it be marvellous if this crisis produced a whole new generation of gardeners?  Or at least brought about a greater recognition of what it takes to grow food for our tables?

Interestingly, the ‘grow your own’ trend was already booming in the UK, fuelled by a combination of growing concern for the environment; concerns about the use of pesticides; and the growth of Veganism.  If you are growing good yourself, you know precisely what has gone into it.

When I started experimenting with growing my own vegetables on our small plot in the garden, I really wasn’t sure whether I would keep it going but my interest has definitely increased, enough to consider whether we might even venture as far as an allotment one day.

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This year’s beans ready for planting out (c) Elizabeth Malone

Before digging up a sizeable bit of lawn, I read around a great deal to help me decide what to grow and one of the most useful pieces of advice which sticks in my mind was stating the obvious really – grow what you like to eat!  This is so true!  I like courgettes but my husband doesn’t.  Even one courgette plant can produce a considerable amount of fruit, not to mention that they are monsters that take over every inch of available space and, if you’re really lucky, become unsightly as their leaves are prone to mildew!  He doesn’t like tomatoes either but they are more versatile and store more easily plus you tend to be quite popular with friends in either sharing out spare plants or spare fruit later in the season!

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We wouldn’t be without our garlic crop!  (c) Elizabeth Malone

It’s interesting to discover how loyal you become to certain varieties of vegetables over the years.  For me, Sungold tomatoes are by far the best.  When it comes to peas and beans, Hurst Green Shaft and Cobra respectively seem to do well in my garden so I stick with them.  Perhaps if I had more space or more mouths to feed, I might be tempted to experiment a bit more.

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Sungold tomatoes gradually ripening (c) Elizabeth Malone

Growing your own produce is only satisfying if you eventually get to eat it.  I quickly abandoned lettuce in my veg plot as it simply fed the local slug and snail population.  Instead, I sow seed into large trays and I can create my own pick and mix selection of chard, rocket and red oak leaf lettuce, all of which seem to grow well this way.

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Salad trays to protect from slug attack!  (c) Elizabeth Malone

Returning to the main impetus behind this article, the climate crisis, why is growing our own food good for the environment?  There are many answers to this so I will simply pick out the things that stand out for me.  Vegetables, and I include salads and herbs within that, are great for enhancing the biodiversity in your local plot.  You need insects to pollinate your crops, the insects need you to grow them to get the food they need to survive too.  It’s the perfect working relationship.  Home grown produce doesn’t need to be wrapped in plastic in order to transport it or extend its shelf-life.  The fact it doesn’t need to be transported wins on the pollution front too.  As the grower, you are also in control in terms of reducing pollution from pesticides.  Finally, with careful management, you can also reduce your food waste as you pick what you need.  That said, sometimes there’s no avoiding gluts but there is always the freezer or a grateful neighbour!

I would love to end this article by extolling you to go out and buy a packet of seed and grow something edible for yourself but I fear that sourcing that seed may be a step to far just at present.  But if you can’t grow something edible this year, there is always next!

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A bee reminding us that growing our own fruit and veg is good for wildlife (c) Elizabeth Malone


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Spring rainbow

This post wasn’t planned. Then neither was the idea of spending Spring 2020 in lockdown! However, if there is one time of year when I’m quite happy to be at home every day, even if I am still working like mad, then it’s spring.

With the daily gloom and doom of the news, we all need positive things to lift our spirits so earlier this week I began posting photographs to Facebook of some of the brighter, vividly coloured blooms currently dotted around my borders. I didn’t have a plan but I think all the rainbow pictures adorning the windows that I pass daily on my permitted exercise, must have sunk into my subconscious as I began to realise that I was posting the colours of the rainbow! So here is my spring garden tribute to the NHS.

RED – Wallflower

Unfortunately that means starting with a rather blurry photo of the one truly red plant currently in flower in my garden. It made me realise that red isn’t a very spring-like colour. Tulips maybe, but I prefer orange or white ones, and perhaps something like chaenomeles would suffice if you happen to have one of the right colour.

