Outside the Backdoor

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


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The joy of jam making

“Did you manage to get it to set?”

Our first ever strawberry jam!  (c) Elizabeth Malone

Ignorance is bliss, it turns out when it comes to strawberry jam!  Dimly at the back of my mind I felt that there was something I ought to know about strawberry jam as against any other types of jam. No sooner had I posted a photograph on Facebook of our luscious deep red jam, than the questions began.  Due to the low pectin levels in strawberries, apparently the jam is notoriously difficult to get to ‘set’, that is, make it of a good jammy, sticky consistency.  Well I’m delighted to say that ours did set.  It is quite a ‘soft-set’ but then I think that’s how strawberry jam should be.

We were just thrilled to have so many strawberries to have a ‘jam crisis’ moment. We have had the occasional strawberry glut before. There was the year we exported a large quantity on holiday with us (see my post from 2017 – Seasons of mellow fruitfulness) and another year when a poorly timed holiday meant that the neighbours had the full benefit. This year, however, we timed it just right. As we returned from holiday, the strawberries began ripening and we were having a bowlful every evening.

Strawberry glut!  (c) Elizabeth Malone

But it turns out that there comes a point when you can’t keep up! My husband was picking some fruit every day when he returned from work so I lost track of just how many berries were stashed away in the fridge until one morning when he declared that we needed to deploy ‘Plan B’!  I had joked about Plan B – “we can always make jam”, I jested. As it turns out, we made several kilos of it and very nice it is too on a Sunday morning with croissants.

Strawberries on the go!  (c) Elizabeth Malone

The only jam we’d made previously was cherry plum, jam being pretty much the only thing you can make with these yellow, rose flushed, sour fruits. If you like your jam on the tart side, cherry plum is for you! Unfortunately our cherry plum tree is rather large and every so often we have no choice but to have it pruned which means we have at least one fallow year in terms of jam making. This summer is its first post-prune bounce back and we could see enough fruit developing for a batch of jam. Along with the crab apples starting to swell (see In praise of Laura), I sensed a jar crisis looming! Thankfully an appeal to friends saw us restocked.

Cherry plum jam 2019 (c) Elizabeth Malone

What I hadn’t reckoned on was the strawberry glut being followed by a raspberry glut! As strawberry production slowed down, the raspberries began to crop.  Just a few each day to begin with but soon it became closer to half a punnet.  They turned out to be superbly timed to be eaten along with the blueberries which have been cropping very nicely on the patio this year and our cunning ‘popadome’ device has been an excellent investment, meaning that we have benefited from the berries rather than the local blackbird population! Whilst I like our garden to be wildlife friendly, there are limits! Last year we barely ate a blueberry as almost the entire the crop was plundered by our feathered friends.

Popadome over the blueberries (c) Elizabeth Malone

As with the strawberries, there was an ominous sense of the fridge filling up. Buoyed by the success of our rookie strawberry jam, we decided to give raspberry a go. I delved into our elderly but trusty Good Housekeeping book and was astonished to read just how basic the recipe was for raspberry jam – raspberries and sugar! No water, no lemon juice, no need to fiddle around hulling or halving the fruit, just get it in the pan and cook it.

Freshly picked raspberries and blueberries 2019 (c) Elizabeth Malone

Raspberry, it turns out, is the polar opposite of strawberry. After our traditional 10 minutes of a rolling boil, we did the usual cold plate trick to test the ‘set’. Normally the jam or jelly spreads about a bit on the plate as you run your finger through it to see if it wrinkles up. The raspberry landed on the plate and set! In fact running my finger through it turned out to be the equivalent of sticking my finger into boiling jam – raspberry jam keeps its heat!

We only made a couple of jars of raspberry but can’t wait to try it. Instead of the fridge being full of fruit, we now have a different problem – it’s full of jars of jam!

