Outside the Backdoor

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


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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!


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Hellebore heaven

Have I talked to you about hellebores?  Well even if I have, I think they’re worth mentioning again, particularly right now when the garden is positively brimming with them!

31773987601_cdb90c80a5_zI find it intriguing that hellebores are so closely linked to the Christian year.  At Christmas 2015 I was given a beautiful white ‘Christmas rose’.  My previous experience of this particular type of hellebore was that they are somewhat challenging.  The only one I’d owned before had flatly refused to flower at Christmas and, in fact, one year produced one single brilliant flower in August!  After a few years of limping along with the occasional odd flower, it vanished!  So having been given a rather splendid specimen, I treated it very gingerly throughout last summer and was thrilled to see it come back into flower just before Christmas.  It has been flowering constantly ever since and has just recently produced a further two pure white blooms.

However, it is the ‘Lenten rose’ that is dominating the garden right now.  By the way, I should add that neither are actually ‘roses’ apparently!  It could be as much as fifteen years since we purchased our first helleborus niger.  We had been inspired by a Spring pot being planted up on Gardeners’ World and went out to search for a dark purple plant.  A year or so on and we began to realise just how many tiny seedlings were being produced from this plant each year.  We potted some up carefully and weeded others out.  We eventually began to plant up the far end of the garden with the ones that had matured into flowering.  Of course these then went on to self-seed too … what more do I need to say?!

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Spurred on by our success, we purchased a larger plant of the more traditional cream with 33245189795_4d04b25ed1_zburgundy freckles variety.  This eventually outgrew its pot and, along with its offspring, it to moved to the far end of the garden.  Now we occasionally refer to this as the ‘woodland garden’ which is a rather grandiose title for the triangle beyond the cat fence which is extremely shady as it is dominated by our cherry plum tree, a large holly beyond the fence and a self-set sycamore which Network Rail refuses to chop down.  Of course this makes the perfect conditions for hellebores which perform the classic woodland cycle of coming into flower and doing their stuff before the leaf canopy fills in above.  Consequently they have multiplied in their thousands!  Every year we pull out hundreds and hundreds of tiny seedlings, sifting through to see which ones look strong enough to leave or are placed co33203518586_00a6477a19_znveniently to fill a gap.

About five years ago, we bought a tray of pale pink hellebores and these have now started crossing with the others.  So we are seeing some intriguing hybrids combing various shades of pink, purple and cream.  Whilst they are very beautiful, they are also very frustrating in the way that they hang their heads so that you have to bend over and lift the flower to see their full glory … which is exactly what I did last weekend to collect the photos on this page!  It was a true delight to discover what lay beneath.

 


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Awaiting the arrival of Spring

Only last weekend I could feel the anticipation of Spring really being on its way but today, as I type, it is dark and grey.  There is a constant stream of heavy drizzle and it is cold and windy.  Only yesterday I dug my woolley hat back out of the drawer.

February is traditionally a gloomy month but just occasionally it teases with glimpses of something better to come … just around the corner. Last Sunday I saw the first daffodils in flower as I drove to church.  When I returned to do the ironing, I was distracted by the sight of a pair of magpies starting to build their nest.  Interestingly they were attacking one of the squirrel dreys that I wrote about last month, clearly viewing it as an easy target.  Time and time again they visited to wrestle already prepared twigs from between the branches and then flew off to wherever their construction site is located.  Today there is no sign of them.

Outside the backdoor it’s not entirely bleak.  There are splashes of colour and flower to 33066815126_be63a70312_mcheer both sight and smell.  Next to the patio, the winter flowering honeysuckle is now covered in sweet scented blooms and its lemony fragrance wafts into the house provided, of course, you are brave enough to open the door and let in the cold wintery air!  Various winter flowering clematis are covered in bells, some flushed with burgundy, others creamy white.  When the sun has deigned to come out, these have been a magnet for bees.  In the border the viburnum is sporting rosy clusters of pink blossom which is complemented by the pinky shades of tiny long-tailed tits who are flitting around the fat balls hanging in the nearby cherry.  The viburnum would also smell nice if I donned my gardening boots and fleece and trekked across the muddy grass to give it a sniff. However, the outdoors could not look less enticing right now!