ORANGE – Tulip Ballerina

The sight of orange tulips is truly uplifting and I’ve already made a resolution for the autumn, I need to buy more and I know just the spot where I’m going to plant them in full view of the house.

YELLOW – Marsh Marigold

Our pond is a riot of yellow at this time of year as it is completely surrounded by marsh marigolds. Beloved of bees, it’s providing essential food for emerging insects. Its leaves are also giving shelter to a rather lonely frog who appears to be sitting patiently in the hopes of a mate arriving. The newts, on the other hand, appear to be thriving!

GREEN – Euphorbia Martinii

A souvenir from RHS Malvern Spring Show 2018, I love the red eyes of this euphorbia. It makes a terrific contrast to the everyday woodland spurge that we have running amuck at the far end of the garden. Admittedly we did plant it there having brought it from our previous house, but it has rather taken over although it too can look pretty splendid backlit on a sunny spring day.

BLUE – Bluebells

I’m sure this picture of bluebells will have many of you exclaiming that this seems awfully early! I would agree. Something like 2 – 3 weeks early I think and not normally around for Easter. Inspired by a friend, I’m planning on picking a few that are hidden from view and bringing them in to adorn our Easter table.

INDIGO – Honesty

Now we get into the difficult colours – Indigo and Violet. I confess I had to Google this to try to work out the difference. Neither turned out to be quite as ‘purple’ as I had imagined which presents quite a challenge in terms of selecting some spring flowers to complete my rainbow. So please forgive me if the colour-match here isn’t quite right!

Purple honesty is quite rare in our garden as we mostly seem to have banks of white. I don’t know whether I should admit this but they all originated from seed that we saved some years ago on a holiday in the Netherlands. These days I know better than to bring random seed in from abroad. I don’t think we seriously thought they would grow but grow they did and, with some careful management, we have managed to break the biennial cycle to ensure we get some in flower every year.

VIOLET – more purple if I’m honest!

And finally, to end on a very spring notes of tulips again. Part of a mixed pack of purple, purple tinged with white and pure white, these have been adding a wonderful splash of colour to the patio over the past two weeks and, most importantly, appear to have defied our cat’s attempts to eat them!

On a weekend when I lost a fellow Gilbert and Sullivan fan to Covid-19, these are my “Flower that bloom in the spring, tra la!” And which make up my tribute to our hard-working, dedicated NHS staff.


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Peat Free April

Last year I wrote about Cool Compost, by which I meant either the home-made stuff or environmentally friendly organic and peat-free compost. Shortly after I became aware that April 2020 was being championed as ‘Peat-Free April‘, a campaign which very much echoes the concerns I raised last year. We are entering the peak gardening season, when even those who just tinker about their plot or balcony once in a blue moon, head out to the garden centres, DIY stores and supermarkets in search of a bag of what we glibly refer to as ‘compost’. Chances are the first bag they reach will be boasting some special offer and behind all the marketing the word ‘peat’ is likely to be hidden … or may be not! Last year I got very annoyed by the signs in one local garden centre proudly proclaiming a product to be 100% peat! So why does this matter?

Spring in a pot or two! (C) Elizabeth Malone

The UK’s peat bogs provide unique wildlife habitats but they also act as a carbon sink. Digging up the peat bogs releases tons of carbon dioxide into the earth’s atmosphere which directly contributes to climate change. As a result, DEFRA encouraged a voluntary ban on peat-based products available to amateur gardeners that was supposed to see peat all but phased out by 2020. In truth, very little has happened.

Happy peat-free violas and iris (c) Elizabeth Malone

This Lent the church is encouraging us to think about our impact on the planet. Going peat-free can be a part of that commitment and, I would suggest, is easier than becoming a vegan or removing plastic from your everyday life! Not that I’m suggesting that you shouldn’t do either of those things if you feel so inclined, it’s just that to go peat-free, all you have to do is read a label and buy the correct product!