First ever raspberry jam! (c) Elizabeth Malone

  • Do you make jam from your garden produce?
  • Have you braved making strawberry jam and did it set?!
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Borrowed blossom

Garden designers often talk about the ‘borrowed landscape’. When you live in the suburbia this is a very posh way of referring to what you can see over next door’s fence! I’ve always thought that we are very lucky with our borrowed landscape, living as we do next to another gardener and also looking across the railway line, giving us an uninterrupted view of the classic line of poplar trees. In the Spring we benefit from a wave of blossom as each neighbours’ tree comes into flower, usually starting with the vanilla cream coloured flowers of some self-set plum trees. From there we usually move into our cherry plum blossom, followed by a series of flowering cherries, from the palest pink to deep cerise, and then we move into the white of hawthorn and eventually the apple blossom. When I look out across this from our study up in the loft extension, I think how incredibly lucky we are to have this view in London.

Borrowed blossom from our neighbours

However, this year will be a little different as our garden won’t be contributing much to this display, making us value our neighbours’ trees more than usual. The combination of our loss of cherry tree (see Loss of a Flowering Friend) and our giant tree prune back in the autumn meant that, not only are we lacking pink froth, but also the white cloud of our cherry plum is somewhat diminished and I don’t expect a huge show from our hawthorn either, certainly nothing like last year!

Hawthorn tree

Still, our neighbours are very generous in sharing their display of blossom. On what has been a very rare morning of blue skies and sunshine so far this year, our neighbour’s Magnolia was starting to gear up to what will undoubtedly be an amazing display of waxy tulip flowers, and this from a tree that was pruned quite substantially only two years’ ago. It’s a bit sad to see a little browning and wrinkling on the fresh petals, presumably a result of the harsh March snow and frost?

Magnolia tree in bloom

My parents had a huge Magnolia in their garden but I hadn’t appreciated the mess they can make. Whilst it delivers on beauty, the Magnolia also delivers a heap of clearing up starting with the shedding of the outer flower skin in spring, then its petals, followed by its seed pods in autumn and then finally its leaves as we move into winter! That’s four lots of raking up to do!

Glancing across to the other side of the garden, our neighbours there have two delightful cherry trees. A deep pink one which is just budding up and a paler pink which is currently covered in hanging clusters of blossom.

Flowering cherry tree coming into flower

This delicate tree flowers its socks off each year despite it also being used as a swing by the children!

Sometimes we borrow more than just blossom from our neighbours. On one side of the garden we have a pink lavaterra which our neighbour had found too big and had tried to remove. The plant was having none of it and decided it would try its luck by turning in the opposite direction and emerging from under our fence! Our neighbours on the other side have generously granted us access to that very spring-like shrub, Kerria Japonica (possibly Pleniflora), which has worked its way under the fence and now also blooms well in our garden!

Kerria flowers

It’s so much nicer to be accidentally sharing plants outside the backdoor than weeds!


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Thinking forward to fruit

The desire to grow fruit seems to have crept up on me unawares.  When we first moved here, we inherited a relatively young, leaning apple tree of unknown variety and a selection of blackberry and common bramble – both wanted and unwanted!  That was it really and for a couple of years nothing changed.

Our 24105214226_23c618e151_zfirst venture towards fruit growing was to plant another apple tree – an Egremont Russet which I gave John one birthday as it’s always been his favourite variety.  For the past couple of years we’ve had a reasonable crop helped, no doubt, by warm summers which enabled them to ripen properly.

At some point we took up an offer in the newspaper of free strawberry runners and planted these up in pots.  They have fruited quite well but the plants are now quite old and, without filling the patio with even more strawberry pots, there’s really no way this is enough to produce a decent sized bowl of fruit.  The desire to grow more strawberries and also to add raspberries was one of the main drivers for revamping our veg plot two years ago.