32293206243_3ed1b9c0d2_mPlants generally start growing when the temperature reaches about 5o centigrade, which is why I am surprised to see that my bulbs have definitely grown this week.  The pot of miniature iris reticulata have suddenly burst into flower!  I can also now see just how much the squirrel disturbed them as they are now all on one side of the pot!  There are signs of crocus beneath the hawthorn but they are being shy in the gloom.  Earlier in the week they were open.

33108784985_fe47a4f020_mElsewhere daffodil leaves are forcing their way upwards.  At this point my daffodils always look healthy and robust but, rather annoyingly, when they come to flower, I often discover that the bulbs have been eaten by something and I only get half a ragged trumpet!

Gardening emails are now exhorting us keen gardeners to get ready for Spring and Summer.  It’s time to be pruning and, more importantly, to be sowing.  The thought, however, of standing outside with compost and seed trays in the drizzle does not appeal!  But if I am to have any crops this year, it’s time to think seriously about what they might be and at least to buy some fresh seed packets.  Tomatoes, which will come indoors to germinate, need to be sown by the middle of March at the latest.  At least by then I am hoping that they can sit in their usual place in the study which, due to decorating and new carpet, has been piled high for the past few weeks with the contents of various cupboards and shelves.  Seed potatoes also need to be bought and chitting started – that odd process of leaving them somewhere in the light and cool (but not freezing!) to generate the long purple shoots that eventually help them to produce the crop.  At some point we need to brave it outside the backdoor to a garden centre to gain some inspiration and get all of this underway.

Right now  I feel more like hibernating.  Even Bryggen, the most outdoorsy of our cats, has come skidding back into the house, slipping on a wet patio as he cornered too quickly!  Finna, the heat-seeker, is curled up on top of the hot water tank, echoing what most of us probably feel like doing now!


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Seeking help and advice

“Garden’s looking a bit past it now.  Do I just cut everything down?  And what do I do with a hydrangea?  Gardening people, answers please!”  

This was a Facebook post by a former colleague of mine just before Christmas which made me think about how we gather information and expertise these days about what to do in our gardens.  I have a core set of gardening books that I always used to rely on but increasingly I’m aware of how rarely I actually take them off the shelf.  If I want to know what something is, when or how to prune, when best to sow or whether something will survive in an obscure corner of the garden, I tend to turn to the internet and ‘google’ it.  And when I do, I am overwhelmed by the extensive range of information and advice from recognised experts, such as the specialists at the RHS and all the main plant and seed companies, but I can also find individual’s experiences of growing particular plants, what worked for them and what they’d suggest avoiding.

The range of online gardening information is growing on a daily basis.  Exploring a different aspect of this I recently signed up to follow some gardening blogs – online diaries where people share their experiences.  Ironically one of the first blog posts I read focused on gardening books and which people still found useful!  Another is called ‘The Middle Sized Garden‘ which I thought was a great title and, as far as I can tell, the writer really does garden in a ‘middle sized garden’, unlike the author of a book entitled ‘Small Gardens’ that I bought some years ago when we lived in our previous house.  Clearly he and I had a different idea of what a ‘small’ garden is.  He wrote about landscaping and creating vistas whereas we didn’t even have room for a rotary dryer to turn without skimming the walls or hedge!

Technology is even transforming my most regular form of gardening inspiration – Gardeners’ World Magazine.  As well as a weekly email newsletter that I receive in addition to my printed magazine subscription (of course it’s also available as an e-magazine), I’m encouraged to follow them on Facebook, Twitter and Pinterest.

