Outside the Backdoor

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


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Fresh October

Fresh October brings the pheasant;
Then to gather nuts is pleasant.

Continuing this years series of blogs based on Sara Coleridge’s poem ‘The Garden Year’, I realised that nuts don’t feature in my garden at all, or at least not deliberately. Over the years I have pulled out many a seedling horse chestnut tree sprouting from a conker buried by an industrious squirrel.

Squirrel posing locally in Bushy Park (c) Elizabeth Malone

We also have a small oak tree in a pot dug up from somewhere in the garden and, again, probably growing from an acorn buried by a squirrel as I’m not aware of any oak trees particularly nearby. Our little tree is thriving but leaving us with the puzzle of what to do with it? Our garden isn’t the right size and scale for a majestic oak! As we live near Oak Avenue Nature Reserve, I’m wondering if I could sneak out in the dead of night and plant it there? With the emphasis next year on planting trees for the Queen’s Platinum Jubilee, maybe there will be an opportunity?

Our baby oak tree (c) Elizabeth Malone

Whilst we may not have nuts to gather in the garden, this is without doubt the season of seedpods and berries. I watch in trepidation as the gigantic sycamore at the end of the garden casts thousands more ‘helicopter’ seeds in all directions. This tree wasn’t even here 21 years ago! It’s a self-set that has grown up just beyond our fence on Railtrack land which makes it somewhat challenging to get anyone to do anything with it. Once again next spring I will be pulling out hundreds of its offspring.

Sycamore warning! (C) Elizabeth Malone

Glancing out of the window to the patio, I can see that the berries on the black elder, Sambucus Nigra Black Lace, have already been devoured by the birds.  Berries from our main elder tree will probably have been eaten by pigeons but I suspect that the black elder berries have been snapped up by the flock of sparrows that seem to have adopted our garden over the summer.  Most afternoons between 8 and 12 of them descend and hide in the adjacent hedge.  For the next half hour or so there will be the sound of wingbeats as they ‘bounce’ up and down and in and out of the various bushes dining on a selection of insects, berries and seeds.  They are very entertaining to watch but also really distracting if you’re trying to concentrate on something!

Sambucca Nigra Black Lace against visit autumn sky (c) Elizabeth Malone

Underneath our bird feeders and therefore relatively low to the ground, we have a pyracantha will brilliant orange berries. These are at pigeon-height and will gradually disappear one-by-one of the coming weeks. From there the pigeons will then move on to the cotoneaster berries in the front garden which will mean we startle them every time we open the front door! I was going to suggest that it would be easier for the pigeons to progress to the hawthorn berries just above them. (Our bird feeders hang in the hawthorn tree which is less easily climbed by our cats!) However, I’ve just realised how few berries are actually left on the tree which implies that they’ve not been slow in coming forward to eat them. There’s a whole winter to go yet but they clearly don’t believe in being abstemious and saving some for later!

Prickly pyracantha (c) Elizabeth Malone

Green holly berries seem to be in abundance. Does this mean we’re in for a hard winter? I’m not quite sure when they turn from green to red, presumably when the temperature starts to drop? Of course as soon as they are red, then the birds will be ready to eat these too, leaving us to hunt around in mid-December looking for any that might still be available to decorate the house.

Now the holly bears a berry as green as the grass (c) Elizabeth Malone

What is becoming clear as I write this is just how important all these berries and seeds are to our wildlife. One plant that many of us have in our gardens, that grows wild in our churchyards and open spaces and yet is often reviled, is ivy. We were recently on holiday in Ramsgate in Kent where the seafront esplanade was lined by a mile or more of ivy. The sheer number of insects buzzing and hovering around the flowers was truly astonishing. To see this would make you question whether the UK’s insect life really is under threat? Although if any of you have done the ‘splat test’ on your car number plates this summer, you will know that this is a serious problem. (Our number plates remained almost spotless on journeys to Dorset in June and Kent in September). We have a lot of ivy in the garden. In one corner a whole range of birds must nest in it. We can’t see properly but every spring we’re aware of regular flitting to and fro. In the autumn, late bees will flock to it as one of the last flowering plants around and on a sunny day there is a constant stream of hoverflies skimming over it. In the depths of winter its shiny black berries will provide essential food for birds as well as decorating the house for Christmas. Yes, ivy can become too big for its boots at times but it’s easily pulled back to something more manageable and we wouldn’t be without it.

Garden ivy and hoverfly (c) Elizabeth Malone


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July brings …

Hot July brings cooling showers,

Apricots, and gillyflowers.