Peat-free seedlings (c) Elizabeth Malone

The Peat-Free-April campaign is urging all of us to put pressure on our local garden centres to remove peat products from sale. Living in this part of west London, I imagine many of you will visit Squires Garden Centres. Squires state that, “Our policy is to stock a range of peat-free and peat reduced composts.” They go on to say that they, “actively promote these products in our Beautiful Gardens Magazine.” At least Squires publish their Sustainability policy. Our other local garden centre, Adrian Hall’s, are silent on the topic which is a shame as, to my knowledge, they have stocked peat-free composts for many years and now have a choice of products available.

But what about the plants you buy in the garden centre, what are they growing in? The chances are the answer is a compost containing peat but change is afoot, Suttons Seeds have announced that they have removed peat from their production this year and are even holding tours of their facilities as part of the Peat-Free April campaign. When a large company such as this takes the lead, you do hope that others will follow.

Gardening organisations and the gardening press all advocate peat-free growing and provide plenty of advice on sustainable alternatives. I’m no expert and I’ve never carried out peat versus non-peat comparisons but I seem to be able to get decent germination of seeds using peat-free compost, my pots look pretty happy and my inability to establish cuttings, well that’s just me needing more practice!

French bean seedlings (c) Elizabeth Malone

Last year when I wrote about Cool Compost, a friend went to her local supermarket and decided to pick up a bag of compost whilst she was there. I received an email later to say that she did pause to read the label and she was thrilled to see that the bag said peat-free. So that’s one convert! Hopefully this year there will be more! As to the photos in this blog, they are just a random selection of things from my garden that are growing peat-free.

Pulsatillas – the Pasqueflower (c) Elizabeth Malone


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Planting on the wild side

In this second Outside the Back Door focusing on the climate crisis, I’m going to think about what we mean by wildlife gardening and the small things we can do to help wildlife in our local area.  This is a huge topic so, as spring is approaching, I’m going to start with planting for wildlife.

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Moth or butterfly?  (c) John Malone

There was a time when the term ’wildlife gardening’ was often laughed at as an excuse not to do anything and just let your plot get on and do its own thing, ie. just become its own little jungle.  As the contribution of gardens towards the environment has become more valued, so wildlife gardening has become more recognised as something that isn’t a jungle or neglected space.  An effective wildlife garden is one that is carefully crafted to ensure a range of different species are both protected and encouraged.

Planting for wildlife is something we can all do on any scale, whether we’re talking acres or just a pot outside the back door.  For example, I personally dislike frilly, double flowers and, as it turns out, this is a good thing for wildlife.  Bees and butterflies simply can’t get at the nectar hidden in double-flowered varieties and many have been so carefully bred that they are very low in nectar anyhow.  What butterflies and bees really enjoy are nice wide-open flowers that make their lives easier, things like echinacea or dahlias, both of which will grow happily in a pot if you don’t have the space for a border.  So if nothing else this spring, make a pledge to plant single rather than double-flowered plants.

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Peacock butterfly on echinacea (c) John Malone

Bees are happier to work a bit harder for their food but also are designed to delve into flowers in the way that butterflies are not.  So bees are equally in their element crawling deep into flowers such as foxgloves and penstemons.  I like foxgloves but I’m worried about them being poisonous to cats, especially as Roly (our brown tabby) has a nasty habit of eating plants!  However, last year I couldn’t resist sowing some of the free seeds that came with Gardeners’ World Magazine but I have planted the seedlings down the far end of our garden where Roly doesn’t venture.  So I hope he’ll be safe whilst I and the bees get to enjoy some apricot coloured flowers.