However, what I found interesting about my friend’s Facebook post was that, as a relative newcomer to gardening, she didn’t want to trawl pages of information in the hopes of finding the right answer, so instead she decided to appeal for pointers in the right direction from her friends who have already done stuff outside their own backdoors.  Gathering information in this way is a form of what is known as ‘crowd-sourcing’ (crowd-funding being when you ask lots of people to chip in to pay for something).  As a newbie gardener her approach worked well as she had a range of friends reply within minutes with a quick summary of what she should or shouldn’t do.  Mostly the advice was leave it all Image result for stocks flowersuntil February – and leave that hydrangea even longer!

Interestingly she wasn’t the first of my friends to use Facebook to assist with gardening conundrums.  On a number of occasions now I’ve seen photographs posted of mystery plants seeking identification.  It’s surprisingly difficult to identify something from a photo.  Last year I became embroiled in an online debate between colleagues as to whether a tall pink flower was a delphinium or a stock!  Believe you me, they can look surprisingly alike out of context!

Gardening is, of course, a very visual pastime as well as being a physical thing, which means it lends itself to all sorts of print and electronic options to engage you in preparing, sowing, planting, pruning and, sadly the one that never goes away, weeding.  So despite the wealth of websites, blogs and emails seeking to inspire me on this very cold evening, I’m going to dig out the colourful print seed catalogues that arrived over Christmas and start planning some summer colour because if I don’t get my act together soon, it’s going to be very dull and unproductive outside our backdoor in 2017!

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Friend or foe?

Image result for grey squirrel gardenSo this has turned out to be a rather topical Outside the Backdoor for February’s Parish Magazine.
Do you like squirrels?  For you are they cuddly and cute sitting there nibbling on a conker or are they the menace that digs up your garden and should be treated like vermin?  There’s no doubt that, as our wildlife goes squirrels, much like foxes, are very divisive.

I think we tend to have a love / hate relationship with them but this winter it has definitely tended more towards the hate end of the scale as they have wreaked havoc outside the backdoor.

At the end of October, I was exceptionally efficient in ordering my garlic and getting it
24022687212_655ddf4780_mplanted in the veg plot.  In recent years I have found that autumn planted garlic does really well in the garden and results in large, usable bulbs unlike the spring planted which used to produce tiny bulbs that were really difficult to use in cooking.  However, no sooner had I planted them this year than the squirrels had other ideas and the plot was turned over by their scrabbling and the cloves were scattered to the four winds.  By now I should have an orderly set of green shoots of garlic about four inches high but there is no sign of anything, presumably because I am now looking in the wrong place because the squirrels have decided to replant them.  I am guessing that I am suddenly going to find garlic growing randomly in strange corners of the garden!

If squirrels weren’t menace enough, we’ve also been battling with mice.  Before you start wondering how on earth a house with three cats can possibly have a problem with mice, I should explain that they run around the wall cavities and beneath the sprung floor or our extension (why, oh why did we not have a solid concrete floor?!)  No one has been able to explain why, but it’s a problem common to many of the houses in our road.  However, the reason for mentioning this in the context of a squirrel discussion is that we found out that the local pest control people won’t come out to deal with the issue if you have things such as bird feeders in the garden that could be attracting the mice in the first place.  So very reluctantly we have removed all our bird feeders temporarily.  Imagine our annoyance then when, over Christmas, we spotted squirrels bringing fatballs intended for the birds, into our garden from goodness knows where, and caching them under our hawthorn tree!  Even worse, as they did this, they were having a good go at wrecking the Christmas decorations we had hung on the black elder and acer trees.  These bare branches had turned into a squirrel superhighway.  Meanwhile the birds are losing out on their regular supply of food and, with the RSPB Big Garden Birdwatch due to take place at the end of January, I can’t see us holding out on empty bird feeders for much longer.

So where are all the squirrels coming from?  And why do we seem to have experienced an explosion in the squirrel population in our garden?  The reason became clear as the leaves fell last autumn.  Amongst the bare branches, dense pockets of leaves and twigs were revealed which I suspect make up no less than four squirrel dreys in the garden.  Unlike most people’s image of a nest, a drey is a relatively untidy home with little structure, rather thrown together amidst the higher reaches of a tree.  Currently two reside in a hawthorn and two in our cherry plum.  Now we have to decide what to do with them.  Squirrels often have two sets of young, called kittens, in early Spring and early Summer.  If we don’t want four full nests in our garden, we shall need to break them up very shortly before there are young in them.

