Outside the Backdoor

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


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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!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 


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Tulip temptation

Another dry spring appears to have produced an especially vibrant performance of early tulips.  However, a recent visit to RHS Wisley reminded me that my offerings on the tulip front are a little mediocre!

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I have often been frustrated by tulips and their rather temporary nature – here one year, gone the next.  I dislike fishing them out of a pot after flowering only to discover that they have split into several bulblets and it’s hard to know what is worth keeping for the following year.  I guess that’s partly my own fault for only planting them in pots as, once they are over, I’m ready to move on to the next season’s planting.

That said, over the past couple of autumns, I have deliberately planted more tulips to bridge the gap from the daffodils going over and the summer border coming to life and this year I have been more than pleased with the results.  Having seen it recommended in many a gardening magazine, programme and blog, I planted up two bulb lasagnes – tulips deep do33125101583_d93754c8d7_mwn, miniature daffodils in the middle, and iris reticulata for the top early layer.
One of these pots I kept simple and only planted the bulbs, covering the top with an old upside down hanging basket in an attempt to stop the squirrels re-planting the bulbs elsewhere!  As I glance outside the backdoor, this particular pot is just coming to its end with the final flourish of fiery orange and red tulips glowing in the sunlight.

I was more ambitious with the second ‘lasagne’ as it was going into a particularly large, deep pot which meant I felt that I could get away with an additional winter layer comprised of wintering flowering violas and some variegated trailing ivies.  Having read the recommendation to plant variegated ivy to brighten dark areas, I delibe33245472505_36b083b149_mrately chose a variety with white / silvery edges which shone through the winter and which I intend to plant out at some point down the far end of the garden where it is incredibly shady and ivy is one of the few things that grows successfully.  My thought is that I can at least brighten up this area with the paler leaves.  The bulb leaves are now starting to die back and I am wondering whether I can carefully over-plant something for the summer without disturbing the bulbs beneath?

I have never really planted tulips in the border as I’ve always read that they don’t really come back and you need to replant every year.  However, I’ve noticed that my neighbour’s red tulips return to his border faithfully every year; and next-door-but-one threw in loads of red and orange tulips about three years ago and they have come back successfully.  So last year I decided to ignore th33746156701_86d7f26e95_m.jpge advice and attempt to naturalise some tulips in the border and, in particular, some rather stunning purple tulips which had  flowered at the same time as the bluebells.  I could see that they would make a fantastic combination so, instead of leaving them in the pot or lifting them to dry and then be lost at the back of the shed, I decided to transplant them to an area of border directly behind a huge clump of bluebells.  To my amazement they have returned this year with some vigour but, guess what?  They have flowered at a different time to the bluebells!  I guess you can’t win them all!


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All of a flutter

This month I am simply spoilt for choice in terms of topics to write about, such is the fullness and speed at which the garden develops in April and May, and especially this year in the amazing weather we have been experiencing.  Even as I type, the aroma of the first barbecues of the season is just reaching me and it is only April!

Since last month, we have been really busy.  The pergola is complete but I could move on to tell you about the new border which began to emerge during our week off work at the end of March, equally I could eulogise about the tulips that have been really spectacular this year, or I could tell you about the wonderful butterflies that have been entertaining us over the past sunny weeks.
I have decided to plump for the butterflies.  Last weekend, in less than an hour, we observed no less than seven different species fluttering around the garden.  It began with a Comma, a r33133577124_c0dea7542d_zegular visitor that appears early each Spring and loves to sun itself on the pergola.  The change in pergola has made no difference, the Comma butterflies (and there were at least two of them) still love the flat wood surface for taking a rest.  Having said that, they seem to be the butterfly less intimidated by human beings as I have often been landed on!

33592175560_38c3dbe2ec_zThis end of the garden seems equally popular with Red Admirals and at one point last weekend we had two Commas and two Red Admirals performing an elaborate quadrille in the sky.  The Red Admirals also seem particularly drawn to the pond and frequently rest on the marsh marigolds, I assume to sun themselves but may be to take nectar?

33125055743_5347f32300_mMost of our butterflies arrive in pairs or more but the Speckled Wood seems to be rather a loner.  Almost always to be found on the Choisya or occasionally on Lilac leaves, I have only ever seen one at a time and they also seem quite shy, never staying still long enough for a photograph.

The Holly Blues are probably the most numerous but also the smallest of the butterflies we see each year.  They have also got the year off to a prolific start as we saw at least four.  As their name suggests, they are drawn to the holly bushes but they do seem to spread their territory right across the garden and are as likely to be seen up near the house as they are in the depths of the border.

I will confess to finding white butterflies hard to identify.  Unless they are side by side, how do you tell a small white apart from a large white?  However, last weekend I definitely saw a Small White – it was really small and delicate!  In fact, I’m not sure that we actually saw a Large White, the wonderfully named Pieris Brassicae – brassicas equal members of the cabbage family – yes, this is the Cabbage White!

Another white butterfly that we saw and which is absolutely delightful is the Orange Tip.  Easy to identify as its name suggests, a couple very obligingly stayed still on a leaf long enough for us to observe the dark spot within each orange patch on the wing tips.