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RolyPoly the plant eating terror!  (c) Elizabeth Malone

Planting for wildlife also needs to be an all-year-round.  As our winters are becoming milder, we are seeing an increasing number of bees in our garden in the depths of December and January so growing winter flowering plants that can sustain them over this period is equally important.  Our winter flowering honeysuckle has been our best investment in this respect.  It smells wonderful, looks wonderful, the bees love it and, to our surprise, it also reproduces very easily!  We discovered that it had layered itself and so we now have a second bush down the far end of our garden.  A few friends have expressed interest so we’re layering this one again to produce a few more plants to share around.

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Bee on winter honeysuckle (c) John Malone

Hellebores are another winter favourite with the bees, both the Christmas and Lenten rose varieties.  We have two beautiful Christmas roses (thank you to Sandra for one!) and dozens, or is that hundreds, of the Lenten variety as so many have self-seeded.  I love turning up the flower heads to see whether they are plain or speckled.  Other winter flowing plants favoured by bees include clematis and viburnum which bridge that gap before the bulbs start coming into their own.

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Bees will sneak under the drooping heads (c) John Malone

I’ve not yet mentioned ivy.  I recall my grandmother hating ivy, regarding it as a weed that was out to do evil such as destroy the brickwork!  However, ivy is one of the most valuable plants for wildlife.  Bees both feed on it and live in it, as do moths and butterflies, and birds of course.  I confess that I haven’t always been enamoured of ivy but I’ve come to appreciate it more recently, becoming aware of just how alive it is.

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Ivy (c) Elizabeth Malone

When thinking about what to plant to encourage wildlife, it’s very easy to forget about fruit and vegetables.  It probably sounds blindingly obvious now that I’ve written that as we all know that we need bees and insects to pollinate our crops.  That said, I am the first to acknowledge that we planted raspberry canes for fruit and not for the entertainment of the local bee population!  The bees, however, absolutely adore the raspberries, and the strawberries.  The plants can literally be buzzing all summer long.

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Bee on raspberry flower (c) John Malone

The other essential of a wildlife garden is some form of water, whether it be a pond or simple bird bath.  You can’t, however, plant up a bird bath in the way you can a pond!  Whilst pond plants provide shade for frogs and newts, they also act as a launchpad into life for dragonflies and damselflies who emerge from the water, shed their outer skins and then perch in the sunshine drying off their newly found wings before taking flight.

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Recently emergent dragonfly waiting to take off (c) John Malone

Now that it’s March, the garden centres are gearing up for their busiest time of year.  So why not head out there and start acquiring some really wildlife friendly plants?  Here’s a quick shopping list for you:  alliums, geranium, cotoneaster, cornflower, lavender … I could go on but probably easier to either go to the RHS website and download their comprehensive list or simply look out for the ‘Perfect for Polinators’ logo on any plants you buy.

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Echinops – loved by bees! (c) John Malone


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Doing our bit

“Responding to climate change is an essential part of our responsibility to safeguard God’s creation.”   Justin Welby, Archbishop of Canterbury

On New Year’s Eve I posted on Facebook that I could hardly believe it was twenty years since we’d all sat around waiting for the Millennium Bug apocalypse to happen.  Looking back we can laugh but, as some friends reminded me, lots of people worked hard to prevent that crisis from happening.

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Remember this?!

As we enter the new ‘roaring twenties’ a different and very real crisis is looming, one which needs all of us to tackle, not just a selection of experts or people with the right skills – the climate crisis.  Unlike the Millennium Bug it doesn’t have a set date by which we need to act which means that it’s very easy for anyone from government and heads of state down to individuals to think that they don’t need to do anything just yet, that they can put off change until tomorrow or next year.  The appalling fires in Australia last month were a stark reminder that we cannot do this.

Outside the Back Door began as a monthly article for my church magazine and this year I’ve therefore decided to focus each Outside the Back Door in the ten issues of the magazine on a different aspect of the environment to highlight what we as individuals can do in our own spaces.  Online I may post some other stuff in between but in the blog that ties in with the magazine, I’m targeting ten articles that will each highlight an environmental concern and try to think about ways we can act as individuals to do our bit.