31937305725_0a1633af30_mHaving now read up on the breeding season, this does make sense in terms of what we’ve experienced with one of our cats regularly catching squirrels.  In the earlier part of last year we had no less than six squirrel incidents but nothing since, although one did have a close shave over Christmas when it was running up and down the olive tree right outside the backdoor.  Bryggen (large, furry and ginger) was on full alert with his normal cheeky expression replaced by that of a grand hunter!

Although I now regret writing that as we’ve had a narrow escape today with Bryggen sporting a rather muddy, bloodied paw as a result of his catch refusing to lie down!

I used to wonder why my next door neighbour was so angry about squirrels but his garden is full of lovely bulbs and various ornaments so now, as a I look out on every pot on the patio that has been dug up, I completely understand where he’s coming from!  It’s a stark reminder that, if you want a wildlife friendly garden, you cannot pick and choose!


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Add one squirrel and stir …

Just to reassure you, this is not a recipe!  It was a remark made by John over breakfast during the Christmas break when he glanced out into the garden and saw a flurry of urgently feeding birds and squirrels chasing around.  The whole garden seemed to be on the move and so it often seems at this time of year.

I think there are a number of reasons as to why the activity seems so frantic in the middle of winter.  The days are short which not only affects the amount of time the animals have for feeding, but also when we get to see them.  During the working week from late November until nearly the end of February, I only see the garden in the light at weekends, apart from Christmas, which is something that makes the holiday quite special.  Suddenly we are at home for ten days and are around to see this compressed feeding frenzy.  Equally the birds need to eat plenty in a short space of time to sustain them through the cold nights.

I can’t explain it, 31032516503_3fa00d032a_mbut it seems that there’s also a change from the moment we have passed the shortest day.  Around 7.15am this week as I’ve been eating breakfast, I’ve been very conscious of the bird song.  It wasn’t there before Christmas.  Can the birds really be aware of that very small change in the earth’s rotation that signals longer lighter days are just around the corner?

We are also conscious of clusters of birds sitting around the trees, specifically wood pigeons and collar doves.  Early one afternoon we had six wood pigeons and eight collar doves all perched in our birch and cherry trees. Today the top of the wood burner flue is popular!

Back in the autumn we made some changes to our bird feeding arrangements which weere short-lived – more about that in my next post!  We were getting increasingly dispirited by filling the bird feeders on a Saturday morning only for a large flock of parakeets to descent and empty them by Saturday afternoon.  Not only was this costing us a fortune but it was annoying to see the smaller birds losing out so much.  As if inspired by the parakeets, we were also seeing more large birds dominating the feeders such as crows and magpies.  Something needed to be done.  In the end we purchased two new bird feeders, the sort designed to keep squirrels at bay, with outer cages to allow small birds in but to keep larger birds (and mammals) out.  One of these feeders has mixed seed in it and the other fatballs.  After a few months’ use we are pleased to say that these are allowing the smaller birds a fairer chance.  The bluetits, great tits and chaffinches all love the new feeders and, having smaller appetites, there is food out there for them for most of the week.  The larger birds are still welcome but they have to eat out of the remaining seed feeders and, once they are empty, then that’s it until we choose to refill them.  Some of the more dextrous parakeets do try to get into the caged feeders but it’s sufficiently challenging for them that they soon give up and move on elsewhere.

Keeping the squirrels away from the seeds is an added bonus.  However, it doesn’t deter their antics and they still like to jump onto the swinging feeders in an attempt to get 31097548814_4e58bb6fa1_mwhatever scraps they can.  In squirrel terms, our large ginger cat Bryggen is probably the best squirrel deterrent.  The more squeamish amongst you would prefer not know that 2014 will go down as a three squirrel year!  It’s made Bryggen a hero with our elderly neighbour who detests squirrels.  As well as having lots of pots with bulbs, he also has lots of small military models in his garden which the squirrels regularly move around much to his annoyance.  His reaction to Bryggen’s most recent squirrel conquest, “If he were a bloke, I’d buy him a pint!”