So that’s six species, or potentially seven, and that’s without mentioning the Brimstone that has been a regular visitor since the first sunny days of Spring.  Rather confusingly, there is a Brimstone moth as well as a Brimstone butterfly and, according to my trusty butterfly book, they look awfully similar!  However, I am pretty convinced we are seeing the butterfly as it has a fresher, pale yellowy green colour.

All of this might sound like I know what I’m talking about when it comes to identifying butterflies but, to be honest, I don’t and I find it really difficult!  I signed up for a butterfly count a few years ago and spent a silly amount of time trying to navigate the Collins Wild Guide to Butterflies and Moths – it was incredibly difficult.  I concluded that the bee count was much easier!  Apart from the Peacock butterfly, I think it would be true to say that we have seen every butterfly that I am actually capable of recognising and naming over the past week!  So if you see any more butterflies around the area, please don’t ask me any difficult questions about them.

Seeing so many species of butterfly in the garden has been very rewarding.  Apart from the occasional very careful limited sprinkling of so-called environmentally friendly slug pellets, we have not put any chemicals on our garden for at least fifteen years.  I can’t help thinking that this may be one of the reasons we are now such a butterfly-friendly garden.  We have also made a conscious effort to purchase plants that are either bee and/or butterfly friendly – the two often go together.  However, I tend to assume this is more related to summer flowering plants than the Spring bulbs but clearly nature thinks differently.  Either way, they are all a very welcome sight on a warm, sunny afternoon.


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Spring – a time of renewal

Throughout 2016 we kept promising ourselves that we must do x or y – decorate the hall and stairs and spare bedroom and replace the carpet, decorate the lounge / dining room, replace the leaning garden pergola, renew the fence down the far end and dig a new flower border.  I can’t explain it, but none of this got done – 2016 just seemed to fly by in a flash!  So we approached 2017 with a very long list of things to do both indoors and outside the backdoor and, so far, I’m pleased to say that we are really motoring through that list and, now that Spring is here, the tasks outside the backdoor are either being or are about to be tackled.

The pergola was erected in our garden by the previous owners who were keen to tell us that it was positioned to catch the last of the evening sun which they clearly thought was a major selli9013535219_f07946fce7_mng point.  The fact that this was on a cold, dark February evening meant that it didn’t really mean much to us at the time.  We may never have thought to build a pergola ourselves but it is an attractive feature and we have consequently planned things around it.  For example, the pond was deliberately sited adjacent to it so that you can sit and look over the water, watching the various insects darting around.  We have also planted a selection of things to scramble over it – a rather lovely white climbing rose and a pink clematis alpina.  The hard lines of the wood have been softened over the years by the lilac growing around it and the ivy entwining itself.

This all sounds 31937101185_5b9443dd71_mvery idyllic but about two years ago the pergola began to lean.  Almost unperceptively at first, but by last autumn it was probably a good thirty-degree angle!  The horizontal wooden struts were also rotten.  The cats love climbing up the pergola but we were beginning to fear for their safety.  Norwegian Forest cats are not lightweights and 6.5 kilos of Bryggen or Roly was beginning to look rather precarious!  So what to do?

As with any project ‘do nothing’ was an option but we quickly ruled that out.  Do away with the pergola altogether was another possibility but that would have left us with a well-established rose with nowhere to climb.  We also quite liked the fact that the cats could climb up it to get a better view or to sunbathe in the corner.  So early in the new year we started exploring the options available to us.

As with so many things these days, you can have just about any size, shape or material you want if you’re prepared to pay for someone to design it for you.  However, once you start looking for relatively simple and cost-effective solutions, the options quickly narrow down.  Whilst there might be hundreds of suppliers of garden pergolas on the internet, many of them offer exactly the same products and, after about an hour of searching, you begin to realise that you are seeing the same thing over and over again.  In the end we decided to be extremely boring and to order exactly the same pergola kit as before.  We agreed that if the new one lasted as long as the old one, we would be perfectly happy and 32976296360_3c3f6b8996_mslotting this in would mean relatively little disturbance as far as the plants were concerned.  The only thing we really wanted to change was underfoot – to banish the decking!  Not only was the wooden decking now rotting away but in the winter it can become very slippery.  So we’ve asked the builder to supply some stones to match our other garden paving.  As I write, these are on order so the pergola is sitting there looking very new but not quite finished.

33358831385_93db446288_mHaving got the ball rolling, we’ve also had the fence at the far end replaced.  This separates us from railway land and goodness knows what in the way of wildlife!  We have chosen concrete gravel boards as means of trying to prevent fox damage but we are already taking bets on how long it will be before a fox takes a chunk out of the fence!

From our long ‘to do’ list, this leaves us with ‘dig a new border’ yet to be tackled.  At present we cram all our flowering planting into one section of the garden and beyond that we have a bank of greenery for most of the year.  The choisya flowers in the spring and that sits next to an acuba which provides some bright lime green variation in leaf colour and then a lot of green lilac.  My plan is to dig out in front of this and use it as a backdrop to some late summer colour.  The area is very sunny and I think the hot colours will work here.  It is also in direct view from the house so will have visual impact.  I already have a few plants stashed away in pots ready to plant out here so all we have to do now is start digging before the ground begins to harden. You know how we’ll be spending our Easter bank holiday weekend!