Outside the Backdoor

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



Having had a rather negative few weeks in the garden over July and August (burnt plants, drought etc.), I’ve decided to blog about something much more positive and uplifting this week.  This morning I was taking photographs of numerous bees who were in love with our dahlias.  Dahlia Verrone’s Obsidian to be precise.  A really dark, velvety red dahlia with a deep golden centre, rich with pollen for the bees.

When asked to think about something that is life-sustaining, I suspect most people would cite water.  Bees are not the first thing we think of but, with their ability to pollinate crops, they are absolutely vital to our existence.  I’m sure you don’t need me to tell you that currently our bees are under serious threat.  If it isn’t pesticides, then it’s the varroa mite or the lack of flowering plants that is out to get them.  The EU has now taken action to ban neonicotinoids on outdoor crops which is certainly an important step but, like so many environmental causes, we can all play a small part in trying to save our bees.

Organisations such as Friends of the Earth and the Royal Horticultural Society (RHS) have highlighted just how important our own back gardens are in helping our bees.  The RHS has its ‘Perfect for Pollinators’ plant label to encourage gardeners to purchase plants that are rich in pollen and easy for bees to access.  Even simple things, such as planting single rather than double flowered plants, all play their part.

For the last few years we have made the effort to ensure that any new plants we buy are ‘bee friendly’ and, judging by the number of bees we see in our garden throughout the year, it is having some impact.  We planted the lovely blue’ish purple Echinops (globe-thistle) some years ago but this year we were also tempted to add a grey/silver variety.  Having done so, I began to worry whether it would attract bees as effectively as its more common neighbour.  I need not have feared, I am delighted to say that both blue and silver globes have been covered in bees during their peak flowering season.

I am also a great fan of Echinacea and have them in pots on the patio and also planted in the border.  They can be quite tender but, having lost a couple in pots which were supposedly over-wintering in the greenhouse one year, I decided to risk two out in the border and I’m pleased to say that they have now returned for about four years on the trot so I can’t help thinking that if they survived the Beast from the East, then we’re OK!  Bees love Echinacea and can often be found clambering around their large central cones.

Agapanthus is perhaps the one that surprises me.  We planted these many years ago, well before the bee cause caught our attention but the bees do love them.  They easily disappear up inside the tubular flowers which gradually open one by one across the whole flower-head.  One of the strengths of Agapanthus is this gradual opening.  You can never say that the flower is completely open as they will gradually open each bud one by one.

Lavender is the obvious bee-friendly plant and we do have three different varieties in the garden – one French and two English types.  Although the bees are attracted to them, I wouldn’t say that they are the most popular flower in our garden and this year even the lavender has been drought-ridden, hence the lack of photo!  Whilst we’re on the subject of purple plants, I have to mention Eryngium, that very spikey plant.  The bees don’t seem to notice its spikiness and happily dive in where others might fear to tread!

Then of course there is the purple Verbena Bonariensis, with its tall, slender stems topped by clusters of tiny tubular flowers, which is another hit with our buzzing friends.  One year we had clouds of Verbena around the garden but then it seemed to vanish.  We carefully nurtured a few tiny self-sown seedlings and I’m delighted to say that this year we have had several lovely plants.  Unfortunately, when a bee lands on them, they sway around too much for me to be able to capture bee and plant in focus.  So apologies for the lack of bee in the photo below!

You might be forgiven for thinking that I’m just planting purple plants because I’ve always had a bit of thing about purple!  However, the scientists have shown that purple is the colour that bees can see most clearly.  For someone who likes purple, it’s a great excuse!

Have you taken action to encourage bees outside your back door?


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Gardening is for sharing

Some might see gardening as a solitary activity but I think gardening is about sharing – sharing knowledge, seeds and plants, and thinking about sharing plants brought a poignant moment one Sunday in early March when the death of a former parishioner was announced at my church.  Although the lady concerned had moved away from the area some time ago to be nearer her family, she had previously been a St Stephen’s regular, in particular at the Wednesday morning service. However, for me she will always be inextricably linked with the pulmonaria that grows in our garden.

Many years’ ago, I am assuming as a result on a Wednesday morning conversation, she gave my Mum a clump of pulmonaria. Subsequently, when we moved here and were desperately trying to fill gaps having just acquired a garden about ten times the size of our previous garden (our previous garden being of postage stamp size), Mum divided some of this pulmonaria and brought some over for me to plant. Since then it has thrived, self-seeding itself generously around the place, occasionally too generously so I have to keep an eye out for when the flowerheads have died back and are about to shed their seed everywhere and dive in to remove the rather hairy stems and seedpods. A few new plants every so often is fine but, given half a chance pulmonaria would probably take over the place every spring.

24931184394_ca219e4c3b_kThe type of pulmonaria I’m referring to here is Pulmonaria Officinalis, otherwise known as Common Lungwort. Having looked it up on the RHS website, I am astonished to see just how many alternative names there are for it, many with biblical origins including Jerusalem Sage, Adam and Eve, Jerusalem cowslip, Mary’s honeysuckle, Mary’s tears and Sage of Bethlehem.

Pulmonaria is happy in shady, moist spots and is one of those plants that announces that spring is just around the corner when the first flowers begin to emerge. Unusually the flowers open one colour and turn another, starting off pink and ending up blue, which usually means that you have flowers of both colours on the plant at any one time.  They are loved by early bees who attempt to bury themselves in the tiny bell shaped flowers.  They also produce huge green leaves with white spots which, centuries ago, were thought to symbolise spots on the lung and the leaves were then used to treat chest infections, hence the name ‘lungwort’.  They are similar to that other wonderful spring plant, the hellebore, in that they produce their flowers first and their leaves later.

Last year I did try venturing beyond Officinalis and bought myself  the more sophisticated ‘Sissinghurst White’ but sadly a combination of foxes digging them up and a sudden dry spell meant that they failed to survive. They were incredibly tiny plants when they arrived so I wouldn’t mind having another go with this but next time I think I’d want to start out with a single, bigger specimen that had more chance of survival. There are also totally blue varieties (such as Blue Ensign) or totally red ones (Bowles red), although strictly speaking they are more pink / coral than red.

Returning to the theme of sharing, there are many opportunities for doing this.  If you have more than you need of something in the garden, why not offer a clump to friends or neighbours?  On the other hand, if you’d like to take advantage of other gardeners’ generosity, you could join a seed swap.  ‘Seed swap Sunday’ in early February is gaining in popularity.  Too late for this year, but perhaps put a note on the calendar to investigate this next year?  Equally if you are member of the RHS, you can apply to receive seeds from their gardens each Spring.  With summer approaching, it will soon be time to start looking out for the NGS Open Gardens where there are usually plants to be bought too.  So whatever you do, don’t make gardening a solitary past-time.