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Azalea in flower in our Vicarage garden Christmas 2019 (c) Elizabeth Malone

As it happens, gardens and churchyards have a lot in common. It is becoming increasingly clear that our local green spaces have a very important role to play in reducing pollution and maintaining a diverse habitat for wildlife but if we’re not careful, our actions as gardeners in wanting to improve these spaces can also have a negative impact on the planet – think of all those plastic plant pots, trays and labels we use or the amount of peat still being used in the horticultural industry.

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Focusing on gardens, the Royal Horticultural Society (RHS) has been running its Greening Grey Britain campaign for a couple of years now, encouraging members and non-members alike to get planting in whatever small way.  During its research for this campaign, the RHS discovered that between its own gardens and its members’ gardens, over 22 million plants were added to gardens each year!  That’s an astonishing number of trips to the garden centre!  They also discovered that 77% of its members were actively seeking to establish plants that were good for encouraging bee populations and other pollinators.  There are lots of bergenia (Elephant’s Ears) around our church which are great for attracting over-wintering bees.

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Bergenia coming into flower (c) Elizabeth Malone

Gardens are good for our planet but so are our churchyards and church grounds.  We often worry about the state of our church grounds and there’s no denying that litter is a problem.  That in itself can provoke another whole climate debate – if there were less packaging on things, there would be less litter about the place!  Between the church grounds and vicarage, we currently have a great deal of open space to maintain and, as a small congregation, we are grateful to those who are finding time to keep things cut back and under control.  However, we should also remind ourselves that gardens and grounds can be too tidy!  It’s often surprising on a Sunday morning just how much birdsong can be heard around the church (above the noise of the aircraft coming into land at Heathrow!) and those birds need food.  Our trees, grass, borders and slightly untidy spaces to the rear of the church will all be providing abundant insects to feed on.  Walk along the side of our church to this door and look at the ivy creeping up it.  Ivy is an incredibly valuable plant for birds and insects.  So we can trim, but with care!

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St Stephen’s, Hounslow (c) Elizabeth Malone

In 2020, perhaps we should take a new look at what our church grounds can provide?  An easy, wildlife friendly thing we could add would be a small ‘pond’.  I’ve deliberately put that in inverted commas as it could be something as simple as an old washing up bowl sunk into the ground which would provide a valuable source of water for birds, foxes and any small amphibians that may be in the locality.

Next time I’m going to focus on what we can be planting to encourage wildlife.

“Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful committed citizens can change the world.  Indeed it is the only thing that ever has.”  Margaret Mead, Anthropologist


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Last leaf’s fall

I’ve been looking through a lot of Advent themed poetry over the past weeks in preparation for our Advent service at church and I’ve been struck by the number of poems that draw on fallen leaves as a means of illustrating the bleakness of this season.

“He will come like last leaf’s fall.

One night when the November wind

Has flayed the trees to bone.”

Rowan Williams

The difference between November and December in the garden and in our parks is striking. Although I tend to think of October as the best time for leaf colour, it is November when we see the most dramatic colours, usually just before they fall, and then by December all we are left with are the bare bones of the branches.

Local trees on the way to work (c) Elizabeth Malone

In our garden, November brought some unexpected gems of colour on plants that are perhaps not normally known as providers of autumn glow. The leaves on our strawberries in pots on the patio turned a glorious strawberry jam red – how appropriate!

Strawberry leaves (c) Elizabeth Malone

Some of our blueberries also produce amazing leaf colour, a real added bonus.