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Now the holly bears a berry …

It’s coming up to that time of year when you step outside the back door in search of the few sprigs of holly that may still have a berry on having been overlooked by keen and eager blackbirds and the like.  We seemed to have lots of holly berries this year … back in October!  Whether they will still be there when I want them is quite another matter or will I need to resort yet again to the relatively convincing artificial ones that I have been known to wire on to a very dark green holly branch before now!  If so, I need to be prepared as it’s a prickly business trying to squeeze my fingers between the sharp leaf points to twist the ‘berry’ into position!

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Back in October, not only did we have berries on the huge holly just beyond our fence, but there were also berries on a variety of self-sets around the garden and also on our variegated holly which we planted towards the end of the garden to lighten up what is a rather dark area beneath other trees.  Inevitably this sparked a reminder of the Old Wives Tale that lots of berries mean a harsh winter, but is there any truth in this?

I decided to do a bit of research and discovered that the answer would appear to be ‘no’.  Like many other fruiting plants, it is the weather when the plant is in flower that makes a difference to how many berries there are in the autumn.  Holly flowers early in spring and if there is a frost, then it is likely to kill off the flowers before they are pollinated and equally there is likely to be less insect life around to assist with pollination.  Should the late spring / early summer be very dry, then flowers are equally likely to fall off the plant early before berries can start to form.  Assuming that berries do form, then the next factor influencing whether any will be found just before Christmas is the autumn weather.  A mild autumn means plenty of alternative foods for birds whereas a cold autumn means depleted insects and birds resorting to berries earlier.

Holly isn’t the only berry bearing plant outside the back door at this time of year.  On the far edge of our garden, hidden behind the cherry tree and giant ivy, is a red berry bush that we haven’t really identified but we do know that it is incredibly popular with birds, especially if some more unusual visitors, such as redwings or fieldfares, turn up during a cold snap.  My best guess is that this is a form of cotoneaster but it has long, apparently soft looking leaves compared to the usual smaller glossy ones.  Birds such as blackbirds, thrushes, redwings and fieldfares are very dependent on berries for their winter diet so it’s really very important that we continue to plant berry bearing shrubs to maintain thriving communities.

We also have a mass of pyracantha at the far end of the garden, both yellow and orange.  Every year we note that the birds prefer to eat the orange berries first and only resort to the yellow ones if they are really desperate.  However, desperation isn’t entirely the reason behind this as, once again, science has a very plausible explanation for this.  The colour of berries enables the plant to attract the right sort of wildlife.  Brightly coloured berries bring in birds that the plants relies on to scatter its seed.  Plants with less obvious berries are often more inclined to attract insects to help them spread their seed.  The RSPB has a excellent article on birds and berries.

30907369662_392a8d2633_mInterestingly, one of the least obvious berry plants and another seasonal favourite is ivy.  Whilst we sing about the holly and the ivy, it is the holly that always gets the carols about colour.  We think of the ivy as evergreen background, a useful malleable plant that enables us to weave decorative wreathes and the like, whereas the reality is a berry covered plant that is vital to sustaining insect life over winter.  Bees that are active over winter are extremely reliant on ivy flowers and can often be seen hovering amidst the foliage on bright sunny mornings, whilst the blackbirds forage for the resultant berries.

31049619045_6930562731_mOutside our front door, a large ground covering cotoneaster is currently a red carpet.  In spring, this plant is a bee magnet and it is often the plant that I will turn to when wanting to count bees for the annual Friends of the Earth Bee Count.  Covered in small white flowers, it is literally a hive of activity and, being positioned near the bins, makes recycling a dangerous business at certain times of year!  However, in winter I have seen a large wood pigeon systematically work its way across the branches taking every berry in sight!

So fingers crossed for a few holly berries to cheer up my Christmas decorations but I shall be careful not to take too many so that the wildlife can have a decent Christmas lunch too!