Outside the Backdoor

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


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Snowdrops

Nothing says ‘February’ more to me in the garden than snowdrops.  Just when we’re really getting fed up with the long dark winter days, along come these elegant white flowers to tell us that spring is just around the corner.

Snowdrop bud - close up

Snowdrop flowerhead (c) John Malone

Unfortunately, when it comes to growing snowdrops, I don’t seem to have much luck.  Years ago I bought some bulbs and planted them in what seemed a good place but about one appeared.  In fact I think that one is still appearing each spring but it is rather lonely! 

At the time I was a relatively inexperienced gardener and, of course, later I read that it is much easier to establish snowdrops ‘in the green’, that is planted out when they have finished flowering but still have their green leaves feeding the bulb beneath.  So I acquired some small pots from the garden centre packed full of snowdrops that were just about to finish flowering and I planted them out only never to be seen again.  My final foray into attempting to settle them into our garden was a couple of years ago when a friend, who is apparently inundated with them in her garden in Surrey, generously provided me with a large clump which I duly planted in the shade of the hawthorn, yet again with complete and utter failure!  I suspect that the problem is that the nice, partially shaded, damp spots beneath trees that I plant them into in the spring, become dry shaded deserts in summer, whereas they actually need to be kept moist to thrive and multiply.  It would seem that the naturally forming leaf-mould simply isn’t enough.

Crocus, daffodils, hellebores

Other spring bulbs thrive beneath the hawthorn (c) Elizabeth Malone

I think part of my frustration stems from the fact that we grow other early spring flowers, such as hellebores, really well in similar locations. At the far end of our garden, a few hellebores have magnified into something quite spectacular for a small area. We have cream ones, deep red ones and those that have hybridised to form a mix; and they put on a magnificent display come rain, shine or snow!

Cream hellebores with red spots

Spotted hellebores (c) John Malone

Leucojum, like giant snowdrops, have also done well. The first of these were bought in pots as a ‘past their best’ deal in our local Homebase some years ago. We decided to give them a home and have not regretted it as they have bulked up and flower reliably year after year and look like outlasting the Homebase store!

Snowflake flower - Leucojum

Snowflake flower – Leucojum (c) Elizabeth Malone

So when it comes to snowdrops, I fear that I shall have to make do with admiring other people’s and for me, the first sight of them in 2019 came very early on a visit to RHS Wisley on the 4th January when there were already large clumps fully in flower.  Also at Wisley, the curators were busy putting together a very special display in the alpine house of some unusual and valuable examples which have been lent for show just this spring.  I couldn’t help but notice the big shiny padlock on the display case and wondered just how much those few plants were worth?  Only a few years ago there were newspaper articles of snowdrop bulbs changing hands on the internet for £300!

Snowdrop in bud

Snowdrops in bud at RHS Wisley (c) John Malone

In February last year we called into Castle Drogo in Devon en route to a weekend in Cornwall.  It was a bright spring-like day and as we were tight for time, we enquired where best to see any snowdrops in the grounds.  The National Trust volunteer produced a plan of the grounds, studied it carefully, and then started circling a few areas where we might possibly see some.  He gave the impression that our chances were slim. So imagine our surprise when we stepped outside the visitor centre only to spot a large clump of nodding white flowers literally yards from the door! And only a few feet further along the path we spotted clump after clump!

Snowdrops and mossy tree trunks

Snowdrops at Castle Drogo, Devon 2018 (c) John Malone

About five years ago, one of our Landmark Trust holidays presented us with plentiful snowdrops right outside the door.  We were staying in the wonderfully named House of Correction in Lincolnshire on some very chilly March days (yes, that is snow surrounding the snowdrops you can see in the photo below!)  Thankfully most Landmark Trust properties are blessed with a roaring fire and on this occasion we were most grateful for it!

Snowdrops in the snow

Snowdrops with a little snow at the House of Correction, Lincolnshire (C) John Malone

The potential sight of snowdrops is surely a great incentive to get outdoors at this chilly and gloomy time of year. So where should you head? Well clearly not out into my garden!  The National Trust have done a ‘Best places to see snowdrops near you’ list, which is very thoughtful of them. Winkworth Arboretum, which is normally more renowned for its autumn colour or even its bluebells in May, is on the list and is not a million miles from us so we might be taking a trip out!