Blueberry in autumn (c) John Malone

Two shrubs, in particular, provide us with a more predictable technicolour display – berberis and continus. Cotinus, often known as the smoke bush due to its clouds of small dusky flowers, is a plant that loves to play with the light. On a summer’s evening I like trying to capture the colour of the rays shining through the dark red leaves but in the autumn the leaves seem to glow in their own right as they morph steadily from a red wine colour through to burnt orange before falling. They are also a brilliant leaf for capturing raindrops and, let’s face it, this autumn has certainly provided us with a lot of that!

Cotinus leaves after rain (c) Elizabeth Malone

Berberis is a plant that puts up a fight. I remember us having one in the garden when I was growing up and my parents eventually got rid of it as they grew tired of being scratched by its spiky thorns every time they walked down the garden! We have two which are planted in what are mostly safe places. One under the hawthorn tree and the other at the back of the border. This particular plant is of a columnar form and I seem to recall its label describing it as a pillar of fire in the autumn. I’m pleased to say that it does generally live up to this reputation.

Berberis (c) John Malone

The star of the autumn show this year has been our cherry, Prunus Kojo-no-mai, which we bought in a sale in the spring as it had already finished flowering. We were looking for something to fill a large pot in the front garden in due course so saw this as an investment for the future. I mentioned recently that we rather miss our large cherry tree both for its frothy spring blossom and its cherry red autumn leaves, and so this was a small replacement. We weren’t thinking about autumn colour when we bought it back in April and as we entered October it didn’t look as if it was going to do much. How wrong we were as November brought along a spectacular fiery display!

Prunus ‘Kojo-no-mai’ (c) John Malone

Some of our autumn colour is more hidden away. Our Virginia creeper climber, which we brought here as a cutting from our first garden almost exactly twenty years ago, adorns the back of our shed. It changes colour quite suddenly and will drop its leaves in an instant so you have to be quite quick to catch its display of yellow. Whilst it does a great job of covering the back of the shed, it’s always been a slightly irritating plant as it drops its leaves first and their stalks second. This means going round the garden picking up stalks one by one – very time consuming! Within days, all that is left is a skeletal framework of stems waiting for the small pink pip-like buds to appear, signalling that spring is on the horizon.

Virgina creeper mid-October (c) Elizabeth Malone

Christmas, however, is a time to take advantage of the skeletal forms of trees and plants. Acers are normally known for their vivid autumn colour but ours, another plant inherited from my mum, has pale green and cream leaves which have a pink tinge all year round and don’t put on a spectacular autumn display. This year the first frost caused them to drop almost overnight but what is left behind is a structure of almost silver branches which are just perfect for adorning with Christmas baubles!

Acer ready for Christmas (c) Elizabeth Malone

We are also careful not to prune back our black elder too early. Sambucus Nigeria ‘Black lace’ looks quite innocent in a garden centre but it can grow up to three metres high. The RHS recommend pollarding it back, potentially even to ground level in the spring although we’ve never been quite that brave. We do cut ours back quite drastically as it seems to get leggy and misshapen. However, when the leaves first fall, and that’s often not until quite near the end of November, we try to shape the plant a little and then it provides the perfect support for an array of Christmas lights. It’s just at the base of the patio and so provides a perfect seasonal glow through the really dark days of December.

November sunrise (c) Elizabeth Malone

“Spirit of place. Spirit of time. Reform

The rugged oaks and chestnuts. Now they stand

Make and pallid giants out of storm

And out of sorts. It is the autumn’s end.” Elizabeth Jennings.


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Autumn’s gold

I confess that I find the autumn garden a confusing place.  When the calendar is flipped over to September, with any luck your borders will still be lush, bursting with colour and the air is still warm but head into November and it’s a damp, grey and increasingly cold story – the opposite ends of the season could not be more different.

 

The heart of the border (c) John Malone

Depending on when the first frost decides to make an appearance, the border can suddenly be transformed in a matter of days from high summer glory to a mush of brown, a sorry reminder that winter is just around the corner.  I am always thrilled when the border does still look good in September.  This year it did and also continued well into October but I can honestly say that it’s taken years of practice!  There’s no denying that I’m naturally drawn to spring plants and my love of the colour purple, bar the Michaelmas daisy, is a colour of the spring and summer garden whereas autumn says reds, oranges and gold.