Our ‘Autumn Bliss’ raspberry canes came in the winter but, as soon as spring sprung, they shot away with bright green shoots.  We erected poles and wire to support them, although not quite the sophisticated set up with tensioners and the like as seen on Gardeners’ World!  Despite all the expert advice, we succumbed in year one and let them fruit – how can anyone possibly resist?  Clearly it did them no harm whatsoever as in year two they not only reached for the skies but also started heading off across the lawn!  Now this we hadn’t really anticipated.  Everyone knows that bramble and blackberry is invasive but no one warns you about over enthusiastic raspberries!  Just slice down the side to stop runners, is the expert advice.  Well we did that but to no avail!  They are determined to rule the world and we now spend considerable effort in removing them from where they are not wanted!

Last year, on the Friday before the May Bank Holiday my new strawberry runners arrived, perfect timing for planting over the weekend.  Strawberry runners are just a mass of root with small signs of shorn back leaves and when they’ve arrived in a jiffy bag in the post, they look distinctly unpromising.  However, I prepared my row as instructed, sprinkled some general fertiliser, spread out the runners and duly planted and watered in.  With the warm sunshine, the following day they already looked settled and I could have sworn were showing more signs of green.  The variety I chose was ‘Albion’ and produces fruits throughout the season from June until October – I have since learnt that this is what is known as an ‘everbearer’.  There are so many varieties available, however, that it’s very hard to know whether you’ve chosen well.  All the reviews suggest that this has excellent flavour but we’re not really convinced – the jury is still out.  However as year 2 approaches, the strawberry plants have bushed out and are absolutely covered in flowers – I cannot wait to find out what happens next!

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Meanwhile, our blueberry collection is growing.  We grow these in pots as they require acid soil so would fare badly if planted in the relatively neutral soil of our garden.  Two of our existing blueberry bushes were selected at random as offers in gardening magazines.  One is a tall striking plant that produces lots of berries but 33662456630_a7abea7134_zalso has striking red foliage in the autumn.  The other is small and compact and has been less reliable on the fruit front.  I have been on the lookout for another of the same variety as the tall one, ‘Chandler’, but it seems quite hard to track down.  Two summers ago I became distracted in a garden centre by a new variety called ‘Sunshine Blue’.  Another compact variety but bred for patio growing, it was absolutely laden with small pinkish flowers.  I just couldn’t resist.  It’s a self-polinating variety and produced a bumper crop before almost succumbing to being waterlogged.  We have now spent a summer nursing it back to health and this spring it has flowers once more so we have our fingers crossed.  However, unable to resist another of those magazine offers, we have three more juvenile blueberries that arrived only a couple of weeks ago and which have now been potted up into small pots as befits their current size.

Autumn holidays in France were responsible for us falling in love with the Mirabelle, that tiny yellow plum that packs a huge punch in terms of flavour.  However, they are not often grown in the UK and it’s possible that we are beginning to discover why.  Our Mirabelle tree, which has just spent its fourth Spring in our garden, flower in late March and produces a tiny delicate white blossom.  The flowers eventually turn into small green berries and from then on in it’s a question of all fingers crossed for a tiny crop of plums.  This is really exciting as it’s so hard to buy these as fruit in the UK.  Occasionally a few boxes appear in M&S for a short period and also in the occasional select greengrocers but to have our own in the garden will be quite an achievement but so far we have had about six and, to be honest, we’ve probably picked them too early to ensure we ate them and not the birds.  That said, keeping the tree alive and healthy is all we currently wish for.  It seems particularly prone to some sort of leaf curl and eventually this causes die-back.  We prune these branches out carefully and hope that they remain disease free.  This spring it looks a little more confident but we just have to wait and see – there are no guarantees in the fruit world.

And talking of guarantees, our cherry plum keeps us guessing year on year.  Often confused with mirabelle, the cherry plum produces small red fruits with deep gold flesh which is very, very sour!  However, they do make excellent  jam – particularly if you like your jam with a bit of ‘zing’!  Three years ago we were inundated with cherry plums and produced pots and pots of jam but we’ve now had two fallow years.  This spring the tree was covered in its delicate white blossom and we can see fruit forming so we have all fingers crossed.

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