Meanwhile, do you have a plant that you would love to grow in your garden but which stubbornly refuses to cooperate?

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The inactive gardener

Over the past couple of months I have really appreciated the view outside the back door and that’s because I’ve spent a great deal of time at home and most of it confined to indoors and all because I sat down! Sadly sprained knees and gardening are not good partners and it’s been particularly frustrating during September and into October when the garden is in its final blaze of glory before autumn deepens into winter.

Stage one of the sprained knee coincided with a few days holiday in the Cotswolds and a lot of garden visiting, all done at a hobble. A revisit to Hidcote was much more enjoyable than the last time we went (three years ago). A new visitor entrance seems to have enabled people to spread out more quickly. It was also the one garden where the plant centre resulted in a purchase – a gorgeous shocking pink Salvia which, unfortunately due to the knee, is still sitting its pot outside the backdoor.

One thing that has struck me whilst I’ve been at home and that is that the birds are returning. It might seem an odd thing to say but it’s well known that our garden birds tend to vanish in August. I used to think it was my imagination but then I read a very useful answer to this question provided by the RSPB who explain that birds have come to the end of their mating season and are moulting their plumage. This makes them quite reclusive as they don’t want to be vulnerable to predators. However, in the last few weeks I’ve become much more aware of movement in the garden as flocks of great tits and goldfinches are one more flitting around our birch tree. The wood-pigeon has been particularly active too but that’s because it has been gorging itself on a diet of grass seed, sprinkled down in an attempt to cover our drought-induced bare patches, followed up by a dessert course of deliciously bright orange pyracantha berries, growing very conveniently at pigeon height just under the hawthorn.

The squirrels are also more active too. They are waiting for me to plant my spring bulbs! I’ve even spotted them scouting around the patio pots. Well they are out of luck as, until my knee heals, there’s going to be no bulb planting done around here! However, I am determined that I am going to have a good display of bulbs next Spring, unlike this year where I had virtually none left in my pots and the tulips I did have were not the ones I planted! The bulbs were ordered promptly in September and are now sitting in the cupboard under stairs. Before I plant them, I am first heading to the DIY store to pursue a cunning plan that involves the purchase of chicken wire and the creation of some pot protectors. I have a selection of miniature iris reticulata in purple (hopefully like the ones I grew in 2015 – see below), two types of multi-stemmed narcissi, one pale lemon and the other brilliant yellow with a vibrant orange trumpet, and finally a selection of tulips to top them off. I will also need to acquire some bedding plants to top off the pots and provide some winter colour and I will confess that I”m not quite sure how bedding plants and chicken wire will mix.

But before we get too carried away into winter and next spring, one of the pleasures of the last few weeks has been a final flurry of roses. In fact some of my roses have flowered better during late September and October than they did back in May and June as the drought began to bite. My Shropshire Lad was very considerate in producing a high bloom that I could see easily from inside the house but the distant yellow glow of Togmeister had me hobbling out down the garden to take a sniff!

Finally, as we prepare to turn the clocks back, we’ve been enjoying some stunning harvest moons rising eerily between the silhouetted branches of the birch tree. I have been busy rehearsing ‘Ruddigore’ too and I am reminded of the ghost’s song in Act 2, “When the night wind howls, in the chimney cowls, and the bat in the moonlight flies. Then inky clouds, like funeral shrouds, sail over the midnight sky”.


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The boring side of bulbs

Today I planted the last set of bulbs ready for next Spring and breathed a sigh of relief.  I love Spring bulbs like the next gardener but planting them just isn’t my favourite task.

I only realised this some years ago when I was dutifully scrabbling around in the dry earth of September desperately trying to force into the ground some 200 bulbs that I had succumbed to in a rash moment when reading a ‘free’ offer in a magazine.  My next door neighbour called round and remarked that he disliked bulbs because planting them was hard work and boring.  I remember pausing at that moment and thinking, he’s right!