Gillyflowers?  I can hear you all asking, what are they?  Well apparently they are several things.  They can be wallflowers or sweet Williams, and back in Shakespeare’s day, the name was used to refer to carnations.  More recently, the term has been linked to ‘pinks’ or dianthus which I’d never grown until this spring.

Two years’ ago we were visiting the lovely garden of Broughton House in Kirkudbright in Dumfries when John spotted this small, perfectly formed pink flower.  Foolishly we didn’t ask what it was and assumed that, as it was a type of dianthus, it would be easy to find somewhere – ha, ha!  We’ve never yet managed to track it down.

Mystery dianthus at Broughton House (c) John Malone

Inspired by this, we have picked up pots of dianthus in garden centres on and off and flicked through catalogues, but never actually committed to buying any until this spring when two pots accompanied us home from Wisley one day.  It was May – cold, a bit damp, and generally grey and miserable.  The plants were put to one side for potting up later as I wanted them to replace winter violas that were still flowering but about to die back.  Stupidly I took my eye off the ball.  The weather changed rapidly on the bank holiday weekend and the poor plants were fried!  I dunked them into a bowl of water and slowly over the course of the next couple of days they picked up but they still bear the scars.  Many of the leaves are still scorched brown and we’ve lost one flush of flowers.  So let that be a lesson to us as “hot July” approaches and, judging by recent years, we’re unlikely to get many “cooling showers”!

Dianthus – nearly fried! (c) Elizabeth Malone

Pinks, or dianthus, are quite scented but it’s a smell that I can’t quite make up my mind whether I like or not.  It’s quite spicy.  Often described as ‘clove-like’, I’m not sure I can smell that connection.  However, that did set me off thinking about scent in our garden.  As long-standing readers of this column will know, I do plant a lot for wildlife, especially for bees and butterflies, and although scent has a role to play here, most of my ‘plants for pollinators’ were chosen more for their flower shape than their scent.  For example, the flowers that have been attracting dozens of bees during June have been the poppies.  The buzzing of the bees reverberates around the flower head as they bury themselves deep down in the centre of the bloom, causing the petals to almost rattle.  However, to the best of my knowledge, poppies are unscented.  That said, the lavender is about to take centre stage and that is extremely fragrant.  It will soon be covered in bees but I’m not sure that I’ve ever seen butterflies head towards it.

Beauty of Livermere attacting bees (c) John Malone

Butterflies tend to prefer to perch on top of flat, open flowers.  They love the echinacea, another unscented plant, and also the verbena bonariensis.  Verbena is deceptive.  You could be forgiven for thinking that it is another flat flowerhead until you look carefully and you will see that the flower is made up of dozens upon dozens of tiny little tubes of nectar. Looking back through my photos, I realise the verbena is loved by bees, hoverflies and dragonflies as well as butterflies!

Large White enjoying Verbena Bonariensis last summer (c) Elizabeth Malone

It will be interesting to see how the summer progresses but currently I’m worried about butterflies in south-west London.  We saw quite a few in the garden in April – small whites, holly blues, commas, brimstones and the occasional peacock, but on the warm days in June we hardly saw a thing.  Has that been the effect of that long, cold May?  Last year we were lucky enough to see both a cinnabar moth and a Jersey tiger in the garden, in fact the Jersey tiger seemed to be everywhere.  We saw it in Crane Park and also in a local hedgerow but so far, nothing out of the ordinary this summer. 

A Jersey Tiger enjoying the nettles of Crane Park last summer (c) Elizabeth Malone

One of my experiments to attract more insects to the garden has been the sowing of a wildflower bed.  Returning to my original theme of scent, it’s interesting to note that it didn’t play a part in my plan.  Having never grown wildflowers before, I decided not to go mad and dig up the lawn but instead to sow some seed into a large re-usable gro-sack.  Instead of filling the sack with the obvious multi-purpose compost, I bought topsoil and mixed it with old spent compost and lots of grit in order to downgrade the quality of the planting medium.  Wildflowers, after all, don’t need to be pampered!  I then simply scattered over a packet of mixed seed and waited.  Initially I was annoyed by it as the sack sagged badly under the weight of the soil and it didn’t look particularly attractive but it is now flowering.  The only thing is, I’m not sure what the flowers are that have emerged!  I’m also not sure how well it’s doing on attracting insects – I’ve seen just one hoverfly so far!

My first wildflowers (c) Elizabeth Malone

If you’ve been wondering whether I’m going to mention apricots somewhere in this article, I’m afraid I’m going to disappoint you.  We have fruit trees but not apricots.  We also have a lot of fruit and I can assure you that one of the things that is most attractive to bees is raspberries.  My advice is pick with care!!