 

Aster Cotswold Gem (c) Elizabeth Malone

The most vibrant gold in the garden this autumn has been the resurgence of a rudbeckia which I thought had gone away.  I planted it about five years ago but after year two it vanished.  Last year it reappeared very late in the season and produced about six flowers.  To my astonishment, this year it has grown steadily throughout the summer and in August began to reward us with a stunning display of hundreds of deep sunshine yellow flowers which have continued well into autumn.  This rudbeckia has definitely been my ‘autumn gold’.

 

Rudbeckia (c) John Malone

Our grasses provide a more subtle gold with their slowly bleaching stems and fronds as autumn progresses.  Stipa Tenuissima provides a swathe of gold in early autumn but as winter approaches it is almost white.  And to go with our precious metal, our fabulous ruby red Panicum has been looking particularly splendid this autumn.  The leaves look fantastic backlit by the sun but the flowers are almost black in colour.  I know that grasses are often perceived as rather trendy but I wouldn’t be without them as there are so many different colours and shapes and they are also often very tactile.

 

Stipa and panicum surround the pond (c) Elizabeth Malone

Thinking ahead to next autumn we need more gold, that is, in the way of oranges and yellows.  Our ‘hot’ border seems to have become very dark red, again almost black, as a couple of giant Obsidian dahlias have taken over.  I’ve taken some cuttings of a yellow Honka dahlia in the hopes of injecting more lighter, brighter contrasting flowers.  Something with a good depth of orange would also be good.

Yellow ‘Honka’ dahlia (c) John Malone

Another lesson to be learnt this year is that the late summer / autumn border is much, much taller than the spring / summer border!  This has been accentuated by my very late developing cosmos which failed to flower before September (I expected them to flower in July!) and which shot up to over seven feet tall!  In mid-October they were looking fabulous but it was hard to find some of the lower growing spring plants beneath these giants to check on their health.  When September decided to deliver its month’s rainfall in just a day or two, all these tall plants were bending under the weight of water.  Some emergency staking brought them back upright but now the wind seems to have become stronger.  I get the sense that we are battling the elements as we try to cling on to summer.

 

Cosmos – taller than the fence! (C). John Malone

Our September break to the Netherlands gave us sight of a really interesting ‘brown’ autumn border.  On an extremely wet day in the seaside town of Katwijk-en-See I was really taken with the planting outside the church.  In many respects it was classic Dutch ‘Piet Oudolf’ prairie-style planting in drifts involving grasses and lots of interesting sedums and seed heads.  Sodden with rain, the plants all looked a deeper colour than they would have done in the sunshine.  It was a very clever way of easing the passer-by into autumn rather than pretending that it was still summer.

 

Katwijk-en-See (c) Elizabeth Malone

Since our return from holiday, the garden mostly seems to have been drenched.  October has been nothing if not consistent – when did you last leave church on a Sunday morning in the dry?!  For now the leaves remain on the trees, but for how much longer?  The first really nippy morning brought a pool of gold leaves down to circle each tree I pass on the way to the station of a morning.  Soon there will be piles of leaves to be cleared from the lawn.  I really miss our cherry tree which used to produce glorious red autumn leaves.  Many of our leaves come from our lilacs and they tend to just turn brown and die.  Our neighbour’s magnolia isn’t a lot better.  Both are, of course, really useful for creating leaf mould as they do turn to mulch quite quickly.  For our autumn gold, we must keep our fingers crossed for the birch which should provide us with a lovely golden glow, often against stormy leaden skies.

Golden autumn sunrise (c) John Malone

Nature’s first green is gold,

Her hardest hue to hold. …

So dawn goes down to day,

Nothing gold can stay.

“Nothing gold can stay” by Robert Frost