Early September brings the best bulbs into the garden centres but the ground is either too hard and dry to plant them or covered in late summer flowering gems.  And then there’s the dilemma about tulips.  All the advice points to planting them in November to reduce the potential for disease but if you leave purchasing your tulips until then, you will have very slim pickings in the garden centre which by this time will be full of Christmas decorations!  Store your tulip bulbs carefully and, by the time you are ready to plant them, chances are they will already be sprouting or some will have gone soft!

This autumn I wanted to plant yellows, oranges and reds in my ‘hot’ border but held off until last weekend as it was, to my delight, still flowering profusely.  The arrival of our first frost on 1 November gave me the cue to bring the dahlias back down to ground level and to remove any remaining annuals.  Heavy rain the night before fooled me into thinking bulb planting might be easier but no, the dahlia leaves had well and truly prevented too much water reaching the soil.  I chipped away at making suitable holes and eventually shoe-horned in about 30 bulbs, thereafter retreating indoors with what can only be described as ‘bulb-planting wrist’.

Today I decided to take the easy option and to plant my remaining tulip bulbs in a pot.  Having purchased a pack of orange and purple bulbs shown flowering beautifully together, I was surprised to discover that they were likely to flower at slightly different times.  So I have planted the earlier ones deeper in the hopes that they might all flower together.

Having prepared my pot, I think had to think about squirrel defences.  Having chopped down my dahlias last weekend and mulched them heavily, today I see that the squirrel has thoughtfully spread my mulch all over the lawn!  I have found that both plant supports and upside down  hanging baskets fulfil a useful anti-squirrel function.

Iris reticulata

And so, as I sit back and wait for the joys of Spring and bulbs in all their glory, I spare a thought for those professional gardeners and volunteers who bring amazing displays to us every year, such as the one below at Wisley earlier this year, and I’m just grateful that I only had a few packets of bulbs to plant and not a few hundred or thousand!

Tulips at Wisley


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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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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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Plans coming to fruition

I do like it when a plan comes to fruition.  Last summer we decided to try to clear another space within the thicket that is our lilac hedge.  We were driven by the need to find a home for another clematis (more about that another time) but were thwarted when, beneath a mass of tangled ivy, our garden fork hit something very solid with an ominous clang!  Now we’ve had one or two surprises when digging in our garden in the past.  I will never forget a similar moment when I heard the clang of the fork and John summoned me to look at what appeared to be an elephant tusk buried in the garden.  On that occasion John dug on, slightly fearful of the tusk like object turning out to be an unexploded bomb, and mightily relieved when it only turned out to be the original grate from the fireplace in the house!  Quite why it was buried down the end of the garden is anyone’s guess.

This time, however, there was a nagging sense of familiarity and knowing.  I suggested that it was just a paving stone.  Years’ ago someone appeared to have edged the border with left over crazy paving that we turn up every so often.  However John said with great conviction, “It’s the base of the brick barbecue come back to haunt us!”  I had completely forgotten about the hideous and extremely unhygienic barbecue that was sitting in the border when we moved in.  We removed all evidence of it above ground during our first summer here and, in doing so, killed an enormous colony of ants!  Since then soil, ivy and various bulbs appear to have encroached and removed all evidence of the concrete base.  John plunged the fork into a number of areas with the same clanging result.  Eventually he found an edge and eased the fork under.  A large C shaped area of earth lifted slightly.  John put the fork down and marched purposely towards the house. “I’m going to find the crowbar!” he said.  After some wrestling, the crowbar worked and the concrete was extracted and removed to another part of the garden.  It’ll probably become part of our anti-fox defences when they next dig a channel under the fence.25605061502_2bd0d1c926_z

Once the main target, the clematis, had been planted, we were left with a lovely large space to fill in front of it, a space which can be seen from the house.  In the spring I always find it frustrating that most of our bulbs are out of sight, down the very far end of the garden, so we decided to scatter the area with crocus, daffodils and alliums.  This week we are reaping the rewards as we have a fine view of nodding heads in the border, adding that wonderful cheerfulness that says spring is here.

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