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All creatures great and small

Health warning – I’m about to be controversial this month!  How do you like your verges?  Those strips of ground along the sides of pavements, roads and around car parks?  Do you look for bowling green perfection?  Are you happy with rough and ready?  Or would you like to see something attractive but relaxed and informal, not too neat?  This year I’ve been focusing Outside the Back Door on what we can all do in our gardens and back yards to improve our environment and do our little bit for the climate crisis but this month I want to look slightly further afield.  Not too far, probably just as far as the top of the road.

Wildflower meadow at the National Physical Laboratory in Teddington (c) Elizabeth Malone

One effect of the Coronavirus lockdown was councils having to re-prioritise tasks and budgets.  In many cases the need to trim verges around the boroughs fell to the bottom of the list.  In my own borough, the debate escalated recently as “enraged of RIchmond” took to social media to complain that standards were slipping and how ghastly it was to see all these wild flowers blooming around verges and attracting, shock, horror, insects!  As you might imagine, those of a different persuasion equally fought their corner, arguing the case strongly for this more relaxed, environmentally friendly approach – an approach which, in fairness, has already been deliberately adopted by some local authorities.  

Hampton Cemetery in Spring 2020 (c) Elizabeth Malone

With so many appreciating getting closer to nature during lockdown, or rather nature getting closer to them, the role played by our in-between spaces, such as verges, can’t be ignored.  If we’re to hear more birdsong, we need to ensure plenty of insects around for birds to feed on – they can’t live on our nut and seed feeders alone!  And if we want to be dazzled by beautiful butterflies, we must provide the nectar to sustain them.  Our rougher, more unkempt verges can bloom and become a really important source of food.

Cabbage whites particularly like verbena it seems (c) Elizabeth Malone

Insects must surely be the most reviled of all God’s creatures?  I’m the first to admit that I will run a mile from a wasp and can only remove spiders up to a certain dimension!  I’ve only been stung by a bee once (I hope I don’t regret writing that!) and it was a painful experience.  Thankfully it’s not put me off encouraging bees into the garden.  Any plant I buy these days comes with the ‘bee friendly’ tag.  Scientists have shown that without bees we couldn’t survive.  So imagine my concern when, during that very hot spell towards the end of June, I kept finding large bumblebees dying on my lawn.  At the time our ‘lawn’ was a mass of clover as we’d stopped cutting due to the drought.  Every day we were finding one or two bees staggering across the flower heads and then they would just stop, literally dead in their tracks.  It was so sad to see.  I was so concerned that I contacted the local Wildlife Trust who introduced me to a new Facebook group called Nature in Richmond.  There I found other people reporting the same thing but also bee ‘experts’ who explained that the UK’s bumblebee populations are moving north due to warmer summers in the south of England as a result of climate change.  

Bees fighting over the echinacea in our garden (c) Elizabeth Malone

Joining this Facebook group has been a revelation.  You can post a photograph of just about anything wildlife related and someone is likely to know the answer.  Apart from recognising their importance, I confess I know almost nothing about insects but I have been delighted to post a photo of, for example, a hoverfly and to have it identified as a ‘marmalade hoverfly’.  Another colourful mystery was a red-belted clear-wing moth!  I’ve discovered that sightings such as this also get logged by the South-West London Environmental Network and added to their Biodiversity Record.  So whilst it’s a great source of information (and of some fabulous photography I should add), it’s also rewarding to know that we’re contributing to understanding the nature around us.

Red-belted clearwing moth in our garden as identified by the local nature group
(c) Elizabeth Malone

So whilst we’re on the topic of insects, let’s not forget the butterflies and my impression is that it has been a good summer for them.  I’ve carried out one or two butterfly counts in the garden and uploaded them to the Butterfly Conservation Trust who run this annual survey.  Across the summer I’m delighted to have seen large and small whites, commas, peacocks, red admirals, holly blues, brimstones, speckled wood and an abundance of gatekeepers.  However, a couple of weeks ago I saw a flash of orange followed by a flash of black and white that settled on the crab apple tree.  Before I could take a closer look it had fluttered away.  I went to get the camera but by then it had vanished.  A few days later I was walking in Crane Park and saw the same thing.  This time it was more obliging and settled on a convenient nettle patch ready to be photographed – a Jersey Tiger!  I’m pretty sure I’ve never seen one of these before and I’m delighted to say that I’ve seen another since in a local road where there is an unkempt verge, full of nettles (and sadly dumped rubbish).  Butterflies love nettles and wild flowers that are rich in nectar.  They are also a very important indicator of the health of our environment.  So it’s back to those grass verges again.

Jersey Tiger butterfly on hydrangea leaves in our garden August 2020 (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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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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All on a summer’s afternoon

I was doing that rare thing of actually sitting in the garden recently when I glanced up and did a double take. A red kite, flying relatively low, over the gardens of south-west London is not a common sight! I scrabbled around for my phone and randomly pointed the camera up at the blue sky, being blinded by the sun as I did so, hence the extremely out of focus image below!

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Out of focus red kite over south-west London! (c) Elizabeth Malone

It served to remind me that a few year’s ago I wrote an article about the wildlife I’d seen in the garden on a single summer’s afternoon and so I was prompted to stroll around and take a closer look.

The comma must surely be the friendliest of butterflies? That afternoon there were two dancing around over the pond and around our pergola. They follow this same pattern every year and yet I know full well that they are not the same butterflies! They sun themselves on the pergola, or occasionally on the leaves of the climbing iceberg rose and then when they flutter around, if you happen to be standing close by, they will land on you!

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Comma butterfly (c) John Malone

We do get quite a range of butterflies in the garden from small holly blues through to much larger cabbage whites which eye up my salads for laying their eggs! This afternoon we were in for a treat when a very large red admiral chose to sunbathe first on our echinops and then on the echinacea. Of course the moment the camera was present, it danced around and failed to stay still but we did eventually manage to capture the moment.

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Red admiral teasing us on an echinacea (c) Elizabeth Malone

Also dancing around and teasing us were two much smaller butterflies that I didn’t immediately recognise but later identified as gatekeepers.  I confess that I have been very slow to develop my knowledge of butterflies and so am slightly embarrassed to have read that gatekeepers are really common and, to be honest, I ought not have had to look them up!  I was delighted when one decided to pose on this echinacea.

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Gatekeeper butterfly on Echinacea Purpurea Magnus (c) Elizabeth Malone

The garden is also buzzing with bees of every shape and size. Last weekend it was the tall, heavy stems of the acanthus with their multiple flowerheads that were literally the bees-knees but this weekend focus has shifted to the raspberries. Stand nearby and all you can hear is a constant drone, a poignant reminder of how important it is to have a healthy bee population to pollinate our crops. But whilst it’s a delight to see that there are so many bees present, it does make fruit-picking a little hazardous!

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Bee investigating raspberry flower (c) Elizabeth Malone

In the main flower border, the echinops are now coming into their own, developing their spiky haircuts. The traditional pale blue globes have always been popular with the bees so last year, when we bought a white variety, we wondered whether it would have the same draw? We need not have worried as typically there is at least two bees on each globe and I have seen as many as five!

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Echinops sphaerocephalus ‘Arctic Glow’ (c) John Malone

Whilst I am writing this, I am wriggling my bare toes in the cool grass but I am conscious that we don’t have a pristine lawn and we do have quite a lot of clover growing which is also popular with the bees. I don’t want to accidentally wriggle my toes into a bee!

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Our clover infested lawn (c) Elizabeth Malone

It has also been a bumper year for ladybirds. This photo had all my friends talking on Facebook – what would the offspring look like?!

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Ladybirds on our mirabelle tree in April (c) Elizabeth Malone

Since that photo was taken in April, we have had numerous ladybird larvae around the garden and we have, on occasion moved them to a particularly aphid infested plant in the hopes that they view it as having been taken to a Michelin starred restaurant.

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Ladybird lavae (c) Elizabeth Malone

And what of the pond on this summer’s afternoon? Apart from needing to top it up due to lack of rain, it is actually quite challenging to see the surface as the water lilies have rather taken over! Just occasionally I can see that there is still a late developing tadpole swimming around the lily pads and, if I’m very lucky, I might catch a glimpse of a sun-bathing newt. This afternoon there are very few damselflies but there have been plenty of both blue and red over the summer and we are starting to enter dragonfly season.  We now know to look out for them emerging out of the water and onto the strappy leaves of the iris or the stems of the pontederia.

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Dragonfly emerging from both the pond and its skin (c) Elizabeth Malone

We didn’t set out to create a wild-life friendly garden but now I don’t think we buy any plant that isn’t wild-life friendly. So flowers are always single (we don’t particularly like double varieties anyhow) and if they come with the ‘perfect for pollinators’ label, even better. It’s great that our gardens are now being recognised for the contribution they make to environmental wellbeing. And so as I sign off, I can see a squirrel scratching its nose at the top of our birch tree, two small white butterflies on the verbena bonariensis and three bees on the lavender – all great company on a sunny afternoon.

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Bee and lavender (c) Elizabeth Malone

 


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BEE WISE

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.